WE HAVE a fair stand of oaks that covers the path leading up to the top of our ridge, but just before the crest and extending for a mile along the plateau on top is a pine woods. The oldest pine which I have measured with the Thoreau embrace (with both arms outstretched it takes two and a half hugs) I reckon to be more than a century old; and because of a hornlike broken limb low down, it is known as the Rhino Pine. The juniors are well spaced, with the brown carpet beneath them making for easy rambles. Not a few of the oldest are at least a hundred, and except for an occasional windfall and one lightning-struck veteran, they are a well-preserved grove. Are — or rather, were.
For five months of the year my Kerry Blue, Desmond, and I frequent the pines at least once a day. The length of the expedition varies with the time and light, for I am a commuter and many a day we do not enter the sanctuary until the golden or bronze dusk. But whatever the hour, there are certain way stations where we pause for reflection. These include the open knoll where Desmond sometimes doses himself with dyspepsia grass; the halfoverturned rusty stump which the raccoons keep pushing into for grubs; the hollow tree which we suspect is Raccy’s apartment house; the pine which was exploded by lightning, where I casually collect the white heart wood scattered in a radius of sixty yards; the swamp, with its dimpling insects and water hyacinths, lying below the old stone wall; and the hawk’s nest. I have long known that there was a hawk in residence, but I did not discover the nest until Desmond discovered the squirrel corpse beneath it. These are our habitual observation points, and there may be other pauses when we see deer prints, hear the owl or kingfisher, or when Desmond is examining scents far beyond my detection, or suddenly tearing off in one of those great circles which are his way of expressing exuberance.
It was refreshing and lovely and it seemed permanent. Of all growing things, a tree is the most nearly immortal. The great ones like the Rhino Pine, so scarred and weather-beaten, yet green of top, are the epitome of ruggedness. Seeing them unchanged year after year gives us the illusion that we ourselves change little. To walk in this pine woods was to find tranquillity, though for reasons I never stopped to realize until it was too late. These evenly spaced boles with their canopy meeting overhead stood for order and calm; the path we had worn in the pine needles opened up continual vistas through which the soft shafts of sunlight illuminated a small, calm universe. All of us who walk for thought have our secret places which invite the mind. This was mine.
Everything about a hurricane is deadly to trees rooted on a northern moraine: the hours of torrential rain which weakens their foothold, and then the wind, gusty at first, but turning in on itself, as the eye of the storm approaches, so that the heavily leaved trees are wrenched and twisted in their selfdefense. In 1938 the crudest blows came late in the afternoon and lasted into the dark, but in Carol and in Edna — what effeminate names for such havoc! — the damage was done in daylight. An oak fighting for its life and without enough soil to hold it would lose its top or a great limb would crack, would dangle and then be stripped off. When the screaming velocity rose above 80 m.p.h. and our nerves told us we were close to the eye, we could see and hear the pines going down. Death came in two ways: the older trees, already somewhat rotted at the core, as the autopsy revealed, were snapped off anywhere from four to twenty feet from the ground; those still sound pulled out the great mushroom of the roots and went down like ninepins, carrying smaller trees under them as they fell. So they lie today, in windrows and crisscrossed, body on top of body, as though pushed down by a giant thumb.
For two days there were no birds to be seen: they had found refuge in thickets and were not yet venturing forth; when at last they emerged, the hawks—not. one but three — were gliding more boldly than I have ever seen before, and the small birds did not gang up against them. Wasps and bees were everywhere; their nests destroyed, they were angrily invading kitchens, cars, golf courses, as nervous as the rest of us; but the angriest rasp in the air was that of the power saw which echoed from hill to hill as the fallen trees were cut up. This is a loss which cannot be remedied in our lifetime, for the places can never look as they were. The shade trees which were the glory of the North Shore, down; the old elms in the Common and Public Garden, down; the conifers which once made a green wall along Common Lane, down; the elms on Coolidge Point, down; the forest plantings which Olmsted laid out on Moraine Farm back in the eighties, down; the oaks in the Arnold Arboretum, down. Whether it was the show place, the village green, the quiet wood, or the suburban maple which screened your porch from the neighbor’s — these are what we have lost and will long remember.
Who pecks whom at Pompey’s
Hamilton Basso is a Southerner who was born in the French Quarter of New Orleans and who now finds the air of Manhattan and Connecticut salubrious for his writing. He is a staff member of the New Yorker, where his reviews and profiles have made him welcome, and when a novel is in progress he holes up in Weston, Connecticut, until the job is done. The View from Pompey’s Head (Doubleday, $3.95), his new novel, is a loquacious, unhurried, pleasant-toned story of a New York lawyer, Anson Page, a Southerner by birth, who is sent down to his home country on the Carolina coast to ferret out the facts in a difficult case. Page is approaching the perilous forties. He isn’t sure he is still in love with his wife or his job, and this visit to Pompey’s Head, his birthplace, envelops him in nostalgia and reignites his interest in his old flames. The cutbacks to his youth are many and devious, for he keeps probing himself on why he ever left Old Pompey and whether Manhattan is worth the price.
The lawsuit which has taken Page south involves America’s foremost novelist, a Hemingwayesque character named Garvin Wales, now blind and living in retirement on an island off Pompey’s Head. Over a period of years, Males had permitted his editor to withhold some $20,000 of royalties which were paid in small installments to an unknown woman. The editor is dead, the woman has disappeared, and Mrs. Wales in her jealous way wants the publishers to pay back the money, which she says the editor had no right to appropriate.
Now this is a good case; the relations between Page and his senior partner, Mr. Barlowe, are well drawn; their deductions give us something to work on, and the hue and cry would be absorbing if the author really gave it a chance. But again and again he cools off our interest in the suit with long — interminably long — interruptions in which “Sunny” Page relives his boyhood in Old Pompey. Sunny and all his contemporaries are obsessed with the pecking order in this smug little ancestor-worshiping community. It is an obsession which I do not share and of which I have had quite enough after fifty pages. Sunny’s rekindled love affair with Dinah Blackford is made to seem a part of this elaborate “Shinto Tradition,” but in point, of interest it is much less skillful than Page’s dealings with the jealous, watchful wife of the aged novelist. The many, many pages on the pecking order throw this story out of proportion and at times out of focus.
The tomb in Manhattan
My Brothers Keeper by Marcia Davenport (Scribner, $3.95) is a tour de force which is sure to appeal to those who like the macabre. Her novel has its origin in fact. We all remember the newspaper story of a few years back, of the two aged brothers who had walled themselves up in an old brownstone house in Manhattan: how they were found dead, and how, for days after, the police needed gas masks to root their way through the incredible tons of rubbish, old newspapers, pianos, and the memorabilia of a lifetime in w hich the hermits had entombed themselves. It was a gruesome story of dependence and mania, and the stench of the long-sealed rooms almost came to you as you read the newsprint. This is the happy mystery Miss Davenport sets herself to unravel — who began the tyranny, were the boys ever able to escape, and how long and with what motives did they fester in age? The Momism —only in this case it is Grandmomism — begins on the first page of Chapter One of the novel, and from this point forward you know that Seymour and Randall Holt haven’t a chance. They may be allowed to come up for air, but in the long run — and the book must be over 200,000 words — fate and Miss Davenport will tease, malform, tyrannize, and defeat them at every turn. For me as for them, this is a dreary, not to say lugubrious, prospect. So is the book.
The long-suffering Bob
To read The Benchley Roundup (Harper, $3.50) is to reread some of the most laughable prose of the past thirty years and to be reminded of how much we still miss Boh Benchley. He had the most ingenious way of submitting himself to exasperation. The causes of his annoyance he would describe with wonderful accuracy, and with a slow burn. Thus he remembers the dreary oratory which as a cub reporter he had had to listen to in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf (“If These Old Walls Could Talk!”); thus he depicts the joy of playing Dealer’s Choice in a poker game with ladies present (“Ladies Wild”); thus he recalls the hazy delight of returning to college for a football game (“Back to the Game”); thus he recounts those special qualities which make Sunday afternoons unendurable (“The Sunday Menace”); but the worm always turns, in a Benchley essay; the moment comes when the gentle sufferer can stand no more, and this is the fun of the thing— to see him rise in his wrath and impale the nuisance with the deftest of phrases.