Saturday, February 20, 2021

Gratitude as a Salve for Grief

The snow rests so softly on the land. I want to relax, and rest content like snow perched on a stone.

I want to enter into this photo and give in gladly to gravity's nestling pull. But I live in two worlds right now, 444 miles apart. In one world, there was an Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, who loved land and bought 100 acres of it, then gave it all away, to us, to enjoy in perpetuity as Herrontown Woods. 

In the other world, up Shoccoree Drive in Durham, NC, there is another 100 acres, similarly perched high in the headwaters of my beloved Ellerbe Creek, with similar riches of plant life rooted in geologic drama, where the Carolina slate belt drops down into the Triassic Basin. That land, which helped inspire my founding of a watershed association in pre-Princeton days, has like Herrontown Woods always felt timeless to me, unique in its splendor, resistant to the bulldozer as heartwood is resistant to rot. 

But without the vision and generosity of a Veblen, nor the collective generosity of an open space tax to pay the owner's price, even timeless land can one day find its time is up. Hills and valleys resonant with beauty and history erased beneath a cookie cutter development. It hasn't happened yet. There's still a scintilla of hope, as neighbors organize in opposition. Might I have done more to save that land, 444 miles away, somehow found a wealthy donor to spare it? Can something still be done? That is the background anguish that now intrudes on the pleasure of a walk through snowbound Herrontown. 

Surprisingly, I feel a bit sad for the landowners in Durham who are selling to a developer. It took sixty years, but the Veblens' donation back in 1957 has contributed to a rediscovery of the much larger legacy they left behind, at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, in human rights, national defense, and early computer development. Their donation of a beloved nature preserve, house, and cottage is helping keep their story alive. Who could put a price on enduring gratitude--a kind of immortality--or the joys and peace this land of rock, water, and wood brings to so many?

So, let the snow settle,

and the pin oaks cling to their leaves,
and the seeds of wild senna sleep peacefully through winter.
Let the wooden man contemplate his whitening hair,
and a house grow eyebrows in the snow.
Let quiet beauty reign here, no matter what the distant news may bring. 

Let gratitude be a salve for grief.

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