Armchair Peregrinations

October 30, 1999

Folly Beach, S.C., 5 pm:

The autumn beach. At last! A sandpiper has just come right up to where I'm sitting and then darted away on those quick-moving, spindly little legs of his. There's a cool breeze off the ocean. There are a few people out on the beach, but not too many. The surf is moderate. Just right. There are a few clouds sprinkled about.

The thing I notice most today, however, in addition to the cool edge of the air, is the sunlight. An hour away from sundown there is that warm, yellow autumnal hue. Everything seems suffused in this light. It's bright, and yet not harsh at all. It's a gentle, October light.

I see two surfers in wetsuits and a kayaker out in the water. A couple of people are wading and walking slowly at the edge of the surf. They seem to be looking for something that isn't there. Back and forth they go. Into and out of the tidal pools.

The sound of the ocean is wonderful to listen to now. It's mesmerizing, if you can let its ceaseless rhythms wash over you.

This past summer marked the 36th year I have been coming to Folly Beach. In 1963, I was a 12- year-old 7th grader, my brother was 10, and my sister, 6. My aunt rented a house on the marsh side of the beach and we never looked back from that point on. Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms, the other two nearby beaches, were not to be our gathering place in summer. We've been coming to Folly ever since.

Now my brother owns the house we came to for 30 of those years, having bought it from my aunt. He has just finished completely renovating it.

A little while ago, I went out through the backyard to the small dock that goes out a ways to the tidal creek abutting the great expanse of marsh and Spartina grass that spreads out in the distance for miles. We have an unobstructed view to the forested islands on the other side of Folly River.

I stood there awhile gazing toward that eternally beckoning landmark, the deserted Morris Island Lighthouse, built over a hundred years ago. The wind sent ripples over the marsh since the water level was still high. But the tide was retreating. I felt the immense open spaces and the wind envelop me. For how many years has this one spot been a secure and comforting observation point to witness the sublime beauty of Nature spread out before me? How often have I seen the sky overhead here in every possible light and weather condition? There was a rather strong wind blowing from the north, bending the Spartina Grass. These and other thoughts and memories of past times at the beach came to me as I stood on that dock.

Now on the beach, the tide is retreating, carrying the dividing line betwen land and sea farther away from where I sit. The breaking surf is a little bit more distant with each passing minute. But, as so often happens when I'm out here, time seems to stand still. I am at that stage of relaxation and reverie now where I don't care what time it is, or when I'll decide to head back to the house and return to town. That's what always happens to me on those days out here when everything seems to be just the way it was meant to be. There is no external stress. There is only calm.

October 29, 1999

College of Charleston, 1:20 pm

An unbroken string of beautiful, blue, mild late October days. The weather is so perfect, the mood so right, that I can understand what the poet means when he describes autumn as the "season of mellow fruitfulness." The days are shorter, the mornings have been quite cool. Jacket weather.

The general good feelings this time of year inspires are pervasive. At least it seems that way to me. Others seem to feel it, too, although it is true that when your outlook is positive and you are kindly disposed to others and, indeed, to the whole world at any one particular moment, you sense that others are reciprocating and joining you in your brief happiness.

A bold mockingbird, a youngster probably, has just a minute ago landed on the ground only a few feet from me, determined that he had seen something worthwhile to eat. He quickly pecked around in the grass before flying off, not giving me too much thought, I presume. I guess I seemed so harmless and benign sitting here quietly writing in my notepad (note the computer kind; the paper kind).

The big pecan tree in front of me is getting Fall-weary, and its leaves are starting to curl up and turn borwn. Overall, though, everything's still pretty green here in the Lowcountry. Not until mid or late November will we really see the transition to winter begin in earnest. At that time, what little color we have in the trees and vegetation will become apparent.


It seems cruel and ironic, but in the beautiful old town of Summerville, 20 miles north of Charleston, and whose nickname is "Flowertown in the Pines," there has come a blight to the majestic trees that is not insect or virus. It is human. In this historic town, which reveres its large trees, and especially its towering pines, there are apparently people who will flagrantly cut down those trees in violation of the city's tree ordinance.

One such developer cut down 10 big pines on the perimeter of his property on Main Street and went to court and paid the fine of $8,000, the maximum under the current ordinance, as the cost of doing business. An outraged citizenry is demanding that the culprit get higher fines and be made to give community service.

This greedy and thoughtless man inhabits an ugly and selfish interior world where money and profits and "personal" property are his gods, and things of beauty such as trees are mere sticks and impediments to be removed.

And in Charleston just the other day, to add insult to injury, someone who had just acquired a piece of property, cut down two Southern magnolias, one of which was more than 24 inches in diameter. The city council is now seeking to strengthen its tree ordinance after the ensuing outcry over this outrage.

These two incidents are signs of our times, where the complete uglification of our urban landscape would proceed fast apace were it not for the very minimal legal protections in place. It seems to me that a person who has such little regard for magnificent living trees, protected by law and cherished by so many people, also has little regard for anyone other than himself.

October 28, 1999

I've always been amazed how certain artists have captured so perfectly the changing light conditions produced by the sun at various times of day. Sunlight splashed on stucco walls at midday; sunlight between shadows in the lengthening rays of afternoon; shadowy veins of trees on sunlit ground; exquisitely lit landscapes at sunrise or sunset. The artists' brushes and paint seem to be imbued with mystical properties for them to be able to portray so faithfully and with such dreamlike qualities, the scenes or objects in front of them illumined by the light.

Recently in the American Art Review (Oct. 1999), I came across works by the Dutch-American artist Anthony Thieme, and what a revelation his streetscapes and landscapes are. I lingered over certain of his works, reproduced in the magazine, with a kind of awe and deep respect for this man's gift. Not only is he a master of the artistic evocation of natural light, but his scenes are wonderfully timeless places, full of subtle details of composition and light that linger on in the mind.

For instance, in his Rockport, Massachusetts street scenes, sunlight filters through elms and maples and warms the street in places, leaving other areas in cool shadow. The side of a house is lit up where the tree limbs do not block the sun.

Another of his Rockport street scenes again achieves its rather nuanced dramatic effect from the way sunlight illumines half the composition.

He also did wonderful paintings of the ocean and of sailing vessels in a great variety of settings. His winter scene, Toward Dock Square, is a perfectly realized portrayal of that season, in what appears to be Rockport, the setting of so many of his paintings.

Here are two links to his paintings:
Autumn Reflections and
Folly Cove.

October 27, 1999

A kite

A kite is a creature of grace and beauty
inching upward to the sky
on a slender string rolled out
ever so gently.
Quiet and sure of itself,
modest in its expectations,
tugging slightly in an effort to get free
but acquiescing in the wonder and pleasure of earth-bound mortals
as it reaches ever higher,
tossing from side to side,
straining to climb as high as it can go.
On a windy March day
in a grassy field
or on a hill in springtime
there is no more delightful object
to stir the winter-bound soul.

But now, these are fast times,
and kites have changed.
On the beach sometimes
I see the new version:
the single engine kind, a pair, or three in formation,
plastic or metallic,
fast, furious, controlled
as if by some remote operator.
Loud, flapping, swooping
in all manner of strange and bizarre formations
Like some crazy jet figher planes performing;
belligerent, ugly, artificial, frenetic.
See them for what they really are:
someone's jet-propelled, aerodynamic, late 20th century
toy -- kite-like video game in the sky.
No kite that I would know.

October 24, 1999

I've been going to a seafood restaurant in Sumter for more than 25 years now. It has a special place in my heart, not only because the food is so good and I've enjoyed it on so many occasions, but because I always went there either with my aunt who lives in Sumter, or to get two take-out dinners for us to enjoy on evenings when I'd visit from Charleston or Columbia.

One thing I've noticed over the years, and it's a curious thing. When you place your order at the counter and sit down and wait for it to be ready, there's a mirror right in back of where you sit. It's always been there. And, narcissist that I am, I always mangage to take a furtive look at myself in that mirror, turning around, always inconspicuously, and gazing at my image briefly.

Well, when I first started doing it, I was in my twenties and a mere youth, so I never had too many wrinkles or even a hint of gray hair to look at. But strangely enough, some mirrors, when they catch the harsh light from outdoors, seem to show up every line on your face and on your neck, even when you're relatively young. It got to the point in later years that I didn't even play that little game of looking in the mirror to see if I was any older-looking. Too much truth telling.

So the years passed and the restaurant went through some changes and remodeling, but the mirror stayed in place. It was there the other week when I sat waiting for my order, as if I was back in 1973 or '74 when I first started going there. I couldn't resist looking once again in this most revealing of mirrors. So unlike the one I look in every morning. Strangely enough, however, I wasn't too shocked or unhappy with what I saw. I was sort of depressed that day, but I seemed to have a rather ageless look about me. Or else I just didn't care what I saw in the mirror that day. I had never reacted quite that way in the past. I was a little bit startled. Was this telling me something profound? Age doesn't matter? You're at that age when it's really too late to be overly concerned about it anyway, so just get your dinner and forget it? "Time's winged chariot" and all that.

It both perplexes and amuses me how I've held on to some self-concept of looking younger that I am. According to what people say, I am. Maybe it was inherited. But the point is, why should it matter? But it does, although it most certainly is an absurd concern, when you really think about it. We associate youth with health and the peak of sexuality, with energy and vitality and being able to run free as the wind without sputtering to a halt in sheer, age-induced exhaustion. Everyone wants to cling to precious youth, except the young, of course. Our whole society and culture -- our advertising, our movies and television and music -- so much of popular culture is geared to the young and the restless, the avid consumers and spenders, and the carefree and the free, the healthy, the beautiful, the fitness-obsessed for whom the eternal moment is now, and who will surely live forever. The wonderful world of cliches and stereotypes. The mass media thrive on it, and so those false values and beliefs take on a life of their own. Look around. We've been a youth-oriented culture for some time now.

But there comes a time in your life when you first realize you're no longer young. I think that age is around 33 or 34. It was for me, anyway. That was the age when I began my own personal odyssey, the series of trips around the country in search of myself -- or something larger than myself -- but I didn't know it at the time.

The mid-30s are when you first begin to seriously look older, even if subtly, and it's also some kind of threshold in maturity and outlook on life. Supposedly, you're settled in a job and career, have a family by then, or else you're getting ready to settle down, anyway. Unless you're me. I took a lot longer than usual to find some place to call home, which is here, in Charleston, S.C., now. Before you know it, 40 looms ominously on the horizon, and then it's quickly onward along the road of life to 50 and beyond.

I have a very healthy fear of aging, of getting *old* and all the implications of that in a society that doesn't exactly revere its maturer and wiser citizens.

When I was floundering about in my mid 30s, unemployed and living in Seattle, I wrote a poem after a rather dispiriting ride home on the bus from downtown. It was May, 1986, and here is a portion of that poem:

On the bus a contrast:
A youth sitting in front of me
casual, yet far off somewhere,
facing sideways instead of forward.
I caught his profile: perfect features,
reddish brown hair, uninhibitedly young.

Across from him, looking at us or past us
was an old man, waxy-gaunt,
but not yet aged to near death's door.
The soul's vessel no longer supportive?

The youth's smooth face;
The old man a fleeting vision of end times.
Why did he seem to ugly and repellent
when I glanced at him?
The youth across the aisle
sat there in studied reflection.

It was probably my mood, my frame of mind when I wrote it. Normally, I try to look upon people much older than me with the respect that should come with age, with having survived and endured the vicissitudes of life. But I wasn't in the mood that day for kindly visages of some Norman Rockwell elder. No, what I saw scared me. It was grim. Perhaps the old man, slow and patient with age, was on his way home from visiting his grandchildren. Today, I might see a kindly, wrinkled face, character lines, wisdom and all. Everone's got to get old. I just don't like to see it sometimes.

So when I look in my mirror at home in the morning, rushing to get ready for work, shaving in the mellow light of a 60-watt bulb, I'm just pleasantly caught in some time warp. Never any older. Holding up great. My, nobody would think I was my age.

But let me go sit in the barber's chair, where mirrors surround me, and have a more truthful look. Last time I was there, though, I didn't much care, either. And I got a great haircut.

October 23, 1999

The principal value of a private garden is not understood. It is not to give the possessor vegetables and fruit, but to teach him patience and philosopphy, and the higher virtues, -- hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.

Charles Dudley Warner
From My Summer in A Garden

I guess for those special people who have known and relished the toils and rewards of gardening, the words above are more than a little meaningful. But they also help me think about gardens in a new and mysterious way. What is it that seems to compel people to grow, in their own private spaces, delectable fresh vegetables, or what generosity of spirit allows them to offer to the world enchanting and alluring flower and herbal treasures each spring and fall, in the midst of a world gone mad with pollution, artifice, and squalor?

I've always admired people who could plant gardens, whether of fresh produce in summer -- producing sweet corn and delicious tomatoes -- or flowering shrubs, perennials, and other sense-delighting creations of Nature in small or large, intimate or sweeping designs and arrangements.

I've never worked in the soil myself, but I appreciate with immense gratitude those who do, and particularly those whose gardens are visible from the street, or who share them with others on tours. Very private gardens sometimes become public ones, for a short while.

I particularly enjoy sitting in, contemplating, or viewing pictures of little nook and cranny gardens where you can sit in the shade on a hot summer day. Courtyards, tropical plants, palms, ivy, fish ponds, and fountains. I love to get glimpses of those gardens through gates and courtyards as I walk the old streeets of Charleston. I used to do the same thing when I lived in New Orleans -- the Garden District and French Quarter always beckoned with secret gardens tucked away behind walls and in the back of houses tightly clustered together with virtually no space between them. From the air, you could see those little pockets of Eden, small, leafy sanctuaries offering shelter from the noisy cacaphony of the streets right outside their gates.

Most of them are inaccessible. Sometimes they're on public tours.

So, when I look in momentarily, I have to use my imagination. I can see myself sitting in a comfortable chair by a small fountain, water gently imitating a little stream flowing over rocks. Then I listen to the birds, let the sun smile on my face, and glance occasionally at the book or magazine I am holding. I have a cool glass of iced tea with lemon beside me on a small table. I am relaxed and refreshed in spirit. That's what gardens do for my soul.

October 20, 1999

College of Charleston, 1:45 pm:

Same place as yesterday, only an hour later. What a difference a day makes. It's sultry and warm. Feels like an early summer day. Cumulus clouds. A really interesting looking sky. The smell of Whoppers grilling at the Burger King in the student center is wafting in a very sluggish breeze over me now, making me feel like I'm at some kind of outdoor barbecue. That same mockingbird from yesterday is singing its heart out in the oak tree. It's really quite warm. I'm longing for a cooling breeze, but there't not much.


I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill
On Blueberry Hill where I found you
The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill
And lingered till my dreams came true

The wind in the willow played
Love's sweet melody
But all of those vows we made
Were never to be
Tho' we're apart you're part of me still
For you were my thrill on Blueberry Hill

Blueberry Hill, Fats Domino, 1957

I've been feeling sort of homesick for New Orleans lately. I can't quite explain why. Maybe it's because it's been five years since I was last there, the longest I've ever been away.

One of the things I miss most is being in the French Quarter, that exotic, crumbling, loud, crowded, full of people, with narrow streets, and fascinating buildings -- city-within-a-city, a place truly apart and unique. I miss the excitement of it, the tourists, carriages, street musicians, vagabonds and drifters, the sad and the hopeless, the proud and the curious, the poets and dreamers, the wretched and the excess. It's all tumbled together in that original old city alongside the Mississippi River.

I can hear the steamboat whistle blowing and see the brown tide of the river churning its way to the Gulf. I'd like to be able to look up at the plant-festooned, lace-iron balconies that line the streets and feel the pulse of life along those narrow sidewalks.

Although I can't be there physically, I can be transported momentarily in memory through little reminders of the city, such as hearing the Fats Domino song, "Blueberry Hill," or "Walking to New Orleans."

I was 8 or 9, I'm not sure which, and the year was probably 1960. One of the happiest memories of my childhood was swimming in Second Mill Pond during our summer vacation visits to Sumter in faraway South Carolina. To a boy it was faraway, that is. I've written about this place before. It's easy to conjure up the scene in my mind, and I can always actually see the physical place when I go to Sumter, although much has changed.

This was a public swimming spot for the community, and had been for many years. The grist mill that was once there is long gone, but its foundations can still be found in back of the dam and beside the creek which flows into swampy woods.

My brother and I would walk into the pond from the shore and feel the sandy, muddy bottom, a little ooozy with decayed plant matter and whatever else made it the way it was. But it was firm enough. We'd go out a ways until the water was up to our waists, and then dive into the wonderfully fresh, earthy-smelling water, clean and clear, but tea-stain colored from tannin. We'd swim out to a floating platform which was in much deeper water, so cool and refreshing. I'll never forget the sensation of coming up for air out of the depths of that pond (really more like a small lake, come to think of it), and then diving down again to see if we could go deeper. We were pretty good swimmers for our ages.

Near the shore of the pond, adjacent to the building where we would change into our swimming trunks and place our clothes in a locker basket, was a gazebo-like structure that had a small dance floor and jukebox. And I remember that "Blueberry Hill" was one of the songs we heard out over the water when we were swimming, in addition to "Walking to New Orleans" which came out in 1960. "Blueberry Hill" was from 1957, but Fats Domino was a jukebox staple in those days of the late 50s and early 60s, so there was always a song by him on the jukebox or radio.

You can see how I can associate such a great time from my childhood, the fun and innocence of those days, with those songs. Not that I cared anything for the words or knew what he was singing about at that age, but I just always loved his voice and his music. I still do. And he was New Orleans through and through.

There are certain other songs which, throughout my life, have had that powerful capacity to evoke intense memories of longing, regret, pain and wistfulness. Sad and happy memories. Memories also I wish weren't still capable of being recalled. But who knows when I'll hear one of those songs on the radio? And I can still find some jukeboxes around that can play them.

October 19, 1999

College of Charleston, 12:30 pm:

It's windy and mild and cloudy. I'm sitting under the pecan tree in the garden of the student center at the college. It seems so much like an autumn day in South Carolina. A hawk drifting overhead is replaced by a C-17 transport plane roaring toward the Air Force Base. Another transport plane. It suddenly feels like I'm at Hartsfield Airport. A siren wailing in the distance. Quieter now.

There's really no complete escape from the city. This is about as close as I can get. I don't see the streets. It's walled off. The back of old houses surround me. It's like I'm in a large courtyard, filled with trees, plants and walkways. I'm in the very center of campus. I hear a mockingbird now.

I think sometimes I seek sanctuary too often externally when instead I should be looking within to the quiet of my mind no matter where I am.

The sun has appeared in a break in the clouds. The gnarly bark of the pecan tree is rough but pleasing to look at. The patterns are nice. The color muted. I can imagine a moth camouflaged against the bark, blending in perfectly. I hear a child's voice. Butterflies dart above the shrubs nearby. I can hear the traffic in the background, but it's not too noticeable.

It's interesting the way the sun is peeking in and out of the clouds above me. It's creating the mellowest kind of autumnal light. Not too harsh, but intermittently bright and warm on my skin in those moments when the sun does decide to come out.

Hawks make their way toward the clouds. The wind is gentle. It is a very nice day to be outside. I dislike having to leave. Soon I'll be back at work. Lunch break interlude over.

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