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Whence great things

It began rather prosaically. Our heat went off one holiday weekend and my husband decided not to shave. He wasn't making a social statement. He was just cold.

As the temperature continued to drop, his whiskers flourished. By the time the plumber had arrived to fix the pipes, the new look was growing on us. Mostly on him.

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His mother-in-law thought his beard-in-training gave him a rakish elegance. I had to admit I liked the way it mussed up his irritatingly well-groomed face.

But a beard? On my beloved? I needed time to think through all the implications.

Fortunately, the decision ws taken out of our hands his first day back at work. Everyone in the office had something to say about his quarter-inch of fuzz. They either wanted to know what he'd told his wife, or else urged him to stick with it no matter what his wife told him. He'd become an overnight cause celebre and there was no turning back.

I was unconvinced and he was still at the scratchy stage, but we agreed to give it a try. Trimming a beard, we decided, might be as therapeutic as planning a garden when the winter doldrums set in.

As he progressed from scratchy to shaggy, we both had our doubts. He had to endure the rusty razor jokes, and I sought solace in the profiles of enlightened visionaries down through the ages who'd worn beards. My list began and ended with Ptolemy.

What finally changed my outlook was a book I came across while going through some boxes in our attic. There on the cover of a recent paperback edition of Travels in Alaskam sat John Muir. Legs crossed dapperly over the edge of a medium sized boulder, one elbow resting on a hiking stick, he'd no doubt paused for a reflective breather between glaciers.

Muir is dressed for the wild in the fashion of a proper 19th-century literary naturalist, in vested suit, tie, hat, and laced boots. What proclaims the explorer in him, however, is his gaze; he has the eager eyes of a seeker of holy grails and trails. What frames the eyes, of course, is a marvelous beard.

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White and full and frothy, Muir's beard must rank among the world's lesser known natural splendors. One doesn't turn from it thinking, "John's gone scruffy." One just stares, fascinated. Where did he get those waves?

I found Travels in Alaskam when I was looking for something to give to a friend to send to her son. After spending the summer laying trails in one of the national parks, he'd wintered in at a remote Wyoming ranch, and Muir seemed a likely candidate for fireside reading.

The match-up was better than I'd guessed.

Yesterday at lunch my friend dug into her purse, pulled out a smudged envelope, and flashed a recent snapshot of her son. "Flashed" because she spent five minutes apologizing for his looks and possibly five seconds showing me the photo.

It was time enough. There on the edge of a Western cliff, legs crossed in front on him, sat another, younger John. The tie and hiking stick were missing, but his gaze was equally clear and purposeful. It was framed, of course, by a thickly textured beard.

Mountain man, his mother called him, with not a little pride. What a path to be climbing, I thought.

Nowadays, when friends ask me how I like my husband's new growth, I find I'm not so hesitant with an answer. He and I may not have challenged too many uncharted lands this week, but our beard is coming along nicely. A nd we're working on the gaze.

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