A loose and floating day, the end of summer-green. Breeze all afternoon, white cumulus on the move. They remind me of the geese I heard this morning, stroking purposefully into the sunrise. The air moves like water in a summer stream: cool fingers ceaselessly caressing, only the half-playful hint of chill.
Where I live, intrusive sound is epidemic. 30 feet from the main road, I take a long breath when chance and city planning contrive a break in the growl and shout of friction and the commerce of convenience. For five delicious seconds, the rattle and hiss of Douglas maple leaves rises like a prayer.
Which is exactly its nature. More than any of my daydreams – and I have many – quiet is the desire that resurfaces daily. Quiet, so that I can hear. The wind in Ponderosa pines sings a different song than in Douglas firs, distinctive in redwoods or in maples of varying leaves. Where I lived so long in Southern California, it clatters in the great Fan palms, and rustles the skirts of the silver-glinting Queens. I pray to hear the wind.
The image that comes, sometimes when I ask this, is a blasted land, humanity fled and trees dying of thirst. We live in a time of increasing information, accelerating change, and desperate refusal to see. We know that our planet’s climate is destabilizing, our seas rising faster than we can compass, our technology unharnessed to save lives and hope, caught instead between politics and fear. As long as others count the immediate costs, we can shrug off a few more wildfires each year in the mountains, a bit less rain in a gathering drought or a great deal more at once than the land can channel. We can ignore a widening swath of pines in far-distant mountains, dead by the gnawing mouths of beetles who will not die themselves without a cold enough winter.
As the vision rises, I chase it back. I have hope, and stronger than that I have inertia on my side. False comfort, in the long run, but is any felt comfort – however brief – ever untrue to the one it holds? Change is inevitable, and we have survived it before. Does the magnitude of this one, and the fact that we ourselves have caused it, suddenly, negate that? No one knows the answer, but sooner or later, all of us will. I find myself recalling Pascal’s wager.
This year (this decade, this century), the wind still greets me in a green and pleasant land. By the river in my town, one of many small monuments to our native poet stands in scattered columns with bits of verse engraved. My favorite: “Oregon is insanely green. It is the thin light left over from Eden.” I love this land, as William Stafford did, and I do not want to watch it shrivel and ungreen. On the one hand, I try to speak rationally of my fears. I give, I read, I vote. On the other, I push the images away.
I imagine, instead, quiet of a less drastic sort. Broken, I’m sure, by the whir of bicycles passing and cars coming home, by children’s playing and families’ backyard barbeques. Around all that, I’ll hear the squirrels’ and the raccoons’ conversations, the intrigues of the hundreds of birds who visit my small yard, locals and transients equally welcome. I’ll notice the rain tapping leaves one by one as it begins. And the wind – always, I will listen to the wind.
I don’t know if this is pipe dream. By the bonds of economy, both imposed and freely woven, I am unlikely soon to leave this home of mine, this small and noisy patio in the beating heart of my town. If I did, I would miss it: my arched and spreading maple tree, heavy with seed in this season, my sheltering Douglas firs, the local ospreys claiming my patch of sunset sky. And by the bonds of the heart, stronger each year that I stay in this land that has adopted me, it is less and less possible to imagine striking out again for a valley or a state or a country yet unknown, however much its prevailing winds may call me.
Home is the process of loving a package deal, including the fiddly bits and the awkward corners, the traffic roar I pretend without success is a waterfall, the maddening difficulty of concerted action in a world of stubbornly individual paths. There’s comfort in this, of a sort you cannot expect until it grows from familiarity. You could also call it the human tendency to adjust to that for which we have no easy alternative, and to tell ourselves the necessity is the virtue. False comfort? In this case, I’ll name it love. I’ll stay here on my patio, listening for the wind. I’ll write, and speak, and give and read and vote, and hope the river never rises more than we can bear.