Of hope, to Jihad and 5,000 dead

Posted: Oct 25, 2001 12:00 AM
No one can fully leave his place in the human race. Each is part and product of it and of his era. Yet everyone - if he ever hopes to recondition every mental marble - should have a spot where he goes to turn his back on the world and recharge. People all the way up to presidents are practiced in the ways of retreat. Washington took solitary saunters on horseback. Jefferson went to his mountaintop Monticello. Lincoln enjoyed long country walks. Hoover and Eisenhower fished alone. Kennedy sailed. This President Bush, following the Reagan example, goes to his ranch - saying, "I'm in my element here." Our spot is a log cabin in the distant North. It boasts neither light bulbs nor spigots. Its year-round residents are bears and bald eagles, porcupines and deer and an occasional wolf. And the first necessity upon arriving is to swim the river and fetch the canoe for use as a ferry during the stay. For 38 years we have ventured there to tune out and decelerate. This year we went late and returned just in time to witness bin Laden's enormities. The world we left - the America, our sector of the race - was vastly different from the world, as it so suddenly has become. Osama and his oracles orate about holy war (jihad), "this decisive battle between atheism and faith," and the "thousands of young [fanatics] who are as keen about death as Americans are about life." Six weeks ago, we were perched in river-bend hammocks amid variant forest greens - the blues now pale, now deep. To the left the water flowed toward us; to the right it flowed away. Here and there the first leaves would languorously waft down - the beginning, there, even in August, of the fall we are seeing full in its glory here. Overhead a bald eagle flared upon noticing us, squawked, and angled heavily away. Just in view upstream a deer out for a float had its first encounter with a churning Labrador retriever. Emerson had it right: "Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them." There, in what Aldo Leopold termed "the elemental simplicities of wilderness," one knows no dread, no disenchantment and alienation, no depredations of the malign. One worries, but barely, about the cultural plunge that seems inexorably to accompany technological leaps. One hardly gives a second thought to his own shelf life at the cusp of 60 - the edge (they say) of old. Moonrise. River otters frolicking. The true transfiguring warmth of the season's first fire. The patter and splatter - the consuming conversation - of an all-day rain. The simple joy of living. We returned to jihad and more than 5,000 dead - and somehow, for a while, writing about life and renewal proved impossible. But then came the autumnal equinox - change - and October mornings as clear as a new pair of glasses. And the flag practically everywhere. And civility abroad in the land. And determination to overmatch the fear. And this splendid president - and a newly appreciated military getting the job done. We cannot escape, and so must accept, the age we live in. The seasons themselves instruct in the necessity of accepting change. With the equinox came a changed international picture showing the world at war - a war brought to America as rarely before. Wallace Stegner wrote of the wilderness as our geography of hope. And so it is. One returns from a time away in the wilderness - turned off and checked out - to the world as it newly is. From hope to reality, from life to grim bitter atrocity and death. Yet the sustaining lessons of the wilderness build the perseverance to prevail - as we can, as we will. Wordsworth said it for all time: (Begin ital) "One impulse from the vernal wood May teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good Than all the sages can." (End ital)