HAVRE DE GRACE -- At 4 o'clock on the afternoon of the shortest day of the year, the light floods horizontally into the barn from the west, spilling through the open double doors over the raked dirt floor. Buckets, salt blocks, bales of straw and a sleepy orange cat cast long shadows.
The sun at the solstice has slipped far to the south, but its yellow winter light, especially after days of rain, has a deceptive warmth. It's tempting to linger, along with the orange cat, in the open barn door. Country music is playing softly on a radio somewhere. At this season, this is my favorite time of day.
The afternoon sun has warmed the frozen hillsides just enough to make the ground greasy -- slick on top and hard beneath. Vehicles can't get over it well.
This is not a problem for me right now, but it is for others. At the post office this morning I was talking with a friend who still has 200 acres of standing corn he's been unable to harvest.
Here the weather has produced one of the best crops of our lifetime, he said a little ruefully, and just as we start counting on profits which are almost within our grasp, the weather gently and teasingly takes them away.
I walk out to get the weanlings -- young racehorses I'm boarding for the winter. The low sun is at my back so they can't see me well, and they're a little skittish as I approach. I'm just a voice coming to them out of the glare.
The hawk's dinner
About 50 yards ahead of me a big red-tailed hawk flies up from the ground with something in its talons. Squirrel? I can't tell. The hawk, laboring, lands in a sycamore tree. I circle past, hoping not to disturb it, but I fail. It flies off and drops something, which lands in a puddle with a splash.
I retrieve it and find that it's a just-killed squirrel. The hawk veers above, swings back, swings away. It's a vivid and dramatic sight. The winter light from the setting sun makes the white underside and red tail feathers seem to glow.
The moment triggers something in the cerebral word-processor, and the beginning of a poem I first read probably 40 years ago, and memorized so that I'd never lose it, pops onto the screen. "Over Sir John's hill, the hawk on fire hangs still; In a hoisted cloud, at drop of dusk . . ."
When I first read it I thought it was a poem about birds, and only later concluded that it was about something more. But as the author, a Welshman, said a few months before drink and hard living did him in just short of the age of 40, it really doesn't matter if a poem reads differently at different times, or to different people.
What makes you prickle
"Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toenails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the 'D unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever your own."
The sight of the hawk was just a moment in the day, but one that made my pulse race, one to be remembered and thought about, then stored away.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, a quite different poet than the Welshman, understood that process. He was fascinated by detail, and could look at nature with a scientist's perception as well as an artist's sensibility.
"For a certain time I am astonished at the beauty of a tree, shape, effect, etc.," he wrote. "Then when the passion, so to speak, has subsided, it is consigned to my treasury of explored beauty, and acknowledged with admiration and interest ever after."
I pick up the dead squirrel, a young and perhaps careless one, and stroke the fur. It's hardly wet; the puddle into which it had fallen was very shallow. I put it on a fence post in the hope that the hawk will get back before dark and find it.
Now the sun is in the trees, and the year's longest night is about to begin. The weanlings have figured out who I am, and follow me docilely back to the barn. In the morning when I return to check, the squirrel will be gone.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 12/26/96