letterhead detail

On Rangeley Lake:
the Leisure to Learn
From What Is Around You

By Lawrence Biemiller

CAMP WINDSOR HILL, RANGELEY LAKE, MAINE -- Sue was standing motionless on the shore end of the dock, peering down into the clear shallows, and I was standing next to her, trying to follow her gaze. She spoke in a low, even tone, one that wouldn't scare even the darting minnows. It was either morning or evening, I can't remember which -- this was last summer -- but I remember that the lake was still and quiet and that the light was soft and that my nephews, who had taken to Sue as soon as she and Cindi arrived, were somewhere else for once. After a long pause, Sue said: "You've got to look hard at something for at least ten minutes before you start to see what you're looking at."

She meant when you're trying to spot crayfish among the rocks: It can take you several minutes to realize that you're staring right at a crayfish's outstretched claw. And she meant when you take the canoes over to the bog in search of moose, or when you drive up Route 17 to the scenic overlook from which you can see this lake and the next and the mountains and the clouds. Or when you lie on your back on the dock at night, staring up at the star-encrusted sky, looking for meteors and the Milky Way.

But ever since last summer, I've found myself remembering her advice in all kinds of other contexts. With half an hour to kill at the Pennsylvania State University a couple of months back, I stopped to visit the university's art museum. There I found "Gray Alice," a wall-sized work that I stood in front of, alternately puzzled and delighted, for ten minutes at least. In it, pages from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are arranged in a six-by-ten-foot rectangle with a slightly smaller gray rectangle painted just inside it, leaving uncovered only two inches around the perimeter. Through the gray you can see the outline of each page but not what is printed on it; around the paint's perimeter, you can see chapter headings and bits of Tenniel's illustrations -- the top of Alice's head, for instance, her eyes peering out just above the wall of gray -- along with pieces of sentences and parts of poems.

The label beside "Gray Alice" said only that it was made from 1983 to 1987 by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. ("Kids of Survival," the label said). I found myself wanting immediate answers -- What was this supposed to mean? Was it some kind of statement about censorship? Who were the Kids of Survival? But after a minute I found myself inventing and testing explanations of my own, and enjoying the challenge tremendously. "Gray Alice" had me thinking, and had me hooked.

Too soon, I had to tear myself away -- there were people to meet, places to be, calls to make, clothes to wash when I got home. Which is the great dilemma of our now-fleeting century: Technology makes it possible for us to learn an enormous amount -- by traveling to other places, reading, going to plays, listening to NPR in the kitchen -- but also robs us of the leisure to think about any of it. At best, if we're very lucky, we get a few summer days beside a Maine lake to pull together all of the puzzle pieces from the preceding year and see how we can make them fit, and maybe guess what they mean for the year ahead.

This is no way to appreciate the world, I have to say. So much information comes hurtling at us -- every day a wealth of new knowledge that would amaze the Greeks, that would astonish Leonardo or Jefferson or Darwin -- and the most we can do is steal a few seconds to think about it in the line for take-out to eat at our desks, or on the way to some committee meeting at which someone will drone on for half an hour without making a single noticeable point. Jefferson -- I realized this earlier in the summer, visiting his house at Poplar Forest, thinking about the quality of his life, reading some of his letters and his Notes on the State of Virginia -- despite his thirst for the knowledge we have so readily available, Jefferson would not envy us.

In his day, discoveries and advances came rarely enough that each could be savored and considered, its implications thought through and wondered about and included in letters to friends. People had hours or days or weeks to think about one thing before something else came along to demand their attention. Magazines and Sunday supplements did not goad them to worry that others were more current in their reading, their politics, their fashions, their wine-tasting, their name-dropping. MCI did not call them at home; the Library of Congress did not send them saccharine letters about the benefits of becoming "associates"; no portion of their memory was devoted to residential-parking minutiae, to PIN numbers for A.T.M. cards, to knowing how to reset the V.C.R.'s blinking, insistent clock after a power failure. Jefferson's age -- his pen, in fact -- produced the Declaration of Independence and the University of Virginia's lawn. Ours, if it's not unfair to say so, has turned out Melrose Place and the O.J. trial.

Okay, that's a low blow. Our age brought Angels in America to Broadway, and that alone excuses a number of our misdeeds. But a play like Angels -- seven hours of stunning language and crushing plot, with Ethel Rosenberg saying Kaddish over Roy Cohn -- a play like that you have to mull over for days afterward. And who has the time?

Here at the lake there is no V.C.R., no Court TV. Aside from the most basic of electric appliances, there isn't much in the house that would surprise Jefferson -- except maybe the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I suspect he would enjoy as much as I do. I look up Darwin and find that after his voyage on the Beagle, he lived quietly in rural England for most of his life, studying and thinking and writing, teaching himself to see how evolution's puzzle pieces fit together. I look up Maine and find a mention of this very lake, along with a map showing railroads now abandoned and towns now vanished. I look up "time" and find TIME, MEASUREMENT OF. "Time is measured by successive phenomena recurring at regular intervals," says the first sentence.

And of course this is true. Every morning whoever is up first makes coffee; every afternoon someone drives to town for groceries, and to a farm on the Stratton Road for lettuces and herbs; every night raccoons try to get into the garbage cans, and loons shriek across the lake. Successive phenomena recurring at regular intervals. Every spring flowers still come up where the generation that built this house planted a garden more than 70 years ago. Every summer kids run down the flagstone path to the dock and feed cracked corn to baby ducks. Every year a bat flying down from upstairs causes complete hysteria at the dinner table or in front of the fireplace (by tradition, the bat is dispatched with one of the old tennis racquets from the hall closet). Every few years a grandchild here is just discovering speech (Me dondo gip mahn translates, unexpectedly, as "Me candlestick man"; four candlesticks, clutched tight in two tiny hands, confirm the translation). Every few years someone who came here for decades dies and is missed.

Here at the lake you have leisure to be curious about the discovery of speech, about the weird cries of the loons, about death, about crayfish, about your relationship to successive phenomena recurring at regular intervals. Here you have leisure to learn from what is around you -- by listening to a nephew's provisional syntax, by writing about friends who are gone and what they still mean to you, by figuring out where crayfish like to hide and by wondering how minnows change direction so fast. Jefferson took notes on the weather and the seasons at Monticello all the years he lived there -- he took notes on all sorts of things, in fact, wherever he was -- and I'm starting to understand why. A lesson you teach yourself, by careful observation and consideration, is still ten times as potent, and a hundred times as rewarding, as a lesson from a textbook. Sue was right: Observing the world around you carefully, and learning from all that it offers to teach, is still about as fine a pastime as man or woman can devise. You just have to take the ten minutes to get yourself started, to begin seeing how much is there.

Copyright (c) 1995 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. http://chronicle.com Title: On Rangeley Lake: the Leisure to Learn From What Is Around You Published: 95/08/11

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