Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ed Zahniser: Language of Life and Death

In life and in death we belong to God, I tell my sons. We are having one of our obligatory parental monologues as we sit on the cabin porch. My two sons are aged sixteen and thirteen. I call these monologues ‘obligatory’ because I feel obliged to have them. What the guys want is their breakfast. Their mother is a night person who likes to sleep late on vacation. I am a morning person who likes to get up early on vacation. Night to me is like a prelude to death, a hint or foretaste, a feeling not so much of powerlessness as of do-lessness. Some nights feel better than others.

And each day is not so much a Ralph Waldo Emerson God as a miniature life cycle. Each Sunday back home we open our church worship service with affirming that “In life and in death we belong to God.” So the week is like a seven-day ritual of these little daily livings and dyings. Partly why I like to get up early on vacations here in the mountains is that when I was a kid, and my parents were still alive, we didn’t have electricity in the cabin. And we didn’t — still don’t — allow flames in the upstairs bunkrooms. Night shut down definitively, more so because I was a little kid with limited patience for reading by candlelight downstairs.

In the dark when you are very young your imagination isn’t always on your side. Bedtime was rigidly enforced because my father liked to be alone with my mother, and he didn’t sleep late in the morning. What my sons want now is breakfast because I am the breakfast cook. It’s a generational thing. That or they want to hear me to say: ‘‘You guys can just fix yourself a bowl of cereal this morning.” (Some of our most tried and true rituals aren’t strictly grammatical.)

We end up having most of these morning monologues on the cabin porch. For me this is where the view is, and I get up first. For them this is where you wait for breakfast — or the okay to fix your own. I like okay better than permission. It’s more like a signal from the third-base coach than an edict from Rome. My mother didn’t ‘okay’ things. She gave you the ‘go-ahead.’ ‘You can go ahead and fix yourself a bowl of cold cereal, Edward.’ Like that.

My sons have been taught how to calculate that a pot of oatmeal serving four people costs less than two servings of cold cereal and uses no more milk. On the porch their physical attitude is like you were playing a video game with your hands at parade-rest but in your lap because you are seated. Part of this is just waking up, I know. Between worlds your consciousness paints the view soft-featured like the scenic backdrop in old dioramas. The scenery is meant to emphasize the foreground action by its own absence. But in my sons’ case, of a vacation morning, the metaphorical video game is turned off — or paused, at least.

I prefer the churchly metaphor of life and death. Probably because my own father died before video games were invented. For years my father didn’t allow a TV in our house, and when he did relent he wouldn’t allow a TV in the living room, which he sometimes called ‘the parlor.’ Now that sentence even sounds odd.

I imagine each of us can hear ‘In life and death we belong to God’ and hear it differently. More or less emphasis on the conjunction or the verb and on this or that noun and whether Godself comes with an initial capital letter or has gender — and which gender? — or not. Or whether this god is a character in a video game, novel, movie, old painting, recurring dream, or ancient stories that even in modern translation have hardened like concrete or at least asphalt.

That my sons understand the intimate relationship between life and death is important to our republican form of democracy and its future. The time that has passed between the death of George Washington and their births is ludicrously short compared to how long dinosaurs lorded it over most of Earth. But in George Washington’s day we didn’t have hospitals yet, and now we spend one percent of our Gross Domestic Product each year in hospital Intensive Care Units, most of it in the last couple weeks or days of people’s lives. This makes zero sense except at the bottom line of the so-called health care industry.

When my older son and I first talked about that statistic he said, ‘Wow, like listen even to that language: Intensive care combined with unit. What does that say?’ He’s sixteen, but he inherited my own father’s intuitive grasp of language.

Combining intensive care with unit does sound schizoid compared to ‘In life and in death we belong to God’? Actually, when I first said that to my sons this morning I was relieved the older one didn’t pipe up with ‘So what’s the difference?’ “Pipe up with” was my mother’s expression. I mean, how would you like to explain the difference between life and death to someone? Even pastors, priests, rabbis, therapists, shrinks, and bartenders often dodge that question.

When Justin and I talked about ICU’s and one percent of GDP, our conversation reminded me that Holland spends six percent of its GDP each year on the diking systems that hold back the ocean from the farmland the Dutch created by pushing the ocean farther out into itself. When pictures of our planet came back from outer space it was pretty apparent that where we live in the Universe should be called the planet ‘Water’ or ‘Ocean’ not ‘Earth.’ Holland pays a six-percent existentialist tax on everything it does, trying to make Earth live up to its minority-surface name. That’s suggestive of combining intensive care with unit or combining no-till with agriculture. Virgil or Hesiod would be as baffled as Hippocrates. Life and death cannot be equally compared with sticking your finger in a dike — unless you are in fact holding back the ocean.

My father and mother bought this cabin and a few acres for a signature loan when I was nine months old. You could say they got it for a promissory note on my father’s future earning power. Fortunately the banker didn’t ask my father for an electro-cardiogram to go with the signature on the loan papers. My father was forty-one years old then but also five years away from a major heart attack. By the time I was a teenager my father was conversant with his own death — it came when I was eighteen years old — but I was too young then to pick up on most of it. It is good to be the son of a father who is not in denial about how death can come quickly — and for you. For me.

I haven’t quite figured out how to talk about my own death with Justin and Eric. I don’t want it to sound like the old ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone’ routine. Both Justin and Eric might take that as a straight line and ask me: ‘When are you going?’

I tell them it’s no accident the Romance and Religion sections abut each other in some bookstores. Justin pipes up with ‘It’s probably alphabetical.’ But he knows it’s not. This tells me he’s really waking up now. I have only a few more minutes of talking time left. Even the view is pulling out of night mode this time of day — pockets of flat dawn mist that lie like lakes between the low hills off toward Crane Mountain shift and dissipate.

I could explain the phenomenon of orographic winds to Justin and Eric, how hilly or mountainous topography creates its own wind by the daily rising and falling of air masses heated or cooled by the cycle of increasing and decreasing solar heat gain. But that would sound too much like my own father announcing what bird just made that song or call, when what I really wanted to hear about was the birds and the bees, about what it means to love a woman for most of a lifetime or why even best friends can dump on you. Or when what I really wanted was breakfast or the go-ahead to fix my own, while my mother patrolled the cabin kitchen of my life like a weather radar or distant early warning system.

Photo: Howard Zahniser Cabin Bakers Mills Johnsburg NY, courtesy John Warren.

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).


2 Responses

  1. Susan Gaffney says:

    Very nice; very nicely written.

  2. David Gibson says:

    Elemental and educational by Ed Z. This is the stuff of life. As you say, Ed, that stuff doesn’t behave like a straight line, especially so in the crooked hills out beyond the porch. Thanks.

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