587: An Old Story

587: An Old Story

587: An Old Story


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

This last week I went to Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia to spend time with my husband’s family. His mother was turning 77 and all her kids and grandkids gathered by a lake for bonfires, and group dinners, hot tub talk, and boat rides. One morning, my husband and I took the canoe for a long ride down the lake. We saw a kingfisher right off the bat, then he spotted a pileated woodpecker in the leafless poplar trees. I loved the size of the bird, the long body, the fire red head, the loud laughter it makes.

Every time I leave the house, I try to spot new birds, birds I wouldn’t see at the backyard feeder. And when I do, I am reminded of how much better our world is with multiple species. How delighted the human mind can become when we can see different types of animals and birds. How a great blue heron can look so prehistoric and otherworldly when you don’t see them very often.

At one point during the weekend, the lake’s surface erupted in bubbles and splashes, and it looked like something out of a movie about the Loch Ness monster. Fish were just splashing frantically on the surface of the lake. It looked like the whole lake was alive. It was such a thrill. The wildness of it, the way the lake seemed to move, made us realize how many big mouth bass, striped bass, or whatever, were under the water that whole time. There was something primal about it, the recognition that so much life is unseen.

Later, in the hot tub, we were talking about the future, the climate crisis, the pandemic, the places we find hope. And it felt like hope was right here. In the witnessing of the fish breaking the surface of the water, and how each of us took turns pointing out the herons on different days. Even the stray dog that wandered to the backdoor became part of our story. And how our niece carefully walked it home to make sure it was safe. And how we imagined bears coming down from the mountain each time we heard the frenzy of squirrels on the walnut trees. Even the imagined animals were part of what we found hope in.

In today’s poem by my predecessor here at The Slowdown— the brilliant poet Tracy K. Smith — we see how our imagined destruction can also be turned into our imagined salvation. And how that salvation begins and ends with the animals.

An Old Story
by Tracy K. Smith

We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind. 

Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful 
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.

					                                     A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended

Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.

Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color. 

"An Old Story" by Tracy K. Smith, from SUCH COLOR: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by Tracy K. Smith, copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Graywolf Press.