…All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere;
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near…
At the start of the Republican National Convention, Jeanne and I ducked out for 12 days, calming our souls on the shore of Lake George, nestled majestically in upstate New York, surrounded by the soothing contours of the Adirondack Mountains.
Our son and his family rented a cottage on Silver Bay Road, about 50 steep steps above the lake, surrounded by stone walls, slender birch trees and enormous ancient white pines. Our TV blessedly didn’t work, and we’d sit on the slate patio breathing the cool air and listening to the wind. (Of course, because we’re political junkies, our coffee cups shook a little while missing our favorite weekend-morning talk show, UP with Chris Hayes.)
But today, back home, watching a video of Clint Eastwood’s spooky performance in Tampa, we realized how lucky we were. I thought, “What a looney-tune” — which turned my mind back to Lake George.
One evening, while there, we saw a loon — despite its name, much more dignified than Eastwood — its dark plump body and erect head drifting serenely on the lake, which is clean enough to drink. We learned recently on NPR that loons have a toxic barometer, and don’t frequent polluted waters — you won’t find one at Lake Okeechobee.
I became interested in the loon as a teenager, as soon as I read about it, because it is solitary and attractive in a weird way (for a bird, it looks furry rather than feathery), and known for its wild laughter (“crazy as a loon”). It sounded familiar. The first poem that I ever had to recite was William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl,” which our high school English teacher told us was about a loon, among other things. I don’t think I appreciated the “other things,” but I admired the loon, sailing bravely past the hunters’ guns into “the abyss of heaven.” Richard Wilbur, our most distinguished living poet, called “To A Waterfowl” “America’s first flawless poem,” so it was a good one for me to begin with.
There’s something literary about the whole Lake George area. One of my early heroes was Uncas, the “last of the Mohicans,” who was killed trying to save Cora from the evil Huron, Magua, in James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel. Those bloody battles were fought near our cottage (a local path is called “Uncas Trail”). Back then, I identified with Uncas instead of Deerslayer, preferring heroes who died young, like Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities and Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. At my age now, I lean toward those who survive considerably longer, like The Old Man and the Sea, or Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.
It turns out that Cooper was wrong, and Uncas wasn’t really “the last of the Mohicans.” They survive as part of the Algonquin clan, whose name rings a different sort of literary bell when we stop for a drink in NYC. And, thinking of names, it’s pleasing to learn that “Adirondack” comes from the derogatory rat-i-ron-tacks — meaning “bark-eaters” — that the Huron Indians gave to their enemies, the Algonquins. I enjoyed murmuring “rat-i-ron-tacks” while lazily gazing across the lake at the mountains.
We love Florida, and don’t enjoy extended cold-weather stays anymore. We love our own live oak trees, and the Royal palm growing dangerously close to our house, probably planted by a passing mockingbird. But Florida is flat, and we do need a mountain fix now and then. And at least a glimpse of that lonely loon.
…He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
—Both quotes from “To A Waterfowl,” by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
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