Ordinary things, like the loons' return

November 23, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- The other afternoon there were two common loons in their drab winter plumage in the channel off Ordinary Point. They were the first I'd seen this fall, and they were right on time. Around here, these big diving birds seem a better harbinger of Thanksgiving than anything that gobbles.

Thanksgiving and the loons traditionally arrive in Maryland around the same time, near the end of the long luxuriant autumn which is our region's best season. The weather may still be mild when they show up, but it's a time of early sunset and deepening chill. The year is accelerating toward oblivion, and there is a sense of an enormous door slowly and silently swinging shut.

That's why a friend and I were out in a boat on the cold water of the upper bay in the first place. The sun had been shining and the wind had dropped, and it seemed perfectly possible that we wouldn't get another afternoon like that until March. So we seized the moment and cast off.

The open bay was deserted, the water 43 degrees and gray, the sky smoky. We headed up the Sassafras, where the marshes had already acquired their pale wintry look. The tide was low and herons stalked the mudflats along the shore. A few ducks raced past. Inland, several small flocks of geese were up, spooked by something or somebody out of the cornfields where they'd been feeding.

After we saw the loons we headed farther up the river. In the woods of Knight Island ahead of us, we spotted two glimmers of white. Through the binoculars, we could tell that the smaller of the two was the head of a mature bald eagle, perched in an oak tree. The larger glimmer was a painted sign offering waterfront lots for sale.

I had never seen either an eagle or a For Sale sign on that shoreline before, and wasn't sure which I found more surprising. To see both together was to be bluntly reminded of the principle, especially appropriate for Thanksgiving consideration, that while there are plenty of blessings to be found in everyday life, few of them are either absolute or eternal.

Even without the eagle, Knight Island was a lovely spot. But for all I know, the next time I pass it the woods will be gone and it'll be covered with million-dollar tract mansions, the dream houses of rich people who want to live on the river and enjoy the scenery there. If so I'll just have to remember it as it looked this fall and many others past, and be glad I knew it then.

On the other hand, perhaps the real-estate activities which produced the For Sale sign will be sidetracked. Perhaps the market will falter, or the lots will be bought by people who want to keep them as they are, to walk on or camp on but otherwise leave undisturbed. Stranger things have happened. The horrors

we most confidently predict don't always arrive as expected.

I remember another day on these same waters about 30 years ago, in another boat, on another late November afternoon with waterfowl over the marshes. There was the same weak hazy sun, the same faint smokiness in the air, the same sense, a little more ominous then, of a door swinging shut.

If the young person I was then had been asked that afternoon what he thought it would be like around here in November of 1995, he would probably have given a doomsday response.

Over the precipice

If civilization didn't fry itself with nuclear weapons, he would have explained just a bit pretentiously, it would certainly destroy what was left of the Chesapeake Bay with the toxins of its affluence. The process wouldn't take another 30 years, he would have said, and probably couldn't be reversed. It was likely that we had already passed the point of no return on our way over the precipice.

The spectre of environmental catastrophe has been around a long time. It's older than the radon in your basement, older than the greenhouse effect. It seems to be especially visible to the young, and it appears with increased frequency around Thanksgiving.

This is due perhaps to the way the Thanksgiving holiday encourages us, in its comfortably inclusive and non-churchy way, to reflect seriously on some of the wonders and complexities of human life. Because once we start cataloging our blessings, it's hard not to scan the horizon for anything which might be a threat to them. And if we look hard enough, we occasionally see mirages.

It's also hard for most of us to describe, with anything like clarity, what we're most thankful for. Gratitude, as Felix Frankfurther observed, is one of the least articulate of the emotions, especially when it's deeply felt.

Often we find we're most appreciative of extremely ordinary things, which might include the closeness of family, the poignant transience of fall, and the timely arrival of a pair of common loons.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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