On the last day of the year, at dawn on a ten-degree morning, a man lies in bed thinking about temps perdu. Just offshore, a loon yodels, announcing itself and its territory as if summer never left.
As usual, the man’s family is celebrating anti-New Year’s Eve in Maine. The drive north on the thirtieth has been made, salmon from Jess’s Market broiled for dinner, a quiet night passed, and now anticipation grows for a morning of reading books and staring at sea smoke on the bay, a walk later to Ash Point, an early dinner at a favorite restaurant from the kids’ childhood, a movie on Netflix, bed by ten. No fireworks, stupid hats, dropping balls, champagne, headaches, waste. No temptation to fiddle while Rome burns or party like there’s no tomorrow. What’s to celebrate? Another year to be claimed as the hottest on record? More consumption ahead? Well, OK, there is that slight temptation to say the hell with the quiet life. Carouse, spend, drive fast, turn up the heat. Bad news can make you reckless.
He turns over and looks out to sea. His inner sybarite fades away. The loon calls again: let’s stay in the north forever.
When he thinks about loons, he thinks about fragility. A third of the males die in mating season in fights over territory. Once fertile, a mated pair makes a ridiculous nest of grass and twigs on the edge of the shore, in full view of predators. Loons can hardly walk on land, hence the derivation of “loon” from Old English for lummox. Innocently, they eat lead sinkers, mistaking them for gastroliths to aid their digestion. They’ve been thought to be funny, crazy, eerie. Motor-heads in power boats try to run them down. Loons from the lakes of the Midwest and inland Canada sensibly migrate to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter, but the ones from the lakes of Maine are apparently dyslexic and fly to the icy coves of the Gulf of Maine. The Canadian dollar coin is called the loonie not only because the loon is featured on the reverse but because Canadians don’t take themselves too seriously, and the name used to seem vaguely funny, or at least self-deprecating. Now Canada mines tar sands for oil and cuts boreal forests for toilet paper and no loon is laughing.
There’s nothing funny in nature except what humans bring to it. We photograph animals in hats, in laundry baskets, kissing under mistletoe, doing the things we wish we could, as if we were innocent of the burden of time. In nature time merely passes. Humans are the only animals that squander it.
Are we squandering it? The man puts a human trait to work, his memory. A few months before, he and his wife and daughter and her boyfriend canoed a lake in central Maine on a late September day. The lake had a camp and nothing else on its shores but trees and rocks. Mt. Katahdin filled the view to the north. The day was bright and warm, promising a clear, cool evening. A loon surfaced close to the canoes, sleek, graceful, painted black and white in patterns like Vermeer’s, perfectly within its element. It started calling. Its wail was the classic one so familiar on pure northern lakes, signaling its location for a mate, haunting like a conscience. The call reverberated around the lake shore and in the hearts and bones of the humans.
Lying in bed, looking out on the cold bay, the man knows that is the way time should be felt: in the sun-bound rhythms of the day, in the deep-seated magic of the seasons. People and their crafts are of no account at that moment on the lake. He wonders if the loon cry could be the song at the new year, the auld lang syne, his meme of lost time. Isn’t this how all of our passages should be reckoned?
Silly man: a bird’s cry will never replace noisemakers, or chain saws. Now who’s the crazy one?
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