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Time flies… again

Bill Meredith

"Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be." ~Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata."

(12/2016) It must have been early in the fall of 1995 when I met Bo Cadle. I had known his father since the late ’50s, and he often spoke of Bo, but I hadn’t actually seen him in the flesh until he walked into my office at Mount St. Mary’s and introduced himself. He folded himself up comfortably in a chair by my desk, and we chatted for a while until he got around to the purpose of his visit. He and his wife, Jean, had recently retired and moved to Emmitsburg, and were planning to start a monthly newspaper; and he was looking for writers. I told him, as politely as possible, that I had no free time, but if he could wait three years until I retired… well, you know. But a few weeks later I was driving to work one morning, and passed a field full of Spanish Needles. They are bothersome weeds, and not worth noticing most of the time; but they had just come into full bloom, and when the light from the rising sun hit them it turned the whole field into brilliant, fluorescent yellow. I stopped and stared at them for a while; but they began to fade just a bit as the sun rose higher, and there was work to be done, so I went on to the college. But that evening, when I turned on my computer to start preparing for the next day’s classes, I found myself writing a piece that I called "In Praise of Weeds," and it became the first piece that I sent to Bo for his new Emmitsburg Dispatch. A few other articles appeared occasionally until I retired, and then they became regular. What you are reading now is the 200th one of the series.

After retiring, writing became a scheduled task to be done in the third week of each month. I got into the habit of scrawling reminders in my pocket notebook whenever I saw something interesting; there was nothing systematic about it, but it felt as if they were lying there fermenting in a corner of my head. My wife and I used to make wine, so I knew fermentation is unpredictable; sometimes what comes out is better than you have any right to expect, and other times it is so bad you can’t pour it down the drain fast enough. Writing is like that. Sometimes when the deadline was approaching and the fermented idea had turned out bad, I could go to the garden and pull weeds, or get on my old Gravely tractor and cut the grass, or go for a walk to Toms Creek, and new ideas almost always would come. If that didn’t work, I could sit down at the kitchen table half asleep in the morning and stare at the bird feeder; something is always happening there.

That’s what happened early this month. The bird feeder is between the window and the point of sunrise, and the sun comes up later and at a lower angle in the sky each day, which makes colors look muted and indistinct. As usual, I was less than fully awake, and to make it worse, I had forgotten to put on my glasses. What I saw made me wake up. There was an eagle sitting on the bird feeder and eating sunflower seeds. The left side of my brain started shouting that eagles don’t eat seeds; the right side was arguing that it was a brown bird with a white head, so what else could it be? The left side countered that the bird was only six inches long, so after muttering to itself a bit, the right side had to concede. So if it wasn’t an eagle, what was it? I found my glasses, and with their help the left brain determined that the bird had no talons, and its beak was short and cone-shaped. Furthermore, the tail was squarish at the end, and it had stripes on its sides; quod erat demonstrandum, it must be a mutant house finch.

I really hate it when my brain does that. The left side in particular has a tendency to show off, which infuriates the right side; so another argument ensued. RS was screaming, "Wadda you mean, quod erat? Why can’t you just say ‘therefore’ or ‘thus?’ … or even ‘QED’ at the very least?" LS just grinned smugly, which made things worse. The rest of the argument would have been transcribed as "#!@%**#$!" back in the days when journalism followed the rules of civility, so I’ll not translate it. You will know the gist of it.

I’m not sure which side of the brain memories live in, but they came to the rescue. Animals that have white patches on their bodies occur fairly often in nature. If they have no pigment at all in the skin, hair or feathers, they are called albinos. Pure albinos… those with pink eyes… rarely survive to adulthood in nature, because their eyesight is weak, they may have metabolic disorders, and they are easily seen by predators. But it is not unusual to find individuals with oddly-colored areas on just part of their bodies. Two summers ago we had a male robin in our yard whose whole tail was white; his mate was normally colored, and they raised two broods of fledglings. I originally learned about such things when I took my first course in Genetics in college. In birds, there is a condition where the body can be male on one side and female on the other; they are called gynandromorphs, and there are cases known in cardinals where one side of the body was red like a normal male and the other side was gray like the female. Later I learned of a related condition called leucism; it is not always related to sex, and results in patches of the body that have no pigment, while the rest of the body is normally colored. My white-headed house finch was a case of leucism. (I can’t tell you how the left side of my brain rejoiced when I remembered those words.)

Time flies. Another holiday season is approaching; another year trudges wearily toward its end; and the world is another order of magnitude more complicated than it was twelve months ago. To me, as I approach the middle of my ninth decade I find some solace from Max Ehrmann, quoted above, and I can enjoy miniature eagles and white-tailed robins without feeling much guilt. But my children, now middle-aged, are beginning to feel the stress of living in such a rapidly changing world; and my grandchildren, now early in adulthood, face the uncertainties if a cyber-world that neither I nor their parents can imagine.

As 2016 fades away, my mind returns to Walt Kelly, as it always seems to do, and I end with these words to his comrades, Pogo and Porky Pine:

The gentle journey jars to stop,

The drifting dream is done;

And now we’ll walk, as men have walked,

Through years not yet begun.

For Christmas is a life-long hope,

And hope, the stuff of years.

The gentle journey wanders on,

Through laughter, love and tears.

May it be so.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith