Room With a View

Lake at Night

By Franklin Burroughs

Every night, in the small hours, Nature calls. Sigh, slip out of the cozy bag, pad across the floor, step sockless into boots, and clump outside. Full moon, high overhead. Path to the outhouse a patchwork of moonshine and shadow; through the woods, backlighting them, the steady sheen of the lake. Having answered the call, it seems a shame to go back in, ignoring this radiant night. Why not walk down to the dock and sit a while?

Why not, but also why? To await an Epiphany? We’re told they only come unbidden, to minds that lie quiet — does yours ever, ever? To be At One With Nature? Heaven forbid. That comes soon enough, when she calls us home, or to oblivion, or to what a metrophobic old man, much admired by Thoreau, once referred to as “Another Boston.”

Nevertheless, go down to the dock, sit still, try to stifle the mental chatter. No clouds, no stars — Luna rules the night, all the earth keeping silence beneath. Light without heat, brightness without glare, an antiseptic fluorescent glow from lake and sky, but, coming across the water from the moon, a glittering beam singles you out, puts you on stage, self-conscious and limelit in an empty theater.

Well, yes. Meanwhile, a seeping, somewhat metaphysical chill reaches your bones. The sleeping bag beckons; common sense seconds. But don’t we wait all year for one moment — an inhabited snapshot — to distill and arrest the quicksilver apogee of the Maine summer? Might this moony night be it? Sit and shiver some more; find yourself drifting toward unconsciousness, the outer suburbs of Another Boston.

Then, abrupt, Nature calls again: a loon, just across the cove. Not the famous lunatic laughter, but that long-held, quavering, harmonic wail that carries and carries and is reserved for mated pairs. Ornithologists tell us this is what it means:

He: I’m over here.

She (offstage): Me, I’m over here.

Their week-old chick, a blob of black fluff the size of a beanbag, may chime in with a respectable version: I’m here too.

No call in nature so hauntingly transcends its purpose. The sound is full of eerie seeking, as of a lost soul for a lost world. Even on a small pond, it creates auditory illusions of desolate, oceanic spaces, a call coming down from the stars or aimed at them: the most aching inarticulacy you’ll ever hear in Maine, or anywhere.

Shut up; LISTEN! The male follows his Ah WOOOoooo with a second, more distant-seeming version, like an echo. The female responds in the same fashion — two real loons crying out, then their ghostly doppelgangers.

You are hopeless. Give it up. Clomp back to camp, step out of the boots, snuggle into the bag. Nature’s calls are robo-calls; we — old men, baby loons, whatever — are answering machines. We may be conscious of nature, love or fear her; she’s unconscious, uncaring, unrequiting. Her commands are Eat, propagate, die. Along the way, mate, feed and defend the young, fight or flee as per the situation. Obey thy bowels and thy bladder, by day and by night. Get some sleep.

Unrequited consciousness, unrequited love, chronic loneliness, and angst give us only songs, poems, ads, art, adolescence, credulity, humanity, delusions of omnipotence, transcendence, lucidity — all “that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life,” as another dead old guy put it. Strange how loons, about the most ancient, unevolved birds on earth, stir that stuff inside us.

Summers slide away. We are here (for now). That’s enough. That’s not enough.


Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.