On Irony

Out out…even as most are turning in. Down to the sea, flat, windless, blue, with only a jiggle of waves’ reminder, and its seems a day to aim for little islands, to press against the incoming tide for a while, before riding its last push in.

By Black Rock, along the east shore of Shelter, then aim for the humped back of the next little island; its firs look like raised fur on an archback cat. And as high tide nears, it offers a little white sand beach for landing. Thank you, I think I will.

I go ashore on Irony Island, its half-acre fine home for a former English teacher, even as he suspects that this isle is straightforward, simplicity itself, its name derived from the orange-streaked iron of its stone, and not from any duplicity, or turning upside down of words.

If there is any irony here, it lies in the white-splashed rocks at its top. There the orange stone gives way to small drifts of broken shells and white abstracts of guano. The gulls use Irony as anvil for clams they can’t open. And, once they’ve swooped down on their fill of the exposed, soft bodies, the gulls splash the remainders of their satisfaction and pleasure all over the rocks. A whitewash of Irony.

Irony's rocks, white-capped.

Irony’s rocks, white-capped.

I’ve more islands to visit before turning with the tide, but for now, I’ll be here, on Irony; the gulls will be back when the tide drops and the clam flats open.

It is, when you’re there, a singular place.

The island after Irony.

The island after Irony.


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Down Where We Live

By fall I mean literally the falling of the leaves, though some mean by it the changing or the acquisition of a brighter color. This I call the autumnal tint, the ripening to the fall. Thoreau, Journal, 11/3/58

Even as fall’s intense colors soar against the bluest of skies – the other day the maples were so vivid they made me squint – another story calls the eye: on many woods-walks, October’s afternoon sun slants under the still-ascendant oak canopy and makes light of all these little lives, mine included. It is, even as cold bears down, the season of the fern, when they range from dark green to pure gold to curled brown, their various seasons all arrayed simultaneously.


And it is also the season where light divorces heat. In summer, I come often to these woods for respite; in their shades of varying depth, it is cooler, even as the high sun presses heavily on the treetops. High summer always contains a little craving for darkness, for relief from all that light and heat, (which, of course, we crave equally in thin-lit January). But now the woods are like a temperate room where the curtains have been pulled back and light announces life.

A 24-hour leaf-drop: windless through the night, and when I walk down into the woods, the leaves are still falling, each detaching soundlessly and then riding its own shape down – spirals, back-and-forths, oblique meanderings left and right. And on the small evergreens, they accumulate, on some to the point where the tree is garbed in a new sweater, or daubed with decoration. The wind will come to comb them, but for now, the firs are decked out; they look ready to party.


And then, a drought-breaking, 24-hour rain, with northwest wind to follow; much is beaten to the ground, and the sight- and light-lines have opened. It is deep fall.


And in this season, the understory is the story.

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Beginning Upstream

Perhaps you too wait for a day or three before taking up an anticipated book. Just so for me with Upstream, Mary Oliver’s recently released volume of selected essays. I didn’t hurry for two reasons: first, I’d read a number, most, of the essays before when they appeared in earlier volumes; I’d even read one in first light before it appeared in the journal I edited then. Second, and more pertinently, I wanted those few days before opening the door of the book’s cover and stepping first into one, then another, of its rooms. I knew that, even as many would not be wholly new, taking up residence would feel new – we, the essays and I, would differ, sometimes greatly, from what we were at our last meetings.

Fairhaven Bay - upstream for Henry Thoreau.

Fairhaven Bay – upstream for Henry Thoreau.

Morning coffee’s the time for my day’s first reading before turning to work, and so, facing east, I began Upstream, and soon, I heard familiar resonance – here, even as Emerson is Oliver’s favorite Concordian, was the not-so-distant presence of Henry Thoreau, cloaked in his famous coat metaphor. Walden readers are likely to recall its appearance at the end of the book’s second paragraph, where Thoreau has been speculating about his potential readership:

Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.

And here is Oliver in a paragraph late in the clear waters of her book’s title essay, which is, among other things, about becoming, or, to use one of Thoreau’s favorite verbs, “realizing” oneself:

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

Both writers would have us try on lives, but wear, finally, only the one that doesn’t “stretch the seams” or burden us with heavy responsibilities chosen by others. It takes “time to reject them,” for Henry Thoreau the two-plus years at Walden Pond, where, even as he cast off other coats, he was busy already with the one that he would offer in 1854.

As I read this paragraph, associations burst like popcorn in a popper, when suddenly the oil reaches temperature, and where there were only little seeds there are now white flowers of corn spilling up and out, so many, an overflow – the kneeling to earth, the attention on eternity, the nail, the house, the water, the flowers…

Oliver’s essay ends soon after with a single sentence paragraph: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Simone Weil wrote, “absolute attention is prayer.”

And Thoreau, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

Downstream - not Oliver's coast, but mine.

Downstream – not Oliver’s coast, but mine.

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