The modern-day consumption of nature comes with the Thoreauvian impulse to capture the wild and confine it to paper. Wall Street stockbroker Sydney M. Williams, a Peterborough native, succumbs to this urge in Notes from Old Lyme, a collection of essays about his comfortable retirement in a sweeping old home at the mouth of the Connecticut River, with occasional departures of homage to New Hampshire.
It’s an eclectic assortment, unfortunately ordered and uneven in eloquence, that occasionally totters around the fringed edge of the vanity press. That said, to quote Longfellow, when it is good, it is very, very good. While occasionally torpid, it’s never horrid. And now and then, there is the unexpected gift of a memorable phrase.
To begin, Williams explains how, for the past 15 years, “a variety of essays have appeared like magic on my computer at home.”
“For lack of imagination” he names them “Notes from Old Lyme,” the Connecticut town where he and his wife, Caroline, lived for 25 years, doing the sorts of things that Wall Street stockbrokers and their beautiful wives do. This would include golfing (“An Afternoon on the Golf Course,” July 24, 2003), rowing (“An Early Morning Row,” Sept. 28, 2003), and skiing in Vail (“Skiing in Vail,” Dec. 24, 2003) with the occasional trips to Vienna. He also has a “relatively small” library of about 4,000 books — but not to worry, they are not all in the house; some are in his New York apartment.
At this point, the collection begins to alarmingly resemble the pre-island reflections of Thurston Howell III, but mercifully there is no “Late Afternoon Polo” or “An Evening of Bon Yachts” and Williams eventually settles into everyman reflections on Connecticut, Mount Washington, laughter, a good marriage and electronic books, from the vantage of his marsh-side home.
The marsh, he says, is reminiscent of New York’s Lower East Side a century ago: “immigrants speaking multiple languages, practicing their own special religions, exhibiting their own customs, and wearing the clothes of their native lands.”
“Nature, defined as the material world existing without man, is neither tranquil nor peaceful. The sounds from the marsh, especially in the evening and early morning, can be discordant — eerie and beautiful at the same time, like an orchestra warming up. One life depends upon taking another.”
Lovely enough, as is Williams’ meditation on Hurricane Irene — “Storms such as Irene cannot be harnessed; we cannot alter their direction; a single storm possesses more energy than man has been able to muster since he exited the cave” — and an interesting reflection on why there were no drowned frogs in his swimming pool in May 2015.
“Thirty-One Hours on Mount Washington” is an excellent telling of two similar hikes taken 34 years apart, father and son: “Indians native to the state knew Mount Washington as Agiocochook, home of the Great Spirit. As we pull out of the parking lot, taking a last look toward its cloud-covered peak, the name seems fitting. We view the mountain with respect. It draws hikers as a magnet does metal shavings. We, too, will climb it again.”
Points subtracted, however, for writing, in all seriousness, the clichéd line “Freedom is not free” (twice), for calling Thomas Jefferson exacerbated when he was exasperated, and for beginning a chapter on the Fourth of July with a stanza of “God Bless the USA.”
Beyond a surfeit of clichés, the book’s greatest failing is in its organization, which wanted chronology but was afflicted with generalized groupings: “The Great Outdoors,” “The World At Large,” “Books and Other Interests” and “Family and Friends.”
This construct has us skiing in Vail before 9/11, even though the trip took place two years after the Towers fell. Elsewhere, consecutive essays jump from 2007 to 2009 to 2006, for no apparent good reason, and the effect is like picking up someone’s journal and randomly flipping from front to back to middle, with no sense of continuity or arc of personal growth. The reader is perpetually displaced.
For a numbers guy, Williams knows his way around a dictionary better than most, and he has the heart of Thoreau, if not his Spartan ways. This book wanted to be better than it is; it beseeches as much from its best passages, but its aspirations ultimately lack wings. As they say in parts of Maine, magic always comes with a price. C
— Jennifer Graham