Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4:

One of those hot still days. True summer. We're promised a heat wave this coming week. It has been very dry, no rain for well over a month. I live close to water but I think of myself as a soil-based person; I seem to be more aware of the nature of soils and more interested in them than most, if not all, of my friends. Our own private soil on this third-acre of happiness is sandy and thin, glacial moraine soil, underlain with gravel and the ground-up stone of glacial debris. It doesn't hold water long, so we have been watering busily, to save the grass, the shrubs, the younger of the trees.

Maybe I take an interest in the soil from thinking about the glacier, 5,000 feet thick, that overlay this land only 11-12,000 years ago. That strikes me as a wondrous fact. I wish more people thought about these things; it might make a difference of a sort. We live in four dimensions, in the space we occupy and, within that space, the fourth dimension of time, which stretches both before and behind and upon which our lives cannot help but have an affect. I think about this little piece of the landscape a lot. About ten years ago, digging around one of our hedges, I found a small midden of clam and oyster shells, almost certainly Indian in origin, left there when our third of an acre was covered with oak forest, or maybe before that, the ubiquitous red cedar, which still wants to reclaim this land for itself; we have several in the yard as it is, two in the front hedge, which I'm letting grow into trees because nothing is more boring than a hedge, and they seed constantly in the lawn. It's easy enough to imagine a band of the local Indians, or just a family, camping here and eating the mollusks they had gathered from the meadows below, now filled in, the same meadows where downtown Sag Harbor stands now.

And at the height of the glaciation this spot was three hundred miles from the coast.

For me, these facts always give me pause; they are lessons in impermanence; and as I move toward old age and death I revel in it, oddly enough, knowing that the beaches will disappear in the not enormously distant future, what was incredibly valuable waterfront property will drown, the earth will shake off this destructive and thoughtless species and only a percentage of mankind will survive. And the question will be: then will we have attained wisdom?

I rather doubt it. Jonathan Swift said that he loved individual human beings but he found mankind itself loathsome. I think of mankind as not so much loathsome as clueless. Yet here I am, approaching old age, growing more cheerful by the day. Oh, I can get irritated, I can snap at people, sometimes I get seriously angry, and I drive with care because the roads are full of idiots on cell phones, driving at high speeds. Clueless. Oblivious. A few years ago we almost killed a woman who pulled out of a side street right in front of us, chattering away on her phone, too interested in her conversation to look both ways. We swerved, honked our horn; she jammed on her brakes. It clearly spooked her. Maybe she learned from it. But I doubt it. Nothing is harder to teach than a human being; usually it takes a death, or something very close to a death.

Still, I am not unhappy at the state of things. As an historian, I know it has been far worse in other times and places. And it isn't my burden any more. I spent five years in local government, doing what I felt to be my civic duty. I do my best to be kind to the people I know and love, and to strangers when they need kindness. I don't lecture anyone. I try to find reasons for those I love who are in pain to feel good about themselves, and about their futures. These things turn out to be satisfying to the soul. I have lived an extraordinarily fortunate life, and have some good stories to tell. What more could a peson want for the end game?

And then yesterday, while the fireworks were going off on two sides of MacArthur Airport in Islip, we picked up Lorraine's "new" granddaughter, a child given away by Lorraine's own daughter at childbirth. We had never met her; only recently had Lorraine established contact. And she's smart and charming and interesting, a poet, 24 years old, and witty to boot. It's like the line in Yeats's late great poem "Lapis Lazuli," about the little piece of sculpture in that soft blue stone where the old men are climbing a trail on a mountain and looking down on the life below, and "their ancient glittering eyes are gay."