An Essay

by Alan Catlin

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Loon Cries and Explosions

Artwork by Gene McCormickRecently, I was reading my friend Walt McLaughlin’s book of thematically related nature essays, “Loon Wisdom.”  It is a highly companionable book, suggestive of, even including, specific places I have hiked, or been to, over the years.  While I am nowhere near as adventurous as Walt is: I never spent any time in backwoods, totally isolated, Alaskan Wilderness to find myself the way he did. We have, though, spent a good deal of time in Adirondack Park as our children attended, and later spent, many a summer working at a camp there.  

Walt recalled a favorite time hiking, listening to loons cry and I thought of a specific trip to the camp, offseason. Every day we awoke to loons as they landed on nearby Beaver Lake.  Each morning the pines shed dew, sounding like a light, soothing rain and the loons were singing and I felt as if they were singing, not only for themselves, but for us as well.  It was a good place to relax, roughly thirty miles from nowhere, that is Lowville, the seat of Lewis County (the lawn ornament capital of the world. If viewing lawn dwarfs and the like is your thing, this is the place to be), which for many people is one and the same with Nowhere.  Not us mind you, we like places where there is nothing to distract us and nothing to do.   I’m not saying Lowville is one of those places, they have (had? been a while since I’ve been to Lowville. And since the Walmart came in, well, local businesses with a quirky style have a habit of going the way of all retail once Walmart arrives) Lloyd’s of Lowville, a real country diner that has to be seen and experienced to be fully appreciated, where there once was a small shrine to much loved, local hero, Oliver North. By any standard Lowville is not a happening place, but that is incidental to the country that surrounds it.

Many campers go to the camp, Unirondack, and experience a form of preteen, or early teen, equivalent of cardiac arrest/culture shock, when they found out there was no cell phone reception, no cable television, and something like static on the radio with occasional music.  They were warned of this in advance but did not fully comprehend what it meant.  Not until it was too late.

It would be a rare summer when a child did not request rescue from this media wasteland.  But for the ones who stayed, who loved the outdoors, and the disconnection, the camp is a paradise.  A very special place indeed, as one of our sons, a former camp director, was married there. While on a poetic retreat at another isolated place, The Omega Institute, now a seat of New Age Learning, I wrote the poem I would later read at the celebrating of their union.


An Epithalamion for Karen and Marcus                                             

At dawn on Beaver
Lake the mist
is a cover lifting
off still waters
the loons
will dance on

calling each to each
as they rise,

into clouds leaving
only their
laughter behind.

Morning scents are
of trees,
the tall thin pines

that come together
with the wind
knocking wood for

good luck, futures
foretold in
peace, pacific calm,

not so much
unsettled here
as remote,

where the light
makes shadows
into perfect shapes,

splendor a poet
cannot describe.
This is the way

of true love, the way of
the marked
path the anointed

follow and will
cherish all
of their lives together,

be it the shore
of the lake
or where the forest

ends the laughter
of loons is
the joy of love

the sanctity of love
they will share
as their hands and

hearts are joined in
marriage. May
they always go in beauty.

I admire many of the essayists that Walt does, in particular, Thoreau and Emerson, who I studied in some depth when I took a graduate course in Transcendentalism.  It was the last year at Albany teaching for Miriam Hopkins, a recognized expert in the field, who referred to those writers as Waldo and David, as if she were intimate terms with them both. And, who would argue with her?  She made them feel as alive to us as they were for her.   Indeed their writing, the philosophy they espoused, is just as valid today as it was then. Maybe more so, as much of what was once wild, what they cherished, has disappeared, or is about to be destroyed. 

A Thoreau reference in Walt’s book brought to mind a lone traveler we Artwork by Gene McCormickglimpsed last Summer, walking in the woods at the reclaimed edge of Albany’s Pine Bush, where Vladimir Nabokov once strode with his nets tracking the New Karner butterfly. This traveler was oblivious to where he was, trekking onward, Yankees cap pulled close over his eyes, walking blindly as he read his phone text messages and typed replies.  He might just as well have been walking on the edge of a public dump, as that was what the city of Albany wanted this environmentally sensitive area to be.  Seeing that oblivious wanderer in the woods also brought to mind a  proposal for condos for the immediate Walden Pond area stopped from happening only by a timely intervention by a rich celebrity. Scary how many places named  Walden Pond Condos/Apartments, a Google search will yield……  Alas poor Henry David or, David Henry, as Miriam liked to say, I knew him well…..

That loon blessed weekend, we hiked down the dirt, riddled with ruts, camp road, up the graded,  unpaved road, toward another small lake nearby, where the loons also liked to sing.  It was a peaceful walk, a lovely Fall day, no one else around but the camp steward, who was readying the place for Winter, when a screaming came across the sky.  Not a V2 rocket as in Pynchon’s massive novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” but a fighter jet, low flying above the treeline, heading due North toward Watertown where Fort Drum is.  And then the shelling began.

It was the year of Bush the First’s Excellent Middle Eastern Adventure.  Odds were the shelling we were hearing was either,  a massive surprise attack by the Canadians crossing the St. Lawrence to invade Watertown, or else the troops stationed at Drum were practicing for their tour of duty.  It was fairly obvious which one it had to be.  I would later learn, from a young man who worked in the Tavern I did, that it was tanks practicing on the range for deployment overseas that wasn’t needed.  In his other life, not a student, he was a tank commander in the Reserves.

It was a mercifully short war, as wars go, we thought at the time, including disturbing visions of college students cheering as the smart bombs blasted buildings and everything and everyone inside, like the video game they were being led to believe modern warfare would be. Years later, following George the Second’s, Not So Excellent Middle Eastern Adventure, soldiers like the young man I worked with, were behaving as if what they saw in movies and on TV, what they saw in video games, was what war was really like. They were being disillusioned the hard way by way too much reality: PTS so severe suicide rates  among active and returning soldiers were/are, reaching tragically startling, unprecedented numbers. Perhaps, what they needed was more wilderness, less TV, and no more Excellent Adventures.  

As we listened to the shelling, the jets racing overhead all day, shattering the calm, Thoreau’s “Walden”  came to mind.  Not the natural parts, but the black smoke belching, golem locomotive bearing goods and passengers through the woods as an emblem of Progress; Progress not as a forward march into the future, but as soul annihilating, malevolent, man-made creature, destroying God’s natural order.  J.M.W. Turner saw the same creature in the English landscape, a world out of balance that could never be reclaimed once the viral machines had been introduced.  Small wonder his canvasses became more turbulent, his landscapes embroiled, the dark closing the world in.  Even at Walden, on his walks along the Concord and Merrimack, Thoreau would hear the engines. All we could  hear were the jets and the bombs.

And the loons. What of the loons? Where are they? What do they hear?