We have a new deck out back now, fresh wood, a new railing, a couple of steps leading up to it from the side yard, and we sat out there yesterday evening, a beautiful evening, clear skies, cool air, on our old comfortable Adirondack chairs, and hoped for the birds to come and visit our feeder. Not many did. The birds are in short supply this year, possibly because of the neighborhood cats, possibly because they have been staying away from the deck construction. But an oriole did show up to feed on the trumpet vine flowers, and orioles are very colorful birds and fun to watch. And so many moments of ecstasy in my life have come from watching birds. Why that is I have no idea, but it is. Once at Mary's Point in the Bay of Fundy I lay on my back on a great flat stone next to the water and a peregrine falcon came and hovered directly above me for a full thirty seconds or so. It felt like a blessing. At the same place we watched maybe ten thousand semi-palmated sandpipers, down from the Arctic to feed on the mud flats before they left on their non-stop, 2,000-mile-plus flight to South America, forced up on the beach by the rising tide, dance and swirl in unison, all 10,000 of them at once, alarmed by this very same falcon flying low over them. People come from all over the world to see this happen. I tell you, my heart took flight with them. It isn't often you can say something like that without reservation, without embarrassment. They have brown backs and white bellies, and, I say again, in unison, they flew first this way, then that, 10,000 flashes of white, then brown, looping, diving, rising, until they settled back down on the beach. To have lived, and seen things like that! And even there on our deck I have taken such great and quiet pleasure in the birds. It reminds me of one of my favorite poems, Coleridge, "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," in which he is confined by lameness to his bower while his friend Charles Lamb, visiting, walks down to the river with Coleridge's wife, and finds even in the bower a great deal to make him happy.
Yes, happiness. One thing I like about Jefferson, who enshrined the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence (it is July 2, the day the finished document was presented to the Continental Congress), is that he knew that things like this brought it. Forget slavery for a moment, forget Sally Hemings, and all the other things we can condemn him for. Think of him there at Monticello, on his little hill, in the house he never stopped improving, amidst his gardens. Men of his era made much of the retired life, it was a convention of the time that came out of the classics; Horace did the same, so did Virgil; but it was also quite real for people like Jefferson and Washington and Madison; and I like to think of Jefferson sitting on his terrace watching the sun go down over the Blue Ridge Mountains in the same state of mind I feel on our modest little deck. A little cheese, my nightly vodka, and the birds. This is happiness. And, if your life is good, and mine is pretty good so far, this is all you need.