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A Lookout’s Letter

ForestFire1,424 words


All summer long the lookout in his tower
scans the huge green wilderness around him 
and if he notes a faint new wisp of smoke,
he sends his warning to a distant crew.
Each day he weighs the moisture in the air
and soil and marks the wind’s velocity;
from spring till fall he spends his time alone,
anticipating fire and lightning storm.

Should he suspect a hidden snag within,
he has time enough to check his alidade,
although his private smoke may prove a false
alarm. Yet even if he finds that he
has set himself on fire, whom could he call?
(He’d better write a note to warn himself.)


So, perched on Bald Mountain in a cage on stilts,
a thousand valleys running from my feet
towards the groves and canyons of the forest,
I may address myself in confidence:
“Dear You (who are myself), how shall I start?
No need to gloss the fact that we are one—
The soul’s charade here lacks an audience—
the mask removed we meet our mirrored self.

Between the distant forces of birth and death,
there’s time to write an honest line or two;
Though men forge birthday odes and epitaphs,
poor fact itself can be more fabulous.
So trace while you have time a truthful note
and tell your self the news you’d like to hear.


No random letter for the world’s sharp eyes,
composed in lofty scorn or secret rage
(sealed with a sidewise glance toward the distant dead
and mailed with fond hope to the fit though few),
Say what you will in any way you like;
Discard all rhyme, invent new songs or psalms,
devise a dozen happy epitaphs:
the news you serve must please your self alone.

Let public men who lie in private rooms
give public versions of their secret dreams.
Your only guide to correspondence need be:
Should you survive to three score years and ten,
will what you witnessed two score years before
satisfy you as a true report?


Before I took an inventory
of the town, its blazing shops and streets,
and said goodbye to all the ghosts I met:
The eyeless multitudes that haunt the night,
dog-souled fellows, mute with hope and world-fear,
pale bloated lads who float in second-hand dreams,
the lean and the lame who yearn for soul-warmed beds—
all yesterday’s poor masterless young heroes.

Trapped by time they drift downstream and bear
their cramps, erections, nerves, stigmata, scars,
ever in search of a mothering womb
and tremulous with fear of a second birth.
Before I left time’s overcrowded banks,
I said goodbye to all the ghosts I met.


To step with an adieu out of the tower
and fix the fatal accident of birth?
Wingless, to fly for one ecstatic moment,
and then rejoin an indifferent earth?
Were that no wiser than to watch all night
the far bright sparks of a blind world machine
trace the same eternal formulas
across the mute blackboard of space and time?

My eyes are glazed by the cold glittering riddle
of the heavens, the zodiac, the galaxies,
and our little moon—pale schizophrenic guide
to millions of habitable stars—
high signs from a lost fortune-teller’s book
whose meaning no one knows and none may learn.


I saw the flash from the first secret test
from my perch on Bald Mountain on a midsummer night
when the black sky around me was suddenly splintered
by dazzling rays that crisscrossed in all directions
as if the dome of heavens had cracked and a hand
furiously scribbled letters of fire in the sky.
I could not understand the strange signs of the time:
Three weeks later, even the stones spoke in Hiroshima.*

“Lo, I have become Death, destroyer of worlds,”
The chief tester at Yucca Flat quoted the Vedas…
How would man use his new prize? I asked myself.
Too steep the step before him, by a thousand years.
Too much has he learned, yet too little for wisdom.
Too early, too soon, our lad’s not yet ripe for it.


I did not know what I was witnessing,
alone on a midsummer night in the wilderness:
Whom could I warn in a tardy lookout’s report?
Now everyone knows yet few seem to understand.
Now men are chained to the new idols they built
and forge the future by old altars of fear,
transmuting the strange power in the elements
but never transmuting the stranger heart of man.

They learned to steal the fire that burns in the sun;
they can teach a lump of clay to bury a city.
But which of them can build a blade of grass,
invent a bird, or teach the unraveling atoms
to clothe a valley of radiant bones in flesh
and raise dead children to walk a green earth again?


Who may decode our letter in times to come
and ken the fading clues in our alphabet?
Who will find and forward our petition,
signed by the young and the old in our lost towns?
“We the living who would not die by fire,
hurled from the sky by robot rocketeers,
we call to our envoys in the house of nations
and their masters who hold the secrets of power:

Make chain reactions of new enlightenment
to spread to all the living in a healing stream,
before the eyeless are stoned by the blind.
Do not split the atom to give each a share of death;
divide it so each may share the earth and sky,
and a portion of life, sweeter than any yet known . . .”


My glass house trembles in an autumn gale,
forked lightning jabs a black and angry sky;
I disconnect the tower’s aerials
and wait to hear the thunder’s grinding laughter.
Whom could I signal in the troubled air?
Whom could I warn from a dark mountain-top?
To entertain my ruminating self,
I sharpen my blunt pencils to a point.

Yet who will read the small charred letters left
by fire-seekers who ignored the lightning?
Vessels of fact or vassals to great fictions,
lost lookouts in a tower, blind like my self,
Time’s thunder-clap has turned them back to dust,
and all their words are less than last year’s smoke.


Now that the rains have come I find myself
ruminating on the simplest things:
Why should sweet water fall from the darkened sky
instead of particles of dust or stars?
Where do the deer hide in a thunderstorm?
Do they find a mothering rock by the lightning bolt?
When the angry earth itself dissolves in darkness,
do old green dreams of spring still glow in their eyes?

Could I have turned my glass house on Bald Mountain
into a shelter from the closing fire season?
Saved one bright branch from time’s eroding eyes?
Built a wall against the autumnals of the heart,
against the weather which undoes the flesh,
the knots within, the final lightning fires?


They’ve done their worst to spill me from the tower,
the raging winds and rains and thunder-storms;
the huge green wilderness is wet again—
my season’s done, it’s time for me to leave.
Hail and farewell, enduring Sierra peak
and transient cage on stilts of steel and wire;
Farewell, my hundred-foot ladder; pulley and bucket
that brought both bread and cheese to a spy of smokes.

Adieu, old landmarks that befriended me.
Gray Eagle, Bunker Hill, the Rubicon,
Robb’s Peak, Bald Mountain, Plymouth, Pino Grande,
the thousand hills of El Dorado Forest.
For one brief season I have marked your smokes:
Our dust will drift and meet and meld in time.


Although I wrote these lines to warn my self
to set no world on fire by chance or choice
for entertainment in the lull between
a mortal fire-season’s lesser smokes,
I’d like to send a message to Jehovah,
if he were listed in the local Who’s Who,
to entertain him in his longer season,
his First Day Fumings and his Judgment Days.

Or, if I had an envelope to hold
the warning needed by my many selves,
I’d mark it with two billion names and send
each late survivor my condolences;
I’d post my letter in the nearest fire,
addressed to you, in care of anyone . . .


* The first atom bomb was detonated at Yucca Flat, Nevada on July 16, 1945, and its refractions reached across the Sierra Nevadas as far as Bald Mountain and beyond; on August 6, an atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing 100,000 men, women, and children.



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