ON a cloudy day that was full of chill, I encountered an old man who kept to himself in the most ancient of cottages. He was walking as though being friendly was something he knew a lot about.
I smiled at him and said, "Good morning."
He made sure his teeth were in place before launching his manifesto of a better awareness: "Are you getting used to the earth? It's a pretty special place. I like to think of it as a seashore in space."
I was caught off guard by his question and the commentary that went along with it. It was as though he threw me a curve.
According to those who knew him for decades, he mostly cut firewood and picked up interesting things on the beach. In the early morning he could be heard singing in the shower.
Since I couldn't come up with an appropriate reply for a poet, I resorted to repeating myself, with a little addition: "Good morning to the likes of you."
I started up the several flights of stairs that would take me from the water's edge to the top of the long hill, and while going from one step to another, I got to wondering what kind of response I might give the old man at a later date.
Does one ever "get used to the earth" in all its seasons and contours?
If one is as wise as a worm, every speck of earth is sacred. The birds of the air fly over all kinds of gardens, but they have enough sense to land where things are growing the best - I have observed more birds in gardens filled with the finest of cucumbers and wax beans.
As a small boy I got interested in counting the number of grains of sand in my sandbox, but I never got beyond a few grains because I was imitating the shapes of the soil in my father's small garden. I tried to build mounds and water them, but things didn't grow in the sandbox.
I was puzzled why things grew in my father's garden, but nothing grew in mine, except long hours of self enjoyment. Looking back, I realize I was developing a sense of awe toward whatever earth I encountered, which included all kinds of seashore - for ships and people and cities.
I also enjoyed making footprints in the sand, and watching the incoming tide cover them up. At first, I felt a sense of loneliness because my impression faded out, as the waters tided over it, and then I grew to understand that I made a new impression when I walked anew onto the sand to take a closer look.
Whether one enjoys the work of a worm or the soaring of an eagle, it is the time of day that sheds light on the human perch, whether high on a wilderness trail or far from shore in a small hull.
I have never gotten used to the countless stars in the sky that are visible from the summit of a wilderness camp. Over the decades, I have wandered for days through deep forests and paddled island coastlines, but I have always come ashore under the night lights of the universe.
The poet in me hungers for words to do justice to the wanderings of the living stars, but I am so often wordless during the encounter with vital life. I feel like a worm looking up at the stalks in outer space.
There are no words on the lips of a perched owl, only the look of wisdom. How does poetry acquire the lofty perch that mingles with driftwood and roots, as well as with polished glass and old tires?
Is there a way to say things that doesn't leave out what can't be put into words? I keep coming to my senses in a mood of play, while holding up a worm to the light of the full night sky.
The worm has wandered across a pavement not of its making and seeks living soil. To transport it to its seashore is a human act.
I find myself becoming aware of foolish things, like why are there still a few leaves on the small trees on my deck? It has been cold here on the water for several mornings, and the winds of the valley have carried off most of the dry leaves.
Is the poet like a lingering leaf, or a personality determined to mingle with summit and furrow, and dig deep into the living language of those who sing in the shower early in the morning?
I am starting to throw living words at myself, as I continue to puzzle over shore trees of yesterday. Is the kind of thinking that I am sharing with myself a poor man's philosophy, or merely words to get me up a flight of stairs?
Is poetry a way to keep the human quality in us all alive? It is a way to view the stars of the universe on those nights when clouds fill the sky - the inner eye of the mind requires a playful attitude and time spent in acts of simple wonder. It is to have a sense of "a seashore in space."
I was almost to the parking lot at the top of the hill, when I felt as though I had mulled over a kind of response - one that includes worms and words, as well as decades of singing in the shower.
It finally came to me. The old man and I had a simple act in common, even though he had a deeper voice, based on the classy way he said good morning.