©Poems of R.F.Mueller- Other Times, Other Thoughts
BEYOND NORTH MOUNTAIN
I awoke on the westward slanting meadow,
The early light red, and to the northwest
Above the Shenandoah, North Mountain lay a bank of blue,
As it did not so many sunrises ago-
Then still unmarred by wheel tracks-
When under contrail— unblemished skies
Clouds drifted east on virgin winds,
When the great forest stood along the ridges
And down the Ohio and beyond
To the open parks of bluestem, shooting star and gentian.
Then all was light, wind, birdsong,
And the drumbeat of the morning festival,
A world that didn't know its illustrious history
But lived the present instant well.
I awoke to the hard feel of the high chair's
Brown wood fastenings and the vaporous sunlit curtains
Above my mother's ironing board.
In the afternoons of those first days of memory
We walked through the bright fields of the Wisconsin summer,
And in the night when we lay
In the sparkling-eyed darkness before we slept she said
"Always say your evening prayers Robert."
But in my body there was a consciousness
Of her body lying against me and I said
"Do you see the colored lights when you close your eyes?"
Mother took me on my first berrying expedition
Up a gentle Wisconsin valley that seemed a vast tangled gulch
Whose rank growth snarled our baskets.
Later at the head of this gulch a friend and I
Celebrated the true rite of the northern spring:
Could anything ever again compare to the sweetness
Of illicit cooked down maple sap
While the melt swollen torrent
Roared in the frosty moonlight?
In those days there were farms with red barns
And white houses, mosaics of fields and wood lots,
Lanes that still knew horse wagons.
There were fence rows abloom with wild plum,
In one place a giant basswood, deep shading,
Whose flowers in summer turned the hot air narcotic for bees.
How many times I followed them there.
There were no weed killers then.
Then in the cooling nights of autumn
After hot days in the fields, we heard the far-echoing wail
Of the old steam engines pulling their heavy threshers
Along two-rutted gravel roads.
Some would call this use of nature idyllic;
Yet the black glacial soils were already eroding into the valleys,
And the basswood was soon gone.
A gulf separated the furrow from the thicket,
The rusting binders from the flints still scattered over the hills.
As I walked along the fence rows I found myself
Fantasizing the second coming of that which was already gone.
In a part of my mind it is forever turning April.
Still approaching Easter solemnities
In those old curved church benches of my childhood.
But the incantations of grandfather death
Could never frighten my thoughts away from pretty Dee,
Or from the sunny marshes where last year's cattails
Still lay earth-plastered from vanished winter snows,
But where the redwings already called "periclee."
There, after hastily shedding my church clothes, I would run
To find the freedom that is the wild land's power.
She is forever the cloud girl of my boyhood daydreams,
On my back beneath an apple tree,
Sky-surveying the summer fantasies of her school term reality,
How it would be to melt
The winter ice of our footsteps together
To the old church where before we always came alone,
Her smiling glances now so close, so close, my Dee.
And in far expeditions to the red pine covered hills
She might come with me,
Perfecting the grandeur of that moment.
But all this was long ago,
And perhaps the apple tree and pine groves now are gone. Somewhere she matches my gray, hair for hair or is no more.
Could I have told her all those things
Or merely sounded like the babble of raw ambition,
Mad, raving to a farmer's daughter?
Could I have continued to work those fields
Content in a summer's dream
While the blue hills ranged so endlessly away?
In the late 40's I discovered that the energy
Inside me could be given direction
And in a sublimation of feeling I became a greasy grind.
Now I set up my private idols to knowledge of a type
That could raise me to the company of new heroes.
Now the familiar hills and lakes
Faded into the haze of neglect.
Day after day I fed my ego on books and midnight calculations.
Yet the geologic subject of my studies
Turned out to have a soul of mystery.
The rock traces of eons-old winds and currents
Were clearly of the same wilderness
I discovered as a child, and eagerly
My mind panted down the trail of my earliest emotions.
Then as a young man I left the forest,
Said farewell to the anemone and the trillium,
And exchanged them for the unknown of the university town,
Exchanged them for a strange intoxication,
A madness of the power of concentration
And the ego's confrontation
With those who couldn't understand mechanisms as well as I.
But always in the periphery of my vision
I saw the deep green fringe of windward waving crowns,
Or heard the cawing of a distant crow
Like far-arcing messages of that other world.
In those middle years of only beginning enlightenment
We used to travel west each summer,
Following the American dream, but with a difference.
Already I resented the gilded motel strips
More than the weathered barns.
The skies were always pearly blue
And the cicadas sung in the rough-barked cottonwoods
Beside some dreamily wandering stream
Where we stopped to eat our lunch.
Below our wheel tracks lay the dust of bison blood,
Lay the bones of plains wolves,
Extinct but not long dead,
The heads of lances that could not
Stem the tide of cradles.
How could the lance wielders have known
That soon they would become Hollywood Indians
And that the black pavement
Would reach across all their horizons?
At the university and before
I never stuck to narrow knowledge,
But fancied myself able to brave much more.
I dabbled naturally in metaphysics,
But was too often beguiled
By those who sought to jump experience.
It's said that our knowledge expanded
When we had time for more than hunting,
Then time for more than raising cabbages,
Then time for more than riveting seams, etc.
But if the flint shapers were products of the forest
And the fishermen products of the sea,
How could the scholars escape
Being products of their little rooms and tables?
For some the lure of science is in the order of nature,
To look more deeply into past and present,
To link the shell, the layered cliff, the star,
To see where the number ship can take them,
Always seeking the world's mysterious gradients.
But for others it is a call
To turn paper and pencil into steel,
Into sky-humiliating machines,
Carving up the limitless mountains
And leaving their stains on all the seas.
This is the enigmatic course
Down which we started long ago.
As a boy I heard the wheel-whine
On the distant highway newly paved,
And through years of study didn't understand its meaning,
But now science itself reveals the magnitude
Of this crime against the tao.
Now the sun sets behind North Mountain
In an ocher glow of chevron clouds,
And the wooded hills extend their shadows
To the marshes there below.
Somewhere a cricket gives its measured call.
Was it from such heroic landscapes
That the cursed angels fell?
Mourn the planet's past and future loss
But the mourners not at all!
The highchair experience is the earliest memory I retained, and that of accompanying Mother into the sunny fields to collect dandelions for our meal, the most vivid. My life in those early days was largely a consequence of my Father's accidental death in a fire, which cost Mother ( "Katie" ) a far more prosperous life style than she now had keeping house for her older bachelor brother "Tommy" ( real name, Joseph ). Later, as early teens, my close friend Wally P and I found plenty of adventure of the reality of nature that is denied to today's machine addicted youth. Sneaking into a local farmer's "sugarbush" in the night to boil down some of the maple sap being collected is an example. On one such occasion a kit from family of Striped Skunks ( Mephitis mephitis ) came to smell at my boots as I stood frozen! But the rising pace of social evolution was already recognized by us as revolution, the changes visible by the year. After one year, I dropped out of high school, continued my wildland roving, and had a succession of menial jobs, among them farm work, on railroad section gangs, painting for my uncle Ed (Mother's younger brother ) and in a cheese storage house. I remember shoveling cinders out of a rail car in the summer heat, with the dust blowing back in my eyes. I was particularly attracted to a dark haired farmer's daughter ( "De" ), but too shy to approach her directly. Once, working on a road crew, I had occasion to ride past her home place, with an opportunity to wave to her at a distance. I remember also, at about this time, at the age if 17, I bought my first car, a 31 Chrysler, four-door, for $120; a car that ran well enough, but used enormous quantities of oil! It was put on blocks and awaited me when I returned from army service. It's curious, but I don't recall ever being homesick as an army draftee, nor mailcall being a high point of the day! I do remember exploiting every opportunity for pleasurable living, including -for me- daring liaisons with English town girls and sneaking off to French bars and brothels. Although I avoided direct combat, there were a number of close escapes, as when our troopship, bound for Liverpool from Halifax, shut off its engines one night in the stormy North Atlantic to listen for submarines, and when my buddy and tentmate was killed by a German shell while riding in a the truck just ahead of mine. The latter incident also showed that atheists do use foxholes, the only catch being that mine, which I found nearby, contained human excrement! On another occasion the LST ( tank landing ship ) in which I was crossing the English Channel was struck by a Liberty Ship, knocking me out of bed, but with no damage to my person. Outer experiences included living through bombings and strafings by German aircraft. Beyond visits to museums ( the Louvre being one ) my intellectual life was centered in libraries, largely provided by the Army. There I began to form more coherent ideas for my future, attempting for the first time to unite my early bond with Nature with my developing interest in science. On my return to civilian life in 1945 I began to develop these ideas further, with independent studies of glacial deposits and the native flora near my home, making a plant press for a collection of the latter. I also joined two friends, Wally P of my early years and his older brother Val, in my first use of the GI Bill, to qualify for a Private Pilot's license. Since this included an introduction to meteorology, it kindled an interest in this science as well, leading me to purchase instruments such as a barometer and a sling psychrometer to measure air pressure and dewpoint. In 1948, at the age of 25, I settled on a career in geology, but my long absence from formal studies and no more than one year of high school presented a quandary. To resolve this, I made an appointment with a professor of geology at Lawrence College ( now Lawrence University ) in nearby Appleton. To my disappointment, he said I already was too old for the demanding studies required- which, fortunately, did nothing to dissuade me! At this point I began a course of self-study to make up my lost high school years. I also remember a defining incident, at the moment of checking the mail, on the return from a visit to relatives in Marshfield, where I had driven my Mother and Uncle. This mail contained an acceptance letter from a correspondence school in Chicago. About this time, also, I began to work as a laborer at the Kimberly-Clark paper mill at Menasha. Although I didn't finish the correspondence course, I soon felt confident enough to take and easily pass entrance exams for the University of Wisconsin, and not long thereafter I enrolled at the University Extension, also at Menasha, and under the G I Bill. Here I was given one of my first writing opportunities by my English teacher, Miss Blanche Swindell, who encouraged me to write a book review for the Christian Science Monitor- which became my first publication. I subsequently transferred to the main campus at Madison, where I earned Batchelor of Science and Masters degrees, the latter in geology. In 1956 I transferred to the University of Chicago under a full scholarship to work under the dynamic Norwegian, Hans Ramberg, who afforded me full freedom in my choice of research. For a number of summers I had also worked as a field geologist for the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., exploring for iron ore in both the U S and Canada and garnering funds for the only new car ( a 1957 Chevrolet. ) I ever owned. I went on to use some of the data and specimens thus obtained as material for a Ph.D., and in 1959 , after receiving my degree, accepted a research positionpatriot76p at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at La Jolla, California. When this Institute became part of the newly formed University of California, San Diego, I taught the first course in field geology in the Anza Borrego Desert. In 1962 I returned to Chicago to take a position as an Assistant Prof. in the Geology Department. There I began my planetary research, which in 1963 resulted in a paper on the chemical interaction of the atmosphere of Venus with its surface, chiefly based on data from a Russian probe. Then, on January,2 of 1964, I executed one of my most fortuitous actions, my marriage to Betty D, the sister of one of my closest university friends, and November saw the birth of our first son, Don Olin. Although I'd published on a variety of subjects and was the principal advisor of several doctorial candidates, I apparently lacked sufficient discretion and tact in dealings with my superiors, which effectively derailed my quest for tenure. However, in 1966 our little family enjoyed a pleasant interlude in Sweden, I having been invited to be a visiting lecturer at the University of Uppsala by Ramberg, who was now located there. Our return to Chicago was soon followed by an invitation from NASA to join the research staff at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There I headed up a group, consisting in part of visiting scholars, with interests ranging from planetary chemistry, through crystalline order-disorder phenomena, to problems of urban land use and environmental thermodynamics. Here, also, in 1968, our second son Gus was born, and a year later we bought our first house in Lanham, Maryland. The difficulty I have in hewing a line emerged again as a result of my authoring a NASA document that proposed conservation as an alternative to a proposed nuclear power plant ( never built! ) for the Washington, D.C. area. This offended some pro-nuclear congressmen, who put pressure on NASA to disavow my report. Although a grievance I filed on the issue resulted in the affirmation of my right to publish as I wished, a palpable change in the NASA research climate reinforced my long-held desire for country life-particularly for the benefit of our sons. All this formed the background for the move to our Virginia homestead.