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 and 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.  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 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.  Not wanting any fuss I refused her flashlight or a lift from her son.  She continued to express concern as she put on all the exterior lights while I set off along a short plateau of dirt road which preceded the descent of the hollow's soft ravine.

Sometimes in summer months, temperature inversion 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 both 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 drill 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.  Being drawn to looking at each blinking light I was insidiously disoriented.  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. As my consciousness flattened into  swirling scrims of light my mind managed to escape to think that this had to mark 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 .  

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.  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 formed by opposing copses of enormous white paper birches; their tallest branches meeting high above the lawn’s center stage. I named 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 evidenced by a subtly terraced snaking  of grass. 

It was in contemplation of all this when I found a few large mossy rocks, boulders actually, and a squish beneath my feet.  Small  percolations of spring water were 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 the slope creating a large fan of soggy lawn.  I could barely contain my excitement.  An onlooker might have seen my muted jump for joy.   I became instantly obsessed with visions of what my soggy lawn fan could become so I rushed up to the kitchen and equipped myself with a very large serving spoon.  I scooped out a few spoonfuls of ground which  released even more water from just beneath the grass.  My mind feverishly had its way with both spoon and ground as I  fantasized what must certainly be a torrent just below the surface.  When I finally bent the spoon's handle it was then I came up with a plan:  I’d merge all the springs into a stream that was to tumble, froth, and foam as it swept all its way down to the woods.  For that I was going to need a shovel.

Trading in spoon for spade, I excavated around the springs.  As the water emerged and descended the slope, I guided it by creating rills which now were running through sand, silt, clay, pebbles and rock;  by converging the rills I swept the space with greater fans of water further dissolving the loam and sandy hardpan.  With each spring, for a bit of time, I had the same sculpturing dialogue.  

I discovered some of the springs did not seem to like my bullying, domineering nature and they instead stubbornly stayed submerged beneath thicker mud and bigger stones.  So at these times I relented, letting them have their way because  even though I knew my plan was a good one it would only happen so long as I didn’t force the issue upon  Nature.  I had faith Nature would eventually understand and agree with me in the end.  It was only that Nature didn’t know it yet. For my part I also knew it would take days and days with weeks and weeks of digging, sloshing, negotiating, arguing with , submitting to, but occasionally dominating the subterranean ocean I was sure I was now in charge of.  

The stream was indeed there... sort of.  Considering it had all the water I could summon from its headwaters, all the water it was ever to get all year, in fact, because it was early Spring,  I produced a small but respectable brooklet.  I was  pleased.  I ran the seventy yards or so up to the house and into the kitchen.  I looked through 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.  So I squinted.  I wanted to believe my eyes saw what ended not really being there but what they wished was there: the stream.  A stream.  Finally as the day went on and with the shift of the sun as it was beginning to set,  I saw the glimmers of backlit water.  So, it really was there only I would just have to wait till the sun’s position in the sky was just so.  Or I could also resort to binoculars and see it anytime.  But neither option was satisfying.  A revision of my plan was therefore needed. 

I still wanted to see water.  I wanted to see water from every room that overlooked the back yard, and that meant from nearly every room in the house.  So my dream remained uncompromisingly lofty as I ate dirt realized my resources were much more meager than I anticipated.

A vision is a vision and what does one replace a vision failed than with yet another vision?  A new plan: To be a pool.  The water and I thought it so clever and easily done.  I had already done the harder work by succeeding in having the springs obey me (with some tacit compromise of course).  They did great work by forming a runnel (I could now admit my stream was no more than a largish runnel).  All I’d have to do is direct the runnel to  a basin and contain the water where 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 day or two of digging there it was.  It worked too.  Not only did it reward me with little ripples upon its surface at times, but those ripples could also be seen from my kitchen window- that perch which acted as my final seat of judgement of whether my vision was realized or not.  True my pool was small.   Only three feet by four and just about eight inches deep.  But it was unwittingly shaped like an eye that grew silver,  gold,  and occasionally hazel when the clouds allowed the sky to peek through.  An eye of liquid that mirrored 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 ran on and newer larger leaves on the birch added green to the eye while greater warmth of the air stole water from it.  My eye was shrinking and shrinking fast.  It then dried up.  It would fill with  a hard rain, spill over even, but cruelly return to a dark socket of dirt. This told me I was new here. Nature was not unconditionally permeable to my occasional insolence and groping ideas of landscape design.   Evaporation,  this foe, was now abetted by a retreating water table which absconded with my water and probably was having its ineluctable 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 would resort to any trick to fool Nature into giving me what I felt was rightfully mine.   But I also knew Nature had a vested interest and owned more than half of my venture’s shares.   I figured I’d better have Nature, either in entirety or by proxies, sitting with me by the water table at the next board meeting.  

I could  only enter the water table’s lair, by digging deeper.  I could only minimize water loss by making the basin wider, longer, and deeper, thereby  yielding a substantial volume of water to resist evaporation.  In a rush of mind I felt I might even unearth more springs!  

I  invested in a pick (a girlish one with a red handle), shovels, wheelbarrows, pails and rope.  I was enticed into the gravel then onto the moist sand of the capillary fringe, that interface with saturation.  Occasionally rain filled the bottom of my basin with a few inches of muddy water.  

One summery day, after a drench, I noticed a wood frog investigating me.   It was bobbing in the water and looking directly at me.  Can I tell you how I was charmed by an acknowledgment such as this and in turn so grateful, that I found the urge to make a pact with the frog (and I also knew the rest of Nature would be  listening).  Trying to not sound too ironic  I said:  “I’m digging this for you, you know.”  
But the frog just appraised blankly like frogs are wont to do. 
“That’s right. I promise you  a home”.  I felt I had the final word.   The frog stayed put, bobbing while I dug the rest of the day filling buckets of earth and water and dumping them on the shores.  When it would occasionally disappear I took care not to accidentally evict the frog to whom I had just promised a home.   

My digging intensified greatly.  I dug by moonlight. I dug in rain,  I dug when I cried.  I dug while I sang.  I’d slip and 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 I couldn't do that.

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 of the ground it permeated. I could take out the ground in chunks of ice. For that unexpected bonus, I was often thankful and praised the water.   But while the pool was  shaping up to become a large basin of mud and ice I saw it as uglier than a cesspool.  I  started thinking that the honeymoon with my vision was over and I started seeing my vision as a displaced cesspool.  But I was to keep that to myself which allowed my continued digging.  

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 smeared both with viscously fresh and caked loam.  I greeted him then told him not to mind my appearance.  I was in the middle of “cleaning the bathroom”.  I don’t know how he responded because by the time I finished my words I was bent over in hysterics and he was gone.  That’s what Nature was doing to me.  Making me submit to uncontrollable giddiness and un-welcomed bathroom humor. 

Because the emerging pond had become so ugly that winter, come early spring I pledged the pool to be festooned with wild flowers I planned to start from seed.  Yet it was clearer the cesspool was not itself anymore.  It had groped towards me as bits of native greenery spontaneously emerged around it.  It was more defined and rich.  It acknowledged its depth... five feet.  It submitted to its own length.... 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.  I both knew it intimately yet was  detached and  astonished by it.  It was a wonderfully familiar alien.

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

While 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 had started to make its descent through the trees and refracted light hit the water then it reflected, refracted, and projected the imaged ripples across the flat face of one of the giant stones which now acted as a screen to reflect the pond to itself.   As the pond beheld itself while I beheld it I noticed a frog beholding me beneath a marsh marigold blossom.   It stared directly at me and ballooned its membranes.  My work was done.  I said to the frog “See?  I told you I would make a place for you to live”.  

I was satisfied.  I had kept the pledge to all involved, to all who signed up.  As the sun drew down, I rose 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 chance inspired.  There was a rich shadow and a mysterious contrast to the land.  The air was exuberantly soft, yet dry, cooling, fragrant and clear.  I reluctantly said so-long to the pond and entered the house just to make my way to the kitchen window where my husband was waiting.  Over the sink we looked out from my perch of judgment.  There it was.  A  tarn of limpid spring water peeking through “Nature’s Gothic Doorway”.  

It was in my contemplation and my husband's momentary departure from the sink  when I caught sight of a large splash followed by waves  hitting the pond's shores.  Some very large frog I thought.  Maybe even a bull frog.  But through the birches I saw a duck.  By the looks of it, a female.  Then came another duck.  A male.  Any male duck was a mallard to me and this one was painted particularly beautiful shades of caramel, red, purple- iridescent- rainbow, emerald green, indigo... all outlined in a bright white.  Seeing it broke my trance and I called my husband back.  

He said "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 that came with the house.  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 that 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.