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November 17, 2011

Up on Hawthorn Hill: Of kinglets and mortality

This is that transitional time of year when fall begins to take its final bow and winter starts to seep into our lives not always with a great deal of subtlety. It is also a time when body seems quite willing to step aside and let mind have dominant sway for a while.

That is, as long as all the pre-winter chores are done. I still have a fairly long list of tasks to tackle, but the only real demand on my time in the near future with respect to what Robert Frost characterizes as “honest labor,” is finishing up next year’s firewood. Most is ready to  split and stack; a few logsremain to be cut up and added to the pile. I am particularly eager to get in next year’s firewood because I am not too sure about how much longer this aging but relatively sound body will find the task as palatable has it has been for so many years.

As I drive here and there and see piles of already split wood ready for sale I get to thinking that perhaps the time as come to value another’s equally honest labors. Trouble is I have an aversion to paying another for what I feel capableof doing for myself. There is plenty that I need to rely on others for, so it seems existentially appealing to me to keep at those things that I can do solo.

As I was taking a break from splitting maple drums up on the back hill last week, I started thinking about a late-summer Adirondack hike that I had taken in the vicinity of Elk Lake Lodge. Perhaps I heard few sibilant peeps similar to those of the golden-crowned kinglets that followed me for a quarter or a mile or so. I do not know. But for several moments I relived that experience for several reasons. I love kinglets, so their deigning to join me on my walk gave me a great deal of pleasure.

They inhabit the higher coniferous regions, so we get to see them in our neck of the woods only during the migration. I will not go so far as to suggest that we carried on any sort of intelligible conversation, but we did manage to enjoy one another’s company despite the language barrier. Perhaps the barrier would have been having a common language. Ineffability has its allures.

On that day I was particularly grateful for their company. I had stopped for a drink of water when I was suddenly overcome with a weighty, palpable sense of fear. What if something happened to me, I thought — debilitating injury due to a fall, a heart attack! Who knows where such thoughts come from. In retrospect I would like to think it had something to do with age and wisdom. Another way of looking at is to ask this question: What the hell were you doing out there all by yourself miles from help without any means of communication? Good question.

After a few minutes picturing any number of awful scenarios I got my wits about me, thanked my kinglet friends for being there, and headed toward the lodge, fueled by the conviction that I would make it out safely — and that from here on in I would not hike alone. Of course, that has always been the conventional wisdom.

It was a transitional moment for me. There have been several over the past few years. I have hiked some beautiful mountains since then, but always with one other person, at the very least. And I pack the survival gear I had always known about but downplayed for all the wrong reasons. Having been guilty of wrong-headed behaviors more often than I would like to admit to, one of the virtues of the aging process is discovering the acts of imprudence are not all they are cracked up to be.

I believe that my kinglet friends sensed my predicament. They too deal with the prospect of their own mortality every moment of their diminutive lives. And they travel, most of the time, in flocks. I am not particularly interested in joining a hiking flock. But never again will I venture out into the wilderness without a friend or two.

Call it the kinglet imperative. Or, just plain good sense.

LOCAL RESIDENT Richard DeRosa writes periodically for The Cooperstown Crier.

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