Friday, July 10, 2009


My mother Rhea, her older sister Leora, and their father Edward Johnson harvesting the family potatoes, possibly around 1923.

Just think of the trees: They let the birds perch and fly, with no intention to call them when they come and no longing for their return when they fly away. If people's hearts can be like the trees, they will not be off the Way.


Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

---Leonardo Da Vinci

When you've got it, there's no place for it but a poem.

---Wu Pen

Mom used to say just, "Go wander." It was advice to me on fine, long July days, sunny, not too hot. It didn't push up into the 90s often in the 1940s. It wasn't dangerous for a boy to hike somewhere alone in those days. That's what she meant: to take a long walk or bike ride, past the city limits and out into the country. To find a field or patch of woodlands, and just explore around, see what I could see.

It wasn't there was nothing for a boy to do around town during summer vacation. There were supervised activities at every school playground, sponsored by the city Recreation Department. My elementary school was just down the block, and usually I was there every day. There was Little League baseball, although I wasn't very good---and at first had a glove so cheap my coach called it "that damn mitt." Pretty shocking language for a kid to hear back my fundamentalist mother couldn't help reminding me a lot. There was the YMCA and its swimming pool, where we paddled around until we were old enough for Brownie to lead us down to the deep end---to, though scared witless, jump in. The Boy Scouts had a summer camp at Lake Chautauqua, with Bugs Sundell up there, one of the finest naturalists anywhere, from my hometown that gave the world Roger Tory Peterson. There were neighborhood kids to play softball, kick-the-can in the street, or just hide 'n seek---with some limits about how many people's yards away you could hide in.

But some days a kid didn't feel like doing anything. There I'd be, up in my room or in the glider out on the front porch, looking glum. And that's when Mom might give me that idea. To just get out in Nature and wander. Was it peculiar eccentric advice, I'm wondering today? I've never asked friends if their mothers encouraged them to enrich their lives that way. Enrichment it turned out to be, although I didn't realize it then. I knew she wasn't just trying to get rid of me, because I wasn't bothering her---although I did sometimes, teasing for an activity. It would come out of the blue. "Why don't you get on your bike and just go wander?"

My mother was a country girl, growing up on a family farm halfway up Oak Hill Road, just outside Frewsburg, a small village 5 miles south of Jamestown, New York. Dairy country. Edward and Dora had 3 girls, the eldest named Lucille who probably took that photograph out in the big garden behind the barn. The family was United Brethren, and they held to the old ways...but with all girls, at least one of them had to help Dad. Mom, the youngest, got the job. Outdoors a lot, there was time for her to discover wandering. She learned some birds and wildflowers...and to fear snakes, even more than most girls. She named all the cows and kittens...but not the chickens I guess, one of which might be Sunday dinner. They were Rhode Island Reds and the cows she always called "Jersey Guernseys," which maybe was a mixed breed, I don't know. Even in the city many springtimes later, she could look at a quart of milk in the fridge and know if the cows had been turned out to pasture from winter in the barn.

She knew the plowhorses intimately, the names of which I've forgotten, but I'll bet my sister remembers because Mom talked about them often. Those horses would be hitched up to a buckboard sometimes, at harvest or when they needed supplies. Her dad would be gone to the "Burg" all day when there were crops left over he could sell. Rhea would wait for him in the late afternoon, standing in the meadow looking down the road, down the hill...until she'd see the horses and her dad coming home. You have no idea how long it takes for a horsedrawn vehicle to get from there to where you are, unless you've waited yourself and sensed the passing minutes.

There's a whole different dimension to time when you've done that, a dimension we moderns don't discover unless we meditate or sit in a hospital waiting room. Mom learned it and probably inadvertently passed it on to me. Space is different too, when you just wander. For one thing, you do it alone. For another, there's no destination...except to find your way back. Mom didn't "take" me wandering, she sent me. But I got to see her wandering one time.

We used to take Sunday drives in the family car, after church and chicken dinner at Anderson's Restaurant in Falconer. My father was from town, a city Swede compared to the Johnson Swedes. He danced, loved popular songs, played card games, was on the radio and appeared in plays with community theater. All that was forbidden in United Brethren families, so obviously this was a radical marriage. Dad honored my mother's history though, getting her out into the country at least once a week if he could. Ann and I didn't like these rides particularly, sitting in the back seat---no seatbelts then---fighting over how far half of the seat was. In my teen years I thought the rides would drive me crazy.

But once, Dad stopped the car on Oak Hill Road near the old farm. Mom's dad had died when she still was a girl, and the family had to sell the farm and move into the village. She never got over it really, and sometimes craved to see a bluebird in the apple orchard. Maybe she thought she saw one that afternoon, and so Dad pulled over. Bluebirds had all but disappeared from Western New York in the 1950s. DDT on those apples. She got out of the car by herself, crossed the road, and walked up the rise into the meadow toward the orchard. She stood a moment looking toward the trees...and for that moment, to me, she was 13 again. A breeze blew her dress and hair, and she leaned into it slightly, smiling, faced raised, breathing deep. She was home in that meadow, the same meadow where she'd waited for her father years before.

She didn't see a bluebird that day, but she gave me a memory of her I treasure forever. I'm more thankful for that picture in my mind than ever I could write here. She was wandering for a few moments to find a bluebird. She passed on to me a love of Nature that it may be impossible to get any other way. With it came a quality of observation so keen that my grade school teachers commented on it. Not to leave Dad out, those long Sunday drives probably had something to do with that skill too. Together this unlikely couple taught my sister and me to appreciate things in life that may be a rarity these days. I don't know, maybe it's not so rare. I think we all must have memories of childhood like that, when we learned to see things, to see them in a distinctly family way. It's a way you don't teach exactly. It's the Way you show.


mowrey said...

Another, better world. Great writing as usual. & wonderful pic. Thanks. Your old jazz disciple's getting married, in Rochester, NY 8/22. The beautiful, bride-to-be's a Quaker so we're getting married in the Meeting House downtown. Take care, Mow

Quinty said...

Very nice, Jazzo, and it made me want to go out into the country. To "wander" a little bit.

A city kid, I wandered New York quite a bit. But that experience is quite different from being out in the woods, wandering, which I did too whenever I could get away.

But New York! Manhattan! I could tell many stories about those youthful adventures. And what I discovered. Perhaps because Ellen just recently bought a new translation of Crime and Punishment I'm reminded of reading the first 70 pages one day and then taking a Broadway bus downtown. And looking out the window there it was, the world Dostoevsky had described. He had opened my eyes to it and I’ve never been the same since.

The exact opposite of the tranquil loneliness you describe in the woods. New York was a place everyone sooner or later had to get away from, and the rich were lucky. They had country houses in Maine or out in Bucks County or on Fire Island, places like that. The poor were not so lucky, and were stuck in the swelter of the city during summer. Parks are the lungs of the city, so they say. But New York parks were also somehow dominated by the city. Yes, it's good to have the woods nearby, woods without any human litter or trash. A bit of cellophane paper in the matted leaves can be depressing. A sense of what it was like before man came along may be what a “wanderer” needs. To fully sense those quiet moments.