Embracing the fog

As the banks roll in, secrets stay hidden, ugly buildings vanish, and coincidences rise.

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    Bicyclists ride along the Hillsborough County side of the Friendship Trail. Fog engulfed the Friendship Trail and the Gandy Blvd. Bridge.
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A fog rolled in off the sea early one recent morning. I encountered it on the Ocean Highway on my way to buy a newspaper. It had a density I've never experienced, and an all-encompassing grayness, with some light in it here and there. I could not see the ocean from the road, not even the big houses that front on the beach. Nor could I see the sky, and the boxy, dun-colored high-rises of Delaware's Sea Colony resort, even they had been swallowed up.

The few cars on the road that early were making their way with exaggerated caution, their brake lights blinking on and off, stopping, going. I was on my bike, virtually feeling my way along, my eyes fixed on the white line that kept me more or less safely on the shoulder of the road.

I like the fog. It is my favorite expression of the natural world. Why? Maybe because it's unusual. I also prefer gray days to sunny ones. Why? Because they, too, are fewer. Having lived for some years in a tropical country, I've had my share of blue skies smiling at me.

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If you were to ask a lot of people to name the face of nature they prefer, I'd bet most would choose the dawn. Some people, especially in resorts like this one, get up before the sun does and rush to the beach to witness the birth of a new day, or depending on how you look at things, the death of the night. The universal glory of the rising sun is unsurpassed. It is invested with religious overtones, intimations of rebirth, hopeful expectations, and so on.

Still, give me a good fog anytime.

Why? Because it slows things down; cleans the slate; erases ugly buildings, at least temporarily, and other stains and insults to the landscape. Fog can make you nervously aware of your aloneness, but also of your uniqueness. It is intimate; it hides secrets that should be hidden; maybe it even stimulates coincidence.

I met with an unexpected coincidence on that morning of the fog, or two remarkable occurrences of related events, both gleaned from an old book titled "Rural Rides," by William Cobbett, one of England's more serious muckrakers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Cobbett, for much of his life, was at odds with his government, its minions eager to shut him down. He was a farmer and had a farmer's patience. He was a publisher and journalist: editor, writer, maybe the godfather of all investigative reporters.

Cobbett's "Rural Rides" grew out of his critical investigation of the state of England's countryside, made from the back of a horse, a survey that might have inspired George Orwell's later perambulations through the squalid industrial regions of the country, chronicled in "The Road to Wigan Pier."

The night before the fog enveloped Bethany Beach, I had started reading "Rural Rides," and in Cobbett's opening chapter he gave a strange explication of fog, and the differences of one from another. "Fog that you might cut with a knife all the way from London to Newbury." This was his opening sentence. "This fog does not wet things. It is rather a smoke than a fog...." He wrote that fog is sometimes nothing more than dry clouds descending harmlessly onto the land, unlike "the fogs that rise out of the swamps, and other places, full of putrid vegetable matter, that kill people." And then he recalled his observation of "a valley in Pennsylvania, in a part called Wysihicken."

"In looking from a hill, over this valley, early in the morning, in November," he wrote, "it presented one of the most beautiful sights that my eyes ever beheld. It was a sea bordered with beautifully formed trees of endless variety of colors. As the hills formed the outsides of the sea, some of the trees showed only their tops; and, every now and then, a lofty tree growing in the sea itself, raised its head above the apparent waters.... I have never seen anything so beautiful as the foggy valley of the Wysihicken."

Me neither, though I've never seen it bathed in fog. But even today, more than 60 years on, I can recall the water rushing through the valley of Wissahickon Creek (current spelling), where my father took me on occasion to draw spring water for the house from a rusty pipe sticking out of a rock. As he did this, I would run wild over the intricate paths through the trees, trails no doubt laid down by the soft, silent treads of moccasined feet, even at the very time Cobbett was there, more than a century before both my father and I reached it. It is now a part of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.

Who could have expected that the emergence of a spreading mist out of the sea, combined with a single page in a very old book, published in 1832, would have projected my mind so deeply into the foggy depths of my own past? How stealthy it was, as is the fog itself.

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