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?


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.

Land in the Sky: The Public Lands

All the big shot Greek gods—Zeus, Hera, Athena, and the rest—live up on Mount Olympus. But there is one god who never bothered making the ascent and instead remains on the down-low. His name is Hades, “Lord of the Underworld.” No altars or temples have been erected in his name. Why bother? He’s one god who is everywhere and requires no special attention. He’s a renowned host, most generous, and all who enter his House, with a few notable exceptions, are treated so well they never return. Hades touches more lives than all the rest of those gods put together.  His nickname, “Pluto”, means riches or wealth. And indeed his realm is the great commonwealth of humankind.

Yet lately there has been talk, in certain circles in the far American West, of privatizing the Commonwealth of Hades, of returning his lands to mortal authorities and landowners. “Wealth,” say these activists, “generates from the earth, from the lands and the resources.” Who can argue with that? And so a small group of these mortal patriots  laid siege to the realm of the dead. “This refuge,” says their leader, “it has been destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area.” On the other hand, there are those who say these activists are in fact militants, or even worse, terrorists. “We are not terrorists!” say the mortal patriots. “We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children.” The mortal patriots issue their statements from a place whose name means “misfortune.”

Hades the Generous just shakes his head.

Land in the Sky: The Ceiling of Heaven

Last night was the coldest of winter so far. This morning, a waning crescent of moon in the pre-dawn sky. Venus and Saturn too. The sky was the color of an indigo bunting. I once read that indigo buntings migrate at night, setting their course by starlight. Plutarch says the same about souls of the recently dead. Today’s is the latest sunrise of the year.

Land in the Sky: The Poetry Trail

I was driving along a rutted dirt road on the far side of the river, through a landscape of scruffy pastures and second-growth woods. I saw a sign that said “Poetry Trail.” This was unexpected. No mention of it occurs in any trail guide I’m familiar with. I decided to investigate the matter. Parking at the trailhead was limited. Luckily nobody else was there.

I got out of the car and looked around. Affixed to a ragged maple was a wooden box with a hinged lid. Inscribed on the box were the words “Guide to the Poetry Trail.” I lifted the lid and looked inside. The box was empty. I peered down the trail and considered my options. The woods were swaying in the quickening gusts of a late December afternoon. I could hear the snapping of large branches from senescent trees and the crashes they made when hitting the ground. Daylight was waning. I chose to proceed.

Before long I encountered the first poem. It was posted on a sign next to the trail, a pleasant little nature lyric that rhymed. I read it aloud to no one in particular and continued on my way. Soon enough I arrived at the next poem, an ode to a wheelbarrow. It did not rhyme, but that was okay. I enjoyed it and resumed the journey. Next up was a love poem by an Episcopal priest. It was alright. After that, I was getting deeper in the woods. The poems started getting metaphysical. One was by an analytical philosopher. It was titled “Is Touching Possible?” I was having a hard time making sense of it. I feared becoming benighted. And that’s when the Poetry Trail took a lugubrious turn.

Next I knew, a decrepit iron fence blocked the way. It traced the bounds of what appeared to be a grave. No marker to explain what might be going on here, just a ragged shrub of mountain laurel, a few fallen leaves, and the dragon-roar of wind in the naked trees. I looked—oh did I look—but I found no further signs of the Poetry Trail. This was end of the line.