Envying the Phoebes
21 June 2011 (collegiateway.org)—Until last week this was where I lived, with my thousands of books, just a few yards from the Nashua River as it winds its quiet course through a dozen little New England towns, each with its church steeple, its village green, and its monument to the local minutemen who answered the Lexington Alarm in 1775.
It was really only two rooms, but with shelves along all the walls it was enough to hold the books of a lifetime. For people who love books, each volume is an individual. It’s not a copy of Emily Dickinson’s Letters. It’s the copy of Emily Dickinson’s Letters you purchased at the Dickinson centennial symposium in Amherst with the symposium schedule laid in. It’s not a scientific journal. It’s the scientific journal you inherited from your college advisor, who had himself inherited it from his college advisor a generation before. Book collectors never think of books as ours to own—we are only their caretakers, doing our best to keep them safe so they can be passed on to caretakers yet unborn. When a book doesn’t outlive its owner, the proper order of things is broken.
The fire began in the attic, three floors above, and quickly spread into the century-old timbers supporting the roof. The light wells that brought illumination to the interior corridors of the grand old apartment building now acted as chimneys, drawing air to the upper floors to feed the flames.
Within thirty minutes the city fire chief had sounded four alarms, and then six. Ladder and support trucks arrived from every direction, and in all the little valley towns the volunteer fire companies assembled and headed to the scene.
Demand on the city’s mains was so great that the firefighters had to run their lines down to the end of the street and pull water directly from the river. Like ancient Scamander surging against the God of Fire on the Plain of Troy, all night long the Nashua surged a hundred feet into the sky, elemental force contending with elemental force. By dawn, Water had conquered Fire and the river fell back to its course, carrying along with it the dissolved debris of fifty homes.
The next day, in the sun, the Rough-winged Swallows were skimming and darting along the Nashua’s banks, and the Phoebes were tending their nest under the bridge as they do every spring.
How I wish I were one of them.
The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place’s name.
No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.
The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.
Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.