Unlooked-for favors

Fromm The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923 (c) 1969 Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Copyright 1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, publishers.m

Animal stories. You have heard them. The moose in the back meadow, the skunk in the garbage can, the deer in the driveway, the bear that the lone jogger surprised on a country road. The experience is fleeting but so intense and unexpected that it must be relived and reexamined for a few moments. There is no punch line, only a witnessing: "A deer stood in the driveway and stared at me."

Seasoned country residents are not blase about such encounters. One wonders if the Indians ever were.

Robert Frost understood what this excitement was all about. In his poem "Two Look at Two," two people, walking at dusk up a mountainside, reach an old tumbled wall and decide to turn back before the approaching darkness when they see a deer: A doe from round a spruce stood looking at them Across the wall, as near the wall as they. She saw them in their field, they her in hers. The difficulty of seeing what stood still, Like some upended boulder split in two, Was in her clouded eyes: they saw no fear there.

The doe stares at the couple momentarily, then passes on. The show seems to be over: This then is all. What more is there to ask? But no, not yet. A snort to bid them wait. A buck from round the spruce stook looking at them Across the wall, as near the wall as they. He viewed them quizzically with jerks of head As if to ask, "Why don't you make some motion? Or give some sign of life? Because you can't. I doubt if you're as living as you look." Thus till he had them almost feeling dared To stretch a proffering hand -- and a spell breaking.

The buck also passes on, but the hikers remain standing by the wall, trying to absorb the experience: Still they stood, A great wave from it going over them, As if the earth in one unlooked for favor Had made them certin earth returned their love.

The narrator of the Frost poem dismisses the significance of the moment by repeating: "this must be all. It was all," while at the same time the couple senses more than that. They have received an "unlooked for favor" from across the wall. Some affirming exchange has occurred between two entirely different worlds, across a wall that had marked "the way they must not go" -- further on into the night's darkness. The moment has offered them a privileged glimpse into that darkness.

And even if the favor is looked for it is no less appreciated. Always at nightfall in summer when driving along country backroads, I lapse into my childhood habit of looking beyond the headlights for deer, raccoons, porcupines. Even when I have had a run of good seeing, the sudden hustling brown shape beside the road, the wary eyes caught by the headlights, are no less surprised than I. Always there is a sense of privileged contact with what D. H. Lawrence, in his poem "The Snake," calls the "Lords of life."

If we want more encounters with the "Lords of life," how can we get them? Frost suggests in "Two Look at Two" that "love," "forgetting," and "impulse" might have carried his hikers further up the mountain and into the deer's domain. Long, solitary country walks, or canoe rides at dusk on wilderness lakes, have their rewards. Bird watchers and nature photographers advise patience. I would add, wistfully, that luck -- whatever "luck" means -- has its place.

Take my father, for example.One early morning, when picking apples from his "pecker fretted apple trees," he met the moose that I have canoed vainly down the Allagash to see. And one extraordinary day, when my father was hammering asphalt shingles onto the roof, a piliated woodpecker joined him and entertained him for an hour, flying from the rooftop to the woods and back to the rooftop. It was the hunting season, and my father was wearing a red hat. Perhaps to a nearsighted and lonely woodpecker, my father seemed a magnificent new breed of bird, drumming away there on the roof. Anyway, it made a good story.

Each animal story receives its degree of drama from the relative rarity of the animal sighted. Raccoons get two points, piliated woodpeckers get ten. Audience interest is pitched accordingly. We weigh unconsciously the importance of the favor, an importance of which the surprised bear confronting us in teh road has no concept, though the sight of us may be as rare to him as he is to us.

I once attended a party held at the Boston Aquarium. A band was set up on one side of the seal pool, and a buffet table was spread out long the other side. The crowd of dancers and the throbbing music made the bluegray forms swimming past in the big tank seem mere shadows. The party was the reality, not the fish. I munched a roast beef sandwich and was deep in conversation with my back against that enormous tank. Suddenly, five inches away, a shark swam past my corner vision. Here was the sudden juxtaposition of two worlds. I couldn't finish that roast beef sandwich and I lost the thread of the conversation. That shark had seen me and, not withstanding the thick glass windows between us, I could in no way ignore him. A strange presence from beyond the wall had surprised my complacency. I turned to watch the shark's curving gills and broad gray back glide past the glass and disappear. Suddenly all the fish, trapped in that tank, seemed as wild and indomitable as those in any ocean depth, and I was a privileged observer.

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