Knowing One Place

Knowing One Place

There was a lean hiker who climbed New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock every day for seven years. One June, after an hour and a half scrambling up granite boulders, I saw him on the summit. It was my 4th or 5th trip up the second most climbed mountain in the world. (Mt. Fuji is first.)

Mr. Every Day Climber was carrying a walkie-talkie to relay the summit conditions to the rangers at the trailhead. I did not talk with him but my hiking partner did. Mr. Every Day said sure enough, he was the guy, and he had to get down to go to work. Not exactly an inspiring conversation.

Mr. Every Day knows every inch of every route up Monadnock. He knows the subtle changes in each season, and the exact spot where the skyscrapers of Boston can be seen on a clear morning. He knows the slabs of granite that hold warmth on a brisk fall day and misery in a January nor’easter. Mr. Every Day knows his mountain.

My paternal grandfather was a railroad man who lived on the left bank of the Ohio River all his days. My other grandfather was a Kentucky farmer who rarely ventured beyond the next county. Both men knew every nook and cranny in their neck of the woods. They gained the wisdom that comes from knowing one place.

And me? As I write this I am sitting in an A-321 flying 30,000 feet over Missouri. Last December 31st marked 20 straight years in which I flew more than 100,000 miles. I can tell you everything you care to know about a 727-200 or an E-175. In my sleep I hear the propeller wash of a deHavilland Dash-8 and the three bell signal the captain gives the flight attendant five minutes before we land. Why do I take this short detour to commercial aircraft? Because that is what I know. I do not live on the banks of the Ohio River. I fly over it – quickly, thoughtlessly. I do not have the wisdom that comes from knowing one place. I have the wisdom that comes from knowing one airline. Somehow it just does not compare.

I have recently found myself in uncharted territory, a brave new world for someone like me, a serial overachiever. I have entered a land devoid of striving. There is no one to impress, nothing to prove, no kingdoms to create or evils to conquer. I am a new resident in the land of being, undistracted from taking in the four robins that stayed for the winter, or the mourning doves nesting beneath my aspen. I watch fingers of snow claw their way over the Continental Divide and listen to the winds howl against my worried windowpanes. I do not beat myself up for being unproductive. With Mary Oliver I declare, “Tell me, what else should I have done. Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?”

Mary Oliver concludes The Summer Day by asking, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Today, as clarity arrives on tentative wings, pixel by pixel, I am only certain of what I will not do. I will not return to the Kingdom of Striving. I will not revisit the State of Perpetual Production. I will not fly over 100,000 miles again this year. I will keep my feet on the ground. I will fall down into the grass and be idle and blessed. I will pay attention to the robins and the mourning doves. I hear there is wisdom there.






2 thoughts on “Knowing One Place

  1. Boy do I resonate with this longing. Your thoughts inspired the little ramble that follows. To be clear, I am not even sure if I fundamentally support the view represented in the poem below. It is more of thought experiment. Less of an argument than a musing. But I wonder if it represents something true about me that I won’t shake. (And maybe shouldn’t try?)

    I have always been a dabbler.
    A moderate musician, a mediocre gardener.
    I have traveled broadly but not deeply.
    I know just enough to bluff the uninitiated
    Too little to do any real good.
    I don’t stay put well – physically or mentally.

    I’ve read a little Shakespeare but only the highlights,
    I’ve studied math and physics but not enough to remember much.
    I know the Bible and theology but not enough to keep up with a scholar.
    I can play joy to the world on about a dozen instruments.
    If you have a question I can probably introduce you to the person who knows the answer,
    I met them once back in ’95 when I was into that for a year.

    There is a wisdom in knowing one place, and I feel the call of that truth.
    “If you could settle down,” I tell myself, “you could gain wisdom.
    “Pick a place any one place and know it.
    You could find wisdom there.”

    “Quantum Mechanics, or Topological spaces,
    Contemporary epistemology or the bass guitar
    Growing Tomatoes or the book of Revelation
    Preaching or teaching or prayer
    The trails of Tennessee or the highways of the Northeast.
    The nature of scripture or the trombone
    Or finishing all the novels you have started.
    Just pick a place, any of the dozens you have visited.
    For there is wisdom to be found in knowing one place.”

    But I won’t, I don’t expect, For there are new places,
    new ideas, new books, new instruments.
    I am afraid it will fall to others to know one place.
    I will know many and delight in that.

    I will always feel that pain of loss
    for what might have been had I known one place.
    I will always wonder what I missed-what more I could have done.
    What lasting impact on the world.

    I will miss the wisdom of one place,
    I will seek the joy to found in many.


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