By Richard Gambino
Deep into January. The holiday season is gone. (In Babylon — the ancient city, not the town off the LIE — people celebrated new year’s for eleven days and nights. Talk about hangovers!) People walk the streets of our East End towns well-bundled and stooping forward, in a hurry against the cold. The nights are still long. But they’re growing shorter, if no warmer, with each day. January 21 is a day perceptively longer than December 21’s day of winter solstice. But despite it seeming a time when all is still, January is also a time of new beginnings. In fact, the month was named for the ancient Roman god, Janus, who was nothing less than the god of new beginnings, and of doorways opening to new vistas.
So I’m deep into a tranquil relationship with a quiet earth. I learned long ago that doors are more likely to open if one doesn’t bang on them. Nature is my inspiration. There’s new life to come in the stark trees. In life’s own time. New flowers too, and the forlorn osprey nests will once again become scenes of fledgling life. Even the evergreen trees seem to be in thoughtful pause, confident they will generate new pale-green growth. In time.
I put on layered clothes and hiking shoes and set out for the trails of the Morton Preserve, where birds and squirrels follow me, hoping I’ve brought some food for them. Over the warmer months, they became used to people bringing seed so that the birds would eat out of their hands, and inevitably drop some on the ground. But winter is a hungrier time for them — fewer people, especially on weekdays and poor-weather days. The trail at Barcelona State Park is another favorite, ending in a view of far-away Cedar Point Lighthouse. From this distance, the sunlit earth-toned building looks as fresh as it must have looked in the nineteenth century. And I love the walking trails at the Camp Hero State Park in Montauk, from which one has great views of the Montauk Lighthouse, the ocean, and boulders left high on the bluffs as the glacier of the last ice age retreated. I look at the concrete bases that used to anchor massive coastal artillery during World War II, and I think of people who were adults during the earlier part of the war telling me of standing on Long Island beaches at night, watching small spots of flames at the horizon of the sea, cargo ships and tankers torpedoed by German submarines. A terrible, dark time I don’t remember — the Germans surrendered in a process which spanned my sixth birthday in early May 1945. And at what was the military Camp Hero is the largest radar dish I’ve ever seen, used in the Cold War — which I remember all too well. In fact, before the late 1980s, I never dreamed that I would one day write about it in the past tense. The dish is now long-abandoned, still aimed at the sky.
Janus is depicted in Roman art as having two faces, at the same time one looking forward and the other looking behind. We humans can also look to both the future and the past. It’s called “reflection,” and “taking stock.” The natural places I’ve mentioned and others on the East End bring it on in me, without my trying. For me, it best happens in the midst of nature in its time of quiet pause. The woods also lead me to be more naturally patient, a requirement if the experience is to bring me to … well, I don’t know in advance. Lately, I find my mind going to the economic suffering all around me, to the unemployed, to parents of young children, to parents of college students, to retirees, to the owners of small shops, to the people in all the homes in the Sag Harbor area — and all over the East End — with “for sale” signs on the lawns. It is a dark time for many of us. But I remind myself of an old saying: “Only when it gets really dark can we see the stars.” I bring myself up short. Am I becoming a dotty sentimentalist? In reaction, I find myself musing that maybe I’d be better off if I had started a consulting firm called, “Blagojevich & Madoff.” That tells me for sure that it’s time to refocus on nature.
A couple of winters back, I waited for weeks to take a photograph I had scouted out. All I needed was some snow. I waited. And waited. I grew impatient, and pessimistic that I’d ever get a chance to “get the shot” — a nature photographer’s obsession. Then, one day, snow came. I watched the flakes fall, enjoying it, growing ever more eager. As soon as it stopped, I took up my camera bag and tripod, and set out for the scene I knew so well. Oh, I got the shot. Just an ordinary one. The real gift of the day was another photo I saw on the way, one that I had not anticipated. A gem of a shot — a perfect winter barn scene, with pristine fresh snow and slanted winter light. The picture later won me a ribbon in competition. But for me the greater reward is remembering that day, and letting myself believe that maybe there might be another bright picture just down the road.
So I allow myself hope, in a mental process that for some reason I need to go through. Maybe it’s because I’ve all my adult life read a lot of realistic history and ideas. I still don’t dodge hard looks at hard realities, but as the years have gone by, I’ve grown better at seeing the stars in the darkness. The really important salients in life grow brighter, like the people I love, the more visible humanity I see in the eyes of many people — and the sublimity of nature in all seasons, a living current going back long before the Babylonians and Romans. The current goes on. We are part of its vital present, and its flow into the future. As in nature at large, there is in our individual lives, and in the life we share with others, times of pause, times to reflect and prepare for the next season. For, after every winter comes a spring.
Here’s to life.
RICHARD GAMBINO believes with the ancient Roman Stoics that, “The mind is dyed by the colors of its thoughts.”