Forest reflections

The early morning Maine sunlight had not yet dissolved the mist. It hung among the fir trees around our campsite when I got up, and the dew still drenched our picnic table. So I had gone in search of a dry place to sit and read - where, I hoped, the sun might filter through and warm my back. Pausing in the thicket floored with a mat of needles and leaves, I happened to look down. There, snuggled into the brown moss beside my moccasin, was a bright red-and-silver bottle cap.

Being a citizen of the late 20th century, I should have recoiled in disgust. My well-schooled antipathy to litter, and my equally fashionable respect for wilderness (and even for its approximations captured in state parks), should have provoked me to sadness, perhaps to outrage. Instead, my reaction rather surprised me: for in fact my heart leaped with joy at the sight.

It was not, of course, the bottle cap alone that delighted me. I have become as vigorous as the next man in my dislike of mankind's habit of polluting his visual environment with the leavings of his convenience food society. I have even set myself a goal, on each morning walk with the dog through a sanctuary near our home, of bringing back two bits of litter to the barrel at the entrance. Nor was I responding with a Crusoe-like thrill of discovery to this figurative footprint in the sand, this sign of recent human habitation. No, what caught my fancy was a whole complex of associations - the cap, the needles, the nearby table, the smell of woodsmoke - that swept me back to the boyhood summers our family spent camping in northern Ontario.

There was, in those days, a local Canadian beverage company that bottled such colorful and delicious sodas as Temagami Dry Ginger Ale, Dutch Root Beer, and a ruby-red black cherry soda. They matched each drink with brightly enamaled caps - oranges and lime-greens and sharp purples - which looked up expectantly at you when you opened the heavy metal chest in the nearby store and found the bottles sitting up to their shoulders in ice water. They obviously proved irresistible to the modern-day Hansels and Gretels who frequented our provincial park and who charted their route across the summer holidays with the dropped tops.

Like the fabled birds, however, we came behind and plucked up their markers, carrying them back to our campsite by the pockets-full. There we had a flat piece of the forest floor laid out for them - divided up into plots, with roads between for our toy trucks. We set them out in neat rows, squaring them up like soldiers on parade, one plot for each kind of cap. They numbered, I recall, well into the hundreds. Great was our delight when we found one in mint condition, so artfully removed that it had not even the faintest crease of the bottle-opener across its diameter.

All of this came rushing back as I stood that morning in the thicket. And with it, as the early breeze began shaking the mist from the trees, came in explanation for something I had been puzzling over.

I suppose all of us have noticed how, among men and women of astute intellect and reasonable disposition, there arise little inconsistencies - harmless, usually - that cloud our efforts to predict their courses of action. In ninety-nine of a hundred cases, it seems, we can count on their logic to prevail in the myriad small responses and daily decisions that compose the thing we call behavior. Then, along comes the hundredth. The expected responses are dashed aside. Astonished, we find ourselves asking, ''How could he like that?'' or ''Why doesn't she see the real value of this?'' Along comes, in other words, a bottle cap - and with it a flood of feelings welling up out of the past and temporarily washing away the cultured and proper responses.

I say ''temporarily'' because I don't think most of us are permanently undone by such feelings. For all my boyhood summers, I would not now advocate the leaving of bottle caps at campsites, on the chance that they might please some 10-year-old boy. But the feelings of that boyhood pleasure are there. They are part of the mix. They matter.

This, I suppose, is why I've always been interested in history - not so much the history of dates and treaties and who-dethroned-whom, but the sharp slants of light suddenly thrown on contemporary feelings by the recent past. It has been said that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I think there is another reason, equally important, for glancing backward. It is to assess, in great ways and small, our feelings - to understand why, when we least expect it, our sentiments run counter to our philosophies.

To understand one another on such occasions is, perhaps, the first step toward forgiveness. It is to appreciate the power of feeling, rather than to blame the lack of logic. And to read our own past clearly is to begin to comprehend those odd moments when the present resonates with the energy of the past - when we blend, in wholly individual ways, the general thinking of our age with the particular feelings of our own experience.

It is to understand, for instance, what happens when we are ambushed in the mist by a bottle cap in the woods.

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