Well, it’s happened early this year. The view from my window, normally a crisp mountain scene, is full of deep orange haze. Smoke casts a pall on everything. Even the lavender just beyond my office window and the bees doddering around its blooms have a burnished look.
Even though fire season is a regular part of life here in Montana, I still felt disappointed last week when I spotted a feathery plume rising on the far side of Lolo Peak. Though many miles away, Lolo Peak feels like a neighbor. Whether I’m washing dishes or sipping tea at my table, this mountain, with its changing show of light and shadow, is a constant companion. I depend on its solidity and beauty like a boat depends on its mooring.
In the past few days, that thin line of smoke grew into a substantial cloud. This morning I woke to find the valley completely inundated. Lolo Peak is totally obscured. And my own horizon feels hemmed in.
Always, at the point when summer turns this corner, I reacquaint myself with Robert Frost’s poem The Oven Bird. The ovenbird, a warbler, is one of the few birds who trills his song in midday heat. Thus, Frost associates the ovenbird’s signature tea-cher tea-cher tea-cher with the idea that summer is passing away. The “he” of this poem, is the ovenbird whose song calls up these realities:
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says that highway dust is over all.
Like the chime of a clock, Frost’s ovenbird measures time. Like smoke pluming up, it tells us summer isn’t here to stay. As Frost’s bird chirps and warbles out these tokens of summer’s passage, Frost funnels the reader to a final haunting question:
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Phew. It’s bracing, isn’t it? What to make of a diminished thing? This question rattles around with me, not just as smoke season presses in, but in a way that ramifies into other areas in my life. It’s an essential midlife question. It’s a question for times when a relationship has stung. Or when your body and health betray you. The world’s sleight-of-hand constantly delivers us beautiful things, then bruises them. We are forever having to ask ourselves what to do with diminishments. What will you do today, as the ovenbird warbles its song?
For me, I am going out among the lavender and the doddering bees to weed my garden. Later I will walk through smoky woods to the creek. I will hold my breath and plunge in the crazy cold water. When I come up, there will still be wildfires burning in Montana. Another day will soon pass away. But, as with all diminished things, I want to experience the things before me with joy and depth and love.
Here’s to cultivating wonder,