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Guest Writer

Dick and Jane had it right
by Beth Cooper

Growing up in the woods of Connecticut, I had my very own playground. There were no swings or slides that you find in the park, but rather a seemingly endless stretch of whatever-I-wanted-it-to-be.

One early summer morning, when the thrill of being out of school was still new and it was finally warm enough to go barefoot in the prickly grass, I played hopscotch in the driveway. Bits of found limestone served as chalk and marker, and I sang to myself as I skipped.

But I stopped my own voice when I heard the most plaintive, mournful sound I had known in my six or seven years, making itself heard through the chittering and chattering of the songbirds and squirrels that populated the nearby trees.

I cocked my head in mid-hop, waiting for the sound to repeat. It rose again, low and sad, and compelled me to scan the treetops in search of … an owl, perhaps, or some undiscovered animal that cried like a lost child.

Of course I saw nothing. Even at that age I knew there was nothing in the natural world that would be seen if it did not choose to be seen. But the sound held me fast, as though it had wound a spell around me. And without thinking, I curled my tongue and blew, answering with my own low, plaintive whistle.

The mourning dove taught me to whistle. It would be another year or two before I was able to purse my lips and whistle like the rest of the world.

Those woods, I would come to learn over ten years, had more knowledge and wisdom to impart than any classroom or lecture I have ever attended. Although it was in the classroom that I first encountered Dick and Jane and their great lesson -- LOOK -- it was in the shadows of the trees that I was able to put this lesson into practice. Because in the woods, you can't see unless you look.

I returned to Connecticut for college -- drawn, perhaps, by the 700-acre arboretum that bordered the campus. There I was again compelled to attention by the beauty and cleverness of the woods. They are not inanimate, not simply for decoration. They are the greatest intelligence network the world has to offer, concealing and revealing an arsenal more advanced and intricate than that of any political superpower.

One early autumn afternoon I walked beside the pond, skirting the edges so that I might find my way deeper into the brush where I imagined there were secrets only I would find. Foolishly, I was not watching -- too focused on where I was trying to get, not where I was. But the world does not always allow such ignorance. And so, against my will, my attention was directed to a large brown rock resting serenely in the middle of the pond. I was not foolish enough to ignore the obvious -- the rock was normally grey, not brown. Suddenly the veil lifted and six turtles revealed themselves, basking warmly in the sun. I silently thanked whatever spirits rule such places for awakening me, vowing silently to remember that I am always here, not there.

The world is full of so many people all rushing noisily from one event to another -- forever concerned with where they have been and where they will be. Few remember Dick and Jane's sagacity -- most have been conditioned by bank accounts and watches and cellular phones. LOOK has disappeared along with apple juice and vanilla wafers, hopscotch and marbles. The fact that I still play with sidewalk chalk serves as reassurance. I still understand that word -- LOOK. I am not yet deaf to the turtles on the rock when they call out: "Hey, look here. Look quickly, before we are concealed once again."

Outside my house is a bag full of clothespins. There is nothing remarkable about a bag of clothespins. In fact, most things associated with laundry are among the banal elements of life. But on one particular day, the world chose again to reveal itself. When I put my hand in the bag, it was not a handful of clothespins I got, but a handful of twigs. Standing on tiptoe, I peered over the edge of the bag to be greeted by a small nest, a single grey-blue egg resting gently at its bottom. The sight filled me with wonder. Often, as a child, I found abandoned nests after their occupants had flown off for warmer or more comfortable surroundings. But now, finally, the origins of life had been revealed. I was allowed to peek through the curtain, to see into this world to which I can only be an outsider.

The bag remains undisturbed except by the birds that come to stand guard over their treasures. There are three eggs now. I feel a sense of tense expectancy, as though it is my own family on the verge of hatching, not one of a different species altogether. When I see the family-in-waiting, I am here -- part of my world and theirs … they are one and the same.

This morning I hear a mourning dove as I stand rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. I curl up my tongue to answer, but find I can't whistle the way I used to. I peer out the window into greyness. There, perched on my garage, is a pair of birds the color of sky just after a rain. They gaze at me with peaceful eyes as if their steady look can lift the veil between our worlds for just a moment. One opens its mouth … I am startled to hear the mournful cooing which had greeted me every morning of my childhood since that day in my driveway. For although we had spoken, we had not met. Here, before my day full of appointments, I am given a second lesson. A refresher course.

I curl my tongue and quietly blow, joining them in homage to the gift of sight.

See more from Beth in our archives.

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