A PLACE in mind
By Charles W. Johnson
Old Friends: A Reflection
Along one of the trails I walk and bike
regularly in my town, there are two old
easy chairs, side-by-side facing out, as
if looking for the occasional passers-by. They are of 1950s vintage – simple,
squarish, smaller than those of today,
covered with a rough plaid-type fabric.
For 25, maybe 30 years, they have been
there, well into the woods, put there
as part of a Halloween haunted forest
walk by two young kids, blue-painted
ghouls, who sat in the darkness to scare
nervous participants as they walked by.
The ghouls were there only one night,
but the chairs stayed on.
Over the years I have come to regard these two easy chairs
as my old friends. Each time I approach that point on the
trail I look for them, and there they always are, dependable in
their same attitude and position, whether snow covered, rain
drenched, or dappled with spring sunlight. I even give them a
greeting as I pass. As the years have passed, I have seen their
slow deterioration (as no doubt they have seen mine, but would
never comment on it). Green mossy patches crept over their
backs and arms, their fabric skin sagged then peeled away in
ragged strips, revealing their wooden skeletons and innards of
springs, slats, and stuffing. Then, even the skeletons began to rot
and break, easing to the ground. I felt solicitous of them as they
declined into increasing vulnerability.
I had once thought of documenting their aging process
through a yearly photograph from the same spot, but I never
got around to it. So instead I kept the images in my mind, and I
wondered: who would go first, the chairs or me?
I had not been on the trail for some time when I decided
to go that way on my mountain bike one day last fall. But as I
pedaled up the little rise in the trail and passed by the place
where the chairs had long sat, I saw nothing. I thought they were
gone, removed possibly during a trail cleanup day. But then I
spotted them, looking more like decayed tree stumps, collapsed
in piles on the ground and taking on its dark color. I felt a pang
of sadness: my old friends had grown old together in their
woodland home and now seemed near death, and I had almost
passed by without noticing.
Ridiculous, I said to myself as I finished my ride home,
feeling this way over worthless, discarded furniture which never
belonged there anyway. But, of course, it wasn’t about furniture.
It was about me and my own aging.
I have been lucky, growing from young man to a senior
citizen in a community that knows me, tolerates me despite
some undoubtedly annoying foibles and manners, has seen me
through the best and worst of times. There I live in surroundings
familiar and comforting, even if they can also be hard and
demanding. I depend on seeing those faces I know, smiling back
at me, at first in the exuberant bloom of youth, later through the
wrinkles carved by time and the inevitable sufferings of life. I
feel tenderly toward our babies as they come onto the scene, but
also toward our elders as they move closer to leaving it.
In my perfect world I would live thusly and die in place, a
seamless transition from life into death, so there would be no
sudden disappearance without explanation, no sweeping away
into oblivion to make way for something new. Friends, neighbors
would remember who I was within the continuity of their own
lives. It would take a respectful amount of time, generations
even, to fade into history, not just a day to get rid of that which
is no longer of use.
Of course, pieces of furniture, as people, usually do not stay
in one place all their lives. They move on, find other homes,
settle in other locales. So it was with the old easy chairs, long
ago coming to rest there, in a new if unfamiliar setting, where
the forest grew up around them, where they slowly blended with
the earth. So it has been with me.
We have been part of the same community for a long time, these
chairs and I. Even after they are gone, for as long as I am able to
travel these trails, either physically or in my mind, I will remember
them. But most who take this path years from now will have no
idea what was here before. To them, the woods will be beautiful,
refreshing, a retreat from human influence. They will be grateful
for what it is, oblivious to what was. That is well and proper, I
suppose, but I did want to take just a moment to commemorate
my two old friends, to say goodbye before they are gone forever.
Charles W. Johnson is the former Vermont state naturalist and author of several books,
including The Nature of Vermont, Bogs of the Northeast, and, most recently, Ice Ship:
The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer Fram.