Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Gifts of the Magick

Halfway down the mountain between my house and town is a long stretch of road that looks like it ends in a house.  It doesn’t of course but rather jogs dramatically in front of it like the arced track of an amusement park ride.  The people who live there are Charlie and Anne.  In their early eighties, they tend to their seventy acres or so of open land often appearing at varying distances from the house in their get-ups.  Anne on the tractor... Charlie on the tractor...Anne in one of her pear trees cutting the branches to nubbins... Charlie mending a stone wall...Anne putting the scarecrow up in the garden... Charlie with firewood in tow... Anne tending to her rhubarb and chickens... Charlie, partially seen in his little barn, building his wooden sailboat that he plans to sail on in the large pond they have way out back.
I know Anne better than Charlie.  She and I annually monitor a few hundred acres of conservation land behind my house.  We’ve marked its boundaries with fluorescent tape.  We’ve walked on abandoned beaver dams together to reach colonies of  invasive purple loosestrife so we could eradicate them.   We’ve forded many streams.   You'll find Anne is in a perpetual ready-smile.  She has the turgid pink cheeks of a blushing sixteen year old girl and possesses a similar ease of going into manic slumber party laughter so infectious that when she is telling a humorous story it is her inspiring giddiness that one falls for.  Often the story isn’t finished because varying degrees of hysteria have set into all those listening before the end.  It's not the story, it's Anne.
Furthermore, Anne manages to fall very gracefully.  She usually finds a soft hummock or reed clump to land upon.  She generally falls once  per outing and each time it happens she tells the story of how she was once surveying the land with a local farmer’s son (a man renowned for his looks and physique, someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Brawny paper towel man) and how she fell but he was there to catch her.  “He is a volunteer fireman after all” she’d say slyly.  This became another story that typically ended in hysteria. The story had its variants to which I would sometimes add a grace note.  Once I called the farmer’s son’s embrace the “sturdy, willing and velvet arms of a swooning sofa”.  More laughter.
A little while ago Charlie entered a raffle.   It is held yearly at a library in a neighboring town.  Someone donates a vintage automobile and the winning ticket gets it.  Proceeds, ostensibly, go to the library.  This year they were raffling off  a restored-to-mint-condition red 1952 MG TD and Charlie, along with four thousand others, bought their tickets.  
Charlie bought a single ticket and won.  
He told the local paper’s reporter that “the car has enormous sentimental value because while I was serving in the Navy I saw the same year car in 1953 while walking past an auto dealership with a friend”.  He went on to say that since they both fell in love with the car they decided to both purchase it.  When Charlie’s friend got transferred Charlie bought him out. The only difference was, that car was green and the car Charlie won is red.
“I had my first date with Anne in it”  Charlie went on to tell the reporter.  “I also drove it around the West Coast and back to Connecticut after I was released from active duty”.  He further said he always regretted selling that car, deciding to eventually trade it in for a used thirteen hundred dollar Jaguar.  Charlie expressed how he was thrilled to get a car which reminded him of his youth in a happier era. 
Included in the article was a picture of Anne and Charlie in their newly won convertible MG,  Anne with a slightly glazed and serious smile.
Each time I drive down that optical illusion of a road that looks like it’s headed straight for their dining room, I think of Anne and Charlie who would always greet me regardless of what they were doing: Anne waving and smiling  while perilously perched on her pear tree without a volunteer fireman or hummock to catch her... Charlie nodding as he mows the tall July grass on his tractor.  So my thoughts were no different as I drove past their house late one night this past December under a full moon.  I was thinking of the extraordinary coincidence of the red and green 1952 MG TD’s.  I thought of red and green as the colors of  the Christmas approaching and how green signaled Charlie to "go with Anne" and red symbolized how Charlie stopped with Anne and never gave her up.  Who would?
Charlie and Anne had long before gone to bed in their white house set in its illuminated fields of snow as I drove past, nonetheless I was still greeted. But by something else.  Something small and unmoving on the road.  It didn’t move an inch as I swerved around it on the road’s curve.  It was something I’d never seen on all the walks I’d taken in the woods and fields either with or without Anne.  It was a partridge.  Unswerving in my associations, I couldn’t help but think it had flown down from one of Anne’s pear trees to greet me.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

How I'd Like To Die

I had been invited to one of those who-done-it theme dinners at a neighbor's house across the hollow.  I was cast as a dissipated but louche Spanish aristocrat with central European lineage who had been having an affair with the murder victim.  I can't recall if the game played like Clue but I know I wasn't the killer.  I knew it was July. I remember how I was dressed, and most of all I recall the walk back home.

The tree-lined road linking my house and my neighbor's is pre-Revolutionary and dirt, forming a nearly symmetrical soft U-shape in the landscape.  It runs through a true Appalachian woodland hollow passing all hollow specifications topographically and, as someone who grew up off the fabled Sleepy Hollow, I can say it carries the distinction of  mystery be it day or night.  At the hollow's bottom is a simple earthen bridge above a giant culvert guiding what in the early twentieth century was called the Wallygumpus and in the nineteenth century called Cheeseborough Brook. It is sizable and rocky, yet owing to the symmetry of the hills at that juncture, nearly flat for about thirty yards.  There are no other dwellings between me and my neighbor, only hundreds and hundreds of acres of forest, glades and wetlands.

My costume for the evening was set: A pair of black Capezio Mary Jane patent leather dance shoes with  stacked heels, a French Provincial tiered and flounced skirt fitted snugly and flamenco-like; the lowest tier reaching mid calf then yielding to a longer black lace sixties hippy underskirt.  My bodice was a corset of hot pink Ibizan silk beneath a short-sleeved blood red bolero tied at the mid-riff.  My hair was piled loosely on my head and held upright by a mantilla comb over which draped a large black lace veil that reached down to the small of my back.  But the centerpiece of the outfit was to be an exuberantly out-of-date stole of six stoats.  A stole of six chestnut stoats in series, one biting the tail of the next.  It was my attempt at communicating serious dissipation.

I decided to walk to the dinner party which is a distance of about half a mile.  It was early evening.  My hosts greeted me in their costumes and I met the other guests who all introduced themselves in character.  I recall during the dinner-game my host was so earnest in his executing the who-done-it accurately even if it meant reading the instructions aloud to all of us from the pamphlet at jarring intervals.  That is about all I remember about it.  

The host's mother is an accountant and prone to anxiety and so when, at the dinner's conclusion later that evening, I informed her that I had not driven there and would walk back home in the dark she was perplexed and mildly agitated.  I refused her flashlight or a lift from her son as I was departing.  She continued to express concern as she put on all the exterior lights available to her while I bade adieu.  I then set off along a short plateau of dirt road which preceded the descent of the hollow's soft ravine.

There is something called temperature inversion which causes mists to develop in the lowlands and this July evening happened to present such an occasion. As I descended into the hollow and the lukewarm mist I could see the shafts of the house's exterior light cut and shaped by moisture and topography.   Had the mother of my host continued to look upon me leaving she probably would have eventually only seen a highlighted spiral of stoats appearing to sink into the ground.  My own experience was initially less dramatic.  The lit mist very gradually turned to taupe until I reached a critically low altitude when all became shockingly onyx.  Now a pure city dweller may have panicked yet I have been in the country's heart of darkness many times and since I knew this road was fairly straight and walked it often I was not alarmed.  Besides, I thought I could see an emerging bit of light above me which I briefly concluded must be the light of my own house.  Only it wasn't.

It was a firefly.  Then came another and another until I was suddenly immersed in a pulsating cloud of bioluminescence.  I could tell I was near the brook as it provided its churning white noise but each step forward seemed to increase the number of blinking lights by an order of magnitude.  Instinctively looking at each blinking light insidiously caused me to lose all orientation.  My vision was so foreshortened that I could not tell whether the strobing was before me or inside my mind; similar to the sensation of pressing against the lids of one's eyes and seeing the phosphenes of the brain's electrical discharge... only much more intensely. My consciousness turned to consist only of these swirling scrims of light and I could but muster an  interpretation that this had to auspiciously mark a my seduction into helplessness. So I voluntarily submitted to the inevitable loss of bearing and began to spin into the throbbing gestalt of the landscape. Looking down, looking up, it made no difference. There was no figure, no ground, only luminous resonance. The polarity of my body, what was head and what were feet began to dissolve and obliterate.   I reeled and teetered. I started to rejoice.  I was blanketed only in a euphoria of soft warm mist and blinking lights of uncertain location feeling nothing of the corporeal inside me or against me. I felt not one body of a misdirected or similarly disoriented firefly .  

It was as I stood motionlessly spinning in this undulating world of corpuscles, in my Ibizan courtesan's outfit now further bedecked in spun luciferin, appearing like some fantasma who had lost her way, when I heard the howl of a nearby coyote.  Then another and another until I understood they were in a pack and somewhere truly not far beyond this place and from their perspective they must have seen me-- a frozen and odd prey in a snow globe of flickering light.   And so my trance was pierced.  I instinctively plunged my toe into the dirt to make sure I was still on the road.  Then using each foot I painstakingly slithered in pre-panic, advancing on the dirt only until I felt something that felt too much like either sedge or cattail, then repositioning and sliding my foot to secure the grit of plain road.

The incessant flickering now paralleled floods of thought as I began to foretell : Imagining this seduction of nature only to be the prequel to my death by a pack of wild dogs, perhaps exacting revenge for this stoat stole around my neck and shoulders.  They knew I was guilty and foolish, vain and trifling and in their final assault upon me in this bioluminescent theater, I imagined how the stoats would in fact too reanimate themselves and join the coydogs in my final ravishing.  My veil shredded, bolero bloodied.  Should I throw the stoats at them in desperate but mock contrition really only meaning to confuse them?  Or should I hysterically just run blindly through the pulsing scrim and risk falling into the Wallygumpus? My mind time-rippled to the future, to after my body was found,  with the accountant-mother piously recounting her concerns to the authorities maybe even alluding to the irony of the preceding who-done-it dinner.

Yet some third eye prevailed.  That and perhaps my indignantly hollering "NO!". Although I had not heard any more coyotes caterwauling after their initial salvo my pathetic yelp and startled yet sincere movements may have quieted the wolves while also ejecting me into the climb of the hollow's U and beyond my flickering cell.  I lifted my skirts as soon as I could and ran all the way up the rest of the hollow, through the stonewall barway, up  to my pond, up through the proscenium of white paper birches above the lawn and into my unlit vernacular farmhouse.  Away from view with my stoats in tow now I wondered whether the stoats may have indeed saved me, whether I may have been observed by the coyotes as a kindly stewardess of pups in the night.  I thought "Well that's how. That is how I would like to die":  As a fantasma wrenched from one world into another by the introductory, sweet, blinding disorientation of fireflies and the sudden final revenge of ravenous wolves. Only some other time.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wild Cucumber

My first encounter with this native annual came at the edge of a wood one late August a time when all the energy of Summer had maxed out.  This springy rapacious vine has tendrils like slender tentacles grasping onto anything that it meets.  As an annual, it is not woody so can be easily coaxed to configure to what you wish provided you stay on top of it.  Otherwise it will mischievously set about clambering upon all with its pleasing light green maple-shaped leaves.

Echinocystis lobata, so called because of the spinulose fruits that develop in late summer often alongside its flowers, especially likes moist swales and can often be seen alongside roadsides making plumy creamy undulations as it sweeps atop the hedgerows.  However, it probably can grow in less than optimal conditions although not as voluminously.

wild cucumber climbing upon a spirea bush and close up of the flowers

the fruit with tendril in the background

This year was a banner year for wild cucumber in the Northeast.  Just recently I tore up all the vines (very easy to do) and placed them at the base of a large fence so their watermelon-like seeds can sprout next spring and cover it.

a transplant from my garden last May

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hellebore at the pond


The Pond

After buying the old farmhouse at the end of one March a number of years ago, I quickly went around to its back to look at what I had really purchased it for.  Because, although the house was very old and pretty in a vernacularly plain way, the property upon which the house sat was the real gem.  Sloping, just this side of gentle, as an expansive amphitheater of lawn down to the woods below, it swirled around outcroppings of gray rock and pistachio-colored lichen. It passed two or three ancient apple trees and went through a proscenium arch formed by opposing copses of enormous white paper birches; their tallest branches meeting high above the lawn’s center stage. I called it “Nature’s Gothic Doorway”.  

 As I took stock of my newly purchased out-of-doors, I imagined how the old farm’s horse-drawn carts would travel upon the flat ribbon of trail that switch-backed midway across the slope. The trail now made a subtle snaking terrace of grass. 

It was in contemplation of all this when I was met with a few large mossy rocks, boulders actually, and a distinct squish beneath my feet.  Bending down, I saw small  percolations of spring water rising to the lawn’s surface which then ran beneath my feet and across the descending lawn beyond in broad sheets.  There were six or seven of them spread over a small distance, all converging down “stream” like a large ooze creating a fan of soggy lawn.  I could barely contain my excitement.  An onlooker may have seen my muted jump for joy.   I became instantly obsessed with visions of what my soggy lawn fan could become.

I rushed up to the kitchen and equipped with a very large serving spoon, scooped out a few spoonfuls of ground releasing more water from its high table just beneath the grass .  The more I dug the more water gushed out. My mind feverishly had its way with both spoon and ground as I  fantasized what must certainly be a torrent just below the surface.  It was then I came up with a plan.  I’d merge all these springs into a stream that was to tumble, froth, and foam as it swept all its way down to the woods and for that I was going to need a shovel.

Trading in spoon for spade, I excavated around the springs .  As water emerged and descended the slope, I guided them by taking spadefuls of earth  and directed them to converge.  With each spring I had the same dialogue.  Some of the springs did not seem to like my bullying, domineering nature, rather, they stubbornly stayed submerged beneath thicker mud and bigger stones.  So at times I relented, letting them have their way because I knew my plan was a good one and as long as I didn’t force the issue, Nature would eventually agree with me in the end.  It was just that Nature didn’t know it yet.  I knew it would take days and days of digging, sloshing, negotiating, arguing with , submitting to, but occasionally dominating the subterranean ocean I was sure I was now in charge of.  

A stream was indeed there... sort of.  By now, it had all the water I could summon from its modest headwaters.  All the water it was ever to get all year, in fact, because it was early Spring. My efforts produced a small but respectable brooklet. Nevertheless I was  pleased.  I ran the sixty yards or so up to the house and into the kitchen.  I looked out the window toward my birch tree theater and the lawn’s new onstage star:  My stream.  

At first I thought I actually saw it, but it turned out to be a rock.  I squinted.  I wanted to believe my eyes saw what was not really there but what they wished was: A stream.  Any stream.  Finally with the shift of the sun, as it was beginning to set,  I saw glimmers of backlit water.  So, it really was there.  I would just have to wait till the sun’s position in the sky was just so or resort to binoculars.  But neither option was satisfying.  A revision of my plan was therefore needed.  WHY? I wanted to see water.  I wanted to see  water from every room that overlooked the back yard, and that meant nearly every room in the house.  So, my dream remained lofty as I reluctantly realized my resources were more meager than I anticipated.

Still, a vision is a vision and what does one replace a vision failed than with another vision?  A new plan.  A pool!  So clever I thought.  So easily done.  I had already done the hard work and gotten the springs to obey me (with some tacit compromise of course) making them form a single runnel (I could now admit my stream was no more than a largish runnel because I now had a  better dream, a more satisfying vision).  All I’d have to do is dig something for the runnel to flow into and contain the water so it could reflect what was above.  For what is water really good for apart from drinking, if not for reflecting sky and trees around it?  In a matter of a day or two there it was.  It worked.  Not only did it reward me with little ripples upon its surface, but those ripples could be seen from my kitchen window, that perch which acted as final judge of whether my vision was realized or not.  True my pool was small, only three feet by four and about eight inches deep.  But, it was shaped like an eye  which grew silver and then gold and occasionally hazel when the clouds allowed the sky to peek through.  An eye of liquid mirroring a hovering birch branch or flying bird.  An eye in the landscape.  I rested and thought about how my vision turned out to be an eye.  

Spring continued. New leaves on the birch added green to my eye while greater warmth stole water from it.  My eye was shrinking and shrinking fast.  It then dried up.  Yes, it would fill with  a hard rain, spill over even, only to cruelly return to a dark hollow socket. I was new here. Nature was not junior to my groping expertise at landscape design.   Evaporation  my unexpected foe, was now abetted by a retreating water table which absconded with my water, having its way with it deep below the surface.  I became jealous and grieved.  I knew I must win back the heart of my vision.  Scheming and plotting, I  knew full well I would resort to any trick to fool Nature into giving me what I felt was rightfully mine.   But I knew Nature had a vested interest and owned more than half of my venture’s shares so  I figured I’d better have Nature sitting with me at the water table during our next board meeting.  

I figured I could  only enter the water table’s lair, by digging deeper.  I could minimize water loss by making the basin wider, longer, and deeper, thereby  yielding a substantial volume of water to resist evaporation. Who knew? I might even unearth more springs! The summer was the time to dig, before the Winter ice and snow and Spring run  made dredging necessary with back breaking labor.  

I  invested in a pick (a girlish one with a red handle), shovels, wheelbarrows, pails and rope.  I dug into the gravel with the moist sand enticing me with what just laid below.  Occasionally, rain filled the bottom of my basin with a few inches of muddy water.  On one summer day, after such a rain, I saw a frog had come to investigate my work.  It was bobbing in the water looking directly at me.  I was charmed by an acknowledgment such as this and so grateful that I made a pact with the green wood frog (I also knew the rest of nature would be  listening).  

“I’m digging this for you, you know!”  

The frog looked at me, impassively, not judging, just blankly appraising like frogs are wont to do. 

“That’s right. I promise you  a home”.  

The frog stayed put, bobbing, while I dug the rest of the day filling buckets of earth and water and dumping them on the shore.  I took care not to accidentally evict the frog to whom I had just promised a home.   

My digging intensified.  I dug by moonlight. I dug in rain,  I dug when I cried.  I dug while I sang. I’d fall down digging, getting up just to fall into the mud again. I was called flat out crazy by some.  A lunatic?  For digging under a full moon?  Well, I needed the moon’s opinion too!  Besides, it was so kind to illuminate my venture. 

“Why don’t you just get somebody with a back hoe to dig it out for you?”.  

A back hoe?  NO!  I’m the one having this conversation with my  soon-to-be-pond, not a man with some machine.  Not that I didn’t give the back hoe idea a thought myself.  But I knew it would not do.

The winter returned, but that did not dissuade me from digging and dredging.  The water also continued its cooperative nature by making my work much easier.  Water helped me dig in the ice and snow as it melted and softened any ground it permeated. I could take out the ground in chunks. For that, I was often thankful and praised the water.   After a while the pool was  shaping up to be a large basin of mud and ice.  It was uglier than a cesspool.  Thinking the honeymoon might be over, I even started thinking of it as a cesspool.   

One day I was expecting the UPS man to arrive with a package.   After I heard he’d arrived, I walked up to the house in my muddy work clothes, my hair and face caked with earth.  I greeted him and  told him not to mind my appearance.  That I was just in the middle of “cleaning the bathroom”.  I don’t know how he responded because by the time I finished my words, I was laughing myself blind with hysterics and he was gone.  That’s what nature was doing to me.  Making me submit to uncontrollable giddiness and probably un-welcomed bathroom humor. 

Because the emerging pond had become so ugly that Winter, come early Spring I decided the pool was to be festooned with wild flower plants I was going to start from seed.  But the pool was not simply a pool anymore.  It had grown and began to take shape as bits of native green emerged around it. It became more defined and rich.  It had become deep... five feet.  It was long.... twenty five feet and nearly as wide.  I stopped digging and looked.  The silt settled.  It was actually becoming something, a something I had been seeing only in my mind’s eye for a couple of years now.  Consequently, I felt like I both knew it intimately yet was  detached and  astonished by it.  It was something so alien yet wonderful.

I had channeled the excess run off  making a small but effective cascade down a staircase of rocks.  It even made a sound.  I planted more flowers all around to give it a crowning glory.  I tidied up, I admired, I meditated, I was mesmerized.  I almost slept with it.

One late May afternoon when I could not think of anything more to do, I sat with my back against one of the mossy boulders under which so many of my springs emerged.  The sun was starting to make its descent through the trees and light was hitting the water so as to reflect and project the ripples upon the flat face of one of the giant stones which now acted as a screen.  Watching this display for a few moments I noticed a frog beneath a marsh marigold blossom.   It stared directly at me and ballooned its membranes.  My work was done.  

I told the frog “See?  I told you I would make a place for you to live”.  

Satisfied now, I got up and began to walk up the slope of lawn, through the proscenium of birch, turning often to see what the pond looked like from as many angles and altitudes that I could.  There was a rich shadow giving a mysterious contrast to the land.  The air was soft, dry, cooling, fragrant and clear.  I reluctantly said so-long to my pond and entered the house.  I made my way to the kitchen where my husband was waiting.  I went to the sink and looked out from my perch of judgment.  There it was.  A miraculous tarn of clear mountain spring water peeking through “Nature’s Gothic Doorway”.  

It was in contemplation of all this when I caught sight of a large splash followed by waves which hit the shores.  Some large frog I thought.  Maybe a bull frog.  But through the birches, I saw something entirely different.  There, floating and bobbing, was a duck.  By the looks of it, a female.  Then another duck.  A male.  Now to me, any male duck is a mallard and this one was painted beautiful shades of caramel, red, purple iridescent rainbow, emerald green, and blue... all outlined in a bright white.  Seeing something that beautiful overtook me and broke my silence. 

My husband came to the window and said 
“Oh, wow!  That is the most beautiful duck I’ve ever seen, I wonder what kind it is”.  

“A mallard”, I said.  

“Oh no it’s not” he said.  “That is the most beautiful duck in the world”.  

Since neither of us knew what kind of duck it was, I decided to identify it with the help of a bird book.  It took no time to identify it as a wood duck.  The first line of text describing it was: 

"Considered by many to be the most beautiful duck in the world...”

Now had I a vision of digging a pond so that two  unfamiliar birds would find it and swim and take up courtship activities there every morning and evening for two weeks at the end of May, I never could have done it.    Nature made sure I knew it was pleased. I was given the gift of a vision I could have never envisioned.