Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Louis Halle's Spring in Washington

It has been a hard winter in Washington, yet spring impends.  Thus it is time to re-read Spring in WashingtonIn the spring of 1945, in the waning months of World War II and the presidency of FDR, the young Louis Halle awoke early every day to ride his bicycle along the Potomac, somehow managing to pull himself away in time to keep his day job at the State Department.  His impressions of spring, recorded especially through his observation of birds, are well worth reading whether you have ever been in Washington or not. 

Born in New York City, he graduated from Harvard.  From 1941 to 1954 he served in the U. S. Department of State and was a member of the policy planning staff.  Although the slender little book is mostly about birds, there are astute observations about other wild creatures, and more than a little musing and wondering about the nature of man himself.  It is a small book, 201 pages to be exact, but one that has held me enthralled through countless readings.

My copy is a paperback, much handled.  Some of the pages are loose.  Sentences and whole paragraphs have been underlined at one time or another, with copious comments and exclamations in the margins. 

Let me quote firstly one of his exclamations:

“I shout Encore! Encore! I leap to my feet in a standing ovation. I want to sate myself with this cornucopia of wonders. I gaze with admiration at the dazzling mathematical complexities of minerals. I stand in true awe at the convolutions of storm clouds, the sizzling bolt of lightning and the ominous roll of thunder. Even a sun dog turns me on. And all of these things are inanimate, completely devoid of life. Or are they? And I haven't spoken yet of my exaltation of wild birds.”

Yes, birds were what really set his heart a-flutter:

“Somewhere in the mists of time the eagle and the warbler had a common ancestor. Now the warbler sings in the pine woods, the eagle soars above the marshes, the ducks swim in the bay, gulls wheel.”

If the thought ever occurred to you that politicians are like a bunch of rowdy school children who should be closely monitored, you will not be surprised at Halle's remark:

"If you want to know about Politics . . . just observe a flock of crows."

He spends page after page noting which birds appear and when, exactly, along the Potomac; somehow it is endlessly fascinating.  Each time I read, I repeat with him:

"For a few ticks of the clock I am here, uncomprehending, attempting to make some record or memorial of this eternal passage, like a traveler in a strange country through which he is being hurried on a schedule not of his making and for a purpose he does not understand."

I would like to have known Louis J. Halle. He would have been the consummate birding companion and a wise commentator on current affairs. I do not know what impact he made upon the State Department, but his mark on Washington endures forever.  Because of him, we see that the natural place of Washington, the land and water from Great Falls to Mt. Vernon, across the broad Potomac to the Anacostia, over to Rock Creek and up the Potomac to complete the circle, is a magical, wonderful place, full of wild creatures. 

I have seen great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, cardinals, warblers, countless squirrels and ducks, deer (in the tiny woods south of the National Cathedral) and, on two occasions, eagles.  One flew past my eighth-floor window to hover above Wisconsin Avenue; another swooped in front of me to perch in a tree across from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.  For those who wish to exercise their sense of wonder in the city of Washington, he may be the patron saint.  He deserves a monument in stone.