E. B. White

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In "Once More to the Lake," what are three specific changes that took place on the lake?

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In this complex essay, White is from the start sensitized to the idea of change, wondering how the vacation lake in Maine and its environs will differ from what he remembers experiencing as a child, when his family visited in the years before World War I:

I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and the paths behind the camps...

He even tries to anticipate what the changes will be, in order to brace himself for them. Yet at the same time, he yearns to believe that

the years were a mirage and there had been no years.

He will, of course, find this is not true and that time has passed.

At first, he notes only small differences: one is that the dirt road that was used by horse-drawn vehicles is now tarred—or as we would say, paved—and second, the girls in the restaurant now go to the movies and so have learned to wash their hair.

A more profound third change is arriving by car. When he came as child, the family travelled by train, and a horse-drawn wagon met them to transport the family with its trunks to the house by the lake. Arriving by car is a more significant change because it lacks all the celebratory fanfare of a train arrival. Cars "sneak" up to a destination quietly; people use "bags," and there is "no fuss, no loud wonderful fuss about trunks." Further, his stay with his son is only a week, not the whole long month of August, as it was in his childhood.

But by far the biggest change, however, is that of his consciousness. As a child, he could live unreflectively and simply in the present moment. As an adult, he is acutely aware of the passage of time (much as he would like to erase that awareness) and of the fact that being the father, not the child, he is that much closer to the grave.

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In “Once More to the Lake,” White discusses a number of changes that have taken place at the lake since he visited as a child.

One change that White discusses at length is the overwhelming sound produced by the outboard motors. White refers to this sound as “the only thing that was wrong now,” and he juxtaposes it with the one-cylinder engine of his childhood:

Motor boats in those days didn’t have clutches, and you would make a landing by shutting off the motor at the proper time and coasting in with a dead rudder.

The boat is at once a product of and a symbol for White’s nostalgia: mastering the boat was about the ability to master time itself. Moving forward while the world around ceased to exist is symbolic of the life on the lake, which exists for White largely outside of time itself.

White also notices that the road, which once had three tracks,...

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is now tarred and only has two: “The middle track was missing, the one with the marks of the hooves and the splotches of dried, flaky manure.” The path for the horses has been replaced, tarred over, presumably to better allow automobiles to drive on it. This reveals the increasing presence of modern life.

Finally, White discusses his own changed relationship to youth and his body. Throughout the essay, White comments on how he feels both like he is his own son and his own father. It is important to note that, although White goes to the lake with his son, there is never any true dialogue between them. While White seems to fluidly move between these two positions of father and son for much of the narrative, the final moments can be interpreted as him being cut off from his son and the youthful identity that he represents. As the boy pulls the trunks over his “vitals,” the narrator feels “the chill of death.” This juxtaposition reminds the narrator that, although he is like his son, this form of nostalgia will not allow him to stay young forever.

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The idea of change is one of the most important elements in White's essay. 

The passage of time in White's identity is one aspect of change that takes place on the lake.  White used to go to the lake as a child and now goes as a father.  His perspective about the lake and what it means has become amplified because of time's passage:

I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation.

There is a depth to  White's experience because he sees it as both a child and a man.  This is a change to what he had previously experienced when he was younger.

Superficial changes are White's only real physical reminder that time has passed.  For example, "the sound of the outboard motors" represents how things have changed from then to now.  The inboard motors have been replaced with the outboard ones.  As a result, the sense of sound has changed at the lake. The cosmetic appearance of the waitresses is another sensory example of change.  White notes how the girls of now have screen starlets to model their looks after.

I think that the final change is White's understanding that time will invariably pass.  Just as White has progressed from child to father, he recognizes at story's end that there is more change to come:  

I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.

Int the end, White acknowledges that time cannot stop. The change that he experiences, "the chill of death," is one where he understands his own mortality in the midst of reveling in memory.  This is a change that takes place on the lake.  It is one that reminds White of his temporary existence. 

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