Monday, February 18, 2008

Living with the land

By the time I entered sixth grade my father had begun to come into his own in the business world, and our family came to summer on some of the small lakes in Western Massachusetts near our home.

The first year we tented by one of these nearby lakes, perhaps with the thought that we could actually live there all summer long and my father commute to work. But the land was flat, and the development was new, and my father sold this land after the first year. And we began to rent a cottage well up in the Berkshire hills at a place called Big Pond.

There the woods were old and it was four miles by winding, climbing dirt road from the main highway to the northern shore of Big Pond where we stayed in a cottage owned by Orin Handler. The Handler’s and the Grimes’ were the only houses you could reach by road in this part of the lake. There had never been anyone but Handler’s and Grimes’ on this road since it was cut, but Harold Grimes was planning to sell some of his shorefront property, and we were there to consider adding our name to theirs on the small sign that marked the road.

Any old New Englander would be familiar with the cottage we stayed in there — the big porches extending off living room and dining room through creaking French doors that were usually open to the breeze off the lake. The doors were closed most nights as the temperature fell even in June and July.

Then, the smell of oil fired stove would permeate the air and nestle around us as close as the heat itself, and we children would be hustled off upstairs to a loft looking down on the living room fireplace, the wicker furniture, the wooden rocker you could get on and ride like some wild stallion galloping across the plains until your mother cried out in fear that you would tip over.
Overhead was nothing but painted roof. The walls were wood paneling. The windows were hinged like cabinet doors and you looked out on the long slope of front porch roof and the lake’s waters beyond.

When the thunder storms came, as they frequently did during our days on Big Pond, the rain would come in a rush across the waters at the edge of the wind that drove it and engulf our house and thunder down on the shingles only inches above our heads. From the second floor you could see out over the whole lake as the lightning flashed its eerie white light and its tentacles snatched at the houses out on the island in the center of the pond.

My father and I built what was called a surf board in those days — a vague cousin to what you would see at the seashore today. For me it was a pretty much unsinkable craft that I paddled by hand and by foot along all the shoreline and around the shore of that island at the center of Big Pond.

The actual building of the eight or ten houses out there was a source of considerable fascination until the transporting properties of ice debunked the fantasies. The one house which most drew my explorer’s eye stood alone on a small peninsula of rock dropped by glaciers in retreat up past Hudson’s Bay long before my time. Isolated even from other islanders, I wondered at what sort of folk might suddenly emerge from within to challenge my small intrusion into their secret lives.

Orin Handler and Harold Grimes were a kind of old time Yankee you can still find in upstate Vermont or perhaps in other recesses of the country from which they have failed to be eradicated. They were men my father felt at home with and in this case admired, for they were country men but of class and culture. There were not many such men, I suspect, in my father’s world and there were certainly no others like them in mine. Their families were long off the farm — perhaps merchants or seamen from Boston or New Haven who first came here for the cool of summer and, then, stayed on in Springfield or Northampton.

I found their books shelved on the long wall by the fireplace and stacks of “Boy’s Life” magazines up under the eaves. And an image of the life they led there burnt itself in my small, expanding mind. I peered through their windows and poked about in their boathouses, for they rarely actually lived there any more, and in later years I longed for their life — for the ease of their manner, the ready chair by the fire where no person was truly a stranger.

At first my wish was just to be there, to experience again a way of living they provided and which I, too, could admire and rejoice in. But, then, a greed for a style of life I could only experience but not myself provide, took over and consumed me. And it is here in this reduced and ruined form that I now find myself, and you experience me, grappling with the spirit that seemed to direct their course, and enveloping myself in every mud puddle, sinking slowly down into the earth from which I came and which so clearly shaped their lives.

The land is neither hostile nor welcoming in and of itself. But it does seem to contain within it something of who we are at our deepest core — a connection to the spirit of the life that animates everything — not as some detached, external mechanism, but in some extremely personal, intimate form in which I recognize what I want to be — not merely who I am but the special form only we humans can attain but which requires so much of us, so much effort to draw it out and is yet so easy and common when it comes.

I speak here of the water and blood from which we were born and which now courses through our bodies, an oddly unfamiliar presence from which so many around us are actually fleeing. It repulses their nostrils; it is too coarse a salt to set at their table. And yet to separate from it is to abandon life itself. Here we are bonded by some inexorable fluid oozing from within each of us like sweat or mingled blood, like the warmth that comes from within the fire.

I saw this life coming across the lake in the fire of stars and moon and lightning flashes. I felt it shimmering on the surface of rocks beneath the surface of the water. It welled up around my toes when they dug down into the sand at the water’s edge. It slipped across my palm on the bodies of escaping fishes. And I experienced its remains in the Handler cottage and in the gnarled arthritic fingers of my father’s hand clutching at tools they could no longer grasp.

In those summers by the water my eyes, too, stretched out to embrace the life around me and I was in no way alone, though I may have seen no single person up close in a day or a week of exploring. Through all the angst and anguish of my worst teenage years I experienced there the same at-homeness in my element that my father and I understood in the presence of the Grimes and Handler men.

Not when skulking down paths after dark through woods, where only the infinitesimal difference between trodden grasses and wild reveals direction; not even in the company of the most alien of god’s creatures (teenage girl) did I loose that sense of oneness of self and land — an experience never known down in my flat-land school or home, and that was to desert me so completely in the years of work and suburban life to follow, until I came here to live on my island in the Charles where the abandoned rocks, small birds, and marshes surround me as they did in the Berkshire hills, and the surface of still waters mirrors the golden trees of fall and me.

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