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November 3, 2011

Ecclesiastes on a Bicycle

The old boy walked the bike out the door of his house in Little Rock and into Heaven, aka fall in Arkansas. In all its burning-tree glory.

It was hard to tell which golden view high above the winding Arkansas River he preferred. One after another, the great oaks were turning into splendor. He knew others would burst forth any day. His favorite tree, he decided, would be the next to turn. As with all good things, anticipation may be the sweetest part.

The old boy walked the bike out the door of his house in Little Rock and into Heaven, aka fall in Arkansas. In all its burning-tree glory.

It was hard to tell which golden view high above the winding Arkansas River he preferred. One after another, the great oaks were turning into splendor. He knew others would burst forth any day. His favorite tree, he decided, would be the next to turn. As with all good things, anticipation may be the sweetest part.

It had been hot dry summer for so long around here, all this was still new to him, as it is every blessed year – the early morning cool, the crackle of the leaves, the scent of fall itself, like a lover returning. (“Had you forgotten me? Did you think I’d forgotten you? How could you!”)

These days he needed a thin jacket for the morning ride around the neighborhood. October had come as a relief from a summer that refused to end, and now November confirmed that all this surreal beauty hadn’t been just his imagination – the fresh breezes, the unfolding palette of autumn colors, a golden past becoming the present again. At last fall was about to bust out all over.

The leaves were already starting to fall in the yard and invading the oddest corners of the house. How do they do it – manage to infiltrate in such numbers and in so many places … it was a mystery to him. But it happened every year. He didn’t mind picking them up, not yet. They were a welcome sign that the seasons still change. Some things were right with the world.

* * *

Last time he’d taken US 65 through southern Arkansas on the way to Mississippi, the heat of the day still shimmered off the old/new plantation house that had been restored at Lakeport. It rose off the highway like a throwback to the 1850s, when the original house had been built just in time for The War and the ruination that had come with it.

Men still make the mistake of assuming the future will be but a projection of the present. If we paid more attention to the past, we might know life is just full of surprises, some of them less than pleasant.

Why do we think of peace as the natural state of things and war as an interruption, when it could just as well be the other way around? Why do we speak of the Thirty Years War and not the Thirty Years Peace? We speak of the historic Civil War, not the historic civil peace that came before and after. As if peace, too, did not require heroism, sacrifice, self-discipline and daring stratagems.

Those who built the high house at Lakeport could not have foreseen the devastation about to come. In the 1850s, cotton was bringing an average of 11.4 cents a pound, the highest it had been since the boom years of the 1830s. Optimism was as endemic along the swampy banks of the Mississippi as malaria.

Old Man River flowed past this plantation like a super-highway to New Orleans and the world’s markets. All good things beckoned. Cotton was king, and its kingdom swelled with pride. The South grew haughty, its fine sense of honor even more prickly. Humility was for those less blessed. We were rich and not to be messed with. The pride that goeth before was reaching its zenith. Oh, those were the days, we thought they’d never end. They did. In blood and ruin.

* * *

On your next drive across Old Man River, you must visit the old-new mansion at Lakeport, Ark. Stand on the bank and look away, look away. You can almost hear the fiddle music, the laughter of the young of all ages, the basso profundo of a steamboat comin’ ‘round the bend to pick up the bales. Nothing is ever lost, certainly not in these parts. Here, as Faulkner put it, the past is not dead, it’s not even past.

The high, two-story house set in the midst of the cotton fields was a testament to the Delta’s antebellum prosperity and the promise of still more to come, what with its 17 high-ceilinged rooms, two-story portico, tapered white columns, 11-foot-high wood-paneled doors, 26-foot-long entry hall … all of it supported by great cypress beams from the adjacent wetlands. With high cotton came high times. What grand entrances must have been made here, what elaborate courtesies extended, what weddings celebrated!

How could its master, the good Lycurgus Johnson, have foreseen what the near, disastrous future would bring? By the time the surrender was signed at Appomattox, this whole part of the country was being torn apart by looters and freebooters of both sides or no side. Those lucky enough to return whole from the war’s various fronts would find little here but desolation.

The tax rolls from 1860 to 1865 tell the story: from pride-and-plenty to Nothing to Declare. Now, with the grand house restored after many years of neglect, you can almost see the ghosts out for a stroll in their pre-war finery. Or waiting to greet you at the top of the grand staircase. As if made for a grand fall.

* * *

Things change. And change back. The old boy on his bicycle in the peaceful neighborhood breathed deep. And shivered. All was perfection and yet … it wasn’t. He should have been enjoying the ride. And he was, but only in an abstract way, the way you do when you know how you’re supposed to feel but don’t, not really, not all the way through. He should have been refreshed; instead he was resentful.

Why on earth? Why on this golden earth? It took him a moment to understand. It wasn’t the fall he resented. Never. How could anyone not love it? No, it was something else. It was the passage of time – unrecoverable time. The intimation of mortality.

The sun shone, but a shadow fell. The beauty of the physical world only brought the old truths home: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die….

How he was going to miss all this. He missed it already. How he missed those who had gone before, those who had shared many such a season with him, their breath forming a little mist in the early-morning air as they threw on their coats, laughing and smiling, out to enjoy the day. The girls with their mums pinned on their warm jackets, out to cheer at a football game, returning with color in their cheeks. To every thing there is a season.

Once he had put the feeling into Ecclesiastes’ words, it was gone. It was resolved now. And he was free to enjoy the brisk air, the warmth of the jacket on his back, the old neighborhood all new again in its fall wardrobe. And off he pedaled.

For there is nothing better than to enjoy the now. Just as The Preacher in the Good Book had advised. The bountiful Now is all we’ve got, and it is more than enough. Certainly this time of year in Arkansas, when fall has finally got here, thank Goodness.


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