The Wheel of the Year
"Study to be Quiet"
By Farwell Forrest
Suddenly, almost without warning, it's fall. The signs are
everywhere around me. The roads leading south out of the Adirondacks
are choked with vans and recreational vehicles, many of them sporting
Florida or North Carolina plates. Camps and summer homes, crowded with
families only one week ago, stand shuttered and empty today. The late
afternoon sun, long hidden behind the big white pine to the north of
our cabin, can now be seen framed by the west-facing window
overlooking the 'Flow. Gourds and squash have taken the place of ears
of sweet corn at the farmhouse produce stand out on the highway. And
there are countless new faces among the squirrels and chipmunks
scouring our slope for beechnuts and maple keys.
Most striking of all, however, is the sudden silence. For nearly
four months, a continuous drumbeat of sound has echoed between the low
hills that enclose the three-mile-long 'Flow. The buzz of bass-boats
in the hours before dawn. The petulant whine of jet-skis from
mid-morning until long after dark. The asthmatic sputter of pontoon
boats in the evening. The throaty rumble of inboard runabouts round
the clock. Now, suddenly, they're all gone. The 'Flow is quiet. And
Tamia and I, having learned to raise our voices to a shout in order to
be sure our words will be heard, find ourselves shouting into
stillness. It's an eerie feeling.
Not that we mind. Writers lead curiously constrained lives. Their
working day begins when they finish breakfast, and it doesn't really
end till they're in bedif then. Chances are good, in fact, that
every writer has a notebook on his (or her) nightstand. Like the
chipmunks frantically gathering nuts and seeds outside our door,
writers work constantly to store up great stocks of words against
their own uncertain future.
Tamia and I are no exception. We write about canoeing and kayaking
every weekthousands of words between usbut we seldom have
the chance to take our own boats out. The marathon road trips of a few
years ago, when we rose before sunrise to chase the run-off on
whitewater rivers hundreds of miles away, are now only memories from
some unreachably distant, antediluvian past. Today we're lucky if we
can sneak our pack canoes out onto the 'Flow two or three times a week
for an hour or two at a time, usually at night or in the early
morning. Like beaver in places where trappers are active, we've been
forced to become nocturnal. Throughout the summer, the 'Flow is
quieter after dark than during the day, and the night air is nearly
free of the stink of unburned gasoline.
But now, quite suddenly, it's quiet even at noon. So rapid was the
change, in fact, that we really didn't take it in at first. Just as
sailors fresh from a long voyage will stand braced in anticipation of
the next lurch of a heaving deck for hours after reaching shore, Tamia
and I continued to shout at each other across the twenty-five-foot
gulf between our desks. Only when I heard two people talking outside
our windows did I notice that something was different.
Two peoplea man and a womantalking quietly outside our
windows. Nothing remarkable about that, is there? Except that theirs
were the first voices I'd heard coming from the 'Flow in months.
Shouts, yes. I'd heard plenty of shouts. Screams, too. The screams of
a child, for example, newly thrown off a tube in mid-channel and now
watching his family's boat disappear into the distance. And then the
shouts of the child's parents, struggling to make themselves heard
over the roar of many motors as they turned their boat around to pick
up their precious cargo. But quiet voices? A couple conversing
in ordinary tones out on the 'Flow? I hadn't heard that since sometime
I was curious. I got up from my desk and walked over to the
west-facing window. What did I see? Nothing remarkable at all. Just
two people in a canoe, paddling upriver and talking quietly as they
went. And they were perfectly ordinary people, too. They didn't have
the look of athletes, or even "paddlesport enthusiasts." The man was
heavily-built and well-muscled, and he had a spectacular beer-belly.
He looked a lot like the mechanic who used to work on our truck. The
woman was small and thin, with hair hanging down below her waist. She
looked like one of the check-out clerks at the big grocery store in
the college town some twelve miles up the road. Neither one was
wearing fleece. They were ordinary people.
The man was in the stern, of course, and the woman was in the
bow. From what I could see in the few minutes they were in view,
neither was a particularly skillful paddler. The man didn't even
attempt a "J." He simply switched sides with every stroke, and not
very well, at that. The woman, to be honest, didn't paddle much at
all. But none of this really mattered. The day was a smiling
end-of-summer day. A light southerly breeze teased ripples from the
water, and the ripples caught the mid-day sun. The 'Flow was covered
with thousands of short-lived points of light. And the beauty of the
day, an entirely ordinary late-summer day, wasn't lost on the couple.
I caught quick glimpses of their faces as they paddled by. Each was
suffused with the kind of joy that I don't often see among more
serious paddlers. It was just the sort of joy I remember feeling on
the day I first stepped into a canoe, when I was five years old.
Funnily enough, the couple were paddling the very same type of
canoe I paddled on my maiden voyage: a 15-foot aluminum Grumman. True,
"my" Grumman was the dull gray of weathered metal, while theirs
sported an immaculate red and white paint job, but the two boats were
otherwise identical. Neither would get so much as a second look from
most "serious" paddlers today. What was Harry Roberts' dismissive gibe
for boats like these? "Garbage barges"? "Gravy boats"? Or was it "meat
platters"? Well, it was something like that, anyway. Of course, Harry
was an outfitter, as well as being editor of Wilderness Camping
magazine. (An excellent magazine, by the way. I miss it.) He had a
whole barn full of long, lean Sawyer and We-no-nah boats. And he was
an extremely serious paddler.
Yet, from what I can remember of Harryand I used to drop in
at his Albany, New York, shop now and againhe didn't often look
like the man and woman I saw paddling up the 'Flow. There wasn't much
joy on Harry's face that I can recall. Harry looked driven, in fact.
He looked as if something with sharp teeth had made its way down into
his belly and was eating its way out again. Still, whether the couple
in the Grumman were paddling a "meat platter" or not, I'll bet Harry
would have liked watching them discover the joy of canoeing for
themselves. I know I did. And I know that Harry would have joined me
in rejoicing at the return of silence to the 'Flow.
"Study to be quiet." Those are the last words in the last chapter
of Izaak Walton's seventeenth-century classic, The Compleat
Angler. They're from the New
Testament1 Thessalonians 4:11, to be exact. Such
simple, valuable counsel, too: "Study to be quiet." It's certainly
good advice for any fisherman, and it's not such a bad idea for the
rest of us, either.
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