A favorite snippet of British poetry my father Howard Zahniser sometimes quoted was “Come down to Kew in lilac time, / It isn’t far from London.” His intense delight in the piece showed in how he would dip one shoulder and lean headlong into his audience — even if only one person — during a recitation. He used his body to punctuate his public speaking about wilderness, too, with his bob-and-weave guided walk-through of rhetorical emphases. “Come down to Kew in lilac time…” There are certain words a lifetime loads with meaning. Lilac was one. Whitman’s “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed …” Its poignancy suggesting spring but, too, its heavy nineteenth-century scent of death and dying.
At Mateskared, our family cabin in Bakers Mills, the lilacs usually bloom in May. We have a now scraggly stand planted about 1939 by Harold and Pansy Allen, from whom my parents bought the place in 1946. It was a subsistence farm then. The lilacs still hold forth in “the dooryard,” between the woodshed attached to our cabin and the sugar maple tree above the small barn. My wife Christine and I witnessed these lilacs blooming in the five-month period we lived at Mateskared on our deferred honeymoon in 1970 after my draft-induced military service during Viet Nam. The beginnings of a great hope. Lilacs and spring: just whose lifetime has loaded lilac with this peculiar meaning is not entirely clear to me now: my father’s or mine, mine or my father’s? Either/or; both/and: perhaps.
What may be the largest cellar dent uphill from Mateskared can only be located now by the incongruously large lilac bushes growing otherwise anomalously in the recovering forest there. The late great New York state conservationist Paul Schaefer cited these lilacs in his August 13, 1946 letter to explain to my father the location of the woodlot Harold and Pansy wanted to sell along with the smaller plot of land their house sat on. The wood lot was just above where the old road makes its right-angled turn to all but disappear now in recovering woodlands. Nature re-enclosing culture: these spreading uphill lilacs, these planted dreams of the human dooryard, these cultivated dreams of an agricultural way of life in a harsh and hilly place. No matter that so-called “economic agriculture” had migrated westward, to where river valleys may boast up to twenty feet of topsoil. Beside Mateskared the topsoil is some three inches deep. Underneath are rocks and sand. Lots of rock. Lots of sand.
When I was very young my whole family went up by those lilacs and their cellar dent — it was still at the edge of their clearing then. Our mission: to cut hay to make “hay tick” mattresses by stuffing the cloth mattress shells my mother sewed up for the purpose. I remember feeling a grand sense of our family “making do” together in that practical task. And why feather the nests of Mateskared mice over the coming winter with the bought, commercial mattress batting of that time?
My father’s patron saint of wildness, Henry Thoreau, wrote often about the many cellar dents near Concord, Massachusetts. A hundred years before Mateskared’s retreat from rurality toward wildness began, Concord-area economic agriculture already had headed west. “Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveler,” Thoreau noted in Walden. My father read that book several times throughout his adult life. Thoreau noted, too, how eerily and emotionally similar cellar dents were to the dents that settle over fresh-dug graves. Thoreau knew fresh-dug graves far more than joy would warrant.
Dreams of livelihood lay dashed in cellar dents. The dream of life itself lies dashed in grave dents. His brother John Thoreau died at age 27 in 1842. Thoreau nursed him right through the final horrors of his death by lockjaw — from a razor cut from shaving. Thoreau’s first book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was his brother John’s express memorial. It was to write that book that Thoreau repaired to Emerson’s newly purchased woodlot out by Walden Pond.
Then there was the grave dent of Emerson’s young first wife, Ellen. She died of the tuberculosis that would also claim Henry Thoreau at age 42. The Emersons had been married only seventeen months. Emerson’s grief was so great, so lasting that eight years later his second wife Lidian suggested they name their first daughter Ellen.
And then the grave of Emerson’s young son, little Waldo, dead of scarlatina at age five, barely two weeks after Thoreau’s brother John had died.
Cellar dents and grave dents, and those lilacs that last in the dooryard bloomed.
On April 29, 1964 my father wrote a letter by hand to Paul Schaefer and invoked the lilacs in Mateskared’s own dooryard. He reported briefly to Paul on the (final) hearings just completed on the legislation that in mere months became the 1964 Wilderness Act. He told Paul how he had survived the hearings, but barely, breaking out in sweats during his testimony. His letter alluded to his earlier, long-standing hopes that he would have “a post-wilderness bill period of writing.” Now he didn’t think that was to be. And wouldn’t it be wonderful, he asked Paul, if we could see again together the blooming of the lilacs at Mateskared?
The lilacs would have bloomed then in two weeks or so. my father died six days after writing the letter.
Lilacs: I think now my father invoked the lilacs to share with Paul, however less than point-blank, that he was dying. In the course of writing my father’s biography, Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act, environmental historian Mark Harvey tracked down three letters my father wrote that same day, April 29. One he wrote to my sister Karen, away at college then. One he wrote to his sister Helen and her husband Lee Snyder. And this letter to Paul Schaefer.
Your father knew he was dying then, Mark told me.
One’s world collapses inward with the closing in of death foreknown. It seems utterly appropriate that of so few hand-penned declarations, oblique except in collective retrospect, one was this small, lilac-nuanced testament to his longtime conservation mentor and friend Paul Schaefer, to our family cabin Mateskared, and to the forever-wild Adirondacks.
Photo of lilac bush courtesy Wikimedia user Jjron.