Summers spent as a young lad in rural New Jersey were freedom, pure and simple. Free from the oppressive dulldrum of a "leave no child behind" classroom philosophy and free from the everyday interactions with some choice people I truly could not stand to be near. Other than the part time job, to pay for the occasional night out with the boys at the pool hall or movie cineplex, summer time was free time. Wake up at 11 am, take a book and a bowl of cereal out to the yard and up into the arms of an apple tree and eat, read, and doze until the sun crossed the valley. Reading was the vice of summer, living vicariously through text while lazily sprawled in a field or on the dock at the lake.
The true pleasure of summertime, however, was always the long run.
For a group of people who could easily ease into a couch and not move for hours, or wake up well after the noon hour if left to our own devices, the running group was never livelier than the predawn Sunday jaunts; ten miles at a pace most people would have to exert themselves on a bicycle just to match. Every Sunday for twelve weeks the same dedicated crazies meeting before the heat took hold of the roads and trails to pound out ten miles of footwork with hopes of fall triumphs. The Sunday runs were always the most eclectic workout of the summer. The long relaxing run; the weekly mileage bulking up run; the "whaddya say we run this week in under an hour" run... no, you don't ever really forget the first time you run ten miles in under an hour.
The best Sunday runs were always the hill runs.
Piling into one or two cars and driving off into desolation until a gravel turnabout or a trail mouth was the start of it all. Then the stretching, shoelace-tying, and general griping about the hour. Then somebody picked a direction and just started moving. Usually slower than the group usually moved. Then we'd spot it -- usually. All at once. No warning needed.
Located just off to the left, illuminated by the rosey fingered dawn, a hill about a mile away. A big one, blocking the view of everything behind it. A secret hidden? A challenge to be answered. So the group would break off the current path, and head for the top.
And that was just how the Sunday runs were structured. Heading for the top. The autumn goal achieved by summer practice, always with the top in sight. It was innocence preserved; that ever present tug to see what that next hill was hiding. That desire to know what was beyond the next outcrop, what was around that grove of trees and brush.
They say, they imply that curiousity and felines; well, the two don't play well, is all.
To they I'd always respond (over my shoulder on a good day) that satisfaction brought him back.
Cresting those New Jersey hills as the sun dipped and leapt from view behind those farther mountains was always satisfying. It gave a measure of accomplishment to turn about and see from where you travelled. It gave a measure of excitement to see new lands stretch out before you. It gave a sense of calm to know whatever happened afterwards in this past-time called life, you had seen what laid beyond that hill.
It is this calm which returns to me whenever my eyes lay upon Wheatfield with Crows painted by Vincent van Gogh.
Wheatfield is a post impressionist oil done on canvas in 1890, the original stretched over a 50.5 cm by 103 cm frame. It is arguably, and there is very much argument, the last piece van Gogh created before he took his own life. Depicting a long blue-black sky, with only two hints of light suggested in it, we are given a deep golden field of wheat and plants, a narrow dirt trail bordering the field. Nearly all the emphasis, however, is on a side trail nearly overtaken with grasses, directing the eye towards the right, into the painting, as it guides you towards a vanishing point and a small dropping hill. To the left the trail is obscured after a short bit by the field about the footpath. To the right continues what appears to be the main path. And alighting around the side trail, in the golden waves of the wheatfield, is a murder of crows.
It is true that the dark skies may depict some sort of lonliness. It is also true that the crows may foreshadow some unfortunate event. The theme that I myself am stuck on, and keep in mind I am no coinnoisseur of fine art, is that Wheatfield is full of hope.
Seeing the crows land somewhat near the vantage point seems to suggest that the view, either that of an artist or traveller (let us say the "narrator" of this piece), comes from a stillness. A calm that encourages animals nearer. A state of rest and contemplation. "Should the lesser traveled route be taken? Is it safe to tread?" Doubts arising quickly, but not yet drowning out the curiousity to march on, to see what lies beyond that hill. The stillness, the calm of the narrator implies that they have seen what lies behind them, and down the main path as well. That there is conflict suggests a want for the view at the end of the untaken trail. It suggests a comfort level with what is left behind on the main trail; an intimacy with the knowledge that walking forth into the unknown may not be safe, but alluring all the same.
Metaphorically, I think the piece reflects van Gogh's life. His coming to terms with the dark skies which shroud it, and the glimmer of light centered -- framed -- highlighted, by this lonely, grass trodden trail. Be that trail death, and the murder of crows his irony-clad escorts, van Gogh appears comforted to at least have this trail available to him. If true that his talented mind was tortured from within, as sadly seems the case, then taking his own life may have indeed appeared as such an inviting escape from the pain thus associated. It is not this darkness which I romanticize though.
It is the hope.
It is the calm, and acceptance of days passed. It is the calm of a vacation following long days lived, full of labors and tasks. It is the hope that things will be better in the future, as we all travel over our hills of Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Fridays. It is the calm of being satisfied with life.
And that calm is always waiting, over that next hill, for us to find.
An excellent view of the painting, along with some facts gleaned for the purpose of this writeup, may be found at http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl