The Johnsonia Fire

Not long ago this was where I lived, in an old apartment building by the Nashua River, with my thousands of books, the collected treasures of a scholarly lifetime.

[Image: The books of a lifetime in the Johnsonia Building.]

To someone who loves books, each volume is a distinct individual. You don’t have a copy of Emily Dickinson’s Letters. You have a copy of Emily Dickinson’s Letters that was purchased at the Dickinson centennial symposium in Amherst with the symposium schedule laid in. You don’t have a run of a scientific journal. You have a run of a scientific journal that you inherited from your college advisor, who had in turn inherited it from his college advisor a generation before. Book collectors never think of “our” books as ours to own—we are only their caretakers pro tempore, doing our best to keep them safe so they can be passed on someday to caretakers yet unborn. When a book doesn’t outlive its owner, the right order of things is broken.

The fire began in the attic, three floors above, and quickly spread into the century-old timbers supporting the roof. The light wells had that brought illumination to the interior corridors of the building now acted as chimneys, drawing air to the upper floors to feed the flames. Within thirty minutes the city fire chief had sounded four alarms, and then six.

Demand on the city’s mains was so great that the firefighters had to run their lines down to the end of the street and pull water directly from the river. Like ancient Scamander surging against the God of Fire on the Plain of Troy, all night long the Nashua surged a hundred feet into the sky, elemental force contending with elemental force. By dawn, Water had conquered Fire and the river fell back to its course, carrying along with it the dissolved debris of fifty homes.

The next day, in the sun, Rough-winged Swallows were skimming and darting along the Nashua’s banks, and the Phoebes were tending their nest under the bridge as they do every summer. How I wish I were one of them.

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place’s name.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

My library has been the only enduring structure in my life, and nearly all of the material on my two websites has been written using the resources of my library. Contributions toward recovery will be gratefully accepted.

© RJO 1995–2022