Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Hawk

By Patrick J. Walsh

There is a short bridge along the path of my daily walk; it parts the lake in the park at a point where the water is at is narrowest, dividing the upper and lower portions of the pond with a picturesque waterfall.

On a typical day, as I start across the bridge, I place my foot carefully on the first wood plank. I begin as close to the near side as possible, so I can measure out the distance each day from one end of the bridge to the other. It is normally nine long strides the first time across, unless there is ice or snow or slippery rain.

On subsequent crossings, it is often a step or two more, as my stride shortens and my breath quickens with the exertion of my exercise.

On one recent day, as I approached the bridge, a sudden commotion in the brush on the near lower bank startled me out of my normal routine. I turned slightly, trying to locate the source of the disturbance; I had a vague intimation of upward motion.

Then, as though risen out of some ancient lyric once warbled around a primitive campfire in the halcyon days of a younger time, there appeared a bird — a large bird, proud and solemn in its shift from the moist bank to the thin limb of a tree, some ten or twelve yards from where I stood.

Although my inner balance was momentarily set askew by the sudden manifestation of feathers and flight, my presence within the sweep of his vision seemed not to matter in the least to him.

...there appeared a bird, proud and solemn...

His indifference briefly brought to mind the spectral namesake of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven:

“Not the least obeisance made he; 
not an instant stopped or stayed he;
but with mien of lord or lady, 
perched above my chamber door, —”

— but this was no mere specter, nor gothic emblem of despair; and perched not in the sad den of mourning, but instead resplendent against the blue sky and the high clouds on the bright sunny day in early Spring, this bird in the park was the majestic icon of ideas too big to grasp without a great deal of thought.

Among my initial reactions, there was the assumption, for whatever reason, of his being male; and I also assumed, despite the paucity of my knowledge of the subject, that he was most probably a hawk. To me he simply looked like a hawk, as a hawk would appear in my imagination if I were to conjure an image based on memories of having seen such a bird in the past, in a book perhaps, or maybe on television.

Not that any of my assumptions or curiosities — what sort of creature he was, or why his sudden appearance immediately aroused in me the aura of poetry and the aromas of summer days in childhood — were of any concern to him, of course. He was simply living proof of the wisdom of Providence in the establishment of a bulkhead of contrasting experience and abilities between human beings and the creatures of the air and water and woods.

Even now — as I recall the wonder I felt as I looked up at him, he perched high above me in the tree, me imagining the sensation of his gliding effortlessly along the edge of the air on the trailing path of a warm wind — even now, I am aware of a certain sense of divine humor at the thought of my being the superior being in the system whose circumstances gave rise to our unexpected encounter.

And still I ponder, while he has no need of thought, as he makes his way effortlessly forward...

© 2012 Patrick J. Walsh

Other Essays in this Series:

Friday, May 4, 2012

Revisiting John Steinbeck

By Patrick J. Walsh
Those who know my love for the classics that I first encountered in my youth know that I am a pretty voracious re-reader. I tend to return to old favorites again and again, as though I were visiting old friends.

Lately I’ve been in a Steinbeck mood, so I’ve begun re-reading The Short Novels: Tortilla Flat / The Moon is Down / The Red Pony / Of Mice and Men / Cannery Row / The Pearl.

Accounts of my affection for these particular stories could fill several small volumes on their own. Suffice it to say that I heartily recommend John Steinbeck's work to anyone interested in understanding 20th century American literature and culture.

My favorite here is Of Mice and Men; I have read it more frequently than any of Steinbeck's books, and I was fortunate to see an excellent stage production in summer stock many years ago — a formative experience for me as a writer. The characters are brilliantly drawn, and the economy with which the author tells the story is truly breathtaking. If you've not read it before, the ending will leave you stunned, pondering the enormous power of the demands of love and brotherhood.

Steinbeck's characters are brilliantly drawn, and the
economy with which he tells the story is truly breathtaking...

Abandoned farm in the dust bowl, 1936.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein, from the Library of Congress
Prints & Photographs online catalog,
U.S. Farm Security Administration collection
The Moon is Down is also very serious business, and particularly of interest to anyone studying the dynamics of occupation and the subjugation of one people by another. My interest in virtually all things related to the World War II era fed my original fascination with this work, but on finishing it the first time, I came to see its story in the larger context of the relationships that occur between people who find themselves in untenable circumstances.

Although I probably do the author some disservice by doing so, I admit that I tend to think of Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row as being somehow related, when in fact they are quite distinct. There was a time when I particularly enjoyed studying Tortilla Flat for its parallels to the legend of King Arthur — a structure that Steinbeck consciously pursued and rightfully celebrated. Both of these feature strong characters and lovingly crafted narratives; even without any academic pretense involved, you will probably just love reading them.

The Red Pony always seems to me to be a work set apart from the others in this collection, which is not to say that it is any less emblematic of its author or divorced in any way from the overall progression of his work; it just seems like such a very different sort of story, told in a different manner from the others.

Maybe it seems so different because of the manner in which it came to be — it was first written and published in parts and then collected into the manuscript that we now know as the finished book. On the other hand, it may also be viewed as an example of Steinbeck's wonderful penchant for experimentation, and the confidence he had in his own ability to convey great stories on a wide variety of subjects, and likely, to a widely varied audience.

Finally there is The Pearl — a brilliantly evocative tale that conveys an enormous amount of wisdom in a disarmingly simple story. It is another of my favorite Steinbeck stories, and the kind of book whose characters and scene and setting will likely drift in and out of your field of vision for a long time after you've reached the final word and returned to the shelf.

And if you are like me, it will be a nearby shelf, and easy to reach, for the next time...

© Patrick J. Walsh

Other heroes well worth knowing:
• The Spirit of Baseball Past (Roberto Clemente)

For more literary adventuring:
• Encounter in Autumn (Beowulf)
• A Walk in the Park (John Donne)

A version of this post first appeared on my author page at Goodreads.