Wild River Books – Surprise Encounters: Looking for a Sign
A young man, John Kraft, who worked at Waterloo Village in northern New Jersey, had over several years built a little village reminiscent of the Lenape Indians who used to live in those parts.
John was not uninformed since his father, Herbert C. Kraft (1927–2000), had been the lead scholar on the Lenape for years and a professor at Seton Hall University. Yet the young man worried that the village might be less than authentic.
Therefore, when Joseph Bruchac, a poet and songwriter who is part Abenaki, came to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 1992, John asked me if Joe might accompany him on a one-mile walk t
o the site near the lake.
“By all means.”
We were walking along, and John explained that thousands of school kids came every year, and he was eager to do the right thing by the Lenape and by the children.
Upon arrival and first glimpse, John asked Joe Bruchac what he thought.
“Look for a sign,” he replied.
At that moment a black dot formed on the horizon, and it grew in size as it hurtled through the air toward us. That dot became a bird. The bird grabbed a limb of a sandalwood tree and spun around so rapidly that it flipped off and landed on a branch of a tree beside us.
It was an osprey, rarely seen in this inland area.
The next day, just before I introduced Bruchac in the big green tent, I asked if I might mention what had happened the day earlier.
Joe said he had written a poem called “On Lenape Land,” and he read it before a spellbound audience. He began:
Sometimes, I say, just trust your heart
And, if it’s right, a sign may come.
Eighteen years later, Hella and I created a Poetry Trail in Princeton on the rolling fifty-five-acre tract of the former Robert Wood Johnson estate, which had been saved from McMansion development through efforts by the D&R Greenway Land Trust and is known as Greenway Meadows. It is directly behind the renovated barn that serves as the Trust’s headquarters.
At the dedication in October 2010, six of the poets on the trail of forty-eight signs—half of which are poems by women—were present to read their poems, which saluted some aspect of the natural world. Other of the poets later walked the Poetry Trail: Naomi Shihab Nye, Coleman Barks, Rita Dove (whose husband Fred Viebahn made a touching video of her walk), and Jane Hirshfield, who came on the day of her reading in the Princeton University Chapel with the Paul Winter Consort.
Joseph Bruchac and his son, Jesse, who is fluent in Abenaki, walked the trail with flutes and drums, other poets, and waves of neighbors and friends on April 15, 2011. Miraculously, David Kelly Crow captured the entire event on a video called Transplanted Trees. That evening as Joe and his son spoke to a packed crowd at D&R Greenway, Joe said something that will ring in our hearts until our last day: “The poems here are like transplanted trees—they will continue to grow.”
In a way, one of Joe’s poems, “Prayer,” found early on the trail, captures the essence of the respect and mystery and awe of the natural world that we sought in choosing the poems, each placard’s design, and the sighting and sequence of the poems.
The Poetry Trail was one of five trails described in WLT (World Literature Today), January–February 2013, in a section called “Finding Poetry Under the Open Sky,” organized by Pattiann Rogers.
Therein is quoted Diane Churchill, an artist and master teacher (who created The Guide, the artwork that graces the cover of this book, Surprise Encounters) who wrote: “The Poetry Trail stands out most strongly for the understated beauty and homage to both the word and the land. They were married so well. While reading each poem, the words seemed to flow out and into the landscape, altering it slightly. The long gazes seem to attach to thoughts about the poems. If I lived nearby, I would be there often and it would be like an ongoing liturgy of experiencing the sacred.”
Editor’s Note: In Surprise Encounters, Scott McVay, who worked as Founding Executive Director of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Founding Executive Director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation as well as former President of the Chatauqua Institution, invites readers to engage in provocative encounters with riveting explorers—whether artists or scientists—who have as pioneers, opened new ways for seeing the world and our place in it. Through wide ranging and inspiring stories with internationally famous “path-finders” devoted to transformative change, McVay also reveals the challenge of placing funds strategically, a sacred charge, in education, the arts, critical issues, and the welfare of animals.
Surprise Encounters will be published in September 2015. To preorder a copy of Surprise Encounters, email: email@example.com
Scott McVay was founding executive director of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He was the sixteenth president of the Chautauqua Institution. He is fascinated by the songs of nature, propelled by the six-octave humpback whale’s song, and the songs of humanity, driven by poetry of the planet throughout history and today.