Monday, June 20, 2016

wind in the willows

“He had the world all to himself,
that early summer morning. The dewy woodland,
as he threaded it, was solitary and still;
the green fields that succeeded the trees were his own
to do as he liked with.”

~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

True to pilgrimage form, anticipating and preparing are elements in the travelling. The journey begins before the physical setting forth. Having the wheels aligned on my car was part of the sacred journey; the mechanics and I talked about the Berkshires, and how beautiful the mountains are in spring. Between my workdays, leading up to my time off, I gradually set aside provisions, thinking of writing, hiking, photography, and reading. Two weeks before leaving, during an afternoon’s visit at the Boston Athenaeum, it occurred to me that I’d do well with some light reading. For retreats, I’ve learned to intersperse the more demanding texts I tend to favor, with easygoing literature. Occasionally I’ve brought along short stories, periodicals, or novels. This time, while my thoughts drifted to memories of C. S. Lewis and my studies at Oxford, I remembered learning that he admired The Wind in the Willows, a book I hadn’t read yet. Climbing up through the gallery tier of the Athenaeum’s cavernous 2nd floor, I pulled a first edition of the story. Resisting the temptation to open the book before reaching Stockbridge, I placed it in the gradually-filling bag near my dining table, among pencils, cameras, clothing, batteries, ink jar, and bug repellant.

view from 2nd floor gallery, Boston Athenaeum

traversal and transition

The road southwest to the Berkshires begins with an ordinary I-95 drive south on the Maine Turnpike, as any average intercity errand. Taking the offramp that points me toward Worcester indicates that I’m going to do something out of my ordinary. Merging onto the “Mass Pike” is a rare westward commitment, yet I remained amidst plenty of hurried traffic- including the regionally stereotypic tailgaters and nonsignalling, cutoff-passing drivers. Things do change later, as I traversed the Springfield area and I-91. After that, much of the highway is all to myself, as the remainder of exits are among the Berkshires. Continuing northwest of this region are the Adirondacks. The highway grows less bland, curving and rising with the mountains. Anticipating my exit, the look of the terrain had become more interesting to me than the stresses I’d fled from. Finally departing from the toll road, I took up narrower and more eventful lanes. Blustery, chilled, aromatic overcast welcomed me to spring. Just what I like.

storybook imagery

After greetings at the Divine Mercy shrine (on Eden Hill), the center of my pilgrimage, and my hostelry at the nearby Red Lion Inn, the day had been fulfilled. The sight of my surroundings was inspiring in itself. After a short walk, I returned to the Inn for dinner, taking the book with me. At last, while tasting roast beef, horseradish, potatoes, salad, and ale, I began reading. The book accompanied my writing, and other reading, out on the Inn’s spacious front porch, becoming a companion through the sojourn. Settling into the pages, the story was unusually suited to where I was, taking place along a river, in countryside. Having the Housatonic River, the Berkshire mountains, winding roads, and forests around me, it was easy to imagine being part of the adventures.

The characters themselves are small animal sojourners along meandering voyages. Hiking in the woods, along portions of the river, I thought of places that could be hiding such landmarks in the story as Wild Wood, Mole End, or Toad Hall. In fable-like fashion, the characters exemplify personality traits. As examples, the staid and bold Mr. Badger admires the curious and naive Mr. Mole. The weasels and stoats are tribal and militaristic. By contrast, the flamboyant Mr. Toad is magnanimously hospitable, yet completely undisciplined. As a result, Toad’s adventures are the most dramatic and colorful, including an outrageous jail-break. The Water Rat is the fearless and conscientious champion of all the creatures, speaking with a steady voice. I believe he was the model for Lewis’ chivalrous Reepicheep, of the Narnia chronicles. After all, the swordfighting mouse held the honor of Most Noble Order of the Lion. The characters in Wind in the Willows navigate, argue, commiserate, scheme, and dine together.

Stockbridge, Massachusetts

And then there is the yearning wanderlust of Mole. The story opens as he senses the spring from underground where, as he says, “you know exactly where you are; nothing can happen to you.” Yet still, the season of emergence was “penetrating even his dark and lowly” confines, as “something up above was calling him imperiously,” and he tunneled up into sunlight and meadows. This generates an ambitious energy to venture out, and he finds new kindred spirits, and helps the lives of others- and he is happy to return home, in this new context. Easily, with book open in front of me, I saw some amusing parallels to my own experience. Mole instinctively knew to reach beyond the limits of subterranean Mole End. Later, after his adventures take him far afield, he reflects, “Things go on all the same overhead, and you let ‘em, and don’t bother about ‘em. When you want to, up you go, and there things are, waiting for you.” He could as well have been a basement character with top-floor administrators. Mole befriends Rat, and one of their intriguing dialogues includes this notable line, “You ought to go where you’ll be properly appreciated. You’re simply wasted here, among us fellows.” Inevitably, the book became integral to my time of retreat.

Along with these entertaining and introspective characters was the scenery, both in the story and immediately around me, in the Berkshires. The book accompanied me along the river, among the mountains, in the small towns, at meal tables, and even at the shrine. Everything intertwined, and the synthesis was involuntary. For example, one evening after dinner, I was aperch on the front porch of the Red Lion Inn, with books and journal. Turning a page in the story, I saw this: “...he strode along, his head in the air, till he reached a little town, where the sign of ‘The Red Lion’ swinging across the road halfway down the main street...” I looked up from the book and straight at the Red Lion sign as it swayed in the blustery breeze. Story and scenery merge.

red lion inn

The Inn itself deserves a few essays’ worth of narrative. Keeping close to how my seven nights’ stay there added to the pilgrimage and my enjoyment of The Wind in the Willows, the word “comfort” is a start. The Red Lion Inn was built in the 18th century, and the broadly spacious, impeccably maintained wooden hostelry stands on Main Street, in the center of Stockbridge. By today’s standards, the crossroads flanking the Inn are narrow and slow, but in centuries past, each direction would (and still can) bring road travellers south to Hartford and New York, west to Albany, north to Vermont, and east to Boston.

This was surely a logical place to build a large inn with a tavern. Peering daily from the full-width front porch, at passers-by, guests, and motor vehicles, it was easy to imagine stage coaches, horses, the elegant automobiles that followed, and strolling pedestrians. The Inn has a list of dignitaries, presidents, Tanglewood fesitval musicians, and actors that have stayed as guests. Some are among the portraits decorating the many rooms and labyrinthine corridors. The place is furnished with inadvertant antiques. Countless armchairs, sofas, settees, tables, and filled curio cabinets, though spotlessly polished, seem as though they have always been there.

Closer to my end, I was especially grateful to my generously hospitable hosts for providing a writing table at my request. They thoughtfully placed it at the window in my little room. With the outdoors, as well as the shrine, so compelling- not to mention the front porch- I did not spend a great deal of time indoors. But happily there were plenty of occasions for me to appreciate the grand dining room, which occupies most of the ground level. This was another space which joined the story to my experience, considering Grahame’s highly-detailed depictions of the characters’ savoury meals. I had quite a few of my own, and thought of our heroes and their corned beef, pickled gherkins, watercress, french bread, and ginger beer, among other victuals. Creatures all, with our creature comforts.

Leo, of the Red Lion

Within the fascinating collage that is the Red Lion Inn, I found the dining room to be most intriguing. On each occasion, I sat at a different table, to better appreciate the whole space. The wide entrance is connected by the Inn’s front parlor, which has an operating fireplace. This area is a favorite spot for the Inn’s resident cat, Leo. Common spaces allow for visiting occasions with fellow guests. Large, yet intimate, the dining room’s many tables are each decorated with flowers from the gardens immediately outside. The walls are papered with sedate floral patterns, and the lighting is gently diffused. Portions of the dining room are adorned with borders of rippled glass, and along a wide lintel is a collection of teapots perched high above. Breakfast is an especially conducive time for reading and journal writing. With the lenient pace of being on retreat, I could really linger and make note of these beautiful spaces. My neighboring guests were vacationers and fellow pilgrims, also at ease, making it easy to converse. There are no electronic screens to invade and distract the civility of people recognizing one another and appreciating the glory of the present. So many conversations begin with where one hails from; there is surely something ancient about such a way of making acquaintance.


Despite intervals between chances to read, and my slow-reading habits, I finished the book a few days before my return road trip. The enjoyment of a book is often noticed in its absence. Shortly after finishing the story, I found myself missing those quirky characters, recalling a childhood feeling of being sorry to see the ending of a good book or movie. Just the same, I had to pack my things and part company with the Inn, the Divine Mercy shrine, the Housatonic, and the Berkshires. Another sojourn streaming into the broader voyage. Finding my way to the Mass Pike, I thought of the toll-taker in The Wind in the Willows, a rabbit that cried, "Sixpence for the privilege of passing by the private road!” Not quite what I encountered in Worcester. Along the northeasterly drive across the heart of merrie olde New England, I did think about how the book and the Berkshires are now inextricable to me. Although I did return to the very situations upon which I had forced a pause, at least I do have the benefit of having made such a fine outward-looking inner journey.


Joe V said...

Wonderful writing, I feel as if I were there with you.

Being a denizen of the desert southwest, your New England sojourns remind me of the stark contrast with the southwest, and another pilgrim, Edward Abbey.

Bill M said...

Very beautiful places. The Inn is really wonderful. Your post makes me want to take a journey from Florida to parts of the country I like much better, New England. Nothing so beautiful in Florida.