Monday, January 24, 2011

Winter in Washington

The new year arrived with unseasonably warm weather.  I heard that the last of December and the first of January were the warmest days we’ve had since early December. Sad to say, it didn't last: and we are once again in the grip of enduring cold. 
I was up early January first, but didn’t get out to walk Biscuit until about 9 A.M. We took the “long”  walk, a walk which takes us over to the other side of the creek and some nice views of surrounding woodland and ball fields. Our immediate neighborhood is a cul-de-sac, with Rock Creek Park on one side and the old B&O Railroad line on the other: this happy accident of planning gives our neighborhood a sense of integrity if not of isolation. It’s almost as if we are a little village of our own.

As we turned at the bottom of the hill out of our “village” to walk down to the bridge over the creek, I watched the crows picking at something on the ground nearby. Before West Nile virus arrived, crows by the thousand used to gather in the trees in the woods behind our houses each evening throughout the winter. Their hoarse calls were an evening event. Just before dark they would take flight and move on to their roost which was about a mile away. If you waited quietly after their departure, there was often something else to see: that’s when the Cooper’s hawks bolted from their cover and moved on to their nighttime roost.

But that morning there were only a few crows, and the only other signs of bird life were the muffled knocking of a woodpecker high in the branches of the oaks we walked under. The quiet was interrupted by the sudden passage of a group of bicyclists. The whirr of the bicycle wheels startled me, and just as suddenly brought back memories of the days when I used to ride regularly. On at least one occasion I rode from home down to Mount Vernon and back, and on numerous occasions I rode from home down to the C&O Canal, out to Great Falls along the tow path, and then (the bad part) in traffic for the third side of my great triangle.

Those days are long over for me, but before I realized it another powerful memory or two had been evoked. For one, I found myself remembering scenes from the movie Breaking Away (a coming of age story with strong bicycle themes). To this day I can’t hear Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony without having mental images of the seemingly effortless flight-like movement of cyclists. Bicycles, birds, slightly longer days, a hint of spring in the air: suddenly I was channeling Louis Halle’s  Spring In Washington.

If you have never read Halle’s Spring In Washington, try to find the time soon to do so. Right now, as the days are just perceptibly longer and bird life is just barely beginning to pick up, is the perfect time to begin reading this book. It’s a short book: if you are a quick read you might finish it in a day or two. Or, maybe better yet, read a bit now and then try to time your reading to match the progress of the season.

I’ve reread this book many times over the years, and every time I pick it up again I immediately experience exhilaration and a sense of passing into the light. The drawings Jacques  made for this book are certainly a part of that: they have the clear lines, the sure vision of the Greatest Generation: you can sense the confidence of the times with its eager anticipation of a brighter future.  

In the half-century since it was written, the greater Washington area has changed prodigiously. Yet much of what Halle saw back then can, with a bit of luck, be enjoyed today. Dyke Marsh is still there, as is Rock Creek Park, and if you’re up to it you can still ride a bicycle down to Mount Vernon.

Give this book a try: it’s the perfect spring tonic for those of you who are confirmed readers. 

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