Wednesday, May 12, 2010

As You Like It

On a bulletin board in my office I've tacked a postcard given to me by a good friend several years ago. Blue and black block print on heavy card stock, it was produced near Stratford-on-Avon in England where my friend sometimes travels. The front includes a quote from Shakespeare's As You Like It.

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

It is Shakespeare at his pastoral best. Safe from the perils of urban life, those in exile find redemption in the natural. "Here, the corruptions of life at court are left behind in order to learn the simple and valuable lessons of the country," explains one literary guide to the work.

Escape to the woods for enlightenment. Retreat to the country.

I am reading a new memoir from a talented writer and she describes leaving New York post 9/11 and heading for the hills, so to speak. A simpler life away from the city. A place to slow down and mine the inner world.

I live in one of a cluster of modest stone homes built in the 1840s to house workers for the then-thriving mills of Baltimore. Back then the nearby Jones Falls River rushed from its source in the mountains of western Maryland, down through the plains and over the geologic break called the fall line, creating rapids before ultimately emptying into the Patapsco River. A few industrious men created a mill district along the banks, capturing the mighty flood to drive the equipment inside their factories. They fabricated cotton sailcloth for the famous Baltimore Clippers, the speedy and nimble ships that outwitted the British during the War of 1812. My street is named for the mill race, the canal created to divert the water to the mill wheel.

Now the Jones Falls is a polluted trickle, damned and rerouted, covered in places. A red sign on its shoreline reads "Danger. Polluted Water. Keep Out."

Today I took a walk to watch the water. There is a platform, built by a developer a few years back, that allows you to sit perched at the water's edge, hovering over a horseshoe-shaped waterfall. The manmade grabs my attention first. The graffiti on the benches, the plastic bottles bucking about in the water's froth, a mylar balloon—long deflated—caught in the branches of a tree.

Then I hear the birdsong. And see a flash of red. A cardinal. Upstream, a male and a female duck move with the current, floating side by side like an old married couple taking a stroll. Across the falls, a gray bird suddenly distinguishes himself from the concrete retaining wall behind him. His head is white and black, and he looks like a small heron of some sort. The bird is rapt, staring at the water. He looks like he might be stalking something and then, suddenly—was it five minutes, was it 15?—he takes off in flight and follows the river downstream.

The yin and the yang of rural and urban. Nature spoiled by man. This is no pristine wood, this is no pastoral sanctuary. The public haunts of man are everywhere; the corruptions that Shakespeare illuminated are palpable. There is something valuable, though, in not retreating from that. I could seek my Walden, but for now I stay rooted here intent on learning the lessons to be found by not running from the city.