This was composed at the advent of the attack on Afghanistan. --KC
October 8th, 2001
I took Peter to Lincoln Pond, a small lake in the mountains between Elizabethtown, New York, and Lake Champlain. It was the day after we began bombing Afghanistan -- we, the US. We, Peter and I, crossed the Bouquet River and passed the home of Learned Hand, a nineteenth century Supreme Court Justice, and took the righthand fork headed east out of Elizabethtown.
We drove uphill through the bright trees for about six miles. Peter complained about his ears hurting and I reminded him to relieve the pressure by yawning. In principle, he already knows about ears popping, but here it is out of context for him, since we are not in an airplane. "I fixed my ears, mommy," he said. "I fixed my ears!" The cap popped off the lemonade and I slapped it back on.
As we drove through the woods on our way up, we passed a few houses. Some were vacation houses, recently painted and with pretty views. Some were run-down log cabins and farmhouses with swayback rooflines and formerly gracious porches used to store anything that might come in handy. (Culturally, Essex County is the northern tip of Apalachia. A third of the county is on welfare, and of the few jobs there are, most involve delivering social services to those on welfare. There is very little crime however.)
Peter gets restless in the car, and I ask him to count the colors of leaves as we drive. He says, "Red and yellow and orange and green and brown." He is happy, on an excursion with mommy. We pass a field with horses and that makes him happy too. He looks out the window, watching for new colors and for animals.
We round the corner, and I see a causeway across a small lake. It doesn't look quite the way I remembered it, but I had only been here once before. There is a little parking area beside the road. There is no sign, but I see a few distinctly public-looking fire pits and the back of a sign nailed to a tree which has the look of a park sign. A mother and daughter have parked and are unloading cayacks. We park.
On the near side of the causeway, I see a few ducks. Here it is colder and windier than Elizabethtown. By the thermometer in the car, it is 42 degrees; the wind is blowing at about 15 to 20 miles and hour. The sky is a clear, intense blue. Because of the wind, the water is choppy except right next to the causeway. It is a very dark blue. I put Peter's coat on him and then put on my own coat. Before leaving the car, I tuck two slices of bread in my pocket to feed the ducks.
We cross the street and try to feed the ducks. These are wild ducks more familiar with duck hunters than with people come to feed them, so they swim away at first. I persist, throwing small bits of bread. The ducks get the idea, but slowly. I give Peter a few small pieces to throw, but the wind is strong, so they land at his feet. To feed these shy ducks, I have to throw the bread into the wind as hard as I can.
We cross the causeway to the other side. Peter asks where the ducks are on this side. I worry that he will insist we go back, and so distract him by pointing out that the water by the causeway on this side is smooth and the reflections we can see. He bends down and picks up a freshwater clam shell, saying, "Mommy, mommy, I found a pretty shell!" He's hooked.
We proceed up the beach. There are many small brown snail shells and shells from what seem to be several species of freshwater clam. As we beachcomb, the mother and daughter paddle along the shore in their cayacks. They have gloves on. We don't. (It was 40 degrees warmer when I packed the car on Thursday.) Peter wants a cayack. I say, "When you're older. You have to be able to swim."
I tuck the shells in my pocket. He finds a feather, probably a duck feather, and I put that in my pocket too. I think about the shells and how clams came to live up here in the mountains. At this altitude, we are too high up for Lincoln Pond to have ever been salt water. But I think of Lake Champlain, another five or six miles up the road. That could have been part of a vast inland sea a very long time ago and if it were bigger, it would have been deeper and therefore closer. And I think of sea gulls gathering clams on the beach there and dropping them on stones, stones sometimes a few miles away. And some clams would survive. And their distant descendants would have left shells on the beach for Peter to find.
I see a small woodpecker. First, I hear the tapping. Then turning around I see it. "A cute little woodpecker, Peter. Look," I say, but he looks too late. It has gone to the other side of the tree. "Mommy, I want to see the cute little bird," he says. "Where's the cute little bird." "Too late," I say. I look back at the park sign. It says not to block the boat launch area.
As we walk down the beach, I look out across the lake at the houses on the other side. At a few of the docks, small boats bob. I think I see one that is for sale. I recognize it from the real estate brochure: a dock with a boat; a house with a large deck overlooking the lake and big picture windows. Utopia in summer. Unusable in winter.
On the beach, I find a five or six pound chunk of granite, worn smooth, with patterns of black and white almost like an animal hide. It is not like the other stones here: The others are smooth basalt. Not quit zebra, not quite cheetah. I pick it up to use in my rock garden at home. Home.
I don't want to go home. I want to buy the house we looked at this morning with the real estate agent. I don't want to have to listen to endless TV and radio chatter about anthrax and bombing and what terrorists might do to us; to go home, I need to listen to make sure no one has blown up Grand Central Station or anything like that, to make sure it is OK to drive south.
Carrying the rock, my hands get very cold very fast. But I don't want to put it down because it is for my garden at home. I herd Peter back in the direction of the car, but it takes a while. He keeps stopping to find new shells and pretty leaves and feathers.
And as I think about the implications of these shells being here I think about the implications of other things like the tracers over Kabul I had seen on TV. Over the previous month, I had prepared myself to feel compassion for people in places the US would attack, but with only images of tracers to work with, they seem more remote than the saltwater ancestors of these clams.
Compassion is the only moral anchor in this situation, but compassion has made me very tired. My hands are numb. Peter says,"That was a great excursion, mommy. Can we go on another excursion?" We get in the car and drive back to Elizabethtown.