From Robert Farrar Capon, “The Marsh Reed”
“A suburban parish priest, if he takes no steps to resist the pattern of his days, will find himself car-cursed and chairbound by the age of thirty-five… I [needed exercise and] took up walking.
I have been delighted with it. It is free. It takes only reasonable amounts of time. It is always available… But walking has turned out to have intellectual as well as physical benefits. I am as much the victim of placelessness, as much the prisoner of canned environment, as the next person. It has, therefore, been a delightful and metaphysical surprise to be introduced to place again. I have, for example, rediscovered what a hill is. The automobile is the great leveler. It not only annihilates distances; it irons all the prominences and eminences out of the world. I had lived in Port Jefferson for eight years as a parish priest, and I thought I knew it as a place… But it wasn’t until I walked up East Broadway for the first time that I, as a person, met the village as a place.
“So I met my town on a hill, walking in the gutter for the last hundred yards, taking the land on its own terms, not mine. It was not an easy meeting – it never will be. But it was a real meeting… 42-43
“Port Jefferson is just far enough away from New York City to have remained a small town, but it is also close enough to have felt the impact of developers. More than half my parish lies outside the village proper… the housing developments have come in [and] the repeating fronts of the five basic houses give it away: it is noplace.
“Port Jefferson, on the other hand, is someplace – though, to tell the truth, it is not what it could be. It is untidy, distracted, and radically uncertain about just what place it is. But it is a place.
The lower part of town, adjacent to the harbor, can be described with a little charity as a sprawling and indifferent sandlot: it was once a marsh, but it has been haphazardly filled in. Flowing across it, in a northeast path, is a creek that begins under the west hill and wanders toward the harbor. Over the years, it has shrunk to the proportions of a glorified ditch. Along its length lies an assortment of junk: broken hulls, rusting metal – an anthology of seaside trash. I will trust any planner to see to it that it is cleaned up. But along its banks in places are great tall reeds with tasseled tops – the kind you can take home and make tiny whistle flutes of, if you spend a whole summer evening fooling with them. Do you think the planners will leave those? What kind of odds will you give me that it will occur to any of them to make a park down there and encourage the reeds to grow the whole length of the creek? I wouldn’t take your money. Not that the park wouldn’t be worth it; it just will never happen. Or , if it does, they will pull up the reeds and plant marigolds. 44-45
“Marsh reeds, when full grown, vary from five to ten feet in height, and the tassels on the ends of the good ones are thicker than squirrels’ tails. The next time you walk past a bank of reeds, try something. Pick out the tallest one you can reach, and cut if off with your penknife as close to the ground as possible… Keep a record of your reactions. It is impossible to simply carry a marsh reed. For how will you hold it? Level? Fine. But it is ten feet long, and plumed in the bargain. Are you seriously ready to march up the main street of town as a knight with lance lowered? Perhaps it would be less embarrassing to hold it vertically. Good. It rests gracefully in the crook of your arm. But now it is ten feet tall and makes you the bearer of a fantastic mace. What can you do to keep it from making a fool of you? To grasp it with one hand and use it in your walking turns you from a king into an apostle… Do you see what you have discovered? There is no way of bearing the thing home without becoming an august and sacred figure—without being yourself carried back to Adam, the first King and Priest… Humankind cannot stand very much reality; the strongest doses of it are invariably dismissed as silliness. But silly is from selig, and selig means “blessed.” If you ever want to walk your native ground in the sceptered fullness of the majesty of Adam, I commend the marsh reed to you.” 45-46