A long time ago I lived in a rustic cabin located well “off the grid” in some faraway California woods. It was a sweet spot on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Different forest types converged there and mixed things up ecologically. Ponderosa pine, black oak, white fir, incense cedar, and douglas-fir casually mingled with blue oak, ghost pine, golden-cup oak, and impenetrable manzanita. I list all these names just so you will have a chance to say them out loud for yourself. Wildlife too: mule-deer, juncos, black bears, pileated woodpeckers, coyotes, flickers, and mountain lions. In a nearby meadow stood a seldom-used Zen meditation hall. On the rare occasions when people were in there, I could tell because things around the meadow got quieter.
Next to the cabin was a large outcrop of stone with several bedrock mortars in it. Here Nisenan women used to grind acorns into flour to make bread. That was a long time ago. Nobody uses the bedrock mortars anymore or eats much acorn bread. Even so, I tried to keep things tidy by sweeping off twigs and leaves that fell on the rock just in case somebody might want to give it a try. As for my own groceries, I got them at a big supermarket called Lucky. It was down in town, about an hour’s drive away. Often I would eat my dinner outside on the grinding rock. The climate in northern California is conducive to that sort of thing.
The cabin was built by a poet back in the seventies. Another poet—this one a friend of the poet who had built the cabin—was going to build his own cabin close by. But something happened in this poet’s life and instead of building a cabin he disappeared into the surrounding forest. He was never seen again. He left a note suggesting suicide. No body was ever found. Either the poet actually did commit suicide and chose a really good place to hide it, or he disappeared into myth. Some suggest he simply ran off to Mexico. In any case, my rent checks went to the poet who built the cabin. He now lived on the other side of the country, in Manhattan. Funny thing is, I never met this poet landlord of mine, yet I lived in his cabin which still had a lot of his stuff in it, including a big framed picture of Walt Whitman. I didn’t have much stuff myself in those days, so I was happy to have the company.
When you live in a rustic cabin like that, it’s hard not to spend a lot of time thinking about the uses and disadvantages of poetry for life. It’s also pretty hard not to think about ghosts. So that’s how I spent my days: reading lots of poetry and brooding on ghosts. When night came around, I would light up a kerosene lamp and place it outside the door on a little table. I pondered how this faint and unlikely flickering must have appeared to those who drift through the manzanita after dark. No one ever knocked on the door.
(Photo by David Robertson)