Welcome Home

I have returned to the lake to spend a few weeks.  It was overdue.  I’ve only made one trip since closing up before Labor Day last summer.  Sometimes it’s enough to just know it’s here.  Sometimes it isn’t and I have to come and breathe the air and put my feet in the water and feel the dampness of the woods. There are spectacularly sunny days, but it seems there’s always a chance of a downpour at any moment – it’s not like living in the dessert where you know what the weather will be like.   There’s something substantive about that; you have to be a little flexible and spontaneous to fully enjoy the lake...living here is a little wild. 

I’ve come to the lake every summer of my life.  It is home — more than any other place in the world.  My dad can make the same claim.  He’s 88 this summer.  When my parents moved to a senior community called Bellingham last December, it never occurred to any of us that this summer would be different.  Mom and Dad have spent the warm months of every year since their retirement at the lake.  Before that, family vacations meant cherished time at the lake every summer.  The past few years, my parents have needed some help to get here and I took over a lot of the cooking last summer, but there was never a question that they would come.  Then, Dad was hospitalized in March and he’s been in a steep decline physically and mentally since.  It is the Alzheimers taking its toll.  Dad’s doctor advised that he would be better off staying at Bellingham.  “Transitions are hard,” he said. 

 “Nonsense,” we thought.  The lake would be good for Dad.    

The doctor was right.  It’s been hard for Dad and hard for the rest of us too.  He’s unhappy and uncomfortable and he doesn’t want to be here. Flexibility and spontaneity are not hallmarks of his disease.  Until I saw for myself, I would have never believed it.  He tells us he wants to go home.  He wants to return to Bellingham — a place where he’s lived just six months.  That’s not his home.  The lake is his home. It’s my home.  It’s our family’s home. We thought it was part of our DNA and nothing could change it.  What has gone so horribly wrong that my dad doesn’t remember that? 

I went for my favorite short hike yesterday. It’s three-miles of winding through mature forest to a series of swamps.  Decades ago, an Eagle Scout built a boardwalk across one of the swamps, so it makes a nice loop back to the shoreline of the lake and eventually back to my cottage.  I was a little anxious about the hike; this was the first good test of my knee after arthroscopic surgery three weeks ago and I wasn’t sure how it would hold up.  When I got to the boardwalk, about half-way through the hike, I found that beavers had flooded the swamp and the boardwalk was underwater.  That added another mile as I had to skirt the entire edge of the swamp and beyond to get back to the spot on the other side. Though the hike started with sunny skies, at the furthest point away from home I was caught in a deluge.  Thankfully, I knew of a lean-to not far away and I waited out the rain there. 

Hiking is hiking.  It’s not birding.  I keep moving when I’m hiking.  I don’t even bring binoculars.  But I can’t turn off my ears, so all the while as I hiked I heard familiar songs of the usual suspects:  chipping sparrows and juncos, hermit thrushes and robins, black-throated blue and black-throated green warblers, jays and scarlet tanagers, the incessant song of the red-eyed vireo and the sweeter not-so-monotonous song of the solitary vireo.  Their songs were heartening; even consoling in a way. I don’t think I was consciously waiting for it, but when I finally heard that one particular song near the end of my hike, I stopped to take a look.  It was short 3 syllable song, not unlike the black and white warbler, only not as many syllables.  It was the song of the blackburnian warbler when he’s on his breeding grounds.  He sang again, and I determined the tree top he was singing from.  I pished and was immediately rewarded with some movement in my direction.  He flitted down a few branches, moved nearer into another tree, then closer still.  I pished again, and there he was in all his fire-throated glory.  Our exchange – just a brief acknowledgement of each other’s existence— lasted less than a second.  Then he was gone...back up to the top of his tree.  That brief encounter was enough.

“Welcome home,” he said.

The Peace of Wild Things

Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 "The Blue Boat" 1892, Winslow Homer

"The Blue Boat" 1892, Winslow Homer