Scotsman’s Lament

While rustic, wrothy reckless Scots,
Reviewed from crags the glistening tarns,
Amid the gales and gusts of yore, 
You can believe their knees were sore.
The warmest hose, which have not trod,
Through bog or kyll to martial tune,
But else have kept to road and brig,
Still, lack a certain latitude–
And choose to venture not above
The Tropic of the Fatted Calf.
In liked-manner woolen twill
Of partied-colors, tartaned pleats,
Ere many trepidation, girt,
But dares not descend,
In fear lest it be called a Skirt!
Bereft of covering, to lurk,
This most of all neglected joints,
By Winters’ hard eternal work
The knee is reddened, roughed and rouged.
No doubt the Scots’ renown-ed scowl,
Of dour men, of mien and brow,
Is due to knees in part or whole
Which lack some lotion to console.

 

[written for Joseph H Boutwell in a gift of a kilt, his first]

Dec 2010

 

Observations on an Eclipse

I saw the eclipse. A few millions of my fellow Americans did as well.

I argued and fretted with a company who contracts with me to allow me to arrive about twelve hours earlier than required in order for me to view the eclipse. They fretted and argued back and thus it was that I ponied up the extra $645 to make it to Saint Louis at 9:45, after nearly missing my connection in Atlanta due in part to a cabin attendant who must have been trained by the Gestapo.

I got to the car rental joint and stood in line for forty-five minutes to get my Corolla. 11:21:15 Apparently, I am not the only one who had made an assignation with the moon. Heading south, absent breakfast and lunch, I was contemplating famishment, going through my carry on, one-handedly searching for my emergency strip of wintergreen chewing gum to stave off hypoglycemic coma. I had chosen the hamlet of Festus, Missouri as my goal. Nearly along the line of maximum duration, Festus had the advantage of being off the beaten track. After a short repast at the local Burger King, I made for Sunset Park, attracted by its public status, ease of navigation, and absence of tree-cover.

I chose well. When I arrived at 12:15, a little over an hour before the Event, a few dozen people had already set up. I donned my bona fide sun gazer’s goggles and could already see that a good solid bite had been taken out of the sun’s disk. The air was hot and humid but in my gypsy lifestyle, a large selection of garb is not generally possible. I lounged in my trousers and long shirt on the grass, a victim to small crawly things and sweat. The crowd swelled to maybe three score. Listening to a green-haired siren with a voice that could etch glass, I learned she had driven down with her unfortunately bearded companion from Chicago. She interrogated those within my earshot. The winner of the distance contest was a dark, intense and constantly busy man from Dubai who had set up shop on an abandoned basketball court. I heard Mandarin spoken from a small group behind me. A middle-aged guy with three daughters had brought a Sunspotter Scope, projecting a six-inch image onto a paper screen. He was the star of the show.

12:47 Closer. The bite had become a gulp and now the slice of the sun is about half gone. Nothing else has changed. The sun feels just as hot. The sweat is as sticky. I lie back to view through my glasses, over-warm but still comfortable except for the sweat. The crowd is no larger even as Sunspotter Man holds forth about sunspots as they are eclipsed. Dubai Guy is quietly busy, taking photos with a large camera, holding his generous sun-filter in front of the lens with each shot. I tried the same with my cell-phone with no success.

13: 15 The slice has passed through sliver to become a serpiginous smiley-face. Cicadas and cricket have started up. It has become cooler, a breeze has sprung up. My place on the grass is quite comfortable. The Mandarin boys are impressed. The light is odd, seemingly just as brilliant but without there being enough to go around. The grass under the trees is dappled with flights of overlapping crescents. The street lights have come on. I turn back to the smiley-face and discover I am wrong. The smiley face is not a smooth line but has become knobbly, the extremites almost like a string of beads, in this case, Baily’s Beads. The sun, shining between the high passes in the mountains of the moon, seen in profile blossom into brilliance along the thin limbs of the decreasing crescent. It is cooler now. Momentarily I am happy for my long-sleeved shirt. A voice over a loudspeaker counts down the last ten seconds to 13:17:07. I watch as the sun’s light is turned down, as if by a rheostat, until it is dark. Inside my goggles, I can see nothing. I rip them off to see the magnificent corona, unsuspected until the last of the last sliver is obscured. It shines out against a dark sky where a few stars peek out. I think I can see Mercury. The light once more has changed, not twilight, odd, the sky still giving it illumination, if only slightly. The corona, a ring around the absolute black of the moon, changes while I watch, almost as if on fire. The loudspeaker cuts in giving a countdown for the last ten seconds to 13:19:45. I regret I did not drive fifteen minutes further to have it last 3 seconds more. The light breaks out as if anxious to escape. Immediately, the light changes again, brightening second by second to what looks, but does not feel, like full sun. People arise and collect their blankets, walking under the hickories and their flights of crescents.

Green-haired Girl and Beard have left Dubai Guy, Sunspotter Man and me to the remainder of the Event. I rise to leave, looking up briefly to see the other parenthesis has appeared, to join, belatedly and unsuccessfully, the first one.

Driving back through the celestially-created traffic jam, I have more than enough time to contemplate. Millions of American have spent the greater part of a day to view a transient solar accident: almost three minutes where we can actually look at our life-giving sun without protection or damage. During any of the other 12,107,280 three-minute periods of my life, looking at the sun for even a few seconds would have struck me blind. Yet, without this deadly irradiation, our world is itself dead, cold, airless, waterless and desolate. When I thought about it, however, we cannot live long on most of this globe we presume to call home. We can stay but hours aloft and mere months afloat without assistance from the smallest portion, dry land. We cannot breathe water, although other creatures do. We cannot even drink from the largest collection of water, it is a poison to humans, driving us mad before we die. Vast portions of the water are unusable even for travel during much of the year, frozen into a hazard we can barely maneuver within. Any water we do drink must be carefully treated and tended lest the effluvia of our fellow creatures kill us.

Air is available in immense quantities without purification or storage, yet a man can walk to the very edge of breathability. We dwell at the bottom of a shallow pool, five miles deep or so, the distance a “wee stretch of the legs” for a fit person.

The inherent hostility of our dwelling, like a hammock over a viper-pit, should be telling us something about the care put into our creation, and upkeep.

 

Salem Station

The minute scintillations crossed the silvered sheets of winded snow,

And watered winter’s sun did cast a gleam of distant falling glow.

And hissing down to join the corps of frozen flakes in drifts and mounds

The susurrating mites of ice with pale blue capes and copes and crowns

Fill up the rocks and trail and trees.

My tread was deep in white of ice (the sound was lost within the hiss).

My boots, indeed, were lost, almost, within the blanket-covered trail.

And stopping in the blackened wood, to find a way that once I knew,

When Spring had come but freshly new,

I stood amongst the swirling points of blowing ice that stung my face.

The wood and trail around me lay, in spring was warm and welcomed fair,

But now it seemed an alien’s place, of white and black, defeat’s disgrace.

Of cold, ‘til now, I scarce had note (the work of boots in snow is hard),

But standing in the swirling black of setting sun at close of day,

I felt the cold invade my mind with dread of loss and life’s decay.

Alone in cold and dark and snow, without an end to trail in sight,

Nor way to go, now lost in time to warm the heart amidst the bite,

Of age and loss in Man’s cramped scope against the careless years’ delight,

…I feared….(the poorest purchase yet, for fearful Minds on perils’ slope,

let slip the lessons learned in youth to squander Will and Trust and Hope).

With me, the Fear did argue hard to stay and rest, nor brave the drifts,

And risk the trail which wound beyond and edged the drop along the cliffs.

A slip, a fall and terror looms from sintered stones …to fall unseen,

Nor found, nor friended,… wounded there, to wait the Cold… come there to glean,

The last of rebel heat from me, against the Lords of Dark and Doubt.

So there I stooped in blackened wood and felt my ice-infected mind,

But fear me to the spot I stood ‘til wind and snow did stay and bind.

The Youth, whose step was silent, came (as, I am sure, my own had been),

And thus it was I saw him close enough to touch, before I learned,

That some another soul walked on amongst the snow and blackened trees.

His face, I saw but in a flash, did seem familiar, strangely so,

And young, he seemed, as once I was,

When I was, deathless (more to say, that any Death then,

I would choose, had been to me, no doubt, but Fair and Noble, Earth-shifting….Grand!

and doubtless cause a deep lament from lasses I had not yet met!)

The youth was poorly shod and dressed in thin and sodden, mended coat,

A sea coat, worn but mended well, as once had I when young and poor.

His hat I saw was pulled right down, to cover ears from snow and wind,

Was Black but with a frosting yet: a watch cap covered wet with snow.

So close was he I barely raised my voice to him. I said “Hallo,”

(My speech was not informed by wit).

Says he to me “G’evenin’ sir,” and made to walk the trail beyond.

I stopped him with a touch upon his coat, and felt him shiver… once.

“Perhaps and do you know the trail to Shiloh Station or thereabouts?”

“Of course”, he says “Just follow me,” then laughing turned at once, and left.

I lurched then on my feet and stepped upon the trail, cold-clumsy… stiff.

To wend a way that once I knew,

When spring had come but freshly new.

The Youth, his hands in pockets kept,

And walked away, not looking back.

But soon I lost him in the gloom, the Youth who found me, then my guide.

“He must be cold or late for meat,” thought I, as trudging on I found,

His footsteps in the drifts of snow already filling up with ice,

Yet left I the black enbranch’ed wood, snow-swirled in the midst of night,

Escaped the trap that Fear had made to follow faint-lit forms at night.

Still stumbling on the hidden rocks beneath the blanket, white, of snow,

I learned to place my feet within his mark of boots, but followed slow.

The Edge I found when walking thus, so Carefully, just looking down,

As coming to a great dark hall where echoes lose reflected sound.

The wind now doubled its resolve to stop my progress, there to stay.

Indeed, it bid me to my knees, along the Edge of granite cliffs.

With shards of ice the wind assailed and flayed my eyes if long I looked,

To see the prints, each fainter yet, from light of sullen, scudding sky.

I crawled along from print to print, amidst the torrent’s wind and ice,

And thought the Youth had been remiss in leaving me to fend alone,

To show me weak,

Where he was strong.

And Cold, who had just let me slip but through her fingers in the wood,

Quite hurried up the trail to me lest I should miss her … company.

My hands and feet again felt cold. My mind was touched again, I think.

As Cold approached and ‘came more bold, and asked me why I did not quit.

“You think there’s someone left at home, who waits upon your coming there?

And would be waiting up the night if you went missing from her care?

Or is there son or daughter fair, who think of you as wise and good,

To weep upon your funeral byre, forsaking rest and daily food?

In sorrow at your passing light,

In sorrow, for your passing light?”

And on she went to ask some more, (for Cold now warming to her task),

“Is there some great exalted work, that only you alone must do?

And Is it true you think you add a single thing throughout your life,

That could not be supplied in bulk, without so much as undue strife?”

I could not answer her in turn, ‘though wishing that I could say “Yes!”

Instead, I knew the truth of things, and welcomed Cold’s investing arms

To lie there crying—freezing—tears.

While Cold and I there did embrace, the Youth returned to stand in place,

Awaiting me, he seemed to be, until I onward rose again.

I did not hear his tread, once more, but noticed boots before my face,

As waking from a Sunday’s nap, and thought awhile before I placed,

The meaning of these scuffed old boots, until the Youth, no doubt from cold,

Did stamp them on the ice and snow.

I roused then… coming to myself. “Come on now, sir, no time to rest,”

Says he, and helps me to my feet, and turning then, again from me,

He strode off through the drifts once more.

The wind picked up the snow and ice,

His boots had kicked up as he left,

And blew it down the wind to me,

So shutting off again my sight,

With tears on tears, I cried that night.

Again I lost him in the gloom, and once again I struggled on.

Leaning over, hunched and stiff, each step of mine I had to place,

As if a child whose treasures, found, he lines up one by one in rows.

But unlike little boys in spring, my treasured steps in rows were not,

But wandered right and left as I, by wind and Cold and age allowed.

The Edge that feared me somewhere lay, I thought, should be then to my right,

As thence the torrent’s wind did blow and memories saved from brighter day,

Of years ago, I walked these woods, before I knew a man’s dismay,

At seeing what he thought was good be lost because his grip was weak.

But in the black and fierce‘d tide of wind and ice that blinded me,

My boot but tripped upon a rock to make me run to keep my feet,

Then felled me forward, in the dark

                                  To

                                          Fall…….

Winded ice now blows unchecked,

By one small broken, huddled form.

Swept clean is now the sintered Edge,

From alien intruder of the storm.

The Wind, it knows not to exalt,

In freeing it from one mere man,

Nor does the wind nor ice perceive,

But scours long the icêd-ledge,

Erasing from its silver crust,

The impudent, faint scars of boots,

And fainted slur of aged step.

Blithe to fate, the icy Howl,

Shrieks the halls of stone and dark,

For one small ever frailing form,

Was never more than briefest glow

Of heat within the heart of snow.

I fell–I do not know how far, and lost myself to ken and sense,

And Cold , who had of course, again, not blaming me for leaving her,

Embraced my limbs and mind once more,

Below the lip along the edge, upon the cliffs, I feared to tread.

And when I came again to rights, the Youth again to me had come,

And now I realized that he, regardless of my lack of sight,

Was never far from me all night.

He found the branch, which saved my life, although it had required pay,

And took an offering of blood, of mine from wounds, that wounding saves.

And lifting me a bit so that my feet could once again be used,

We side by side, the Cliffside climbed, out the cleft that was near a grave.

When we had then, at last, emerged from out the cleft, along the edge,

The Youth again stood forth and turned and left me there to trace the trail,

His steps did make in snow and ice.

But this time I could see ahead, that trees again along the trail,

Did shelter from the wind and ice, away from cliffs’ and winds’ torment.

The Edge behind me, entered I another wood as black as one,

Had trapped me for a time with Cold, when Fear to me had counseled that.

But now the wind against my back did blow and hurry me along,

And sheltering somewhat, in the pines, the footsteps of my guide led on.

The way now led down from the heights, along a brook that followed close,

Then to a road, and then again to Station Place in Shiloh town,

To find again both, warmth and life.

At Shiloh Station’s dull red stove and after shucking gloves and boots,

And sodden socks, and coat, and cap, I waited midst the steaming clothes,

To use the ticket I had bought upon the last train, ‘fore it left.

While after coming back from death in blackened woods and Cold’s embrace.

And glad again to be alive, despite the likelihood of loss,

Yet see the spring in bright relief, and see the wood that once was black,

Alive with flowers’ fragrant dance.

And glad again to be alive, to turn my hand to things of need,

To do what little I can do to keep a span of light about,

this corner of the world I know and garner what affection’s there,

From lovers, lost, and children, gone,

To other loves or lives, their own.

It matters not that I should live, but living life that precious is…

And was…to me throughout storm.

And glad again to be alive, ‘though age advance and youth retreat,

And this machine in which I live then fails enough to let me lapse,

The lease and leave, to find a place, some airy digs, and moving thence,

Along a warm and sunny trace, whose Landlord’s built and kept the day,

To Live a life both “Further in” and “Farther up,” as Jack would say.

My guide I never met again. That night did never once he show,

Unless you count that looking through old pictures sent me from an aunt,

More aged than I when Death she met, I found an old and faded print.

With sea coat, watch cap, scruffy boots, from off the page the Youth gazed out.

On back of this discolored scrap was written in her scrawling script,

My name and year in distant past, and “Shiloh Station” was all there writ.