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Spring: Old Memories, New Hopes, and the Search for Wisdom

Bill Meredith

The days of our years are three-score years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
So teach us to number our days,
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
      Psalm 90.

(May, 2011) In other parts of the world there are earthquakes, floods and revolutions, but in Emmitsburg spring has come gently, at least so far. It is my favorite season. As I write this, April is half gone and the trees in our front yard are at the peak of bloom. The most beautiful of them is the "Ickie Tree," the weeping cherry my aunt gave us 22 years ago when we built our house. It always blooms in the Easter season; it is pink instead of white, but otherwise it is the personification of the poem A. E. Houseman wrote in 1896:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

The 20-year-old in the poem is identified as "A Shropshire Lad," and he must have been wise beyond his years to recognize how fast the next 50 years of his life would pass. I am looking at cherry trees from the other end of life’s spectrum, closer to the fourscore mark, but wisdom still eludes me. The trouble is that wisdom is so hard to define that you never can be sure whether you have it or not.

Examples of what passes for wisdom are easy to find. Some are based on old adages; Cy the Cynic, who lives in Frank Stewart’s Bridge Column, once said, "Don’t put all your eggs in one basket; they’ll keep better in the refrigerator." Some verge on silliness; today’s crossword puzzle produced the statement that "Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad." I used to think wisdom involves making choices and decisions, but now as I proceed into old age I am not so sure. I have been told my choices of a wife and a career were wise, and indeed they did turn out well; but the former was done in a state of complete bewilderment and the latter was entirely the result of the chance of being in the right place when opportunities occurred. Rather than wisdom, my life may simply illustrate the old adage that even a blind pig sometimes finds an acorn.

Wisdom is a paradox. Mourning doves are among the stupidest of birds, and this morning I watched three males flying into each other and bouncing off tree branches as they pursued a female who wanted nothing to do with them. Eventually one of them will overcome her indifference, and they will build a rickety nest and raise their young; thus, without conscious planning or even awareness, their species will continue. In an even more improbable example, a week or so ago the white-throated sparrows that have entertained me all winter responded to the lengthening of spring days by molting into their breeding colors, and soon they will fly away, migrating several hundred miles north to raise their families.

Some of them have made the trip before and will remember landmarks along the way, but they have neither choice nor awareness of when or whether they will leave; nor is there knowledge that if they survive they will come back next fall. All of these things happen because of hormone secretions and genetic patterns pre-wired in their brains, and yet it works. It’s enough to make a person wonder if wisdom is really necessary… or, perhaps, did we miss something in our effort to define it?

Earlier this week I received a packet of old family photographs from my cousin, now 89, who still lives in West Virginia. One of them, in the sepia tones that pre-dated true black and white film, shows her at age two with our grandfather, about to go for a ride in a horse-drawn buggy. She values the old photos, but does not dwell in the past; we communicate regularly by e-mail. Perhaps some wisdom is there.

While cleaning up the yard last fall I noticed that our grapevine appeared to have succumbed to the summer’s heat and drought. I felt a sentimental attachment to it; it had belonged to my wife’s parents, and was already old when she was born. They transplanted it twice when moving from place to place in the 1960s, and we brought it to Emmitsburg when her mother died in 1984. All that remained was a single leafless branch, a quarter of an inch thick and four feet long.

My wife, less governed by sentiment, told me to throw it away and forget about it; but when I pulled it up one root seemed alive. I remembered a movie in which a California vineyard burned up and the owner, an old Italian immigrant, recreated the family’s fortune from the remains of one surviving sprout, so I transplanted it to a more favorable spot and forgot about it until yesterday, when I came upon it while raking up the winter’s debris. Most of the four-foot vine was dry and brittle, but just at ground level was a bud, green and starting to swell. On one level, it symbolized determination; on another, hope; and on a third, perhaps the two combine into a form of wisdom.

This May I will watch the blooming of cherry trees and the passage of spring for the 78th time. The psalmist offers another two years, but in fact I know no more than the sparrows about when I will fly away. Wisdom, even for those who have it, doesn’t go that far. But I heard that the oldest man in the world just died at the age of 114, so determination and hope may allow me to see the cherry tree bloom a few more times. However many more springs there may be, I will look forward to them; I will even look forward to fall, when there may be grapes to enjoy. And the greatest hope will be that, if wisdom comes along, I will recognize it when I see it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith