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Summer inspired by Wordsworth

08/20/03 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Vermont summers are short, but memories of the warm season are long. This month, VPR commentators reflect on the importance of the past - in our series "Summer Times." Here's commentator Peter Gilbert reflecting on the power of childhood memories of natural beauty.

(Gilbert) A few weekends ago, my two young daughters and I camped out on the side of Mt. Mansfield. We built a fire, which they tended constantly with the joyous excitement of youth. We made some-mores, and watched the skylight slowly fade over the Adirondacks and the silver mirror that was Lake Champlain.

The next morning, they wanted to explore the stream. In soggy sneakers, we walked up the middle of the streambed, wading through its chilly pools, stepping from boulder to boulder, climbing over fallen logs, and skirting, undisturbed, a perfect miniature waterfall between rocks mottled with white quartz and wrapped with rich green moss. That, they said, was their favorite spot. I knew, if they didn't, that in the words of the poet William Wordsworth, "in this moment there is life and food/For future years."

The line comes from Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey," which captures his thoughts upon revisiting, with his young sister, the banks of a small river; it was a place of natural and pastoral beauty that he had visited many times when young. He writes that he owed to his boyhood memories of that scene "sensations sweet":

"...feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love."

The place I remember like that from my childhood is the Merck Forest in Rupert, Vermont. It, like our campsite on Mt. Mansfield, boasts a view toward New York State that is, as they say in Brooklyn, "to die for." When I was a boy in the 1960s, we'd go up to the Merck Place for family cookouts.

One evening, with great uncles and aunts, cousins and kin galore, we went past our usual cookout spot, and up Antone Mountain to a place where there had been a beaver pond. But the dam had failed, leaving the pond empty and the beaver lodge high and dry. I was small enough to be able to crawl on my stomach up the rising tunnel and into the abandoned lodge. What a thrilling place - a kind of igloo of stick and mud animated by a boy's love of nature and an imagination inspired by Wind in the Willows and Mother West Wind's Children. Never have I felt more thrilled, or more closely linked to the natural world. Alice had fallen down the rabbit hole, but I had crawled up into a beaver lodge to find a treasure chamber of gnawed sticks and dried mud.

With age, Wordsworth's view on nature changed, and so has mine. The "wild ecstasies" of youth have "matured/Into a sober pleasure." But I have no doubt that by exposing our girls to the natural world and to the words that nature has inspired, they will gain not only years of joy, but also, as Wordsworth asserted, a kind of personal resilience that comes from faith, rootedness, and serenity.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Gilbert is Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.
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