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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Half a Century, As If It Were Yesterday

We read and studied out of doors, preferring the sunlit woods to the house. All my early lessons have in them the breath of the woods—the fine, resinous odour of pine needles, blended with the perfume of the wild grapes. Seated in the gracious shade of a wild tulip tree, I learned to think that everything has a lesson and a suggestion. ‘The loveliness of things has taught me all their use.’ Indeed, everything that could hum, or buzz, or sing, or bloom, had a part in my education—noisy-throated frogs, katydids and crickets held in my hand until, forgetting their embarrassment, they trilled their reedy note, little downy chickens and wildflowers, the dogwood blossoms, meadow-violets and budding fruit trees. I felt the bursting cotton-bolls and fingered their soft fiber and fuzzy seeds; I felt the low soughing of the wind through the cornstalks, the silky rustling of the long leaves, and the indignant snort of my pony, as we caught him in the pasture and put the bit in his mouth—ah, me! How well I remember the spicy, clovery smell of his breath!

The writer continues, describing feeling the angry buzzing of an insect caught in the petals of a rose she has plucked, the downy flesh of peaches fresh from the tree and apples, still sun-warm, held against her cheek. This happy child was Helen Keller, who lost both sight and hearing when little more than a year old. The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, is a classic of autobiography. I am re-reading it for the first time in many years. There are a few episodes I recall, but many I read now as if for the first time, and my overwhelming impression of her life is that of great curiosity about the world and love for every living part of it.

Keller was born in Alabama in the year 1880. The half-century referred to in my subject heading for the day is that of her last major public appearance, in April 1961, when she was named Humanitarian of the Year by the Lions International. (She was also the group’s first honorary female member.) That was 50 years ago this month.

My outdoor expeditions generally focus on sights and sounds. Today, in honor of Helen Keller, I will give more attention to what I smell and to what my fingertips tell me of my surroundings, and Sarah is the perfect companion for a walk devoted to the world’s aromas, “seeing” so much more with her nose than I do with mine. I hope I give the world half as much love as Sarah gives it or as Helen Keller did. Its gifts, after all, are at my doorstep every day.

Evening Addendum

I expected the pungent aroma of earth and the sharp scent of the wild leeks but hadn’t anticipated the delicate perfume of spring air in the corridor between orchard and woods or the subtle waves of temperature in that breeze, similar to warm and cool currents in a lake--and I can't show it to you! The smooth, chalky feel of birch bark I imagined ahead of time, picturing it in my mind’s eye. Outdoors, hand on a birch trunk, my fingers discovered, beside the smoothness, a very different texture in the soft curls of young, peeling bark.

I did not feel ahead of time the shape of the lilac bud. It is not round but slightly flattened, like a lentil. What I noticed most of all, however, everywhere Sarah and I walked, was the ground beneath my feet. It was packed hard in some places, soft and loamy in others, scented with pine needles, richly covered with layers of last year’s leaves, unexpectedly rutted and uneven where a timber hauler had gone in before the winter freeze. All this would be surprising if I were unable to look ahead and see the changes before my steps brought me to them.

As it was, I failed to anticipate Sarah seeking out a patch of snow when she was hot and thirsty from running. Can you imagine how good that cool snow felt and tasted to her?

You can find quotations from Helen Keller at this website. I think my favorite is this one:
I do not want the peace which passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.


Deborah said...

I absolutely love the way you write. Even without the photos I can see these images through your words and phrasing. How lucky Sarah is to have such wonderful walks and runs through woods, pastures and dunes.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Deborah. I wish you and little Bosco could have been with us for the walk. You're right--Sarah is VERY lucky! Now, if only she could be thinking that right now, remembering the Sunday woods, instead of being bored indoors on Monday morning. Living in the moment has its downside.