Death of oldest settler in a rural community. White Bird Flying. (Nov 2015)

Susan's Thursday Morning Note November 12, 2015
Death of oldest settler in a community from Bess Streeter Aldrich’s  A White Bird Flying.

(This note is long, but I don’t know what else to cut out to get the emotion across.  This is on the moments of death of the oldest settler in a rural community as he stood in his field beside his Cottonwood tree.)

Good morning!!   White snow still clean and bright.  A red rose with a snowy hat this morning.  Feeling slightly out of place in this season.  Realizing her time is just about to come to a close.  Little bird nests and squirrel homes exposed for us to now watch and wonder what little scenes are taking places in the highest branches of our trees.  Little families which have lived so closely all these months, yet just now letting us know they are neighbors who know our routines and have given us their birdsongs and twitchy tails for months, little bird on the shoulder, little squirrel at my angel of dawn’s feet as she peers through my eastern window this morning.  Bright light reflecting off the snow showing her gentle understanding eyes. 

This week I have been rereading Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A White Bird Flying published originally in 1931.  The title comes from a poem a granddaughter finds written in a scrapbook right before her grandmother’s death.  The scene where she finds the poem shows her standing alone in her grandmother’s home before the funeral and before the family distributes all of her “life.”  Laura stands in the middle of the room speaking out loud to her grandmother, still seeing her and feeling her, and smelling her as nothing tangibly has changed in the last day behind the door.  She cries out, “Good-bye Grandma” and pulls out the scrapbook the two of them so often wrote in.  ….”She was wondering what things Grandma had recently pasted in the old book, so she hurried over the pages and came immediately to the last work that had been done.  There was no mistaking it, for the verse stood out clear and clean on a new page, the wrinkled clipping scarcely dry from its pasting.  It said  “Pain has been and grief enough and bitterness and crying, Sharp ways and stony ways I think it was she trod, But all there is to see now is a white bird flying, Whose blood-stained wings go circling high, – circling up to God.”  The words of this poem then reiterate through the rest of the book, giving strength whenever recalled.  One main character in the book is Oscar Lutz, the oldest settler in the community.  Below are thoughts of him by other characters and his own thoughts on death and of the scene of his death by the cottonwood tree he planted when he first settled. 

Old Oscar Lutz was Cedartown’s oldest inhabitant.  In every town and village west of Iowa there is still some old man who has seen the beginning and the growth of the community, who has watched little saplings grow to ancient tree, and the boys of three generations slip into manhood.  Even east of the Missouri River they are gone.  But west of the Missouri you will still find them.  A few old men who have seen everything from the beginning, who once climbed down from covered wagons into the waving prairie grass, to turn the first furrows in the virgin soil.  Some of them are still active.  Some mill around like restless old buffaloes.  And some sit on their porches watching the stream of life go by.

Oscar’s thoughts on death…”Queer – ain’t afraid to die.  But hate to leave, too.  Hate to hand over the community to the new generation for’em to run it.  Always seems as though the country around here just belonged to us.  Don’t know what’ll come of us old ones that got here first.  ‘Spose Columbus and Balboa and the rest of’ em had that same feeling of ownership…Don’t know what’ll come of us – whether we’ll just lay there a long time…Don’t see much difference, however it is.  The bodies anyway go back to the good old soil.  Leaves and flowers, animals and people…under my eyes I’ve seen ‘em all turn to the composition of the earth itself.  In time the elements run up through the trees and grasses and come to life again.  If I thought I’d just help along that way, it don’t seem so bad.  I like to think that I’ll always be a part of the prairie round about here somewhere.” 

Memories and Dreams…She (Laura) thought of her youth, and how true it was that a young person’s eyes were always on the future.  That made her think of old Oscar Lutz in contrast, whose thoughts were always with the days that were gone.  Age and youth!  Her father, then, must be at the stage where one thought only of the days’ work, – the present.  She would not like that age very well, she decided, – the time when one looked neither hopefully forward nor longingly back.

Oscar’s final thoughts and then death walking alone through his field.  He looked over to the low green hill where the mighty cottonwood still stood.  Marthy used to say she didn’t like cottonwoods, – they looked lonely and homesick-like.  But he liked them.  They were the settlers’ first friends, and he would never go back on a friend.  Their little shining leaves twinkled merrily all day long, – shimmered when everything else was still.  Happy sort of trees they were.  Only trees he knew that liked to laugh and joke…up the incline he toiled, digging his cane in the ground to help him ascend.  He was out of breath.  At the top of the little hill, he leaned against the tree, his bent, gaunt body dwarfed by the size of the massive trunk.  He laid a trembling hand against the bark, – one was as gnarled as the other.  He had a warm friendly feeling for the old tree, as though having been planted by him, it was born of his flesh and blood as though having come up through the years with him, it was one of the old crowd.  He and the old cottonwood, – the only two old settlers left.  All of the old cottonwoods had been replaced by newer trees, – all of the old settlers replaced by younger men. 

For a time he stood, trying to call up the picture of the same view as it had been from this identical hill in those days.  He could vision only an ocean of grass…With the dim picture came a sudden “feel” of youth.  For a minute the sluggish blood within him stirred, so that in fancy he felt a touch of reality in the memory, as though for a short period the dim picture brightened and hung there colorfully before him.  the brief moment of vividness made him feel that the old days were best.  But immediately, his good sense told him the feeling seemed true only because he had been young.  And youth is best.  These were the best days, now, for all who were young.  The old days here in the state had been the foundation days, days of digging and delving and laying the stones for the structure.  Lots of hard work.  Lots of sacrifice.  Primitive ways.  Crude methods.  Lots of sorrow.  Three little girls dying.  No anti-toxin.  No knowledge of tuberculosis treatment.  No hospitals.  Everything changed now for the better.  Folks would be surprised – some day – when his will would be read – to grandsons in California would get their father’s share, all right, but what would have been for the three little girls was going to be a hospital for Cedartown.  Nobody but John Deal knew.  Martha Lutz Memorial Hospital.  Places here they’d know about anti-toxin and operations and tubercular treatment for other little girls. 

Old Oscar Lutz had his memories left.  He turned and looked back to the creek bed again.  It must have been right about here that they forded the creek.  They had formed a circle with the wagons…Hadn’t felt so strong in years…the walk was doing him good…He felt closer to the old crowd that he had for years.  Good friends…all of the old crowd…help each other out every time.  Laboriously working his way though the tangle, he came out to the open cornfield.  Look at the sky…

The wind was beginning now.  The first gust came across the meadow grass like a trumpeter sent on to announce the approach of a powerful and evil thing.  Old Oscar, leaning on his cane, could see the cottonwood bend before its portentous message.  It seemed nodding and beckoning him – the only old comrade left now from the early days.  Queer, to think the little whip he had put in the ground over half a century ago was acting like a human tonight, calling to him from the hill top.  He started toward the hill.  Beat all, how his legs would scarcely respond.  Gone were the peace of the mind and the calm of the eventide.  And in their place, darkness.  The dark alone could not worry him, though.  He knew every stick and stone on the hillside.  By feeling with his cane and seeing by the lightning flashes, he knew he could retrace his steps to the cottonwood.  Lightening again.  The old plainsman’s thoughts returned to his own safety.  Better stay away from the cottonwood in the lightening.  Trees were the settlers’ best friends, but in a storm they went back on you, – in a big wind they turned traitors.  The old cottonwood was beckoning, all right, but it couldn’t’ fool him.  No, sir, not in a storm, it couldn’t.  The darkness was a thick, black , impenetrable thing.  Only when the great flashes came, could he see to get his bearings.  Always he looked for the cottonwood and steered his course by it.  How it turned and twisted and writhed in agony, – like an old man up there on the hilltop it twitched and moaned and cried out in its torment.  …There they were!  the lights of home!  Right over the brow of the slope, – shining in the wind and the rain and the darkness.  The sight of them brought back clarity to his beaten mind.  He was able to think straight again.  He was seeing life as from a mountain top.  Queer how in moments of seeing life like this, everything fell away from one but its essentials…all the petty ills…arguments…quarrels…bickerings…envy…striving…scrambling…the mad dash for supremacy..everything fell out of one’s consciousness but the lights of home and all they stood for.  “Yoo-hoo…” he called.  Queer, he was experiencing a rare moment of superb strength.  The walk hadn’t done him up after all.  He felt strong.  He stood tall and straight near the cottonwood, looking victoriously down on two blinking lights.  “Yoo-hoo,” he called, more loudly that he could have expected.  “Yoo-hoo, Marthy…comin’…”Lightning!  A great wide sheet of fierce red flame that enveloped and blinded and stung him, even as the earth and skies crashed together , and the lights of home…were…blotted out.”

Death from Laura’s view:  Laura was out in the storm hearing someone calling for Martha.  In a flash of lightening she sees the cane of Oscar lifted up to the old Cottonwood tree.  Lightening strikes the cottonwood as she watches her dear friend, old Oscar Lutz and the cottonwood fall and die at the same time.  She remembers his desire for his own death, “I want to go a tree in the wind.”  After reflecting on her decisions so far in life, on seeing her dear old friend from childhood as he died, on living with rich relatives for a summer and suddenly realizing her desire for a simpler life…And for a greater share of the night, Laura shed tears into her soft white pillow.  some of them were for old Oscar Lutz dying on the hillside all alone in the wind and the rain.  Some of the were for the general sad fact that hours fly and flowers die.  But most of them were shed because of her own sudden and definite realization that even though there come new days and new says, love stays.”

Funeral:  The services for old Oscar were on Friday afternoon.  Humans are queer.  A man, living and well, is ignored or criticized.  Dying or dead, he is noticed and praised.  Death sheds a temporary glamour over the poorest soul.  It is as though in dying, he has accomplished something which life never game him.  The sound of old Oscar Lutz’s cane thump-thumping on the sidewalks of Cedartown had often brought boredom, impatience, and annoyance to its citizens.  It had set women to closing doors quietly so that old Oscar would think there was no one at home.  It had reminded men suddenly that they had business elsewhere.  Only the children had remained interested and unannoyed.  And now that the sound was no longer heard and the cane hung idly on its hook in the decaying Lutz mansion, women missed the friendly tap-tap and the gifts of radishes or carrots or beets.  Men recalled the active mind and the stability of the kind of man.  Only the children ceased to remember.    The sons of the pioneers, and their sons, and their sons’ sons came to see old Oscar Lutz returned to the sod which he had broken when the state was young.   

“Sadness gives depth. Happiness gives height. Sadness gives roots. Happiness gives branches. Happiness is like a tree going into the sky, and sadness is like the roots going down into the womb of the earth. Both are needed, and the higher a tree goes, the deeper it goes, simultaneously. The bigger the tree, the bigger will be its roots. In fact, it is always in proportion. That’s its balance.”   Osho Radneesh

“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthurisasm like worship.  But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.”  John Muir

“When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou
“When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder, lions hunker down in tall grasses, and even elephants lumber after safety. When great trees fall in forests, small things recoil into silence, their senses eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die, the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile.  We breathe, briefly.  Our eyes, briefly, see with a hurtful clarity.  Our memory, suddenly sharpened,  examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid, promised walks ever taken.  Great souls die and our reality, bound to them, takes leave of us.  Our souls, dependent upon their nurture, now shrink, wizened.  Our minds, formed and informed by their radiance, fall away.  We are not so much maddened as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves.  And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly.  Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration.  Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us.  They existed.  They existed.  We can be.  Be and be better. For they existed.”

Thank you for letting me write all of these words this week.  I was very moved as I read this, but didn’t know how to share the emotion with you.  Again, loving those that the children are unannoyed by.  Loving and listening.  Time.  The winds of time blowing constantly.  Yet, we have the ability to take pictures in our minds of moments we want to forever think about.  Have a beautiful end of the week.  Snow.  Roses.  Pumpkins.  Candy Corn.  Fall.  Winter.  All seeming to mix together this week.  Seasons switching the movements in the songs gradually, as we gradually change each season of our lives.  Thank you for coming over for your friendship, coffee, cookies, toys, and for giving yourself the chance to possibly walk out with a book whose words may change the rest of your life.  Susan

Latin for this week:
velut arbor aevo – As a tree with the passage of time. (Motto of University of Toronto)
populus – Cottonwood tree
populus deltoides ssp. occidentalis – Great Plains Cottonwood

Work Cited:
Aldrich, Bess S.  A White Bird Flying.  New York.  University of Nebraska Press.  1988.