Dinner and a Show
I went to see Gary Snyder last night. A friend told me he'd be in Acton, Massachusetts to collect a poetry prize. (Thanks, Wayne!) Acton is a full hour away by car and I was debating about going, but Wayne wanted to go too (Having a friend along always lends a bit of validity to my crazy ideas.) and, as he said, Snyder is 79, after all. In other words, who knows how much longer he'll be around.
I'm not worried. If I can look as good and seem as bright at 79 as Gary Snyder does, I'll be doing OK.
I'll confess that I didn't know who Gary Snyder was until just a few years ago. I had a significant chunk of time on my hands as I recovered from surgery in 2007 and I used it to immerse myself in Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, inspired by those other Dharma Bums. I learned that the main character, Japhy Ryder, was patterned after the real poet, scholar and activist Gary Snyder. When I think about it, it's pretty amazing to be able – in 2010 – to see a living character from a 1958 Kerouac novel. Maybe all that outdoor living kept Snyder healthy enough to outlive so many of his contemporaries.
I've since started exploring Snyder's vast body of work. I'm no student of poetry, but I find many of his poems striking a chord. So far, my favorite is “For the Children” in Turtle Island. Snyder is also an essayist and so many of his writings from the 60's and 70's foretold and warned of many of the social and environmental perils we face today. If only we paid more attention to our visionaries.
Snyder was in Massachusetts to collect the Robert Creeley Award. This prize was created in honor of Robert Creeley - another poet I need to learn about – who grew up in Acton. Starting his presentation, Snyder read “ I Know a Man”, one of Creeley's best-known poems. (Or, “po-ems” as Snyder calls them.) There's much discussion and speculation about the meanings of this little poem, but it ends with the lines:
for christ's sake,
look out where yr going
To this, Snyder said, a Buddhist's interpretation would be:
He also told us to live, big, outrageous lives.
Well, it's a little late for me to start living a very big and outrageous life, but for the time I have left, I can try to pay attention. I'm not exactly sure what I'm supposed to pay attention to, probably life as it is happening. It would be sad to look back on a long life, wonder where all the time went, and realize I wasn't paying attention. I also want to be on the lookout for signs and wonders. When I get a sign, I don't want to miss the wonder.
I got a sign a couple of weeks ago reminding me it was time to head up to Moose Hill for the annual spectacle of the peenting woodcock. It was a perfect night for it unless it was a bit early in the season. When I first went to Moose Hill specifically to watch woodcock two years ago, it was April 8th, but this night was too good to pass up. The sky was free of clouds and wind and it was 60 degrees when I left home at about 6:30. Sunset was around 6:56, and from experience I knew I had plenty of time because the show doesn't start until after sundown.
I rode my old touring bike up the hill and headed straight for the old field beyond the Billings Barn. With the mown stubble of the field surrounded by woods and a red maple swamp, this is a perfect spot for woodcock vernal nuptials. I leaned the bike against one side of a trail-marker post in the field and used the other side for a backrest. Even though the day had been warm and sunny, I could feel the cool air slowly draining from the hill behind me, so I put on my hat and jacket and had my blanket ready to throw over my shoulders.
I unpacked dinner – veggie bake, one of my winter favorites – and poured a cup of Earl Grey from the vacuum bottle. I enjoyed my dinner, but started thinking I would have to go home without a show because everything was quiet. The only bird I heard was a cardinal chipping in the brush behind me, and no peepers were calling from the swamp. Then, a great blue heron flew low over the treetops with slow, silent wingbeats, giving me hope. I peeled an orange, sipped tea, and thought about Gary Snyder to pass the time.
I heard the first tentative peent at 7:08 from down by the swamp. By 7:14 I heard two or three birds on the ground. At 7:21 I heard the first twittering flight and peered into the darkening blue dome above hoping to catch a glimpse. I didn't see that flight, but was reminded how the flight is usually followed more vigorous peenting from the ground after the showoff lands.
It was getting so dark, the trees around the field were little more than silhouettes. The oaks and maples, in their nakedness, were revealing their forms against the sky, and the white pine were turned black by the night. Just then, a woodcock flew directly overhead like a big, silent beetle, before climbing in preparation for his plunging display. I could hear but not see his twittering decent. It was getting so dark, I couldn't see the words I was scribbling in my notebook. A honking flock of geese flew right over the field but I couldn't see them and wondered if they might be navigating by Orion's twinkling stars above.
At the height of the peenting activity I was a little surprised to see a trio of young men emerge from the dark woods. Actually, I heard them clomping over the Bluff Trail boardwalk long before I saw them. They were carrying backpacks and seemed like nice guys, not ne're-do-well teenagers old guys like me expect to see in places like this. Who knows, maybe they are rucksack revolutionaries. I told them they were just in time to hear the woodcock and they paused and heard. I wonder if some day far in the future they'll remember the moment and perhaps seek signs and wonders of their own in valleys and pastures where we can meet.
They went on their way and it was getting too dark to see anything. I had a last bit of tea, packed my bag and pushed my bike down the trail. When I got to the flat part of the gravel road leading back to the street, I hopped on the bike and rode slowly, guided only by the center part of the old road where the leaves had blown away, exposing the lighter sand and gravel.
Back on Moose Hill Parkway, I pedaled quickly down the hill, hoping to avoid cars since I was poorly dressed for the dark. My shadow was chasing behind, and then racing ahead as I approached, and then passed the street lights.