This Thing Called Courage

Friday, October 10, 2008

Of Witch Hazel and Wall Street

This is not to diminish the sorrow and anguish of those hardworking folks who have watched their pensions halve this week-- but one thing about belonging to the Starving Artist class is that I don't have to worry about such things. I've been reading accounts of great numbers of people rushing off to therapists and psychiatrists because they're so upset about the Economic Meltdown. (I guess the rest of us call a friend.) But again, remembering Thoreau and his words about a person being rich in proportion to the amount of things he or she can leave alone-- this is a thing I can leave alone.

Which freedom allows me to go out walking on such an idyllic day as today is, with Fionn the Dog, and keep track (for example) of the trees around the borders of the Fells that have decided (overnight, I tell you) to exchange their mellow greens for shocking vermilions and intense golds-- as if one's staid grandmother suddenly announced her intention to join the Communist Party. I know it's coming every year, but every year the change arrests me with its beauty-- it stops me in my tracks, as it did this morning.

Our walk this morning, destination-free and meandering, eventually took us to the old MDC (now DCR) public swimming pool down the street, tucked fifty yards off the road, ensconced in woods and very quiet now until next Memorial Day. I love such munificent public gestures-- public swimming pools, bathhouses, baseball fields, playgrounds, libraries, conservation areas, new schools-- the bricks and mortar remains of that wondeful New Deal spirit that put the Common Weal (as they once expressed it) high on the list of priorities. Nowadays we build prisons and strip malls. You should see the old swimming pool buidling-- old bricks, wood, and beveled glass, and a lovely arch above the main double door proclaiming, in Capital and Capitol letters, PUBLIC SWIMMING POOL, with all the earnestness, self-importance, and sincerity that is nowadays usually reserved for FEDERAL COURTHOUSE or THE MANDARIN ORINETAL HOTEL. On either side of the sign, there are these beautiful bas relief fishes, swirling out of concrete water-- beautiful and, again, evocative of a time when our public buildings took themselves seriously. Nowadays it seems most public buildings resemble DPW storage sheds.

But I digress. This summer, someone (a lifeguard maybe on a gray day) with a hint of a green thumb planted lots and lots of petunias along the front border of the bath-house, in a patriotic pattern of light purple (blue), white, and a really evilly-ugly red. Red in the garden, as a wise gardener once advised, should be used as spatringly as an ultimatum in a relationship. Because of its very intensity it can clash-- and white is its very worst enemy. And of course patriotic displays over the last eight years leave most thinking people dismayed, seeing how 'They' have appropriated these colors for their heinous, America-ruining schemes, turning Old Glory into Old Gory. (And with any luck, a lot of us will be doing the Dance of the Seven Veils on November 5.) But at any rate, seeing how the pool will be abandoned until next summer, and remembering the exquisite smell of petunias-- like sweet peas-- and seeing how the petunias were on the way out, and will be finished next week or the week after with our first killing frost-- we picked many of the white ones and soft blue ones (avoiding the garish red) and made a lovely nosegay, as they used to call it, which is now sitting beside me and is more beautiful-- or maybe pretty-- than I can say. A last burst of summer on this chilly October morning.

As we proceded up Main Street back home, a gush of air blew up from the south, and once again I had to stop in my tracks. There was amazing sweetness in the air, far too powerful and omnipresent to be from my tiny bouquet. Then I remembered-- this is the time of year, late as it is, that our native witch hazel begins to bloom, with its pale yellow blossoms-- minute, but wonderfully fragrant. There are witch hazels EVERYWHERE in the Fells, and their cumulative power creates a wave of fragrance, spilling whichever way the wind blows.

Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring (which more or less launched the environmental movement as we know it) said that an appreciation for the beauty of nature, and a storehouse of this beauty taken from our time in nature, becomes a bulwark, a rock of strength, within us-- a place of resolve in times of trial and storm. So true! And these are the treasures the starving artist stores up-- and they are immune from the markets and short-traders. So while the world creaks and frets and moans-- I gather my nosegays and sniff the witch-hazel laden air, and make my report back from this increasingly archaic realm. And if the worse comes to worst, gentle reader-- the fall colors, the last petunias of summer, and waves of autumn fragrance fromt he witch hazels, we will always have among us. Be not afraid.

And later on I will be going down to see Will Malachy, with bear masks-- that is all I know right now, and all I need to know.


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