Essays


The Afterlife


 

Autumn ends; winter comes

And everybody’s gone.

The days grow short

And fall apart

And now the nights are long.

We Winter Wrens

Have made amends

With the silence and the cold.

So just leave us to our own device.

We Winter Wrens are fine.

 

from We Winter Wrens, Dolorean, written by Al James

 

Spring, more than a year ago, and what is that?

A little while longing and not even a sentence?

Days flash-seal with a pop like canning jars.

There was an olive in an empty martini glass.

There was the light of one place: the kingdom

Of the instant against the democracy of all time.

 

from Backward, by Rodney Jones

 

Rain outside. Sometimes this seems to take all one’s energy away. At other times, sitting inside the rain shelter of the porch or the office window, the world seems made for the watching in the haze and thrum of falling rain. Distant Flickers making that singular screechy vocal punctuation of theirs, crows fighting the rain and each other with their constant commentary, the hummers have all gone towards the gulf, waiting now to jump across somewhere, if they have not already. One wonders at that last hummer impulse on the coast of Alabama or Louisiana, the one that they have right before they buzz off into distant sky. My feeders hang empty outside, dripping, while I think about it.

 

My trees are tinging up into the burnished colors of surrender and cool, the goldens and reds of summerend. It is officially Autumn, which I still believe is one of the loveliest words in the English language. It is Otońo, with a y in there as in O-tone-yo, in Spanish. Quite lovely as well. I had to look it up for its full antiquated line of derivations. And we all know, I think, the first, very scientific definition concerning the ‘season between’ and the equinox and solstice. But the second definition in my older American Heritage, kept handy in the writing room here with the rain and the cloudlight, this second definition is: “a period of maturity verging on decline.” Well, that one makes me want to weep a little. Originally from the Latin autumnus, autumn has been carried through via some of the later romance languages to our current use now, giving us the full range of derivations including autumnal and autumnally. I am sure I have never written the word autumnally before. But I am not sure why. I certainly understand the mood, especially today.

 

It is already fall. One wants to say this out loud. It is a magnified thing in the slight noise of it. “Already fall.” My smallest oak in the front yard looks five or six feet taller than last year. One of the hickories across the road is a vibrant and deep yellow, much more intense than the species in the yard. So intense, I have to go over and pluck a leaf. I will have to study my hickories more closely. This is a young tree relatively speaking, though it could be older than me. One plants a tree and, really, one could be dead before it could be called majestic. Also, I note, something surely must have changed in the whole view out my window and across the road with the various shifting heights of all my sapling trees. Maturation: the world is not the same now and now and now. A period of maturity verging on decline. Oh my. My eyes must be incorporating the slow growing motions of these shifting tree maturations as they go. It always looks as it is. Oh, what Wittgenstein could do with that sentence?

 

Toward the end of this summer we ran back to Oregon, my wife, my daughter and I. Somehow then and immediately after I did not want to speak of it. I have no idea why. It felt more melancholy than usual. Like we knew we would not be going back again for awhile, or ever. Like we knew we were moving on to new places in the world for our summer visitations in the future. And it must be true. I may not be in control. It certainly may be the last time my daughter goes anywhere with us. But while I was there, this time, I watched the gulls more carefully. And they looked back at me as always. The coastal Ravens still ignored me mostly. The tidepools were not sure whether they could trust me with their finest color combinations anymore. I could not find a single By-the-wind Sailor.

 

On one of the mornings in Oregon I drove to a mountain trail very early in the day, in darkness. It was a trail that led down to a waterfall deep in the woods. I had never been to this place before. It was a long curving ascent up the coastal mountains on fair roads to a cut out parking area under tall trees. After my door slammed it was quiet. And I mean American Heritage quiet. I was the only one up at such an hour. Just me and the cedars and the hemlocks, the ferns, the zigzag walk. I had forgotten the Winter Wrens that come to my home woods only in the winter season are right here in the summer and they are breeding and talking. They appear to be purposefully shaking the giant fern fronds as they dodge behind them. Many of the males sing their full song to me, some at close range. These western birds have a striking repertoire compared to our eastern birds and are likely a different species altogether. The sound is deep magic is all I know, here or there. It is a gift in the winter in the east. It will stop you wherever you are, if you are attuned to birdnoise. It is a distilled single malt scotch of birdnoise. I dearly hoped no jogger or walker could just walk this trail and not understand that this sudden music is almost certainly not surpassed by any other western bird. The Swainson’s Thrushes, also calling, are possibly the only competitor. Where I live, in the south, to have both calling at once is like a small miracle. The thrush is more subtle and distant. The thrushes seem to use all of their voiceboxes in ascending layers. The Winter Wrens are virtuosos in speed and tonal changes. The thrushes don’t come right up and perch next to you to sing. The wrens, in these woods, most certainly do.

 

The light on the trail, even without birdsong, was making me wonder if I lived in the right place; it was making me question my choices in life. This happens to me sometimes. Don’t worry if you were. But the slant and color of the light was of just this kind: it was the color of self-doubt. Rays of light bouncing off individual leaftops and illuminating drapes of soft moss, the forest floor just complex and fungal, I could hear the sweet chips of warblers and I pished some over to see what warblers were denizens of the deep shady hillsides here. They were all Wilson’s Warblers. The bird I always run into in the western mountains. And then promptly forget until I pish one up again, sometimes years later. They are not fantastic singers but are very chatty and chippy in the forest densities. They keep one company between the sudden Winter Wrens, they are the bright canaries in the shadows of these tall trees.

 

Along the trail, at my snailing pace, I keep stopping and backing up, trying to adjust the slants of light in my camera. One could become lost in such light games. Makes me pause to think of the younger Van Gogh, who was so focused on creating the right slants of light in his studio. Before he ever discovered color and was drawing and etching away with blacks and whites for all those years. He would cover the windows with various linens or cardboard cutouts trying to get the light just as he had seen it in some other setting. Placing his girl models inside the beams, he was not even looking at landscapes at that time. Though soon afterward in his life, he stopped one day at a row of twisted trees along a pond, he wrote his brother about the moment, and said that he might just try his hand at landscapes. That was a moment when the world shifted, I suppose. And I wonder at his thoughts inside these Oregon trees far beyond any he could have experienced in Denmark or Britain. What light for a painter, there on the Oregon trail, the beams of light striking the soft fern tops. I could work for years and years and never get the effect again. I can’t even catch it correctly in my camera from a range of fifteen feet. Let alone with a paintbrush and imagination.

 

Along the ridge, down the hill on the trail, an owl calls. And I know immediately it is the Spotted Owl, cousin of my own Barred Owl. On this west side of this coastal range, I doubt Barred Owls exist. Or I doubt they dwell, I should say. Wittgenstein would tell me that Barred Owls exist, wherever you are. (If we kill off all the human-tolerant Barred Owls, we are all doomed.) Spotted Owls being the transmutation of owl genetics across this far divide of mountains. The far divide that so puzzled Lewis and Clark, it was the one that nearly took them down. (More damn mountains??) They must have heard one owl species going up the east side slopes and another coming down toward the sea that they so sought after. (The sea-they-so-sought-after: surely we must name a sea somewhere with this name. Perhaps an undiscovered world somewhere. I don’t know. I would love to hear it in some native northwestern Indian dialect.) My own owl calls again in his language, his Spotted dialect and I make my poor imitation. He quickly calls right back which makes me laugh aloud. Possibly an owlish noise itself. This small owl conversation and the Winter Wrens etch themselves deeply into this year. Somewhere inside my head they will stay and stay.

 

The creek at the end of the trail is a wonder. Clear water and ferns and black stone. The water that falls is long and dramatic, a chute through green moss. It looks cold enough to make my teeth ache just in the consideration of a drink. I have still seen or heard no other humans all morning. Thrushes call over water sounds. A pair of forest Ravens moves down the creek making a croaking low talk to each other. I cannot imitate them. Raven’s seem to understand permanence, bonding, reassurance, the wordless moments and the simple connections of a glance. They are birds who bond in the subtle language of long association. (“Her layered blackness shimmering, is the only shimmer for me.”) Otherwise the creekscape is all water sound and my own stumbles across stone inside the blooming dawn. I take a seat below the falls and wonder if I can leave. Ever, I mean. I think I am serious. Water rains down and down. Some God is here that the Godproud just do not understand. It is a good place to leave your bones among the black rocks. One wonders about someone who considers, first, and so easily, his own bones in a place of extreme beauty.

 

On the way out from the trail, I find a new movement of small birds. They have awakened or arrived or both and I am looking through them when a family comes down the trail—a father and wife and several children. They want to know what I am seeing through my binoculars. And I point out the movements of a few chickadees, a Wilson’s Warbler. I start to tell them to stop and listen for the Winter Wrens. But it is an unreasonable thing to expect. They are happy and chatting among themselves, eager to be out together. Who am I to judge this shared experience. I tell the father I am impressed that he has his whole family out 15 miles from anywhere by 9:30 in the morning. It is an accomplishment that deserves some respect.

 

Back at the crest, where we are staying, no one seems to notice I have been changed by a walk. Rufous Hummingbirds prick and buzz among the red flowers. I look from my balcony down the long view above the volcanic oceanside to the north. The great head of land juts up there that is Cape Foulweather. The white stain of many years of bird nestings is clearly visible swashed across its massive base. As I watch, a shattering of birds blows apart from the rock face towards the sea like the ghost shrapnel of some greater bird. The noise is audible. And two eagles turn above the stone walls in explanation. Cormorants, gulls and guillemots make quick smoky shapes out of their multitudes over the water, trying to come back and trying not to come back inside fear and panic. I have seen the eagles carrying fuzzy-skinned baby cormorants over my head along this landscape before. In a few minutes it is all stone and sky again: a stillness redefined. If there was a death, out there, on the cold shear cliffs, it no longer matters.

 

On the green lawn outside our room which someone must mow somehow, sometime, a child’s playground is perched over several hundred feet of falloff towards death and seastars, and chairs have been arranged. Arcs of folding chairs bend in rows, there for a witnessing. A woman strokes at a cello that she holds in front of her while the wind plays with new textures in the carried sounds. I am old enough now to see that a woman holding a cello is one of the ten beautiful things. There is also a flute, a violin; it is the layout for an outdoor wedding. Married under seagulls, I think, seems a way to ensure something. One hopes that the joy and the sheer loveliness of the day mean anything towards the quality of the bond, when trying the trick of marriage. We want what the murmuring ravens have. And it is sometimes so far away.

 

From my balcony with a beer I look to my right towards the cliffs again and find four lovely young girls in bright dresses with their own four beers leaning out to the sea. They wave at me. I wave back. Bridesmaids. The seals sleep on in ranks below us. The gulls cry like laughing things. One looks at such beautiful young women with sadness. Or something like nostalgia. It is just me on the balcony. No one else can see the young girls fluttering in dresses above the seals in the sea.

 

A friend’s wife, his own bride of only two or three years, has been sick for several of their married years. While we were in Oregon with gulls and bridesmaids, she was growing worse and worse, subjecting herself to the last efforts of doctors and chemistry. Forgoing hair, watching people talk about her brain and her spine like they were some lost and disjointed geography somewhere else. They whispered away from the bedside. They smiled too easily. Outside and away, wherever we were, we all were trying to make our thoughts into healing thoughts, into wishes for miracles, large or small. As I write this now the rain has stopped outside my window and that bravura woman is gone. The miracles did not come. Her husband moves around the house like a lost Raven.

 

Out on the grass in Oregon, the musicians played the wedding march. The bride courses around the outside of everyone, laughing. She is moving toward the center, the front, where the man stands, thinking. Even the peripheral men, detached, as I am, pull for the bride’s happiness. We want to watch her dance inside the cello song. We do not know her but we want for her what we wanted for our own brides long ago. Even if we still don’t know what that was or is. Long life for sure. Smiling days. Things that sound now like greeting card wishes. All of our knowledge, really, still in a teacup. The bride’s dress makes gossamer shifts around her small shoes as she stands before everyone. The fabric seems to echo the gulls that go by. I watch the birds. I watch the bride standing with flowers. The sun cuts beams out over the ocean. She is too far away for me to hear the words.

 

In Van Gogh’s 309th letter, written in 1883, he had some revelations. Drawing detailed human forms for years in those layered blacks and whites, he had never quite come to any sort of moment of truth. He was dissatisfied. And then “while painting recently,” he said at that time, “I have felt a certain power of color awakening in me, stronger and different than what I have felt till now.” The weakness of syphilis had actually made it more difficult for him to be so studied and sustained on individual impressions. “And now that I let myself go a little,” he said, “and look more through my eyelashes, instead of staring at the joints and analyzing the structure of things, it leads me more directly to seeing things more like patches of color in mutual contrast.” And the world benefited from the hurried impressions afterward.

 

I took one long walk alone on the seashore in Oregon. Drizzling at the start, the gulls seemed stymied and then leaden. They stayed down along the landscape with me. I walked toward the headlands of Fowlweather again, along the tidepools and then the rocky breaklands that led to deep open water and then the black volcanic risings that lifted toward the skyline trees. I had again grown accustomed to the peeping chatter of the guillemots. I became fascinated with the etchings and random pilings that were the stacked driftwood and driftless leavings of this wide sea. I had once found a pristine dead seagull here after watching him strain to stay among us the day before. This day it was great stackings of wood, doll parts and pieces (who throws their dolls into the Pacific Ocean?), baseball caps, twine and rope, glassine fragments of past unknown shatterings that can’t quite be pieced together now, countless rainbow Humpty Dumpties fallen apart. It was the impossible plastic complications of our modern life mixed with the bones of ghosted seabirds. A femur, a scapula, the fingerlet bones of some other lost fisherbird, one always expects to find the shrapnel of the human dead among such stones and buttresses, but I am spared once again the hollow stare of some anonymous fallen man or woman. Instead, I sit and watch the seals. They watch back with great caution and care out on their seawashed perches, necks coming up with each of my stops and starts. The dark eyes of seals defy any description of the look they build on that face. It is not the face of a dog or a cat. It is an alert sadness, a sort of disbelief that once again a two-legger has come into their sleeping places. We are all the outcasts of the sealkings. The dark eyes wish us away, we and our cornucopia of flotsam.

 

At the grassy place where the wedding was, the chair impressions are all that remain. I stoop to the places where everyone sat and I wonder where the bride is. My own ‘day of and after’ is long burnished over with forgetfulness. I remember the flowers, the speaking of the words, the drive into the springtime mountains the next day. I have a photograph of my wife from the day after, when we are away and relaxed in the Ozarks. It is one of my favorite photographs. She is looking photo-left; her hair is dark and long. You cannot tell if she is looking into the future or waging some war inside the day. How did we get to this place in our lives? Distracted, she is just very beautiful. And there on the seamount, standing where the cello player was, I cannot imagine what it would be like to have her taken away.

 

Soon after Van Gogh’s color revelation and his switch to landscapes and a fascination with trees and cloud shapes, he left the woman he had been living with. He never married her, though I got the impression he offered to marry her many times. Van Gogh was there more as a savior than a man in love. He had grown accustomed to having her and her children near. Before him, she had been a prostitute living in wretched conditions. Van Gogh had no money but he had a home as shelter and he had the money his brother sent with every letter. When he left her for the peat landscapes of rural Denmark, he mentioned her often afterward. The rains started and he became desperate with his painting tools and no will to paint. He had yet to paint any of his great masterpieces. His palette was inadequate. “And this letter is a cry for more breath, and if this winter is the way it has been these last days, I should be badly off. It is beautiful, yes, very beautiful with the rain, but how can one work…”

 

On the last day on the coast I walked down to the sandy shore just below where we were staying. Low clouds were still making a long ceiling out over the sea. I sat on the big driftwood butt that seemed to have been there forever. Water washed down out of the trees above in a small fall that spread into a freshwater delta above the tidepool stretches. The gulls collected there. And when I sat, they came close and bathed and made small gull chatter noises to each other. Occasionally a new gull would drop in from north or south and hit the sand to drink like the famished, tilting the neck high to let the water wash into the deeper part of gullthirst. From behind me a scattered family of tourists drifted along the wave breakline. The mother stared out to sea and scanned. The children did what children do on the beach: everything they can at once. The gulls watched them suspiciously.

 

Eventually the young mother made her way over to my perch and said, “Excuse me sir, but where are the tidepools?”

 

The children came up behind her. I wanted to take them around the bend to the best pools. I looked over to the cliff that led around that way north. The waves battered over the rocks and fumed high in the air. “Well, unfortunately guys, it is high tide. The pools won’t be out again until about ten tonight, after dark.” They had driven quite a ways down the coast. The two young children immediately started asking for a return in moonlight. I could see heads shaking as they all walked back over to the water’s edge. They stood together for awhile, the moon the devil over the deep blue sea.

 

My friend, without his wife, worried that if he took concoctions to make him sleep better, he would miss a dream of her or a darkfall, afterlife conversation. Better not to sleep and just pace, to listen for sounds in the house, to watch the rainshapes on the windows. It is raining again now outside as I type. The leaves are a shade deeper again, moving toward the brightest tones of surrender: five yellows out the window, ten reds, a green, a gold, too many to count. Surrender is a complex array. There is a Ginkgo tree in town that has turned into the gold that only Ginkgos know when letting go. I purposefully go out of my way in fall to go by this stretch of road in town, to see this tree often. It is just out there on a suburban lawn. There is no real stopping place. Gingkos are slow growing trees and this one is tall and well feathered. But at its greatest moment, a day or two in October, it should be roped off, girdled in brass handled fences and temporarily consecrated. Everyone in the county should go to it before it shakes one night and sheds all its gold in a great circlet on the ground. Where afterward, it looks like all the rest of the trees, like all the rest of us, standing unremarkably amidst all that we have just lost. With shame or sorrow? Which one? I don’t know. It is still a Gingko, standing in that windblown pool of gold.

 

I gave G a hummingbird feeder for the birthday that turned out to be her last birthday. And her husband clung afterward to the hummers that stayed and stayed as long as hummers can before they must jump away south. He gave them names. I think he wanted to follow them. It is a ruby-red cut glass feeder and dangles on the front porch. I will buy one for myself next year. He would sit on the front porch and watch them. Wishing them to stay; knowing they would not.

 

Sun trying to come through. Everything wet and fungal now. The insects have gone from my front yard except the hardy Buckeyes and the drift-through Monarchs. I have yet to see the first Winter Wren return. But we remember the wind of last winter and the budding branches that were all leafless out this window before. I forget them in deepest summer, in the heat and cicadas. Memory is short. Causing wrecks, I suppose, every fall near that gingko tree. (“I…I just didn’t remember it was like that officer.”) The cold will remind us though. And the wrens will stun me again, like a new cello tune on the wind. Today is the afterlife of the day before. Everyday is the afterlife. Most are just days: not wedding days, not days with gulls, nor days with a golden light over the sea. And these days are growing shorter again. While we wonder where that hour went. Or this one. Or that.

 

Would I take only winter, for good, if that was all that was offered me now? You bet I would. So would G. And she would slap you for saying a day is just a day, gulls or not. Give us a walk in the woods once more, a day by the sea with a daughter and a dog. Yes, we will. And Vincent? Well, if we gave him all the colors in that palette of surrender and perhaps held his umbrella while he worked. Maybe if we just walked with him, just looking, like humans should do more often. I think he might.

 

 

 

        HR

                    For G.

 

       

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