The Window Seat

Last month I traveled to a business conference in Arizona. I flew after dark and so missed the chance to watch the Great Basin and the southwestern desert unfurl beneath me, but I woke the next morning fairly surrounded by exotica. I ambled around the resort astonished by the sunshine, the absurd cacti, the little rabbits running around under the succulents, and the unfamiliar birds.

My favorite of the latter were the Mexican grackles. The male looks in silhouette like an art deco hood ornament from an antique automobile, with a smooth long neck, a curved beak, and a sweeping tail that doubles the length of his body. He is essentially a grandly elaborated blackbird, but his song is more metallic, made up of strange tickings and whirrings that suggest a clockwork mechanism within.

I took every opportunity presented me to escape from my fellow businesspeople with their lanyards and their mobile phones and their language of three-letter-acronyms. I lurked at the edge of the golf course and along trails threading between manmade ponds. I held my face, eyes closed, toward bright Apollo. I stepped beyond the resort property to find the edge of the desert and catch a vista of the barren mountains.

So much of adult life seems an exercise in pretended enthusiasm. If my employers truly understood the profundity of my lack of interest in our business, would they bother to keep me around? I compliment myself that I do good work, that my skills and experience are valuable, but the satisfactions I personally take in my duties are so negligible, so fleeting as to be not worth mention. If I had some other means of support, I would walk away from my so-called “career” tomorrow with never a look back, never a second thought or sense of loss.

I was made, it seems, for retirement: for wife and children, for walking among the trees and mountains, for home and garden, for splitting wood in the backyard and stocking the bird feeders, for cooking meals, for books and tea and a fire in the hearth on a rainy night. Pressing deeper into middle age, ambitions burn away like mist, the light of gratitude warms. Thank God, I have not lost my pleasure in being a human creature and or in wondering what it all may mean.

There were only a few minutes of daylight remaining when the plane that would ferry me home to Oregon left the ground. We passed in woolly dusk over the Grand Canyon, with snow on the higher plateaus at its north side and banded island spires of rock fading from pink to orchid to deepest purple. I observed that Night does not “fall.” It does not come down on us from above in the style of morning. From the abyss of the canyon below, gentle Night crept upward little by little to meet us.

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Varieties of Curiosity

“I’ve got, I suppose, to a time of life when things begin to take on shapes that have an air of reality, and become no longer material for dreaming but interesting in themselves.”

~ H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay

As a young person (in fact, well into my twenties) all experience was to me material for dreaming, and the value of any particular object was summed up in the associations it suggested. I lived, I suppose, more among the ideas of things than among things themselves.

I was recently reminded of this state of affairs, and surprised by the degree to which it no longer obtained, while hiking with my family. We were climbing among basaltic outcrops in the Columbia River Gorge when my wife began plotting to befriend some unsuspecting geologist whom we might force to join us and answer our questions about the various land forms we encountered.

My teenage son objected that he didn’t believe knowing more about the geology of the place would increase his appreciation of it. Not that he lacked appreciation, but for him (and I paraphrase) the knowledge of the processes that produced environmental phenomena added little or nothing to his enjoyment of the phenomena themselves.

We might consider this an aesthetic perspective. It is more concerned with the ideas and sensations an object may summon in the intellect than with the nature of that object in itself. To fully adopt such a perspective would be to approach the whole panoply of outward experience in the guise of a tourist passing through an art gallery.

It is a popular notion that curiosity belongs particularly to the young, but the curiosity of the young tends toward narcissism (What does this object mean to me?). Maturity offers a more disinterested form of curiosity. It’s as if we are only able to be ask proper questions about things after we’ve grown tired of exploring our own inner spaces.

An Introduction

I have chosen the hermit thrush for a mascot because he is one of the birds I like best and he has an admirable pedigree in American literature, appearing in Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d and in Eliot’s Wasteland.

The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) favors the woods and unpeopled places. He is dull in color but wears a ruddy tail and spots on his pale breast. In northwest Oregon, where I live, the hermit thrush keeps a vow of silence through the lowland winter but in late spring returns to the mountains to chant a golden sanctus with an unmistakable note of melancholy.

Though the bird and I enjoy the same locales, I do not fancy myself a hermit thrush. You would do better to hike through the June woods and listen to him yourself than to read anything I may commit to this page. But I’m told that no one reads blogs anymore, so perhaps this disclaimer is unnecessary.

If you read on, you will discover there is no governing theme to this site. I’ve kept more focused blogs in the past, some for several years at a time. I begin this one because I miss the habit of writing and, as a distracted middle-aged person, the discipline of careful thought grows more difficult to maintain without it.