Between Despair and Pride


I am reading some essays by Wendell Berry in which he captures–with great simplicity and concision–the necessity of loneliness. I think that is one of the reasons I love Washington Island so much: when I say that I feel more myself there than anywhere else, I think it is because I am alone there, and lonely there.

Loneliness is frightening. And that is part of what is necessary. I mitigate my loneliness with my dogs. They are soulful and joyous companions, and I need them, because the intensity of emotion is sometimes threatening.

And I would never walk in the woods in the dark without them, even though Moses likes to pretend he is a wolf: running off to return and stalk me silently along the far edges of the path. This is his great game, and he makes me feel that I am in a Russian fairy tale.

But in this loneliness there is also a settling in to the essence of self. It’s not an exercise in ego, but an escape from it. It feels, as the non-essential is pulled away, that the course of life is running along its proper path. I am simply myself. Again and for the first time. Theodore Roethke wrote “What falls away is always, and is near.” I think this experience is what he was referring to.

All this is to say that it has been a long time since I have been to the Island for any length of time, and I need to go there. My trip was almost cancelled this week by other kinds of necessity, and the thought of not being able to go created a rising panic that started deep. I need to go there to let the world fall away. I need myself back.

Berry talks of the right place in life as being between despair and pride. They are his opposites. I am ready to know whether they are mine.

The Nostalgia of Crows

I am a crow lover.

I had never seen a crow until I moved to Wisconsin in my childhood, and I remember being astonished at how big they were. I first noticed them in the spring when their big, clumsy fledglings would fall off their perches onto their beaks, and would make odd, baby caws that were laughably unbeautiful. But their parents were sleek and affectionate, and they seemed to be large families of mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles.

We fed them. My mother would leave them meat scraps and suet. They would gather in the early mornings and winter evenings, circling overhead and calling. It was rare to see one alone. Most often, though, they would travel in pairs. Nordic myth says that they were the messengers of the god, Odin, and they always seem to carry both mystery and omen.

When I grew older my brother gave me a crow call, and I would use it to summon them. They almost always responded, and we would carry on conversations in a language that consisted on my side merely of imitation. I can’t say what was intended on their side.

Crows are very intelligent. I remember reading somewhere that there was a man who somehow rescued a baby crow, and from that day on, the entire flock (technically, I believe, a murder of crows) would greet him in his car every day as he entered his subdivision, and escort him to the main road when he left. They always remembered his heroism, although, perhaps, it was a tribute that not everyone would appreciate.

Somehow, bleak winter days–the days with neither sun nor snow–seem like crow days, and today was one of those days. As I was hurrying in from my car to a meeting, I heard in the distance the rough song of crows, and it flashed me back to my childhood, ambling home from school through the snow, cawing and calling to the birds who seemed to know me.

I realized at once how much I have missed them, and I have resolved to go back to carrying my crow call in my pocket.

Night Crow
When I saw that clumsy crow
Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:
Over the gulfs of dream
Flew a tremendous bird
further and further away,
Into a moonless black,
Deep in the brain, far back.

(That great man) Theodore Roethke