Armchair Peregrinations

March 30, 1999

I took a walk around the neighborhood yesterday on what I can only describe as a too-perfect spring day. It was about 68 degrees, sunny, clear, birds flying in and among trees and arcing in the sky; people out everywhere, planting in gardens, riding bikes, walking; kids playing games, shouting, chasing each other -- it all fit together as of a piece. Azaleas were everywhere in bloom. Trees that yesterday were winter-bare, on that day were half in leaf, it seemed, fuzzy-green and new, but ready to emerge in all their verdant glory. The world was being rapidly transformed.

I also have been thinking back to another spring in New Orleans, almost exactly 20 years ago to the day, when I was taking regular walks and noticing with unusual intensity that particular new season unfolding in 1979. For that spring coincided with the gradual re-emergence of a shell-shocked and battered, still-young man, who had somehow survived a terrible illness and personal tragedy, and in whom the suddenly powerful stirrings of spring awakened hope so intensely that his recovery might surely have been delayed had it not been spring.

I remember having a lot of time to take long walks and think about things, for I was not working and had not done so for months. I would take off up Berkley Drive, cross Woodland Highway and head for the old neighborhoods I remembered as a child had seemed so aged and leafy-green. The streets were literally canopied over with the branches of large live oak trees through which dappled light from the afternoon sun filtered down to the sidewalk, broken up and uneven from the roots of the trees.

I walked for about half a mile, then turned at Simpson Avenue, I believe it was, and headed toward the levee that ran along the Mississippi River for so many miles and which protected the city from flooding at this very time of year. Along the way the air was perfumed with the smell of thousands of small legustrum blooms on bushes and shrubs as tall as 10 feet. One could be almost woozy with the smell when the wind was right, a thick, languid, sweet Southern fragrance borne aloft on soft breezes those brief days of early spring abundance. Slowly, each day that I'd walk, I seemed to sense a gathering or marshalling of the inner forces that propelled me to see myself as someone good instead of as a failure whose very image in the mirror had been a kind of torment. The sense of the world being made new spread deep into my very being, and I slowly recovered my capacity to enjoy life. But it was coming in very small increments of sensation coupled with past memories. A hot and sultry New Orleans summer was approaching, and one could literally hear the bees droning in the air.

When I got to the levee after crossing Gen. Meyers Aveune, I climbed the 30 or so feet up to the top, and there spread before me was the immensely wide and exciting Mississippi River, freighters and other large ships at anchor not far from the banks and other ships plowing a course through its roiling currents and deep, muddy waters at mid-stream. Invariably the wind would pick up across that more than mile-wide open expanse, and I would sit atop this huge manmade earthen embankment and observe with anticipation the busy river and the clouds sailing by overhead. I'd sit for a long time, lost in reverie, thinking long and hard about how I was going to get back into things, how life did indeed seem good once again, and how grateful I was to be alive.

I repeated this pattern for days, at the same time each day. After the walk, I'd come back home and read for hours until supper. The fact that I could concentrate enough to read was a joy beyond words. I picked up almost anything at hand, since all my own books were in South Carolina.

Gradually, I was ready to return to South Carolina, nervous with anticipation, but eager to pick up the pieces. I no longer looked at the world the same way. I had another chance. Life opened itself up once again. Nothing seemed too trivial to be taken for granted. The very air, its winds, the earthy smells of flower beds and the last of the clover, the simple, everyday sounds, and the familiar streets of my youth -- all seemed to be to be gifts to delight in, to savor as if I had never known of them before. It was all so strange and yet so satisfying. The bruised old city of my birth was, for awhile, a refuge, and I was immensely grateful, and I wouldn't forget.

March 28, 1999

Each morning, early, about 6:45 or 7, I notice a curious and quite beautiful sight. On the wall in the dining room is a calendar, as there are on so many of my walls, and this one is of a scene in an enchanting place in Oregon, Silver Falls State Park, that I've visited on several occasions. It is a photograph of a small forest stream tumbling over rocks and forming a small cascade. A large section of decaying fir log extends across the middle of the picture, beneath which are some green, leafy vines, clover, ferns and two boulders. The large rocks are moist and glisten in the faint light of this rainforest-enclosed world. There is no obvious trace of sunlight filtering through the canopy of the forest. In the background is the silver thread of waterfall the small stream apparently descends from. It is the kind of Pacific Northwest forest setting I came to know and love when I lived in that part of the country.

Now, the curious thing is that starting about 6:45 when I open my window blinds and let light in from the rising sun, a bar of golden light slowly makes its way across the wall and into the picture. From left to right, the scene becomes illuminated, very subtly at first, until, as the light passes over the glistening rocks and the shiny surfaces of the leaves and on to the creek, the whole scene takes on an altogether different tone and mood. The moist boulders fairly sparkle, and the even, overcast light as it actually was when photographed, becomes an afternoon light in which the sun has arrived to warm this cold, wet place. In a matter of minutes it is gone, and the sun coming in the window moves along across the wall to the picture of the nearly abandoned little town in the middle of the state that hasn't changed much in the past 25 years.

March 25, 1999

I am in awe of the azaleas that bloom all around our city this time of year. The flowers of this shrub are of such magnificent texture and color as to defy the senses. I always like to stop at a certain place along George Street on the College of Charleston campus and just look long and hard at two huge azalea bushes now in peak bloom. It just seems otherworldly, and the sheer beauty is magnified in my mind because I know it will be of such short duration. It is a fleeting spectacle of pink, white, shades of pink, and purple that persists for a little while and then rapidly withers, the blooms falling to the ground and becoming reabsorbed into the soil.

This is also the time when I begin to notice the first, brief sounds of the night creatures, the frogs and insects that are beginning to emerge and sing their song of the new season. I noticed it while rocking out on the porch the other night, on one of those rare mild evenings we haven't had in a while.

And so it was with great empathy that I read an article last night about a woman who lives in south Georgia who was prevailed upon by a good friend who had moved to Seattle to record all the night sounds she missed from her days in the South. Seattle, she wrote her friend, "doesn't sound like home." I can agree completely. I lived in that area of resplendant green hills and distant snow-covered mountains for over a year, but I, too, recall a powerful longing for the summer sounds of my native region. Something is missing on a July evening when tiny green frogs are not around to give us their chorus of sound, when the leopard or carpenter frogs can't lend their distinctive notes to the night air. As the author wrote after being outside one night with her tape recorder, "Still other voices honked and rasped, bleated and barked, trilled and croaked." What a symphony when they're all performing together, along with the "chirping" of field crickets. This is often all preceded by the wondrously energetic buzzing of the cicadas up in the trees, their sounds coming in subsiding waves that are as etched in my memory as any summer sound can ever be. That music of the cicadas is enough to waken any number of dormant memories of long past summers, especially those brief, somewhat melancholy end-of-summer Septembers when school was starting back or I was returning to college and was soothed by that last fading symbolic echo of summer.

March 23, 1999

In a rural community called Adams Run, about 25 miles south of Charleston, an ignorant and callous man has a 2 1/2 acre parcel of land on which he wants to build another convenience store. The only obstacle that has stood in his way is a 150-year-old oak tree with a trunk diameter of 50 inches and a regal spread of branches. He could have built around it, but he wanted "high visibility" and the tree had to go. Before opponents could have their say in circuit court, someone came and girdled that magnificent tree, meaning they circled the tree with a cut into the bark and the vital tissues beneath. The tree will now slowly die because its water and nutrient pathway has been disrupted.

The local Coastal Conservation League is appalled, I am appalled. Just what this blighted old earth needs -- another 24-hour convenience store where employees nightly run the risk of being shot and robbed. The owner said it would employ 12 people (risking their lives for $5.25 an hour). Besides, he is quoted in a newspaper article as saying, "There are people who fight for everything. If you look long enough, you can find people that want to protect mosquitoes."

Now as I look at the newspaper clipping, I see a picture of that magnificent old oak tree. I am saddened beyond words that it has been destroyed when it was so unnecessary. There are people in this world who live in utter contempt for the living earth, and this businessman is one of them. "Why should we save a tree?" he asked.

Why save a tree? I am one of those people who feel that of all the creations of this earth and the One who created them all, trees are among the loveliest and noblest of living things. They tower above us with arching veins reaching skyward. They take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. They disperse the rain and allow for better absorption of it into the ground. They provide shade. They grow to great height when allowed to. Brisk winds stirring their leaves produce sounds that comfort us with their peaceful energy. They carpet the earth with life.

I grew to love the old live oaks all over New Orleans, and especially the ones in Audubon and City parks. We have many noble specimens of this oak tree all across the Lowcountry and in our maritime forests. No great, living, breathing oak tree should ever be lost to the avaricious hand of man, intent on perpetuating the urban squalor that so diminishes everyone's quality of life. One might say that there's poverty in this area and that jobs are needed. I say, At what cost?

March 21, 1999

It has been one of those weekends when I've had to work, so after a long day yesterday with its usual productive and frustrating aspects as I searched for answers to questions on the Internet, I dropped by the house in Charleston as I usually do. My mother, brother (who is here from New Orleans), and I had dinner together, and afterward I took my usual place out on the porch in one of the two rockers that sit overlooking the garden. The house is in the historic district, so it is a nice change from where I live across the river on James Island. There's just something about being in the midst of an old city.

As I sat there and rocked, the day's sounds and sensations subsided. I could hear the water from the fountain just a few feet away, musical, sooothing and reminding me very much of a tiny little stream somewhere flowing over rocks. I do a lot of thinking on that porch, as I'm sure people used to do in days past when everyone had a porch where they could sit outdoors and observe the world and get some fresh air. It's a place where I'm usually by myself, there's no sound of the TV, and I can just do nothing. I may have work for my class waiting at home, or, I may be anxious about something. But that rocking chair and that porch, and that night sky and gentle breeze in the oak trees are always the necessary salve to my spirit. While sitting there last night, I recall thinking how nice it would be if some kindred spirit was sitting alongside me in the other chair and we were conversing deeply and thoughtfully, weighing matters of the mind and spirit as only two people who are similarly connected to the realm of soul can do. Years ago in Columbia I would stay up way into the night doing this with my friends, totally engrossed in talking about things that deeply mattered to us. We were very passionate in our youth. I long for that experience again, but it has been a long time. I must continue my search.

March 19, 1999

I was going through my journal from the time I lived in southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, and came across some entries written in the autumn of 1986, after I was well into a very bad work situation, as I alluded to in yesterday's entry. Without going into detail, I was hired for the position late in the summer after thinking I had left the university for good. They were desperate to fill the position for the fall, and I couldn't understand why. I was in the middle of Wyoming when I talked to them, having first found out from my sister in Seattle that they had called trying to locate me. I had taught there the previous year while in grad school and done a good job, as my student evaluations show, but had decided not to continue in their Ph.D. program. But now I was asked to be advisor to the student paper and teach as a full instructor. I was flattered. I was taken in. I didn't have any idea what lay ahead of me. I soon found out.

I was hired as the advisor to the student newspaper and discovered very quickly that the animosity between the new editors and the university staff who did production work was so intense and had built up to such a level that there was complete and unyielding distrust and a lot of incivility. Into the middle of this I came, freshly employed after being unemployed, and wondering what I was going to do next. Here was another test of my endurance, I thought. Why have I found myself in this situation? What did I do to deserve this? But I couldn't quit it after just starting. I had a year to stick it out. I adopted coping mechanisms.

When I'd leave my office for the day, I'd step out into the sunshine and breathe the air of freedom. I'd walk back to my apartment in a shady neighborhood of tall pines, take a long walk and think thoughts of anything I could but that terrible work situation. My little enclave embraced me. It was a beat-up, furnished, one-bedroom apartment, ugly and non-descript, low, low rent, etc., but it was home and it became a sanctuary for me that year. Never did a physical place seem so necessary.

And, of course, as I wrote yesterday, the open country roads were my escape. This describes one such excursion in the fall of 1986:

Nov. 8, 1986
Hattiesburg, Miss.

I drove down an enchanting, narrow country road in Lamar County this afternoon. Winding and hilly; trees closely hug the road and clusters of poplar and hickories glowed late autumn gold atop ridges. This road is very special -- something inviting beyond words as one senses "the country" in its purest and most sentimental aspect. Timeless, russet-brown fields and big oak trees shedding their leaves. If only it had gone on and on.

There are no more entries until February of the following year, during which a spate of them were written. I guess I just didn't want to write about what I was going through, or else just couldn't put it in words. What I was doing, though, was thinking deeply about a lot of things and reading books that let me escape to a higher plane than the dirty, hateful one that existed between the students and the production workers. We tried to resolve the situation. Nothing seemed to work. A sullen stalemate ensued. As I said, I was caught in the middle. The groundwork for this most unpleasant situation had been laid well before I arrived in the position. I had a one-year contract. I did my best to cope. Here is what I recorded in my journal one day that February:

Feb. 16, 1987
Hattiesburg, Miss.

I am intrigued and check out books in the library with appealing titles, eg., Ultimate Questions. It seems as if every day I must look further and deeper into the mystery of existence, or at least be aware of my desire to do so. Life can never be routine for long when there is the awareness that great secrets await discovery. Or, should I say, such wonders unimagined in this finite time capsule that is our brief stay on earth. Is it knowledge that I am after or heightened perception?

A week later I am daydreaming and longing to be out of that dreaded situation. I look back on the freedom of the road from my travels across the country a couple of years earlier. I quote William Least Heat Moon: "I can't remember a time in my life when travel has made a problem worse." And, I write in my journal on Feb. 22: And thus today I've imagined myself back in the American Southwest driving along some desert river in canyonland country somewhere in Utah or Arizona. How I love desert rivers and all they symbolize."

Here are my last two journal entries that were written in Hattiesburg that year.

Feb. 28, 1987
Hattiesburg, Miss.

After more than a week of leaden, gray skies and off-and-on rain, the overcast was blown away to the east this morning by strong westerly winds. The skies cleared, and the sun shone quickly and gloriously, a welcome relief from the endless round of dreay-looking days. Everything seemed so clean and washed fresh as a result.

March 28, 1987
Hattiesburg, Miss.

Azaleas and wisteria are in full bloom and the new green on trees is resplendent in the light of another spring. The air is fragrant with flower smells, and refreshing as only spring air can be.

The next entries find me on the road again, restless, seeking a new job, new experiences, anything to put the past year behind me. The only saving grace from the experience was the wonderful friendship of another grduate student and his wife and the good experiences teaching reporting to students that year. This was a whole world apart from the newspaper advising job. I look back on the comments students wrote about my class on their evaluations and realize it was worth it to stick it out. Their words made me feel wonderful, and I knew I had salvaged a lot from that whole experience. As I wrote yesterday, the adversity that comes from being in a very bad situation and the suffering that comes from it, yield the kind of wisdom and heightened perception I could not merely read about and understand from a book.

March 18, 1999

I've been trying to put together this entry for some days now, turning ideas for it over in my mind from time to time. But it didn't really come together until today. It's very late at night, but I feel I must write it now. Although I'll probably feel the same way about it later this morning, it's possible I might not, either. Besides, when you write often influences what you write.

I came across an article in a favorite magazine of mine a few days ago about someone's weekend getaway house, circa 1902, deep in the piney woods of southern Mississippi. She and her husband restored a rustic old "dogtrot" house that once belonged to her grandfather. She writes movingly about the place, of how it sits on a hill overlooking a pasture and how, sometimes when she's out there and darkness is coming on, "fog settles over the 'bottoms', and the only sounds are the songs of the night creatures and the creaking of the porch swing. That's when I like to recall the many happy memories of Hosey Farm." A "dogtrot" house is unique to the South, I think. I could be wrong. But it is one which has a porch across the front and an open hall down the center exposed to the elements. Often the living area is on one side and the bedrooms on the other. I like that arrangement and have seen a number of examples of this type of architecture during some of my backroads travels in the South.

Well, I really can appreciate this idea of people preserving homesteads from their family's past, and with it the continuity of their links to the land and the people who have lived there before them. I know that area well, for it is in the general area of Hattiesburg where I lived for two years a decade ago. I looked on a map and realized the community where she lives, and which must not be to far from where Hosey Farm is located, is one I've been through many times during my weekend rambles down country roads in that part of the state. This is truly splendid countryside. There are lots of farms, old houses set back from the roads, clear creeks with tea-colored water and white sandy bottoms, and, of course, the long stretches of pine woodlands which characterize the terrain there so well, and which really form its geographical identity.

As with so many memories of the past, my recollections of this place have two sides to them. I had some very baffling and unpleasant experiences with some of the people where I worked and taught, and which made me glad when I was through with classes and teaching and could head home at the end of the day, especially on Fridays. So much tension would build up due to these various personality clashes, or whatever the source of the conflicts were, that I'd love to get in the car and just drive, anywhere and in any direction. It is a curious thing, but when you are faced with adversity or in a difficult period in your life, those opportunities to get away into the fresh air of the countryside are all the more precious. I remember driving on those country roads sometimes for 50 or sixty miles on a Saturday afternoon and just feeling the anxiety ebb away. Something as simple as pastures and oak trees along a deserted back road had an enormously calming effect on me.

I'm looking at a picture of one of those roads now. It is, in fact, my favortie stretch of road in all of Mississippi. I drove it countless times on my way to Black Creek and would always stop by the road where Little Black Creek passed underneath. There, I'd get out of the car and listen to the stillness of the surrounding countryside and the waters of the creek flowing steadily toward the larger Black Creek a few miles away.

Thus, there is this interesting paradox. I don't think my memories of that road and that countryside would be as sharp and deeply etched today, or as truly pleasurable to recall, if the overall circumstances of my life then had been more routine or normal. I counted off the days until I could leave the place I worked, but I endured and made the best of an unfortunate situation. Those little country roads made all the difference.

Now I can imagine that if I ever had that ideal homeplace, it would be like the dogtrot cabin in the piney woods of southern Mississippi, where the air is so fresh and the roads so peaceful and empty that they only lead you deeper into your imagination and your need for escape to better places.

March 16, 1999

It had been mostly cloudy yesterday, but coming home from work across the Connector, up over the Ashley River, I turned to the right to observe with awe and gratitude a break in the clouds several miles wide off in the distance that created an opening for sunlight to cascade down in vertical beams separated from each other in regular intervals. I kept looking out my window for as long as I could to see this magnificent sight and wondered as I did so how many others were seeing what I seeing. I've had that sensation before of wishing I could share similar experiences with someone else, but there not being anyone present, I was left to wonder who else was perhaps as startled by the grandeur of that radiant display of sky and light.

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