I appreciate the simplest things. Shadows on snow. Dew on grass. The calls of the birds in the trees or passing overhead. The smell of pines and rain on the wind. Sunrise. I cherish these things, constant and enduring. Faithful as fate.
I’m not certain how I arrived at this place. Perhaps I convinced myself this was the way I wanted to be, for I have not always been so. Perhaps I should not be so typically human, and take a conceited credit for learning these lessons. Some credit should be given, perhaps, to the living of a modest life, one without the extravagances monetary wealth seems to attract. Due should be given also to my interspecies soulmate, my late Chuy The Wonderdog, for the many silent happy hours we spent together on the trails and in our Wonder Woods. Without a doubt, it was he that truly taught me. Not only to look, but to see. And to smell and hear. To stop talking and start listening. To slow down, and smell the bunnies.
I like old things. My mom was old and I really liked her a lot. The Earth is old. The sky, too. I like old trees that remind me of myself. Feeling grand and stately, yet exhibiting a few signs of wear and tear. I like old forests that have huge deadfalls carpeted with green moss, and tiny pink sorrels that grow between the shadows of Hemlocks. Don’t get me wrong, some new things are good. New socks. And babies. Although they also get old eventually.
I like old movies, TV shows and radio series’. Folks often talk about how “times were simpler back then”. There’s a lot of truth to that, but unfortunately an egregious dichotomy. To put it simply, sometimes things were great for healthy white men while at the same time things were not good for women or the infirm or people of color or children. You can imagine this list could go on a bit. I grieve for those sorely affected by the narrow-minded and short-sighted people that came before me. Hope remains high that we are well on our way to a welcoming world.
I like to watch old shows because of what is not in them. I see wooden crates and burlap sacks and I say “no cardboard back then”. The phone is wired to the floor. All one needs to do is exit the room to be liberated from it. I see characters in crisp cotton clothing and think there was no wash-and-wear. Every garment worn would require pressing, except the wool and fur. There are no power tools or machines as we think of them. The kinetic energy of water was used to turn the mill wheel, to grind grain. Or to turn a leather belt that turned more leather belts and the cogs and gears and blades needed for a sawmill. Beasts of burden turned such wheels where water was unavailable, and they further pulled plows to till the land, and the wagon to go to town or church. Life In Engleville takes its name from this tiny hamlet, named for Engle, who built Engleville Pond a half mile from here, to power Engle’s Mills. Perhaps living in the shadow of the mill pond and the namesake endears those olden days to me.
In cowboy movies there are no vapor trails across the sky (except that one scene in that John Ford film, a famous blooper). In pirate movies, the wind propels the Black Pearl, without the black soot of the diesel engine, nor the trail of toxic wastes left in the ocean. In Egypt, we marvel at the great pyramids, built solely with human muscle, the sweat of the brow, the unfortunate slaves. In Yucatan we are amazed at the accuracy of cosmic clockworks, calculating calendars out twenty thousand years without the aid of Newton, Einstein a slide rule or a scientific calculator. We can watch Hillary summit Everest in a jacket and a pair of leather shoes. We can watch Shackelton stranded in the Antarctic for two years without a single death of the 28-man crew. People were tough back in the when. People were resourceful and did with what they had, whether in Antarctica or the Great Plains of the American West.
When my kids were growing up, Michael Landon did a television series bringing Laura Ingalls and her beloved book Little House On The Prairie to life. She would be known as Laura Ingalls Wilder when she wrote the series that chronicled her childhood as her family went westward with the frontier. It was a moment in an episode of this series that cemented my desire to “live simply” as Thoreau would put it. To be the kind of person that could make do with what he had, get along without machines, to embrace Yankee ingenuity, and the Pioneer spirit. And to be happy and content with such simple things. Pa, as he would be called by Laura, worked at the saw mill with Mr. Edwards.
(Sidebar: Okay, so Ingalls is almost Engle, isn’t it? And Pa works at a mill, for which my road and Hamlet are named. We used to have a neighbor that used the hayloft of our barn. His name was Roger Edwards. Coincidences, I suppose.)
I’m watching Pa break for lunch. Pa and Mr. Edwards don’t go over to the diner or drive up to the Burger Queen. Pa brings a lunch pail. It’s a rectangular tin box, and the lid has a chamber and a screw cap. One would put cold water, or ice if you’re lucky, into the chamber in the top to keep food cool. In the winter, a scuttle full of hot coals would keep a warm meal so until lunchtime. (I have one upstairs).
Big buildup. Here it is. Remember how we’re talking about simplicity?
Pa reaches into his lunch pail (now you know why it’s called a “pail” before “lunchbox” came along), and pulls out a thick slice of homemade bread, wrapped in cheesecloth. There is also in the pail a ripe apple and a small piece of cheese. He washes this down with water from a tin cup. I can still see Landon’s engaging trademark smile, as he imagined himself to be this simple man. “That was a good lunch.” he says to Mr. Edwards, and they go back to work.
I have not viewed a meal the same since. Balanced diet and three places on the plate and sides and sauces and salad and dessert. Breakfast lunch and dinner. Three thousand calories a day. Where did all that come from? Maybe folks in Pa’s day did not have a well-balanced diet or what we would describe as healthy nutrition. Yet even without modern medicine, folks still lived to be seventy and eighty and who-knows-how old?
I was particularly lucky at lunch today. I am fortunate every day, of course, inundated with more offerings than Pa Ingalls could ever have imagined. Still, lunch is PB & J most days, on wheat bread. Sometimes a hard roll. How extravagant, Mrs. Ingalls would think. I’m not sure they even had much of peanut butter yet. Plenty of jelly though, because you had to make do with what you had. You had to be self-sufficient. You had to live simply.
Today’s lunch was a hot cross bun, warmed by the sun, accompanied by delicious black coffee from the green steel thermos. Icing and dried fruit were a delight.
“That was a good lunch.” I said, to the sparrows and starlings enjoying the wheat bread, a few feet from me and the Funbus. I thought of Pa again.
And who is “better off” I wonder?
Is it the man who enjoys the wealth of the world, jet-setting lifestyles, exciting once-in-a-lifetime highs, a balanced diet and three places on the plate and dessert?
Or could it be the man who can derive great joy from a quiet wood and canine companion, a peanut butter sandwich, the memory of a man who is long dead, and shadows on snow?
Take care, and keep in touch.