Land in the Sky: Between the Lines

The new parking lot in Alaska is already becoming sketchy. The yellow lines laid down just last year are fading. You can barely read them anymore. Soon they’ll be gone altogether, erased by sun. Drivers then will be forced to fill in the blanks. They will park as best as they can, as best as they can remember where the lines once were, where the lines ought to be, as they are or ought to be in all the other lots within the horizon of their experience: supermarkets and mega-churches, stadiums and mortuaries. That would be the best case scenario.

It could go otherwise. It probably will. Without the lines to guide them, people will park wherever there’s an opening or an opening can be made. In short order, chaos will ensue. The pavement will fill up with vehicles parked any which way, just as a blank page is heaped with somebody’s ill-begotten words. Things will spill out onto the margins, even beyond. The whole scene will come to look like a junkyard.

Land in the Sky: Our Hero

My informant for this story is my wife. I was gone for the day hiking.

Catherine took the collies for their morning walk. The big collie—still licking the wounds inflicted to his self-esteem by yesterday’s mishap at the haunted well—decided he needed some alone time. So off he darted once again through the woods to the Stinky Pond. Nothing like a good mud spa to salve a collie’s injured pride. He was gone a good half hour or more. Meanwhile Catherine and the little collie continued on their peaceful stroll through the woods. Eventually they started heading home and still no sign of the big collie.

Just for a change of scenery, they decided to take a lesser-used path that runs along the side of the hill, among the broken ledges and immense dying hemlocks. Some of the biggest trees on Paradise Hill are found here. Also some of the biggest bears, who leave some of the biggest scats you’ll ever find in the woods. And if you can’t find one yourself, don’t worry, the little collie will. And wouldn’t you know it, this morning she did. A nice big, fresh, steaming pile of hell candy! Upon which the little collie promptly plopped down and started to roll. What fun! The only thing better than this would be to tangle with the bear itself.

Oh wait! This was the little collie’s lucky day! That poor bear was right over there, not more than a couple hundred feet away, fresh from its innocent crap. And the little collie was off! She charged right at the bear—barking barking barking! For its part, the bear started with a menacing look, then gave a growl, then started charging right back. The little collie—no dummy— immediately turned tail and started blazing back toward Catherine, who surely could fix this little problem.

This story might not be ending well were it not for the big collie. Out of nowhere—or more likely, the Stinky Pond—he burst from the hemlock shadows—charging, growling, barking—and heading straight for the oncoming bear! Now it was the bear’s turn to turn tail and flee. The big collie was right after it—barking barking barking. The chase concluded when the bear wisely scooted up a tree. The big collie stopped, looked up, and reckoned his job was done.

He turned around and trotted back—smiling triumphant—to Catherine and the little collie, who were awaiting the return of their stinky hero.

Land in the Sky: Well, Well

This is not how the story is supposed to go.

The big collie takes off through the woods toward the Stinky Pond. He has a mud spa in mind. The rest of us keep walking along the trail. “He’ll come back soon.” Time passes. No sign of the big collie. The little collie is starting to look worried. Abruptly then, far off in the distance, the sound of panicky barking. It’s the big collie! What’s he gotten into?

The little collie takes off in the direction of the barking. I take off after the little collie. The big collie’s panicky barking continues. He’s never done this before. Must be big trouble! The little collie and I run through the woods as fast as we can. We run and we run and we run. The big collie keeps barking, barking, barking. I lose sight of the little collie. I’m getting winded. We’ve come a long way through the woods and I’m a long way from my marathon days. The barking ceases. Where’s the little collie?

I spot her standing next to the crumbling wall of the haunted well. I approach her and turn the corner. I look down and there’s the big collie! He’s fallen into the well. He’s okay but he can’t get out on his own. The look on his face is that of the favorite having just lost the big match to the underdog. He needs help. So I roll up my pant legs and lower myself into the murky depths. At first it’s up to my knees but then when I begin to lift him out I sink another foot into the primordial ooze at the bottom of the well. Rescue complete. The big collie is so happy to be out of the watery entrapment that he shakes off the mud into my face.

I claw my way up and out of the well. The big collie is already off running with joy through the woods. The little collie gives me a puppy head tilt that says: “Can we change his name to Timmy?”

Happy-to-Be-Home

Land in the Sky: Behave

For the last six weeks I’ve been “weeding the woods.” That’s what my neighbor George calls my crusade against garlic mustard. Also known as Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard is labeled by environmental authorities as an “invasive species.” Not that there’s anything wrong with invasive species—I’m one myself, maybe you are too—but garlic mustard is an exceptionally ill-behaved newcomer. It respects no bounds.

The Cooperative Extension website reports that “garlic mustard has spread throughout much of the United States over the past 150 years, becoming one of the worst invaders of forests in the American Northeast and Midwest.” It’s spread primarily by the traffic of human beings and their livestock. Left unchecked, garlic mustard will infest a forest faster than cheap housing tracts do prime ag land.

So every spring I’m out there in the woods—pulling, yanking, raking over garlic mustard wherever I spot it on our thirty acres. A fruitless task, I know, but if nothing else it allows me to say, without exaggeration, that I know every square inch of this land of ours. It’s relaxing to be outside in the fresh air on Paradise Hill, wandering up and down the steep wooded slopes, with a rake over my shoulder and a couple of collies bounding along by my side.

“You’re not going to eradicate it,” a weed expert recently admonished me. “The best you can hope for is to teach it to behave.” That’s funny. Sister Mary Dorothy used to say the same thing about me.

Land in the Sky: Betwixt and Between

Each day at lunchtime, the collies and I are out walking through the woods on the warm and sunny side of our hill. Each day we hear the fire siren going off in East Jewett, signaling the arrival of noon. Precisely a minute later, we hear the siren in Hensonville going off, signaling noon’s arrival there. It would seem that noon takes a full minute to travel from the one fire house to the other, a distance of seven miles. The collies and I are situated right in the middle of it all. Thus in the silence between the sirens, our noon arrives.

Land in the Sky: Dream Within a Dream

In the Land of Rip Van Winkle, you spot the sign. Your journey ends here, alone. Check in at the Sleepy Dutchman Motel. Enter your room. Drop your bag beside the bed. A century of cigarette smoke slumbers in the drapes. Breathe deep the years. There is no TV, no telephone, no cell service. Take a look in the mirror. Oh how tired! Lie down. Close your eyes. One dream draws to a close, another resumes. Which one is this?

Sleepy-Dutchman

Land in the Sky: Seeking Direction

Late last fall, David Rothenberg and I spent a day on Mount Greylock. It’s the highest peak in Massachusetts and has many literary associations. For instance, Henry Thoreau climbed it in 1844 and wrote up an account. He ascended the nearly 3,500 foot mountain—in those days called “Saddle-back”—via a long valley called “the Bellows”. He described his route as “a road for the pilgrim to enter upon who would climb to the gates of heaven.” David and I—neither of us a pilgrim—drove our cars up the auto road. We arranged to rendezvous at 8:00 a.m. in the big parking lot just below the summit.

I arrived first and had the place to myself. No other cars were in the lot. A dusting of snow had fallen overnight and prettied things up. The clouds, though, were still thick and swirling, the wind bitter, so I made straight for the historic summit lodge. As it turned out, this was the last day of operation for the season. They were preparing to shut the place down for winter. The only item still being served in the restaurant was coffee—very expensive, very bad coffee. I bought a cup and took it with me back out to the parking lot to wait for David. The coffee turned out to be tepid, so without thinking I poured it out on the parking lot macadam. I immediately felt like a litterbug. Before I got too deep into gratuitous environmental guilt, David arrived.

Neither of us brought along a map or knew where we were going, but we figured we could ask somebody along the way for directions. Neither of us had any food, but that too, we reckoned, could be bummed along the way. We cast one last look back toward the big empty parking lot, still mostly obscured by swirling clouds, and plunged down a path that turned out to be the Appalachian Trail. We were heading north. At this elevation the trees—maples, birches, and spruce—were all stunted. Soon enough the clouds parted and we had an expansive vista toward the valley below. It was like standing in the middle of a Hudson River School painting. In the distance we could see the converted factory buildings that now house the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The clouds closed back upon us and we continued our descent.

At some point we took a wrong turn and lost the Appalachian Trail and wound up on some other trail that had no name. Not that we had any idea where the Appalachian Trail would have led us, other than toward Mount Katahdin way off in Maine, but at least that path had a name.

As we continued on our journey, we lost a lot of elevation. We were in tall forest now. The bare, wet trees took on a sinister quality. At any moment the ghost of Virgil might appear, but instead we came upon a substantial man sitting eating his lunch on a boulder next to the path. I can’t remember now what all he was wearing, except for the penny loafers. I had never before seen anybody wearing penny loafers on a trail. A conversation ensued between the man on the boulder and us. It went like this.

Us: Does this path go anywhere?

Him: I think so.

Us: Have you been there?

Him: Yes

Us: Is it far?

Him: Not that far.

Us: What’s to see when you get there?

Him: Difficult to say.

Us: Well, thanks for the info!

He offered us no food and we were too embarrassed to ask for any. So we continued down the path and arrived at the place described by the man—either that or someplace just like it. We enjoyed our visit and retraced our route back up the mountain without further incident.

By the time we arrived at the parking lot, the clouds had departed and the snow had melted. The parking lot was full of shining cars and crowded with happy people out for a Sunday afternoon jaunt. As we emerged from the trail onto the parking lot, a black Jaguar pulled up close by. Three freshly-dressed holiday-makers—a man and two women—climbed out. They looked like they were looking for something pleasant to do, perhaps take a walk somewhere. They turned to us for direction.

Land in the Sky: Why I am not a Landscape Painter

Recently I stopped by Olana, home of the renowned Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. Olana is a modest castle overlooking the Hudson River. From the verandah you can see the Catskill Mountains rising in the blue faraway preferred by romantics. Back in the day, Mark Twain enjoyed visiting Olana. He called it “the exalted hill of art.” Today it’s a State Historic Site.

I made the journey to Olana to attend a presentation at which I hoped to learn a little something about the nature of art. I took a seat and waited for the presentation to begin. I considered the place in history of this place Olana and the place of history in history and how complicated everything becomes as soon as you start trying to define art or anything or even try thinking about anything, much less try to attach words to the whole unbeautiful mess. Then I looked at my boot and thought: “Now there’s a picture!”

Land in the Sky: Passing Through

Walking in this morning’s crepuscular light, I heard the hoot owl calling far off in the DeLong woods. Later I learn from the almanac: “An owl’s flight noise is about 1 KHz; mice can’t hear much below 3 KHz and so they don’t hear the owl coming.” When my father died, that night I was driving my mother home through a dark stretch of woods. Out of nowhere a large owl swooped down over the road in front of the car, the pale silence of its flight illumined by our headlights. The great bird flew directly over us, and was gone. We had not been expecting this coming out of nowhere, or its going.