Indian plums, John Denver, and a bike named Rhonda

Yesterday, Peggy and I took my new bike to the woods. I was going to bike alongside her as she walked, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t go slow enough uphill to match her pace, and it was no fun braking all the way downhill. We decided that she needs to get a bike, and that we need to revamp the van so we can both camp in it and carry bikes in it. We might even need a bike trailer for the dogs—if not now, in a year or two.

I tried my bike on hills and in loose gravel. It climbed as lithely as a mountain goat and descended as stolidly as an army tank. I decided that it wasn’t a bike after all, but a mythological being come to life. I had never seen anything like it. I had never known there was anything like it. The only hills that I was unable to climb were so steep that the bike threatened to somersault backwards. It was limited by me, not me by it. If it were a woman, it would have already gone off to find someone younger and more exciting. If I called it a slut, I would mean the word as a compliment—it is cherry red. The only thing it can’t do on its wide tires is to roll really fast, but I didn’t buy it to roll really fast. I bought it to climb like a mountain goat and to descend like an army tank. I think I’ll name it Rhonda.

The day was sunny, the temperature around seventy. It was my first trip to the woods in many months. After my surgery, I pretty much stopped going, because I didn’t know what to do once I got there. Going was just too sad, and I felt just too bad that my limitation was weighing on Peggy. She didn’t complain, but I knew how I would feel if I were her. Hiking has been too much a part of our life for too many years.

So, yesterday was my first time out of town in a long time, and the day was perfect. There were new leaves and new flowers. One book described the Indian plum this way, “It’s flowers smell like a cross between cat urine and watermelon.” Tell me, is that a good odor smell or a bad odor? Regardless, it a very alive odor.

Peggy napped while I threw a stick into Winberry Creek for Bonnie. She quickly learned to swim at a trajectory that would intersect the stick. I was surprised by how fast she learned this, because the concept of gravity is a challenge for her. For example, she will take her tennis ball to the top of a set of steps and roll it down for me to fetch. Only sometimes when she drops the ball, the ball won’t roll. When this happens, she stares at it as if to say, “I have done my part, ball, and now it is time for you to do yours.”

I could tell that Bonnie needs the woods too. A blue heeler is too near the wild to be a town dog. In town, Bonnie is only half alive, but in the woods, she’s 1 1/2 times alive. It’s magical to see a creature become so alive that she can’t contain it all. It’s as if she has crossed some boundary. We usually think of a creature—or a human—as being either alive or dead, but maybe that’s a little like thinking of something as either healthy or unhealthy. Maybe nothing IS. Maybe everything exists on a continuum.

Peggy and I had been playing a CD by John Denver about his love for water, and sunshine, and mountains. I looked at the water, and the sunshine, and the mountains; and for the first time, I felt the full depth of my sadness over losing these things, and I could not contain it. I have gone to the woods since my earliest remembrances, and I saw that I must go back, no matter what. I cannot imagine how people survive without the woods. How can they not experience a void? For most of our history, our species has lived intimately with nature, and even when people don’t know they need that intimacy, I suspect they suffer from the lack of it.

John Denver died at 53, and this makes his songs the more poignant. I understand death about as well as Bonnie understands gravity. Phil (my friend who is dying of cancer) was at lodge this week, much to everyone’s surprise. He arrived late, and walked across the room slow and stooped, like an old, old man. Even those who can no longer hear well could hear Phil breathing, because he breathed like a man who had run a marathon. The lodge grew very quiet as we watched him walk to his seat. I told myself to memorize how he looked, because I knew I would never see him cross that room again.”

Death is one of those things that all the money in the world, and all the militaries in the world, and all of everything else that is powerful in the world, can neither prevent nor reverse. Even if all the powerful of the world tried as hard as they could at the same time, they wouldn’t be able to force so much as an amoeba to live—or bring it back to life. Such thoughts put our power in perspective.

The question then becomes how I should feel about us, given our limitations. Sometimes, it’s easy to take the route of the people at the anti-war rally this morning, and hate the weakness that I see all around me, but, again, hatred is not useful except that it makes killing easier. And even though killing is necessary sometimes, I’m not sure that hatred is a good thing even then. If I’m being attacked by a bear, will it help to hate the bear that I am about to shoot? I actually doubt that there is any situation in which hatred does more good than it does harm.