Adventures With Electricity

The journal entry begins : “Today I am camping in the Adirondacks.  I got to this remote spit of land led by Dick, who grew up exploring these parts.  Jim is here, too, of course, and Gordon, still on honeymoon with his bride, Su.  

We are tenting in the woods along the shore of Lake Lila, beneath a 360 degree sky with no sign of anything manmade.  We started the day paddling into a creek with a lot of beaver activity.  We portaged around a couple of beaver dams to get to the back of the creek. 

The whole experience immediately made me feel like I was looking deeply into a painting by Neil Welliver. His work was a beacon for me when I was very young.  And now that I am often without signal in places without roofs or roads, his work seems even closer to me. This was his landscape.  These were the trees and the colors he saw in the forests of the Northeast.  Not my drowsy southern swamps.   “A hostile environment”, Dick says. As much as I am living Neil Welliver here, I am also witnessing Winslow Homer’s camping watercolors brought to life.  

We paddled into our campsite three days ago and set up tents in a fine forest of pine and birch with a pine needle floor.  There are patches of Indian Pipe everywhere I look, and wild blueberries, ferns and mosses.  

It was windy and cloudy when we set up tents, so three people contributed their backpacker’s tarps to make one large dry spot in the forest, and soon after we finished, it began to rain. 

The wind picked up, got wild, and I wondered aloud if my own tent, in the direct route of the wind, was still standing.  It was its maiden voyage— my new ultralight, and the wind thought it was ultralight too.  Gordon sprang up, and ran out in the rain to right it,  and as he pushed in a stake, lightning struck a pine tree fifteen feet away. We  shouted for him and it felt like I moved in super slow motion, getting up from my chair to find him.  He was thrown to the ground but somehow recovered enough to stumble back to us. One foot and one hand were numb.  One finger was ghostly white.  Su wrapped him in her coat and we suppressed panic, just glad he could walk to us, and talk once he got there.  I can only just bring myself to write about it as record-keeping. I felt every emotion, sane and insane, but over the course of an hour Gordon returned to a shaky normal. The storm dropped back to just a downpour. 

When I headed to my tent a few hours later, the bathtub style base had collected several inches of water, as had my sleeping bag and clothes.  I hauled some things around in a shock-induced state of mind, thinking of sleeping under the rain tarp, but reversed that decision when I realized how cold it would be.  I untethered my tent and poured off the accumulated water, shaking it hard upside down, anchored it and started to refill it with anything I could find that was dry, and remove everything that was soaked.  I remembered that, with only one’s body’s warmth you can dry a set of wet wool socks in your tent, so I decided to build on that principle.  I tucked into the tent, wearing long underwear and sleeping on an air mattress, using a garbage bag as a sheet and my raincoat as a blanket, my whole world some degree of cold or damp, the zipper on the new tent’s rainfly stuck on open.  Sometimes you just have to flow with what there is.  Against a background of famine, war, terror and homelessness, not to mention electrocution, such tiny travails are a cipher.  I kept that in mind.  

But what followed the deadly first day was a deep drop into rock, soil and water.  We all had small backpacking chairs, and we spent a lot of time, sunk in those chairs on a huge stone outcropping watching wildlife and the movement of light.  I sense we all unloaded a world of care. 

We hiked a small mountain,  and canoed into secret wild gardens of aquatic plants buzzing with bees and dragonflies.  We heard the loon many times.  All the primary loon calls.  We saw loons flying.  We watched a mother and tiny loons swimming.  And we were the chosen rock outcropping for a little colony of Canada geese.  In the forest, Dick pointed out to me the call of the wood thrush.  

Dick is teaching us all the biology he can in four days.  I found a rectangle of birch bark on the ground and did a drawing on it with a ballpoint pen.  We all hustle to assemble each night on the giant rocks to watch the sun drop behind the pines and birches across the shore.

Slowly, over long exposure, and many meals, paddles, walks and talks, we have connected or reconnected in more relaxed ways. “   

I wrote this two days ago, and today, in my car,  I sang my way out loud and out of tune, through a whole jubilant playlist, headed south through the Shenandoah Valley, my head still full of gratitude and open sky.  

Sleeping in Snow

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Xa3QWB1ltlh7mEDzqVL7Jf9gwvIeC7rn/view

We hiked, last week, to a valley beside Cove Creek, surrounded by tall pines, some of huge girth. The ground was blanketed in pine needles and the sun was so warm we worked in sweaters to set up camp.

A tornado had swept through the forest and rangers had cut trees off the trails so there were dry pine logs scattered all around, even some split wood someone had left. We put together enough kindling and firewood for night and morning fires, filtered some cold creek water and set off to explore.

There was a trail that ran alongside Basin Creek that had probably been a wagon road 100 years ago. We started our gentle ascent on that trail.

It felt remote— like we had left the 21st century and dropped into some other world. I lagged behind the others, photographing roots and limbs and picking up stones.

Our trail led us to the stone chimney that remained from a house long gone. You could approximate how long it had been since the house had melted away by looking at the size of the trees growing out of the foundation. The chimney’s construction was elegant, its edges still crisp and square, its lintel an enormous nearly perfect rectangle, unphased by all that had happened around it. I went to work creating a story about who had lived there, trying to imagine the people who grew up with that dancing, rushing creek as their nearest neighbor. How would your mind work if all your life you heard the low soothing sounds of that creek, so much like a mother soothing a baby…shhhhhhh.

We speculated on where their fields had been— where they had grown their corn and other sustenance crops. I wondered if the father of the family had built the chimney, or if that remote community had one man who was the favored stone mason. The artistry of the chimney made me think the latter, but perhaps, as in barn raisings, the community of men worked together, and as one body had developed their skills.

A little farther down the trail Dick pointed out a millstone half buried in creek sand. We looked for any remnants of the mill that would have powered it, but they were long ago erased.

Every place we explore has its own quirky treasures to share with anyone who will look closely. Backpacking with our own scientist always takes us deeply into a place. It seems like Dick knows the name of every plant, stone, fish or tree.

Back at camp, he picked up a stone and showed it to me— it was micaceous schist with garnets embedded in it. Like walking on gemstones. They were everywhere….iridescent from the tiny particles of mica, striated and studded with chunks of garnet.

The pine fire was hot that night and kept us all warm until late. I sleep really well when I’m beside a creek. Maybe it’s the Earth Mother whispering “shhhh” to me all night. Maybe it’s from the exercise, or maybe the bourbon. I slept in late, hoping someone else would get up in the cold and build a fire. Finally I heard Dick climb out of his tent and exclaim that he’d spooked a buck who was right beside our campsite, and that the whole world was white with snow.

Our firewood had spent the night under a tarp, so it lit quickly and the fire leapt from the fire ring while snow floated down all around it. We made oatmeal with fruit and nuts. Jim and Dick sat under the tarp enjoying the show. So it was– better than any movie–the low slush sounds of the creek, the falling of fat flakes of snow, the leaping of flame, and the occasional visitor.

Lost

What I remember most is the simple act of staring always at the rushing water.  This week we hiked the long tough hike to Lost Cove Creek.  That name describes it perfectly– it’s lost.  Lost from the clatter of now– where we all live. Lost in time.  So lost there are no other humans.  Lost to signal.  Tuned instead  into the frequencies of  the arteries and veins of creeks and the sons and daughters of creeks, the mothers and fathers of rivers.  I love how water seeks its own level.  Such an odd way to put into words the punch and recoil of water moving at last to  an uneasy equilibrium.

I pitched my tent on the same mossy spot overhanging the river where I’d camped before.  The sound, the buzz, that lives always in my ears grew quiet next to the loud thousand part water music all around me.

It was like being washed by way of  the eyes and washed by way of the ears right down to the bottom of the soul. How is that received in the soul?  Like being stunned, silenced, adored, suspended.

 

We tried to keep up with the Hear and See by tasting things–spinach and nuts and packaged stews, intense dried cantaloupe, freshly caught and grilled trout washed down with bourbon or creek water, or both.

We used any excuse to bathe in the river to drop into the Touch part of being there.   Smell was clean dirt and rain.

My firsts:   crudely casting a fly fishing line and feeling in my arm the connection to the line’s motion;  the almost invisible blossoms on a ginger root; learning the habits of the three kinds of trout in those waters.  I saw my first ever wild lady slipper.  And without really wanting to at all, we packed ourselves up and hiked away.

 

Wood Smoke and Roses

 

Twice today I had to climb the steep hill up into the village to the little grocery.  It was my night to cook supper.   At lunchtime I went up to finish my shopping, and then, when I poured my first glass of rosé at 5:00 and started cooking, I realized I had no butter, so I had to walk back.  The distance from our kitchen to the grocery store is the same as the distance from my kitchen back home to the backside of my farm.  Round trip, one mile.  The big difference is that hill.

 

On both trips I admired the flowers blooming everywhere.  There were parrot tulips in one garden, wisteria cascading over a doorway.  Another garden had flesh and fire colored roses. There was a shrub with thousands of bright blue blossoms, and a lilac bush in full glory.  On the five o’clock trip there was smoke rising from chimneys as the chill of evening descended.  All week the tiny airborne seeds of some plant have filled the afternoon air, lit by the slanting light.  They are everywhere.  At first I thought they were dandelion seeds, but on examination realized they were something fuzzier and more cotton-like.  When you look up at the sky, they are always there, like ethereal sprites flying around, looking for some new place to light.

 

At the grocery, the brothers who are cashiers speak impeccable idiomatic English, but I speak French to them, and ask them to correct me.  When I am corrected, I am more likely to learn the right expression.  My French teachers are so good– they know how to make it really clear.  They pantomime the meanings of words for me so they become unforgettable.  The woman at the art supply store demonstrated that the word  “terminé” as we used it, meant to be dead, not ” finished”, by showing her head being severed  by an imaginary knife.  Gesturing graphically at her body, she explained uses of the verb “to be”.  My grocery store teachers showed me,  pantomiming sleep, that I shouldn’t cook dinner in the “nuit”(night).  I needed to cook it in the “soir” (evening) instead.

The ingredients for dinner were amazing.  I roasted a gigantic yellow skinned hen, along with its innards, covering them all with fresh herbs.  From the jus I made a gravy like my grandmother used to make, with bits of hardboiled egg, celery, and the gizzard, heart and liver chopped fine.  The gravy went over whipped potatoes flavored with scallions and morels.  There was sauteed celeriac and a green salad.  For dessert I made an Alsatian bread pudding using apples and pears and my stale hazelnut bread.  And it all started with a duck paté and a rosé, and finished with several really fine bottles of Bordeaux.

Last Sunday I went to Easter mass at the Gothic cathedral in the nearest town.  All the text was printed in a program and because I knew the liturgy in English it was easy to understand the French.  Driving to mass, we passed a horde of Boy Scouts, returning from a campout, with backpacks and sleeping rolls on their backs.  By the time we got seated in church, they began to reappear as altar boys and congregants.  I loved the kind of gangly, familiar way they handled the candles and censers. A large group of them took seats all together beside us.  I’m not Catholic, so the chilly holy water being freely slung by the priest came as a tiny shock. Incense filled the air. I stood under the ancient vaults and absorbed it all as something intensely French, part of a long tradition of the spirit.

Moulin à Nef is on the Pilgrim Trail to Santiago de Compostela.  Every day pilgrims walk by our windows, or rest in the park between the studio and the river.  They walk, as those Boy Scouts walked, toward some spiritual destination.   They walk, as I walk up that long hard hill to the grocery, to learn some hitherto unknown thing, to fill in some missing piece, drinking in, along the way,  France, her roses and wood smoke.

 

The Nature Cure

 

I’m just back from a few nights around a campfire with great friends. We were on a late winter island getaway. One remarkable moment after another— so many I tried to make a list. When I read it out loud it sounded like a poem. “sea grass, dunes, sugar sand, wet sugar sand, sea”.

One scrap of conversation sticks out in memory: my friend Janet’s comment that she felt like a kid getting to play outside til dark. We watched armadillos and possums cross paths with squirrels and raccoons, and the light’s thousand ways of filtering through the live oaks during the various times of day. The understory was all young palm trees and cardinals played among them. Some crows worked the higher regions.

 

One of our days we rode bikes partway up the island, along the beach, to visit an abandoned mansion from the gilded age. When we got there no one was around except one docent who was having a conversation with a woman in pigtails and a wide-brimmed hat, white fisherman’s boots and large comfortable camouflage pants. She had created a kind of uniform with pockets the right size, where they were most needed, salvaged from other garments. She had a kind of pencil holder attached to her hat, decorated with a bird’s feather, ready at a moment’s notice . She reminded me of us— Jim with his necklace that has a lightweight knife on it, so he never has to search for it, or the bracelets he made us of woven cord, so if the need arises we always have 8’ of cord with us. Her uniform served her purposes.

Janet struck up a conversation with this woman, since she was in the middle of reading the book about her life and recognized her immediately. She was, in fact, the person dubbed “The Wildest Woman in America” in the subtitle of Will Harlan’s book about Cumberland Island, Untamed. Carol Ruckdeschel is, at the very least, one of the most interesting women in America. She talked about her daily observations of the island’s three scattered bald eagle nests, but she is more famous for her work in defense of the sea turtle, and her influence in having the island protected as a National Park. Carol is a self-taught biologist of some reknown, and has devoted her life to marine conservation, and the conservation of Cumberland Island.

The thing that struck me most vividly in this meeting was her eyes. They were lit from within. Make of that what you will. A life of selflessness and connection to the wild world seemed to have served her soul very well indeed. She had a kind of indelible human beauty. Janet and I were both mesmerized. She was annoyed by any attempt to discuss her life, and urged us more than once to go to wildcumberland.org if we wanted to connect in positive ways to the island. Janet and I concurred later that we had both sensed that we should not ask her for a photograph. She clearly wanted only to promote her goals of  conservation, and not herself.  It was an extraordinary life event I will capture only with words, while hoping to pass along the core message… go to wildcumberland.org.

We had backpacked on my first trip to the island, hiking a few miles before pitching our tents, but this time we modified the plan to make it simpler for a larger group. We camped close to the ferry landing so we were able to haul larger tents, more bulky groceries, and things like camp chairs. I hauled a bag of art supplies down to the island, but really the work of art was done in resting my hands and letting my eyes and mind play. There was one brilliant vignette after another. When I returned home the work in progress in the studio took on a new clarity. It’s so strange how that happens. I could suddenly see, in every painting of the five I’m working on, the flaw, the weak spot, the potential for flight.

We set up a really comfortable camp. For me it was a chance to experiment with the mechanics of going down later for a week by myself to paint. We watched the sun pass over. The moon was huge, just past full. The stars looked like sequins between the limbs of the live oaks… the image I’m most anxious to play with. We had bonfires with live oak and cedar. The sea was the background noise— just the other side of a series of tall dunes.

We told stories from childhood and realized with a little shock, how much of another time those stories were. Mostly, the whole time I was in those woods I felt a huge sense of relief. It was such a blessing to leave the pettiness of life in America behind, and steep in the density of the real and raw world. I found myself content, less anxious, less busy reaching to satisfy some kind of need. Just calm and glad.

I’d drop behind the crowd hiking or biking and find myself  with word after word bubbling up in some litany of thanksgiving.  I return a little bit healed, a little bit encouraged, loved back into breathing by something bigger than I am.