Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The wind in the willows

Childhood has two seasons: the anticipation of summer and summer.

Or so it seems in memory. And memory is all that matters in the long run.

Stickball in the meadows. Messing about in drainage ditches. Long warm twilights on green lawns, catching fireflies in our cupped hands. Camping out in the back yard under the brilliant summer stars -- Arcturus, Vega, Deneb, Altair -- lulling us into sleep made fitful by the day's unfinished projects, tomorrow's beginnings.

And no days of summer sweeter than the last few weeks of August, with school just around the corner. Long pants, combed hair, lunch boxes and galoshes. Staring listlessly out of classroom windows. And bells.

No bells any more. Now, in retirement, I come and go as I please all year round. But these last few weeks of August retain their sweetness, anointed by memory, the rosy glow of childhood.

And what do we remember. The piper. The piper at the gates of dawn.

The sun has set. Mole and Rat push off in their boat to look for Portly, the infant otter, who has gone missing from his home. They row upstream in moonlight. The night is full of animal noises -- bird song, chatter and rustling. Purple loosestrife, meadowsweet and wild rose fringe the river's banks, their odors pervading the still air. Mole and Rat pass the night in dreamy searching and silent reverie. Near dawn they hear a magical piping that draws them to an island in the stream, hemmed with willow, birch and alder, cradled in a weir.

"Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him," whispers Rat -- and it is not only Portly that he means, as the capital H suggests.

In a clearing on the island they find themselves in an "august Presence" -- goat-hoofed, pipe-playing, great god Pan, friend and helper. And nestled between Pan's hooves is the sleeping infant otter.

As the sun's first rays shoot across the water-meadow, the Vision vanishes and the air is full of the caroling of birds that greet the dawn. With the sun comes forgetfulness. Was the Vision real? Was it a dream? They know something exciting has happened, yet nothing particular has happened. As they row home, they hear a song in the reeds bidding them to forget.

How long ago and far away those summer days and nights of childhood. What was it we found? Something was there, certainly, something exciting, a presence -- call it, if you will, the pagan god Pan -- that children are particularly able to perceive. The universe was at our doorstep, twinkling, shining, chattering, rustling. The minutes and the hours flowed together in a sweet, unhurried bliss.

Remember. Remember. Remember.