Monday, May 7, 2007

last, best day

Oct. 12, 2006
Every season has a last, best day. Summer’s comes in an annual collision with autumn.
Saturday – it’s warm and nearly balmy, with just a hint of north wind. The prairie wears an autumn coat; dull gray at first glance, remarkably alive and beautiful on closer inspection. The sky is blue and cloudless and towers incredibly high, the way only autumn skies can. The air is filled with the fragrance of fall, sumac and stink grass and sage. Slowly warmed by the sun, their odors waft gently and tug at visceral memory strings. Here and there soar birds of prey, Swainson’s hawks mostly, cruising majestically above the Earth, tracing broad oval paths through rising air.
The peaceful beauty of a warm October day steals gently into my heart. The frown of too much consideration of mankind’s troubles quickly erodes, replaced by a giddy, happy grin. An intense joy bubbles up from deep inside. I am indescribably blessed to be here, to be part of this wonder.
Is it indeed the last best day of the season? Who knows? I chuckle at my folly. It either is or it isn’t. I’m not here to tell the future, I’m here to mark the day, to sop up the wonder of it all. Being part of the here and now is far more significant, far more fulfilling than fruitless speculation. Being in the moment, unbound by yesterday or tomorrow, is potent medicine.
And it’s a medicine I crave. I once lived with the calm certainty that I’d never see 30. I suppose many of us do. I simply never imagined I’d walk an uneven prairie at 45, gimpy with a painful injury but alive and kicking nonetheless. The pain is okay, just a component of experience. If I’m willing, it can be a tool, reminding me that I’m mortal and limited. But without question my mortality and limitation exist in the context of a real and vibrant life. I breathe easily, my heart sends blood coursing through my veins, I bear the pain. I am far, far from my mortal limits. The pain is very small compared to that endured by others.
A melody echoes unbidden in my mind, “September When it Comes.” Written by Rosanne Cash and performed with he father before his death, Johnny’s lines go:
I plan to crawl outside these walls,
Close my eyes and see.
And fall into the heart and arms,
Of those who wait for me.
I cannot move a mountain now;
I can no longer run.
I cannot be who I was then:
In a way, I never was.
I watch the clouds go sailing;
I watch the clock and sun.
Oh, I watch myself, depending on,
September when it comes.
I understand those lines. As I slowly turn, looking at a complete prairie horizon and soaking in the soft autumn light, I am gently washed with peace. It may be October, with the Yanks out and the Mets in, but it’s not yet September. Re-centered, I go again in beauty, as the Dine’tah say. It is enough. Perhaps it is everything.
I climb to the top of the tallest hill in the area. The summit is not far short of Nebraska’s highest point, just visible to the southwest. Far to the north I can make out the tips of wind turbine blades slowly rotating on the edge of the world. I drop my gear and sit down, leaning back against my rucksack, rifle across my knees. The breeze is cooling, evaporating moisture from my sweat-sodden clothing. A muted growling of high bypass turbofans tumbles from the sky. The contrails are far overhead, stark white lines on a towering, inverted bowl of blue.
Fat, slow autumn flies buzz lazily around and a bumblebee cruises past with a deeper, more purposeful drone. Grasshoppers rattle in the sedge; I see that some of them are the season’s final generation, stub-winged and preparing to attempt surviving the winter. Many will, and I’ll see them again with the first golden shoots of a new spring.
As evening comes on I watch clouds billow up, creeping in from the west with the promised cold front. The white-hot Sun goes orange, then red as it nears the horizon, halfway through its annual march to the south. The sky darkens and a fat yellow moon peeps up in the east, halfway through its yearly migration to the north. I’ve just watched hours of reality. No television required. Time to go home.
My pickup radio tells me the Huskers lead at the half in Ames. Good. My VCR should be churning out a record of the action.
As I drive away the prairie sings her gentle evening song. I’m profoundly glad to hear it.
Sunday – it’s cool and cloudy and spitting raindrops that dream of being snowflakes. Tough old farmstead elm trees hold tight to deep green leaves, while every other tree (except the evergreens, of course) is naked or barely clothed in fading yellow. The sky is overcast, holding the horizon close in a moisture laden embrace. No raptors grace the air today, nor do any insects buzz or drone or rattle.
The prairie is hushed and hunkered down, ready for a preview of winter. Weather guessers promise solid phase precipitation, and the morrow may bring the grating rasp of snow shovels on concrete. But right here, right now, the day is sweet, the coolness a gossamer kiss.
Every season has a first, best day.

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