David Gessner Reflections

Summer 2012


June 8, 2012

The “Lake”

Looking out at the lake that isn’t a lake from my front deck. The bellies of hunting swallows on almost hot orange in sun’s last light. Banjo twang of frogs. After 24 hours of sweats and chills, the light coolness of this evening is restorative. And, having experienced a minor resurrection of my own, it seems appropriate to begin these notes with this green sunken field that will soon (6 months?) return to lakehood.

Things will be changing soon, the least of it being that this sign*, planted on the former shore, will lose its irony.

Earlier today I commented that the memorial to the lake looked like a gravestone, which to a certain extent it is. But it’s not that simple. Though the imminent re-birth of the lake will be celebrated by some, it will be mourned by others. Certain snakes and deer for instance. And some frogs, who like things well enough the way they are. (The bug loving intern* — I can’t recall his name — said that certain frogs can smell fish nearby and won’t lay eggs if they do. Yes?!)

*Jerod, I think.

So the question: what will die when the lake comes back to life?

And another: what is “natural” here?

It is telling that the gravestone says of Perez that he “envisioned” this lake? It began as a human’s conception, and humans will once again return it to water. Perhaps it’s a little embarrassing to have a non-lake it your backyard. Perhaps it forces the folks here to make jokes, laugh about it. It doesn’t conform to any obvious human notion of a natural place. But from what I heard today, and from what I’ve already seen for myself, it’s a place of wonder. I am looking forward, for instance, to finding the cave pointed out by my new bug-loving friend.

(I am sitting on the grass now, by the way, and a swallow just flew by, briefly snuffed down into the grass for an insect, and flew on. Less noble than plucking one out of the air, but effective.)

Maybe the facts that I have just returned from the West, and that just 3 days ago I was on a raft below Glen Canyon, make me a little sensitive when it comes to the supposed benefits of dams and re-flooding. This particular re-filling won’t lead to quite the environmental outcry that the drowning of Glen Canyon did, but it will, on its own small scale, displace many of the species that fill its currently (and relatively) dry nooks and crannies. Perhaps it’s time to rally the enviro troops.

It might be a lonely fight.


June 9, 2012

Last night scared off a deer down in the bowl of the lake when I came out to brush my teeth. What will the lake mean to the deer? An easy source of water, or do they have that already? More recreators to scare them off? I know that no one is too worried about deer population, at least in the direction of down (though maybe that is different in the great hunting state of PA.), but what about deer feelings? It sounds overly groovy, but a big change is coming for them, too.

Up at dawn — another sort of resurrection — but then back to sleep for another 2 hours. I had all sorts of ambitious plans for this week (now 5 days). But I feel them falling by the wayside. Yesterday I slept from 1–4, after the hike, then again from 5–8. Then ate dinner, and slept from 9–8 this morning. I wish I could say, keeping with my theme, that I feel revived. Groggy is more like it. But happy enough, with the sun baking my face as I write this.

Alas, Eden has been invaded this morning. Apparently, Saturday is banging day here at Shaver’s Creek. Some very determined person is going at it across the lake, apparently banging a sledge hammer against something. Worse than that is a new sound has joined all the birdsong, the less-melodious backward beeping of trucks. And the scraping of dozers. Some big, no doubt important project, a quarter mile off. As Wendell Berry says, we live in a time when we are never free of motors. Planes overhead too, of course, which reminds me of what Keith Bildstein said about Hawk Mountain after 9/11. For the first, and only, time they watched the hawks without planes ripping through the sky, too.

As I’ve said, and written, before there are no more cabins in the woods. We are all connected, one way or another, to the great industrial whine. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, since I have yet to write about Twin Bridges, but it seems to me that we humans can’t stop ourselves from always building. We are busy little beavers, and, as Wallace Stegner says, if we don’t chew our teeth impale us. I can see this in the dam a hundred yards in front of me as clearly as you can see it in a beaver dam. For humans, armed with our overactive minds, the enemy is emptiness. The hardest thing to do is nothing. So we build, bang, dam, slam.

I am hardly putting myself above this. My own brain, sensing a “free” (read: empty) few days, starts to scheme, plan, outline, and generally ready itself for building. True, building books is quieter than most forms of construction, but the hunger springs from the same root. Fill up the emptiness! The principle is the same whether filling the mind of the dam with water.

A true goal for the next few days would be to do nothing. Nothing but my daily rounds and taking these notes (which you see are already growing like a beaver’s lodge.) Oddly, I may be aided in this goal by how poorly I’m feeling. Certainly I don’t have the energy to hit the novel (or build a dam). Maybe my sickness will help let me spend a few days doing less.


After breakfast, I take my coffee down for a walk in the bowl. Black dragonfly with a bright green body. A cache of tires. A MinuteMaid lemonaide can. But not trashy really. Fields of tall grass and a weed whose name I will learn by the end of the week. (Emily at the Center thinks it is a type of mint.) After hoofing it across the canyon, I reach the mighty Colorado. Maybe not but I do hike down the middle of the creek in my sneakers and long pants. My personal temperature is still strangely off and wavering, and it feels good to make my hike a watery one.

I see a few yellow and black butterflies. The black moths on the upper part of their wings look like piano keys. Red tails screech above, running off a turkey vulture. Yesterday Doug [Wentzel] mentioned that soon ospreys and eagles will replace the red tails and harriers (?). But while I’m an osprey fan, I like this place as it is. What was it before the first daming? (damming(?))

I slosh along…

After a while I reach the bend in the river that I first noticed when walking the lake trial with Ian and Bob B. Time for my morning bath. First one since Arizona. I strip down at the curve in the river. Since dams are one of my early themes here, I should point out that this is a kind of natural dam. I put a couple of rocks — one very white with black marks, the other the opposite, white with black — and put them in my backpack. Then I strip down to underwear and sneakers and take a swim. At its deepest, this swimming hole is up to my waist. Water cold and perfect. Fever briefly gone.

I remember the cave that Jerod mentioned and double back. It takes then minutes to work my way back. I climb up to the cave, the unreliable rock* breaking off in my hand.

*bad rock climbing rock. Fragile & breakable.

There are two holes that go back a ways (at least 10 feet, perhaps more) but I am not the svelte explorer who will climb in. I am curious about occupancy — but the spider webs across the holes suggest no one has gone out or in this morning. Maybe if I’m feeling less sick, and more athletic, later in the week, I will climb inside.

I double back again, to the curve in the creek, my new favorite spot.

Later in day:

“What’s up over that hill?”
Man with his kinds pointing up at dam.
“We’re in salamander heaven,” says one of the kids.
Another animal that will no longer be where it is.

Overheard on evening of 9th on my desk. People down in “bowl”

I climb up above it, back up on the Lake trail. There is a good stump for sitting and from that vantage point, above, I draw the creek. Looking down from above is like seeing it as a map of itself.

From here I can also stare directly across at the lodge house and the dozen or two kayaks and canoes for rent, in case anyone feels like paddling out on the grass and weeds.

It’s funny how you take a liking for certain spots. For me this spot — “the turn” I’m now calling it in my head — was “like at first site.” I suspect I’ll be back here quite a lot during my stay, for both romantic (beauty) and practical (bathing) reasons.


Raptor Center

At the raptor center none of my friends from yesterday are around. And no one can tell me what my plants and rocks are. In compensation for this, perhaps, the black bearded fellow brings me out to show me a path of Jewelweed. I had mentioned (and shown him) the rash on my veiny right leg. I squeeze the plant into a ball, as he suggested, and rub it into my lower leg. Sure enough, it cools.

I follow the lake trail back around. Soon enough I am standing at the spot where the unrentable canoes and kayaks wait for water. From here I look back across the dry lake at the cave, my morning swimming hole, and the creek’s turn. They seem, again, like maps of themselves. I am glad to have climbed up to the cave, splashed in the water. This is a new place for me, not like my walks along the East Dennis beaches, or even along the Cape Fear River. I need to introduce myself to the place. And what better way to do that than tactility?

Twin Bridges

June 10

Dams are very much on my mind. I wonder if most Easterners are aware how central dams are to almost every enviro fight in the West. Yesterday afternoon I spoke to my old Colorado roommate, Rob Bleibery, who now lives in Grand Junction and fights to put land into trust. He told me that in the center of town there is a memorial for Wayne Aspinall, the congressman who served as a lifelong roadblock to environmental legislation, or rather as a guardian, who would let some enviro legislation pass through, but only if a new dam was attached (!). The memorial shows a picture of some fields being irrigated and features these lines: “In the West when you touch water you touch everything.”

Of course this is not the West. That was wonderfully apparent on our first day of hiking. Just 2 days before I’d been hiking down dusty moonscape trails, no water in sight, dryness the dominant theme. How strange to encounter the lushness of the Bluebird trail. I am reading about the old time explorers of Yellowstone, and there are many things they have seen that I never will. But they will never have the uniquely modern experience that I just had: walking one day in the dry West and the next in the wet East.

up the Bluebird Trail (to Twin Bridges)

I have been having a correspondence with Wendell Berry (trying to find a time to visit him), and I sent him my book proposal. I wrote in the proposal that the West does not recover as well as “the green East.” He took issue with this, rightly, pointing to the scares left by mining. But, comparatively, I stand by my point. In the West we see life spilling into every niche when we look up at a cactus growing — alone! — a thousand feet up a canyon wall. But the same point is made here by sheer profusion. Trails spill over with green, meadows are re-claimed, foundations overrun with grass and leaf. Green in the West is a precarious color, with only a tentative hold on the sore landscape. This is true even along waterfalls, where after the thin line of huddling cottonwoods, the land returns to dust. Here instead we have mud. “I prefer the mush woods to the arid desert,” said W.J. Bate. Well, he’d like it here. Lush.

Twin B / Millsite

So dams and lushness. At Twin Bridges Ian pointed out how the dead hemlocks had given birth to new trees. At the Grand Canyon I could point up and say “That rock was there 50,000 years ago.” But here everything is constantly growing over, and out of, each other. Succession is happening in front of our eyes. The layering of this place fascinates. Trees grow out of trees and past out of present. We saw this both in the gone beaver dam and at the mill site. Both hold hints of what they were, but only hints. If Mr. Rudy or the beaver were back they would long for the good old days. Both saw this creek, not as a place for hiking and taking nature notes, but as source for livelihood, a flowing artery out of which they made what they were.

It just so happens that one of the few books I brought with me this week was The Complete Poems of Robert Frost. I hadn’t thought much about Frost in a while, but I threw it in my bag. One of the only poems I ever memorized is “Directive,” which speaks to the mill and the dam:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,

Frost was a depressive and if you think about this “dissolving” too much you might be inclined to follow him down this road. In the West an Anasazzi makes a mark on a stone and we see a galloping pronghorn 10,000 years later. Here an old mill is swallowed up by trees and grass and all we can make out is an echoing shape, an imagined sluice. It is the key of this land. The old is covered and forgotten. Or remembered, but only faintly. We dig into old records. We re-create. We never see it preserved as what it was. “Directive” again:

There is a house that is no more a house / Upon a farm that is no more a farm . . .

And a mill that is no more a mill. As for many of the trees here we can ask with Frost: “Where were they all not twenty years ago?” Maybe, in this case, twenty is closer to a hundred, but the point is the same. The time before has been swallowed up, lost, the new time growing out of it until it too will be lost. In a sense the whole thing is one giant nurse log.

But I’ve wandered far from dams.

I don’t know the history of these beavers, why they, or their progeny, moved on to greener pastures. Perhaps the human beavers, Mr. Perez most prominently, backed up their waters with their own dam. What does a beaver do then? Flop over land in search of a new creek?

While I don’t know these beavers specifically, I have thought some about the species. I suppose it is generally acknowledged that they win the silver medal when it comes to building buildings that affect and alter landscapes, most particularly riverline landscapes. Standing atop the Glen Canyon Dam the other day, at 710 feet high it is the second tallest in the U.S., I felt a sort of awe, not just for the dizzying height, but for the fact that within the order of homo sapiens there was a subset who could build something like that. They are certainly not members of my tribe. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the best my artsy tribe could do would be to throw a few logs across a creek. It seems to me that they have more in common with beavers than with me.

The beaver is not just the embodiment of the builder and engineer, however. It is also a handy human symbol for the workaholic. Busy as… I mentioned before that Wallace Stegner was font of the metaphor, applied to habitual human workers, of beavers needing to keep chewing/working lest they impale themselves on their own teeth. “It’s easy to be lazy,” said Stegner. “But I don’t seem to be able to do it.” He particularly liked to apply the beaver metaphor to writers, and when you see this dam that is no longer a dam, the metaphor turns potentially gloomy: you work and you work and no one remembers. (Or maybe someone remembers, but he’s just a nature writer paid to come here and take nature notes.)

Beaver’s humanness and human’s beaverness are nicely illustrated by having the Mill and Dam so close. Obviously they might be close in proximity but not temporally. Mr. Rudy would have little tolerance for a bunch of water rats clogging up his stream. And Mr. Beaver would not have enjoyed the no-doubt befouled water flowing out of the sluiceway of Mr. Rudy.

But one more word about human’s beaverness, since these are supposed to be ecological reflections and this quality is an important one to understand in the context of today’s ecological fight. We can rail against our tendency to build, to progress, and say “You should not be that way!” But maybe it is better to accept our beaverliness, and work from there.

Let me explain…

One of Thoreau’s great lessons was to leave well enough alone. Which may be the single hardest thing for human beings to do. We are tinkerers, curious monkeys, busy beavers. When something is good we want to make it better. But it is through the tinkering that we end up damming our sacred places.

So. What is to be done? How do we quiet ourselves and put our tools briefly aside? How do we overcome minds programmed to look for better ways, better places? Is that the next step in evolution?

It doesn’t seem to be. Even naturalists, like the interns I walked with on Friday, are natural acquirers. They are hunters for facts, for knowledge. Which maybe holds a secret. Maybe we cannot stop our never-sleeping hungry minds. But maybe we can choose our tools better. Maybe we can focus all that energy in a direction that does good, not harm. When I see five kids, ambitious and hungry in their own way, focusing that hunger on becoming better naturalists I think it is deeply encouraging. It is not my own relationship with nature (as these notes attest) but one that I have come to admire more and more, as I spend time with naturalists. It pays to remember that Thoreau too was a natural tinkerer, inventor, builder. (In fact he might be the most famous home builder in history.) Given that his inner beaver was so strong, it is all but miraculous that he is known best for reticing. For not doing.

There is hope here. To be ambitious, yes, but to strive to be better, not more. To sharpen and whittle and clarify our aims.

My own goal is to become less ambitious (But even here, in this cabin in the woods, the words spill out.)


Evening June 10

Belted Kingfisher on its favorite stump. King of the great puddle below the dam. Not as big a hoverer as most Kingfishers I know. More of a sitter.

Frost’s line fits the gone Mill. The cleave is still there but will it be in a hundred years? “Now slowly closing like a dent in doe.”

Did I say the Kingfisher was King? Maybe not. What about this guy? Juvenile GB heron who stalks the puddle. He spends a lot of his day here, flying in and out on two-toned wings.

Morning June 11

And, speaking of human beavers, should it be any surprise that there is a construction site less than 500 yards from this cabin? In this way it is exactly like every place else. The morning quiet is torn apart, the sounds of the dozer scraping and slamming echo off the hills. So be it. We all need work, we all need ways to fill our days. Me, I’m turning to the novel this morning, doing some construction of my own.

Near a garden without a snake or 3.


A phone call — on the cell phone (mine not his) — this morning from Wendell Berry. “If you make it I’ll be glad to see you.” “David Gessner, this is Wendell Berry.” A good omen for my trip, and a reason to alter my route. Berry knew both Stegner and Abbey (true? Did they overlap at Stanford? Perhaps not.) Anyway, what better way to start the trip than by visiting the greatest living heir to Stegner’s legacy.

At center

I run into the center and am full of questions. What is this? (Pulling crumpled plant from pocket) Who sang this (playing tape recorder)? (Eastern Towhee is the answer.) What might this have been? They are not put out by this nagging guest. They answer.

Checking my e-mail. The joy of deleting.

I get to stand next to the great horned owl when they take it out. The poor bird shakes uncontrollably, like a laundromat washer, Jerod suggests. I notice its tiny tongue (why so small? skunks don’t taste good?) And of course I notice, because you can’t help but notice, its enormous beautiful cartoon eyes. The interns talk about how wildly the pupils dilate.

I think of GHOs I’ve known and loved. The nestlings outside our house. The quiet hunter who flew almost silently by my head at the Wackusett reservoir in Mass. The unlucky bird that died on the beach in Cape Cod. (My friend saved its talons.)

Twin Bridges

I love the metaphor of the nurse log. It is an organic manifestation of how we all grow out of our elders. In effect, this is what I’m doing with my new book: going back to earlier writers who meant a lot to me and who I grew out of. They were my nurse logs (not to belabor a point!) And the best nurse logs are those of hemlock and white pine because “they decay slowly from outside in.” Who does that fit into my metaphor? Well, humans, the lucky ones at least, tend to decay from the outside in. What we don’t do, usually, is then sprout a bed of moss over the years, out of which seedlings spring. But certainly older writers, Abbey, Stegner, Thoreau, Dillard and Berry for me, but others for you, allow younger writers to grow from and through their work.

The creek splits along a new island.

To the Mill

On the way to the gone sawmill you can walk a soft cliff of moss, bouncing along a green moonscape. Down below a game of pick-up sticks is going on, though these sticks are 40 feet long and not thrown by a child. If they downstream beavers were still around they might consider this turn in the creek, already a natural dam, a wide and deep swimming hole.

If you keep following the mossy edge you come across a chewed-out tree, just holding to the edge, which has a carved out middle like a dugout canoe. Woodpeckers have taken advantage of its rotten top, thought several of the old holes are now spanned by spider webs.

Next you reach the furrow, the dimple in Frost’s doe, that once was the Miller’s sluiceway. You can walk the same path the water did, and, like it, be diverted. You’ll find it’s still a bit wet after all these years. You can see how Mr. Rudy turned the creek and land to his own purposes, first falling slightly, then steeply, through where the water wheel once was, to where the creek still runs. It was a nice spot he had here. Are these the same stones, now mossed-over, he used for support?

I will draw the dugout fast, since the tiny flies now seem to be interested in swimming in the liquid of my eyes. A small rhododendron. Next week, outside Asheville, I will see whole forests of the stuff.

A fallen branch in sluiceway? Have not seen many bushes.


Circumambulating the lake

Trees leaning back graciously from the trail, exposing their roots (shocking!), making me want to nod thank you as I pass. Then on to the land of skunk cabbage. I am the great circumnavigator. I remember when I cheated on that test in college. It was a gut, our word for an easy course. Its official title was something like, “The History of Maritime Exploration,” but we called it “Boats.” I barely went to the class, and the night before I borrowed my friend Riley’s notes. It was going to be an essay test, and even then I was good at essays, so I figured if I crammed a few facts I could weave something out of them.

Sure enough the question was about one of the subjects Riley’s notes had covered. I wrote as one inspired, telling exciting tales of maritime exploration. I think what I wrote was actually pretty good, and had no it been for one small problem might have earned me an unearned B. But that one problem did me in. The explorer I wrote of was named Rosco Tacoma. The trouble was there was no one by that name. I had misread Riley’s crimped hand and mis-transcribed it into my own notes. On and on I went about brave Rosco. But the real explorer was Vasco da Gama. I can’t remember if I got a low C or D in the class.

The point? The point is that names are important. Naming is a lot of what we do as naturalists (a word I fall far short of). It is only polite to get to know the names of your neighbors. Part of the joy of the walk on the first day here was listening to Doug, Josh and the interns as they named the birds, plants and insects. Sometimes you could see them pause, consider, trying on a name to see if it fit. It is a vital procedure, perhaps the most basic tool of the naturalist.

On the other hand it can be taken too far. As if naming itself were the study of nature. As if the woods were a crossword puzzle you’re trying to figure out. We miss a lot if the focus is only on names.

But names at their best are a jumping off point. They are descriptive, seeds for what is to come, containing the spirit of the greater enterprise.

I emerge in the boathouse camp. How happy I am to be where I am, and not on this side of the “lake.” Poor Scott W., the former reflector. Mowing seems to be the obsession on this side, and there is plenty to mow. I prefer my quieter side, across the non-water. There, last night, Ian, Bob and company* all came up for a visit and a few beers. We had a fire and Ian’s son, Jacy, brought out a telescope only a tad smaller than the Hubble. My favorite sight was a star cluster, a mini-galaxy, millions of stars so far away. It was the first — and only — time I’ll have company at my new home.

*Remiss to mention Meredith here, who took good care of me when sick!

And now it’s as if I’ve conjured it up. The cabin comes into sight across the grassy water. My heart lifts a little. My bad leg has done okay but I’m ready for that porch and the one remaining Slab Cabin IPA (which is where I’m sitting, drinking, and writing this.)

If sex, according to the French, is a small death, then so is that moment in a walk when you decide to turn back. There is always a little sag to it, a sense that an ending has begun. Today’s sag came back at the mill site.

But this, the sighting of the cabin, is different. My step picks up. The homestretch. Literally. I’m almost done, sore leg and all. As the local inspector of snowstorms, I’ve done my work, made my rounds. I commend myself for it, since no one else is around. Good work, David.

I pass the boats: when was the last time Canoe #12 saw action? A plastic dock still acts as if it has a job to do, floating over asters, weeds, and grass. I have been generally walking over the dam, but today I veer straight for home, disqualifying me perhaps from true circumambulation (I’m no Rosco Tacoma) but getting me to my beer faster.

Parts of the lake bottom send me back to last week in the Grand Canyon. It is cracked, dusty, dry, desiccated. Cracks everywhere. But then I get to the Great Puddle, just below the dam, the lake within a lake that I (bird) watch from my dock. And I see a couple new visitors. My juvenile GB Heron is not here, nor the lazy Kingfisher. But a couple of Killdeer are skirting along the puddle’s edge. Not too exciting, you say. But — wow! As they go into their usual fakery, their bellies flash a vivid white, their brown and black rings… And then another newcomer. A green heron flies off, its yellow orange legs dangling like landing gear.

And now, as both Homer and Steely Dan sang, “home at last.” Bad leg up on a chair, good beer down the gulley. I toast myself.

(I even think I might be losing a little weight. The Thoreau Workout might be worth marketing.)


A flicker shoots by. Hope to see the night herons.

Almost 7:30 P.M. and the machines rage on next door. Construction! Talk about your busy beavers. (Maybe getting camp ready?)


The machine roar finally stops at 7:43 P.M.

I resist the urge to applaud. No sense starting a fight with someone who is just doing their job. The trouble is that if your job is something loud it affects other people’s jobs/lives.

But maybe I’m just tired and a little sick.

The fly in the outhouse seemed to be trying to start a conversation with me.

A sign perhaps that I have been spending too much time alone.

As I lie down to read and sleep the first rain since I landed here starts tapping on the tarp above the porch.


Taking a leak in the middle of the night. Fireflies everywhere in the rain. Strobo-spheric, trippy effects… like a blacklight disco party of insects they move in blurs of light.

Trust the morning. I end each day bruised and scarred (scared, too) but I trust the next day’s revival (aided by caffeine of course.)

Bluebird

June 12

Rain this morning. Mist in the bowl. Something rasping and loud was killed this morning around 3.

Yesterday, I described the end of my hike, but not the beginning. I saw what I thought was a Kingbird on walk past the rope course, though I think I saw a rusty patch which complicates things. (Interns, where are you?) Entered the Lake trail and and was swallowed up by song. Chikadees, Phoebe, crows and the dee-dee-de-de-de-de of the Eastern Towhee.* Also flushed several ruffed grouse… beautiful russet brown rockets shooting off through the trees, setting my heart fluttering in almost the same manner they did.

*id-ed off my tape later by Doug & Josh.

But the main thing I heard, the loudest and most persistent song, was the ovenbird. I think of how different my walk would have been if I hadn’t learned their song on Friday. Especially given how hard they are to see. I spent a good part of the walk looking high, low, and middle for the bird that was making all the racket.

“There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and mid-wood bird,…”

Frost says of our friend. But if everyone has heard him, that doesn’t always translate to seeing. I caught a glance of something flying off at some point, but it bore little resemblance to the goofy, big-eyed, spotted bird that I studied in Sibley’s this morning. Still, I’m glad that I knew what was making all the racket. It’s funny how learning a new subject, or a new place, can be overwhelming. Sometimes learning one thing can be the key, the beginning, and can give you confidence to learn more. Ospreys were like that for me. I knew nothing about them at first but still got obsessed. When I started I confused them with gulls. By the time I was done, I would have been part of the elite team Bruce Willis would have to assemble if a giant osprey were attacking earth.

If my stay were a longer one I think I would give it an ovenbird theme. Seeing one would be a start. But I have a feeling that if I learned all I could about them I’d have my way in to these woods. I’d be an Ahab and the ovenbird would… well, you know. “Pick up one thing in the universe and you find it hitched to everything else,” said Muir. Exactly.

Which brings us to the Bluebird (aka Ovenbird) Trail. It had gotten a fresh haircut since we walked it Friday, and smelled of mown grass. Haircuts (and names again) play a role in the signs that mark the trail. This is because the fine signs that mark the way show a picture of a bird in profile. This is either a punk rock bluebird or a Jay, and if the latter the signs could be corrected by adding a little space between “blue” and “bird” (as someone suggested). But my experience on the earlier part of the trail tells me that the drawing is entirely accurate. Jays added themselves to my ovenbird soundtrack, and then one, the opposite of my shy spotted friends, stood at attention on the branch right above. So common (though not as common as when I was a kid), we forget how stunning their colors are.

I pass the foundation of a house that I didn’t see on my first walk here. It is sunken down, about 24 by 20 (?). It would get crowded in there and dark. Not a sod house on the high plains exactly, but almost equally challenging from a mental perspective.

Not far from the house, a couple of meadows, and then the larger, slightly flatter field that is the one I’m paid to contemplate. (Like the long gone farmer, I make my living off the field!) By coincidence, I am reading Ed Abbey’s Fool’s Progress and some of the early chapters detail his boyhood on a marginal farm in the woods not two hours from here. When I put my bookmark in last night, the boys were cutting field corn with machete-like knives, only pausing to shoot a rabbit. “Paw set a hard pace,” Abbey writes of his father’s corn-cutting but also of his whole life. To farm in places like this required a constant, almost desperate outlay of energy. Looking out at this lazy glade, bees buzzing, it is hard to re-capture the sheer ambition and need that must have permeated the place.

The fields speak easy times now. Daisies, daisy fleabane, purple aster, and a delightful little flower called, I think I have this right, Depford Pink. There is also a fine lacing of yarrow, a kind of miniature Queen Anne’s Lace. This are my crops, if you want to push the metaphor, but my sort of harvesting is a lot easier on the back.

I can’t quite escape Frost, even if we are still almost a thousand miles south of his Vermont. I just passed “the house that is no longer a house” and here’s the field that’s not a field. Here is how “The Ovenbird” ends:

“The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.”

Is this field diminished, or re-born? Either way, the ovenbird’s question is one that anyone concerned with the green world must ask all the time. Wallace Stegner found it encouraging that the woods could overtake human ruins in Vermont, something you never see in the West. But most places in the world are going the other way. Wild places are bi-sected, then tri-sected. Diminished. So that is part of the ovenbird’s ? [question], too. How to keep fighting, and loving, when the world you live in is less.

The forest is always encroaching here and soon after you pass the fields you enter a woods, grass replaced with pine needles, a canopy overhead. What growth is this? If you want to talk diminished, then the place to start would be that majestic original canopy of trees, the massive trunks and great span of what once was here.

Which is a theme I continued with after a stop at the center. Three of the interns, including Jerod, drove me up to the experimental forest where American Chestnuts were being cross-bred with Chinese Chestnuts in hopes of creating a tree that could resist the famous blight. Talk about diminished: the chestnuts’ saga was/is perhaps our greatest tree tragedy. The idea here, I am told, is to try and make it “as pure as possible.” Right now they had gotten it to 15/16ths American to Chinese. “They’re backcrossing to get it as pure as possible. They’re looking for that one single gene.” It takes 1000s and 1000s of crosses.

A noble goal. To fight back against the loss. Not unlike what these kids, this place, are/is doing.

“It’s always windy up here,” says Jerod.

I walk off into the chestnuts to do my hard work of reflecting. Not much comes. Ian says that some Chestnuts are also growing “naturally” out in the world, that they grow and grow and then die off, succumbing at a certain age. So this penned in place could also be a place of rebirth. Resurrection trees. Right now just a zoo for trees… but in the future, who knows. Release the hybrids!

The wind blows the leaves so that they show me their lighter back hands.

The Dark, Cliffy Place

A Fiction Fragment in Imitation of Cormac McCarthy

Stitler assessed this place he had found himself in with one greedy glance. The moss wall seemed to sweat and blocked out what little light there was. He licked at his wound like some sort of deranged cat and then nodded to himself as if he had come to some fine hotel for the night, a place that would meet all his needs.

Which it did in its way. He found sphagnum to rub in the woods and had spied huckleberries back down the serpentine path. Did the little creek hold crayfish for dinner? He would find out soon. On his way in he had passed a mill and the place was spotted with houses, but something told him this was the kid of place they would leave alone. He decided, for the first time in days, to risk a small fire. A reward for making it this far.

Cleanliness was not something that had had much priority in him for a while, but he decided to wander back to where he’d seen the hole to clean himself and the large gash in his right arm. He dipped his face in first, but gradually submerged the rest of himself. It was a baptism of sorts, though he knew it was the opposite of being born he was heading toward.

A part of him felt like simply stripping off his clothes and floating on his back, waiting for them to catch up with him. There had never been much chance of outrunning men on horseback anyway, though crimped up places like this one helped. He had always been good at getting lost and this was a lost sort of place.

When he got back to the spot a bunch of crows had landed near his sack. Not big enough to be a murder, a mugging maybe. He swore and charged and they were gone, complaining. He waded over to the cliff base and tore out a handful of liverwort, mixing it with the fiddleheads and mint he’d scooped up earlier and grazed. He decided he lacked the ambition for fishing, and noted that the gnawing hunger in his stomach was gone, which could either be a good sign or a bad one.

The pain in his arm, however, had gone nowhere. With his good arm, his left, Stitler searched for wood that was not soaked through. He managed to raise a smoky fire just about the time the last of the light shafts disappeared. He grazed a little more, spit it out, tasting something iron in his mouth.

As the dark feel, the fire threw a phantom show of light and shadows on the cliff wall. The shapes reached and leaped along with their creator. Dolls or puppets and then dragons and trolls like some show from China. The shapes made him doubt the wisdom of choosing this place to stop. They seemed to have gotten inside him, moving around and spreading the pain from arm to chest. It gave him in turn a certain phantomish turn of mind. He heard the whirring of wings. The crows were back, oily, and this time he couldn’t get his voice to work or arms to wave.

He lay on his back and stared at the wall. He knew it was time to feed the fire but he had no will, or body, to do it. He doubted his choice of stopping here once again. Since his eyes were the only thing about him that seemed to work, he turned them toward the mossy wall. The shadows grew taller as the fire died. He had a sudden fantasy that in the morning he would be his younger, stronger self, and he would clamber up that wall, his thin, strong fingers finding cracks, pulling himself up like a monkey.

But then even his fantasy turned sour. He fell from the rocks back into the creek, and when his pursuers finally found him he was there, on his back, arms spread out like a starfish.

Which wasn’t so different than he was feeling now. Like something that same moss might soon cover. He should get up and poke the fire, but instead just lay there still. He had never been a churchgoer, laughing at it all, even as a child. And he wasn’t sure that he was ready, a scrawny, undersized Jesus, to sacrifice the one mean life he had known. But there didn’t seem to be any choice in it.

About the time the shadows died on the wall, Stitler closed his eyes. A strange thought entered his mind, something about wading across the creek and planting a kiss on the moss. That would be his last thought. The pain was gone, which was good. He heard the creek and the crows. Then he felt his body shudder and slump and experienced a feeling that he might have described, if he still had words, as a sinking, a decaying down into the forest floor.


Suggestions for your bookstore:

  1. Return of the Osprey
    How one guy who doesn’t know a whole lot about nature falls for a bird, gets obsessed, and learns about the world.
  2. My Green Manifesto
    A call for a wilder, less stuffy, and funnier environmentalism.

(Both by David Gessner, by the way.)

LTERPreter: David Gessner, June 8–12, 2012.

David Gessner is the author of nine books, including the forthcoming All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West, Sick of Nature, My Green Manifesto, and The Tarball Chronicles, which won the 2012 Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment and the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012. His Return of the Osprey was chosen by the Boston Globe as one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year and the Book-of-the-Month club as one of its top books of the year. He also puts a lot of energy into blogging in his Wild Life column with the Natural Resources Defense Council and for Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, a website he created with the writer Bill Roorbach. He still dreams of winning the national championship in ultimate Frisbee, but knows it will never happen.

David at the Chestnut Plantation. (Photo by Justin Raymond)