August 15th - 25th
August 15, 2005
I’m back from my trip to Bend, which was just what the doctor ordered: a healthy dose of friendly, intelligent, artsy, kind, relaxed people; shared meals of excellent food; a hike along the Deschutes River through volcanic terrain and ponderosa pines; a reading; a hot tub; my very late discovery (in Audubon magazine) that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is not extinct!; and nicer temperatures (the mornings were actually pretty cold). Following are some pictures of our walk along the Deschutes:
This is at the start of the trail by the river. It’s hard to see, but in the background is a ledge of volcanic rock, a massive tumble from an old active butte. It looks almost like huge rows of dried-up chocolate cake. The water here is wide and slow.
Some treacherous rapids downriver.
And more white water.
Phil took this shot of Judy and me. I should’ve had him use the flash on my camera, but I didn’t realize we were so backlit.
The following poem was inspired by our walk through Lava Lands:
Brown butte, clumped
rising out of the forest
between piles like slag, rows
of scars, charred
spot where Vulcan
could have forged weapons
the dogs of war.
But here, beside the Deschutes’
white froth and its
hip-deep in the shining
and sniffing vanilla
in the bark of a ponderosa
pine, I’d rather
view that wasted butte
through the osprey’s eyes and see
a mole on the face
of a lady reclining
in a desert land and not yet mythic,
not yet exploited
by a lame god or man.
Judy and Phil, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, were lovely, gracious hosts. Indeed, I received the royal treatment, down to the thick white terrycloth robe to wear on my walk back and forth from the hot tub. They’re both great cooks and they have a beautiful home on a couple of acres about ten minutes from downtown Bend. Judy and I got to yak about poetry and trade some poems, and she showed me some nice journals to try out. Gus was a good boy, for the most part. He has bad manners around food, always reaching up to the counter for a sniff. At mealtimes, I banished him to the back deck. Here he is looking rather sad in his exile:
The reading was a smashing success. They all said it was the largest crowd to date in this “Second Sunday” reading series. The turn-out might have been the result of the big write-up on me (almost a full page) in the Bend paper, done by journalist David Jasper. Since I can’t send a copy to everybody, here are some pics to give you a sense of it:
This is the front page, where I got mention in the upper right.
This is the article itself, with headshot and excerpt of poem, etc.
I think a lot of people read the article. I had a random comment on my blog from a woman who read it, but couldn’t make the reading. And today I received a call on the radio phone from a different woman in Bend, who did go to the reading but had to leave because her daughter was antsy. She’d listened to my audio post on the blog inviting all callers, and so called to see how I was doing out here with the wildfire so close and to say she liked my poems. I have a fan! I can’t recall if I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I also ran into one of my college professors at the reading. Don Kunz was one of my profs my first year of college at the University of Rhode Island. I always remembered his name, and my first poetry publication, in a journal called Literati, was side-by-side with a poem of his, which I thought wonderfully ironic given my less than stellar academic performance at that particular institution. Anyway, he and I got to catch up. He retired from teaching and moved out to Bend. After visiting there, I can see why. I’ve had my own fantasies already about living there someday. I was also given a copy of a fabulous new literary and arts magazine called High Desert Journal and invited by the editor, Elizabeth Quinn, to send in my poem “One Day in July,” which I’ll happily do. The inaugural issue featured David Duncan, Gary Snyder, John Daniel and Judy, among others. A bunch of people bought copies of my book, and I signed them. Then we went back to Judy and Phil’s house and a few of their friends came by for a barbeque. Loretta and Peter were so kind, bringing Gus some rawhides and me some cupcake-like cookies to take back to the cabin. They also made a sinfully rich and delicious dessert of cherries in a chocolate cake topped with chocolate fudge. I have a huge slab of it here in my fridge, along with delicious orange/chocolate chip bars that Judy made. Just had one of those, in fact. Judy and Phil made me a big breakfast this morning, and then Gus and I hit the road around 8:00 am. We took a different route back, going by Crater Lake and then down to Grants Pass, where I got my mail and had some lunch at an outdoor café. I was excited to have received the new issue of Paste, and surprised to see a letter of mine printed in it! I’d written two weeks into my residency to say how much I was enjoying the DVD and lamenting the fact that I hadn’t brought out the other Paste DVDs to watch. Not only did the editor print my letter, but he sent me replacement DVDs so I could watch the previous ones out here. All you subscribers, check out my letter. All you nonsubscribers, subscribe! It’s hands-down the best music magazine in the world. My mail also included a Holly Palmer CD from Sharen (our friend Jamie Saft played piano/keyboards on it). She found it in a used CD store for a buck.
I also found out via e-mail that one of my puzzles was accepted by Games magazine. Very cool. It’s an unconventional puzzle, with four squares outside the grid, and so would’ve been hard to fit in a newspaper, which is always short on space. Not sure yet when it’ll appear.
I ran into a couple of guys on the road close to the DH turn-off, and stopped to see who they were. I thought at first they might be firefighters, because they were filthy, but they said they were caretaking over at the castle. Apparently, the new owner is planning to build his own trail down to the river. We chatted for a bit. It turns out it was the driver’s nephew I chased out of here a few weeks back. I apologized and explained that I’d been sort of harassed earlier in the day by the guys from down at the river, that his nephew happened to cut through at a bad time. I don’t know that he cared all that much, as he and his buddy appeared to be pretty drunk. They were swilling beer as we talked. I told them I had ice cream melting in my cooler, and went on.
My garden dried up a bit in the three days I was gone, so I’m leaving the sprinklers on all night for a good soaking. I’ve got tomatoes coming out my ears. I wish I could send some to Judy and Phil without them going bad in the mail. I brought them a bagful and they were ecstatic. Apparently, Bend has a very short growing season and so they can’t grow tomatoes there. I only wish I’d had more ripe ones to bring last week! I’m making sundried tomatoes with the Romas, and have a baggie full of them already.
The weekend left me feeling energized and excited for my Eugene reading in September. I’m thinking about spending a couple of nights there before the day of the reading. It’s the second-largest city in the state, and a college town, and school will probably have started already, so it’ll be hopping.
August 16, 2005
It’s a cool night and the crickets are chirping and the mosquitoes are biting. Today I mowed around the pond and in the garden. The heat has stopped the growth of most of the grass, but it was high in places. I also harvested a bunch of tomatoes and canned two jars’ worth. I can’t possibly eat them all myself before they go bad, so this way I can preserve some for sauces and other dishes. It’s been about ten years since I canned stuff. With tomatoes, what you do is boil them for about two minutes until the skins crack and then you soak them in cold water, peel them, stuff them in clean jars, and fill the jars with water leaving a half-inch of space. Then you submerge the sealed jars in boiling water for 40 minutes.
I ripped up my tomatillo plant, the one that grew better than anything else all spring and into summer. Despite all the flowers and the formation of the papery sacs, no fruit grew! I think the plant wasn’t cross-pollinated or fertilized or whatever. Maybe I should have planted two of them? I saw plenty of bees on the flowers, but not a single tomatillo formed.
Next time I go into town, I’m going to try to buy more seeds or starters (if there are any left) and do a second planting of lettuce and maybe cilantro. I’ll see what else might grow in late summer/early fall. I don’t like that I have to buy lettuce again at the market!
I harvested all my garlic—six bulbs—and it’s potent and delicious. I’ve got a few hanging in the mudroom to dry, along with some lavender. The dryer in the garden is full of thin-sliced Roma tomatoes, mint and chamomile. I can’t wait to fill it with chanterelles!
A lone bear (possibly Mama bear) was in the yard this morning. At one point I looked out and it was in the apple tree closest to the house. I tried getting a photo of it up there, but by the time the shutter clicked, it was running off:
August 17, 2005
The cooler temps continue. I even lit a fire in the wood stove this morning, making for a cozy few hours of writing time. While I was working on the orange/brown couch, I noticed some new birds in the yard and took down my binoculars and had a look. a MacGillivray’s Warbler and a Black-Throated Gray Warbler. Apparently warblers are migrating through, heading south, I guess.
My experience of canning tomatoes resulted in the following poem, which is a bit sexy, but should be read with tongue in cheek. It’s meant to be lighthearted.
I love the way they slip their skins
and settle into jars,
pink flesh pressed against hot glass
so that I cannot help
but think of sex and the last time
I had it. And their names
vaguely erotic—Early Girl
and Better Boy, Beefsteak
and Sweet. Steam rising from the pot.
Gold bands on the counter
like bangles slid from a thin wrist.
And the round lids’ red lips.
Fruit packed in its own murky juice,
and a kind of pact made
at the rim not to leak a word
of it to anyone.
Long after everything has cooled,
some night when I’m eating in,
and thinking of this time I canned them,
the precautions taken
to preserve these bright globes I grew
out of earth, I’ll unscrew
counterclockwise and watch them spill
from the jar like a birth.
This afternoon I made some fabulous chicken croquettes from scratch. The first step was to make a homemade cream sauce from butter, flour, half-n-half, salt and pepper. Then I cooked some chicken breast on the grill and finely diced it. Meanwhile I chopped some celery from the garden, leaves and all, and some onion. I mixed all those ingredients together (saving some of the cream sauce as a topping) and chilled it for a half-hour. Then I formed balls and dipped them in beaten egg and rolled them in breadcrumbs. Then deep-fried them in vegetable oil. With a side of tomatoes, red onion, and basil in vinegar, it was one of my tastiest meals out here!
August 18, 2005
For the third day in a row the weather is pleasant: plenty of sunshine (after morning clouds—the first I’ve seen in two months!), nice breezes sweeping through the canyon, temps in the low 90s. Much nicer than 105 or 106! In preparation for company arriving tomorrow (the Brothers, John Daniel, and Emma Brown), I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and cleaned up around both houses. Yesterday I fired up the fridge in the upper house and filled the ice trays; swept the deck; took out the grill; hung the hammock. I’m also planning to make some tarts (blackberry, apple, and cherry) for tomorrow night’s dessert. The berries and cherries are ones I picked here and froze. The apples will come right off one of the trees in the garden.
Mama bear and cub are hanging around and Gus is giving me a headache with all his barking. He really hates our ursine visitors. Here are a couple of shots of Mama bear:
August 20, 2005
My company arrived late yesterday afternoon! Walking back from the pond with Gus, iPod blasting in my ears, I was startled by Frank’s maroon truck inching up behind me, John Daniel and Frank waving out the windows. Right off, Gus gave Frank a hard time, humping his leg and jumping all over him. I was embarrassed. Gus always goes right for the Alpha male. With John, he was gentle as can be. At one point Gus was being such a pest on the upper house deck that I put him inside the house and he turned around and ran right through the screen door, knocking it off its runners (I was glad Bradley wasn’t there to see it; of course, he’ll read this and know about it). Gus was very hyped up, to say the least. Finally, he calmed down. It was great to see Frank and John again. They started in with the stories, which went nonstop until late into the night. While I was back at my cabin preparing some hors d’oeuvres and my shepherd’s salad and wrapping up the homemade tarts I’d made, Bradley and Emma arrived. Emma, as I imagined, is great. She seemed to ease right into the Boyden banter. I’m sure she’ll do just fine here next year. As evening came on, we watched about a thousand bats (not an exaggeration) drop out of the cedar shake siding of the upper house. Bradley cooked up some delicious steak on the Weber, and with sautéed Walla Walla sweet onions, mashed potatoes, zucchini and the shepherd’s salad I’d made, we had a great feast. Emma got to hear all the Dutch Henry legends. My tarts were a big hit, especially with Frank. I felt bad I was only able to make eight of them (ran out of butter). The canyon was a bit smoky last night, and it made for a beautiful rise of the full moon. Emma’s orientation continues today. We’ll probably take a walk down to the river. And Frank said he’ll hang the new screen door at my cabin. Good action so far. It’s fun to have company.
Bradley said that the grandson of Bill Graiff (the hermit who lived here after Dutch Henry) is coming out here on Sunday to see the place. The grandson is now in his 70s, and the last time he was here was in the mid-1960s.
August 21, 2005
Yesterday morning, while Frank and John hung the new screen door, Bradley, Emma, Gus and I hiked down to Horseshoe Bend via The Corral, a huge area of meadows. This is a hike I haven’t done in my time here. In the spring, I was afraid of the ticks and in the summer the burrs. And yesterday my fears were justified, big time. In the Corral area Gus picked up so many small, tacky burrs that he turned a brownish-green color. His legs, belly, chest and face were literally covered with them. I felt like crying when I saw him, for I knew they’d just be impossible to remove from his soft coat. And they were. I tried combing him out later in the afternoon, and all I got done was his face and the lower parts of his legs. I tried him both dry and wet. No go. Every swipe with the comb pulled out clumps of his hair. I called the groomer, and Gus is going in on Thursday to be shaved down. It’s the only solution. Despite the major thrash of burrs, blackberry brambles, poison oak, and swamp near the river, we had a nice walk and rested atop the rocky hill at Horseshoe Bend, where we saw a gray fox scampering around. Then we hiked downriver to the swimming hole. Here are some pictures from our walk:
The Corral (aka The Land of Ubiquitous Burrs). That’s Gussie to the right of the trees.
Bradley and Emma in The Corral.
Gus getting covered with burrs.
Chicory (love the color of this stuff!).
Horseshoe Bend. Note the smoky haze from the wildfire.
The Rogue from atop the rock at Horseshoe Bend.
Bradley and Emma at Horseshoe Bend.
Some of the river rocks have huge holes bored in them from spinning eddies of water wearing them down for centuries.
Here’s a beautiful riffle between Horseshoe Bend and Meadow Creek.
Bradley and Emma on the trail along the river. Where I shot this picture, there was a fallen tree in the trail. Bradley cleared it with the bow saw.
Once again the bats entertained us in the evening, hundreds of them dropping out of the siding. Emma and I tried to get photos of them, but the bats are too quick and the digital cameras too slow. Bradley cooked up another fine meal, this time barbequed chicken, corn on the cob, and wild rice. For dessert: watermelon and cookies. Frank regaled us with many good stories. Here’s a shot of him and John on the deck (Frank’s on the left; John’s on the right):
Emma came down alone this morning, bearing some smoked salmon for me (thanks Emma!), and I got to give her the scoop on the radio phone and the garden and the various and sundry items in the cabin. Then we all gathered again at the upper house for lunch. When Graiff’s grandson didn’t show around noon, Frank and John took off. Then Bradley and Emma were leaving, too, when they encountered Graiff’s grandson on the road, so they turned around and brought him and his wife down and showed them the place. The grandson had with him a huge binder full of Graiff’s documents and photographs. He promised to make Bradley a copy of it, which will add much to the history of this place. Everyone hung around here at the cabin for twenty minutes or so, and then they headed out.
Gus and I are back to our peace and quiet in the smoky canyon. This evening tiny ashes were falling on me like snow as I swayed in the hammock.
August 22, 2005
Before drifting off to sleep last night I started a new essay on solitude and death. I worked on it for a few hours this morning and another hour or so this afternoon, and I’m six pages into it. Happy with it so far. We didn’t do much else today: a walk to the upper house to swab the fridges and read what the visitors wrote in the journal (a tradition here), a walk to the pond so Gussie could swim. Looking for ways to use up some of my many tomatoes, I cooked up a delicious batch of homemade tomato sauce (diced cherry and beefsteak tomatoes right off the vine, onion, oregano, thyme, fresh parsley and basil, wine, sugar, salt and pepper). Had the last of my croquettes for lunch. Just as good a couple of days old!
As feared and despite my generous applications of Tecnu after our Horseshoe Bend walk, I’m developing poison oak rashes on my arms and legs. Got a nasty bit of it bubbling in the soft flesh of my elbow joint. I probably got it from touching Gus after applying the Tecnu. Now I’m walking around like a leper, covered with pink spots from calamine lotion.
The canyon cleared out over night. And the prevailing wind blew to the west, keeping the smoke away all day.
I keep wondering about what’s in my P.O. box and e-mail inboxes, but I won’t go to town until Thursday, when Gussie has his grooming appointment. It’ll be nice to be able to run errands while he’s at the groomer. No worries about the hot car.
August 23, 2005
My mother called last night with the terrible news that she has a cancerous lump in her breast. Needless to say, I’m in a funk about it. It seems especially unfair given that she just got the “all clear” on the bladder cancer she was diagnosed with a couple of years ago. She seems hopeful about the treatment, though. And her mother survived breast cancer for many years, so maybe that bodes well, too. My mother seemed more worried about my father, who’s going in for carotid artery surgery (his second) soon. The artery is almost totally blocked. The first operation went well, though he was in intensive care for about four days. These developments make it harder to be out here.
Last night I worked for about two hours recording a new song. I laid down three tracks (chords, vocals, and lead guitar fill) and was in the middle of tweaking things on the computer when the program crashed and I lost it all. Bummer. I think there’s a way to piece it all back together, but it’s tedious work. I think I’ll just try recording again when I feel up to it. Last night I needed the diversion.
I worked some more on the essay today. I’m up to ten pages. If it turns out any good, maybe I’ll send it to Literal Latte’s essay contest, if I haven’t missed the deadline.
A team of researchers with the Department of Forestry came today and parked down at the turn-around. They’d called Bradley and okayed it, and I opened the lower gate for them so they didn’t have to make such a long walk. Apparently there are research plots all over the state where they track growth of trees and compile other data. They were off in the woods all day, and just came back up looking sweaty and tired. I went out to chat with them and the mosquitoes were horrific. The researchers didn’t stick around long.
I heard from Bradley and from these researchers that the wildfire is about 90% contained and they think it’ll be completely contained by Friday. This is good news. Once again there was no smoke in the canyon today, and the weather was cool.
August 24, 2005
I re-record the new song last night. It’s called “Just Drive,” and it has a mythical allusion to Charon, the ferryman to the Underworld.
Note: if using iTunes, you may need to convert the file from mp3. It sounds lousy on iTunes, but okay on MusicMatch Juke Box on my computer.
I’m all but done with the new essay (a few things I need to check on or add to), and I think it’s the truest piece of writing I’ve done here, so I’m posting it as is. Writing it, I’ve come to appreciate this place a whole lot more, though I’m not sure if I’m any closer to making sense of my life. It’s a bit long and I forgive you if you don’t read all of it.
A Heaven We Knew Once
For over four months now, I have lived almost totally alone in a remote cabin in southwestern Oregon. Yes, it’s true that I’ve had visitors—a friend came and stayed a week, the owners of the property spent two weekends, and a biologist came on two separate afternoons to look for peregrine falcons. It’s true I’ve had unasked for human contact, too—rafters passing on the Rogue River, hikers on the trail, stray walkers on my road. And I’ve made journeys into town every week or ten days to retrieve mail from my overstuffed post office box, to check my e-mail and upload my daily journal at WiFi hotspots, to pay bills, to stock up on provisions. I’ve spent a few weekends in towns like Grants Pass, Ashland and Bend, sometimes delighting in civilization (foreign films, Greek and Italian and Japanese food, cafés, ice cream, poetry readings, CD stores) and sometimes not (less than cozy hotel rooms, ambulance sirens, Walmarts, car horns, litter, $3.50 iced chais, the signed gaudiness of capitalism). I’ve even had a couple of unspectacular dates with a darkly beautiful waitress, who continues to haunt my thoughts. Still, I have spent well over a hundred days with no company except my wheaten terrier, Gus. A lone human in a vast wilderness. And now it will be easier to die.
Not that I want to.
Like Thoreau, I think I came here in part to take stock of my life, to see if (or what) I haven’t yet lived. But however much I’ve pondered life, I’ve discovered that solitude is a kind of preparatory course in the ultimate aloneness of the abyss that awaits all of us, a curriculum in which the lone self is both student and teacher. I used to dread death. Many a night, unable to sleep, I’d open my eyes to the dark and try to imagine the absence of consciousness, the existential void, nihil humani, and I’d fill with terror and anger and sorrow. At those times it would seem to me that life was a scam, a con game, the creator I’d been raised on the Grifter of all grifters. Buy this life, but…sorry, it’s not really yours, it’s not really for keeps. Like a cheaply made thing, it’ll wear out all too soon.
I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of my own mortality. I’m sure I watched cowboys die on Gunsmoke without really considering the implications of their pained expressions, their clutchings at gut or chest, their crumplings into dusty streets. Half-asleep and wedged between my mother and one of my siblings on a couch in our finished basement, I may have felt bad for the dead cowboys, but it’s more likely I just followed the marshal through the swinging saloon door and deeper into the narrative. I think my first real experience of death was the passing of my paternal grandfather, Gilbert Whitehead, a man I loved for his white hair and tanned arms and the catamaran he kept at his Falmouth beach house on Cape Cod. I remember hearing his voice through the metal vent in the floor of that house, as my brothers and I, lying on fold-out cots, drifted off to sleep, our heads filled with blue crabs and waves, sand and shells. And I remember sitting on his knee and patting his salty merchant marine arms and begging him to stop smoking cigarettes. But by then it was too late. I was in first grade when he died. I didn’t go to the funeral, but I was told that Grampa Whitehead was gone, that I’d never see him again, and that now he lived in heaven. I imagined him in a round gold house like the one at church where the priest kept the white wafers people lined up at the altar to eat. And I knew then what sadness was. My father’s red eyes. My brothers’ awkward avoidance of the topic of Grampa. The beach house. The catamaran. Mrs. Duncan, my teacher, told me she was sorry and she hugged me, and this gesture made me even sadder than I was. Other deaths followed. My maternal grandfather, my Voo Voo, Antonio Fernandes, was next. I was two years older when he died, and I had Grampa Whitehead’s passing as a reference. I knew how to wear my sadness. Now I was a boy without grandfathers, and a piece of me had been left behind like a suitcase full of familiar clothes redolent with cigarette smoke and whiskey and sweat. But I buttoned into the new glum reality, the conventions of loss. For years I watched my Voa Voa, like the night, wear nothing but black dresses.
I suppose I wondered where my grandfathers had gone, where they’d “passed” to. Attending Catholic school, I’m sure I had some vague conception of the Christian idea of afterlife. As far as I was concerned, my grandfathers had both been good men, and so I probably accepted the idea that they were up in heaven with God and Jesus and Mary and all the saints. But Grampa, like my father, was a Protestant. What he protested against, I didn’t know. Going to church, maybe. My father didn’t attend church. It was my mother who dressed us up and dragged us there, despite how much we protested. “I want to be a Protestant, too,” I said to her more than once. And she would glare and hiss, “You go and get dressed before I count to three. One, two….” I liked that my father didn’t go to church. It was rebellious and brave. Church was so dull, the pews so hard and uncomfortable, the goings-on up on the altar so hypnotic and vague. I hadn’t had my First Communion, and so I couldn’t join all the other churchgoers at that high point in the Mass when the organ music set the grim tone and everyone lined up to open their mouths. However much my stomach was rumbling, I couldn’t eat the unleavened bread, the flesh of Jesus Christ. I remember looking around at the other kids my age or younger, many of them my classmates, all of us left behind in the long wooden rows looking altogether unworthy and childish. Or I’d look up at the stained glass windows and think of my grandfathers standing still in such holy and colorful light, near God, their heads haloed, their bodies shining all prismatic and beautiful. But weren’t their bodies buried in graveyards? I couldn’t quite figure out that conundrum. But faith, the nuns told me, was the belief in things you couldn’t see or understand. And maybe Grampa was in a different heaven than Voo Voo; maybe Grampa was in a Protestant heaven where the light wasn’t so colorful. In any case, they were both dead and I was struggling to understand just what that meant.
One summer day when I was a little older, I went off in the woods with a friend’s Daisy BB gun, the kind you could fill with the tiny copper balls and pump a dozen times for every shot. By now I liked to read Outdoor Life magazine, the hunting stories especially, and sometimes I’d feel as if a wild streak, a primal desire for stalking, was locked in the chains of my DNA, those double helixes I’d recently learned about in school. Stepping silently through the steamy oak leaves and brown needles of pines, gun in hand, I felt completely unleashed and primitive. And when a rabbit dashed out from the brush and paused in a clearing, my heart leapt and I held my breath, sighted, fired. Down it went. Suddenly I was large, ancient, capable. I understood in those first few seconds the romantic vision of Outdoor Life and the pride in the eyes of camouflaged men holding up antlered heads. Then I stood above the brown-furred body, saw my own face reflected in its drying amber eye. Its body was limp and warm in my hand. Those were bones in there. And organs and blood vessels. Its long back feet had made their last leap because of me. The rabbit was dead, no longer conscious, and now I had no intention of skinning it or eating it. I considered bringing it to my Voa Voa, who liked rabbit and would probably know how to dress it, but I knew that to carry it from this clearing meant to hold up my shame to every gaze beyond this private and terrible place, eyes in which I might see myself the way I’d seen myself in the rabbit’s unseeing amber orb. Arranging its limp body in a grave of leaves, I wondered where the rabbit had gone in its death. This Christian afterlife I’d been persuaded awaited me—was this for humans only? Would this rabbit be there to confront or receive me? And all those elk, moose and deer I’d studied in the pages of Outdoor Life, would they be there? And the Japanese beetles, a whole mayonnaise jarful, my brother Michael and I snatched last week from our mother’s roses and drowned in gasoline? Christian doctrine had no room for the billion other life forms. Heaven was a place for humans only. Fifteen years later I came upon James Dickey’s poem “The Heaven of Animals” and discovered I wasn’t the only one to have wondered about this. But in his vision of animal heaven there are no humans, just animals engaged in the never-ending hunt of one another, ecstatic in the kill necessary to the food chain. In school, learning about St. Francis of Assisi, who like Dr. Doolittle on TV surrounded himself with animals, I wondered how he reconciled himself to a heaven without all his beloved creatures.
By the time I reached high school, I couldn’t bear the thought that one day I’d be torn from my mother, father, sister, brothers; that I’d get to know them so long, love them so much, and then be orphaned to eternity, never to come home again to find my parents sipping coffee from their forty-year-old flesh-colored mugs, the ones they’d been drinking out of since the day after their wedding. Ten years later, as a married man, I felt a similar fear of separation, and to walk through graveyards and see the headstones of couples, side by side, gave no consolation; for while their bones, arranged in their best suits and dresses, lay mere feet apart under the earth, in death they neither reclined in plots nor rotted between ruffled satin and each in his or her own nonexistence was, I knew, quite quite alone. I made it clear to my wife early in our marriage that I wanted to be cremated. I didn’t relish the thought of being bled, pumped full of embalming fluid, made up like an actor with rouge and powder for my final silent performance at wake and funeral, hands folded around a crucifix in which I never really believed. Having moved around a lot in my twenties and thirties and feeling rather rootless, I told her to scatter my ashes in Eagle Lake in the Adirondacks, a place where I’d experienced peace and happiness at an artist’s colony over two separate summers. She had a similar wish: donate her organs, then cremate. Last fall, six months before I came out to this remote cabin, she told me she was unhappy and had been for a long time. Having accepted a promotion, she’d been living three hours from our home for over a year and visiting most weekends. After almost twelve years our marriage was over. She wanted out. We signed a separation agreement, and it was official. All last winter, I drove the swerving, slippery roads of the newly divorced, sliding into resentment, anger, fear, shame, regret, and the deepest sorrow of my 39 years. Meanwhile I was preparing for my six-month writing residency in the backwoods of Oregon. I found a buyer for our house and signed documents with my attorney. I moved all my things into storage and cleaned out the house. On the last night of March, a week after my 40th birthday and the night before driving West toward Oregon, my final hours in our house, I ate takeout sitting cross-legged on the bare bedroom floor and traversed the past that had led me to this moment. Forcing down my fried chicken wrap, I closed my eyes and ran the gauntlet of my conflicted feelings. Then I collapsed on the sleeping bag, my sobs echoing through the empty rooms. Later, lying in the darkness (all the lamps were in storage), it occurred to me I was indeed alone in the world and so perhaps ready to live in the wilderness in almost total solitude. I also realized I had no one now to carry out my wishes should I die, no one to take my ashes up to Eagle Lake. And the wilderness would be a dangerous place, full of bears, cougars, rattlesnakes, a wild river, steep and precarious trails, impenetrable darkness. I’d be a good fifty miles from a hospital. More than a few times I envisioned my dead body flown back East in the cargo hold of a plane or laid out in a suit in a shiny box surrounded by flowers. What would become of Gus? Would my sister take him in? Her Manhattan apartment was already a veritable zoo. Rolling down the driveway in my overloaded Honda, I was homeless and, but for the formality of paperwork, divorced. Having lost my soul-mate, my own soul felt adrift, a piece of space dust hurtling through the void and ready to blaze upon entry into the atmosphere of a perilous new world.
When I first arrived at the cabin a week later, I thought very little about death, for the place was so full of life: fruit trees bright with blossoms and dripping with spring rain, meadows a rich green, wildflowers everywhere like tiny works of art, the irrigation pond teeming with rough-skinned newts. I saw garter snakes and bull snakes, alligator lizards and blue-tailed skinks. From daybreak to nightfall the forest and meadow hosted a chorus of birds: tanagers and chickadees, sapsuckers and woodpeckers, juncos and robins, grosbeaks and finches, wrens and jays. Nighttime brought the arias of spotted and barred owls, congregations of mule deer grazing the rich shoots of grasses, a gray fox in my compost, a thousand bats dropping out of the cedar shakes to erase in moonlight the white moths marring the dark. Planting my garden—lettuce, broccoli, celery, squash, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, herbs—I felt no existential angst. This was life, these were living things, and as alone as I was I felt surrounded by creatures. Genesis doesn’t say who died first, but if Adam survived Eve, then I felt the way he might have as a widower: a man who had known love and lost it and found succor in the tendriled, leafed, winged and legged things of the world. That barren place the winter of our separation had made in me was filling in now the way the trails were with saplings of fir and madrone and huckleberry. Self-loathing and regret, sorrow and shame—these I turned over like my garden beds. And over the course of weeks contentment sprouted, took hold, survived the spring rains.
But death came knocking, as death will do. Quite literally, in fact. One morning, reclined on the orange sofa, sipping coffee and writing a short story, I watched a pair of sapsuckers flitting around the yard. Their play was either a courtship or a happy marriage, I couldn’t be sure. Whatever the case, I felt almost jealous of their companionship, but getting lost in my story, I forgot about them. Then came the crash against the glass, and I nearly dropped my laptop. Looking down, I could see the black and white tangle in the grass, the female of the pair. I went out and picked her up and stroked her still-warm breast. She’d broken her neck in the crash and was dead. I buried her behind the tool shed, this time feeling not guilt and shame the way I had with the rabbit all those years ago but a sense of injustice and, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, a tiny stab of vindication too. That’s what love’ll get you. Afterward, I couldn’t bear to watch her mate cruising the yard, calling. I shut down the laptop and took Gus down to the river.
Death has visited in other ways, too. Not long after my separation my friend Jim called. I was still a bit sore with him for having poo-pooed our protests at the Republican Convention in New York and for having voted for George W. Bush, but I forgave him these trespasses and decided it best that we not discuss politics. I’ve known Jim some fifteen years. In college we formed a poetry group with a few others and have been close ever since. Jim had always idolized my marriage, had always told me how much he admired the easy way my wife and I had with each other, and he was shocked to hear the news of our separation. On the phone that night I poured out all my anger, all my lamentations, and when I felt spent and was getting ready to say goodbye, he told me he was dying. I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it, but it was couched in a joke. I’ve always admired Jim’s wry humor, but this time it floored me. He’d been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and liver, and he didn’t have long to live. This was last November. He’s still hanging on. Before driving cross-country, I visited him in Rhode Island. Now whenever I talk with him on the cabin’s radio phone, I savor his deep voice, knowing it may be the last time I hear it.
Cancer is Death’s favorite dish; He serves it liberally and often. Just last night I got a call from my mother, who told me she has breast cancer. This after getting the “all clear” two weeks ago on the bladder cancer she was diagnosed with a few years ago. Unlike with Jim’s cancer, with my mother’s new tumor there’s hope. Given the advancements in breast cancer treatment, a lumpectomy and radiation might cure her. I wish the same could be said of Jim. Some nights, after shutting off the propane lamp above my bed and after my eyes adjust to the dark, I gaze at the stars through the three-foot square skylight. Emerson said that if a man wants to feel alone, let him look at the stars. At these times I do indeed feel alone, feel that all of humanity is insignificant, each of us no different from that woodpecker who crashed into my window. Life, then, seems a series of accidents waiting to happen, one following the next without purpose, and the stars themselves the result of some mishap and one day to die out, too, making for a whole new map of the night sky. Creationists would have us think of a grand design, but I don’t believe it. Grand designs are the things of men, otherwise God’s a killer.
As an adult I’ve been wont to kill things, the result perhaps of guilt I’ve felt for the hosts of creatures I slew in my youth. An amateur naturalist and birder, I’ve preferred to observe rather than shoot or slap or swat. When a bee was trapped in the house I’d catch it in a glass and release it outside. When I saw a spider in the shower I ignored it. At our house in the Hudson highlands of New York, my wife and I bought catch-and-release mouse traps, even after looks askance from the feed store clerk. “You know they carry diseases, right?” she said. Good karma, we replied. Mice deserve to live just as much as we do. One day I released a mouse in the road without even stepping out of my car. Just opened the door and shook it out of the trap. The poor thing was shivering, filthy with its own excrement, shocked mad like an inmate in solitary. In my rearview mirror as I pulled away, I could see it hadn’t moved. And on my return trip from buying half-and-half at the corner convenience store, there it was, squashed by some other passing car. Chance accident or grand design? If the latter, to what end? I know my mother would say, “Ours is not to wonder why,” but I do. I wonder why. After my wife took her promotion and moved to Utica, I started buying the old-fashioned mouse traps and baiting them with peanut butter. She was no longer around to frown, and anyway she’d never released any of the live mice we’d trapped. She hadn’t seen the mouse I freed get altogether flattened on Canterbury Road. Some nights I’d be in bed reading when I’d hear the neck-breaking snap down in the garage. In the year or so I used them I must have killed at least two dozen mice.
Coming out here, where I’ve been surrounded by creatures large and small and usually not human, I’ve tried to resume the Buddhist way of not killing. But I’ve had my lapses. One night, sitting in the La-Z-Boy playing solitaire on my computer, I saw something black scurry across the dim-lit kitchen floor. A scorpion! The first I’d ever seen, stinger poised high on its tail like a question mark. I snapped its picture and then, afraid it might sting me or my dog, I squashed it beneath my Birkenstock. For the first month or so of living in the cabin, I did catch-and-release of bees and wasps. Then I got stung twice. Now when there’s one buzzing around the house, I open the sliding door and try to shoo it out. If that fails, I reach for the fly swatter. With ticks and mosquitoes I have never had and never will have mercy: I squash those fuckers on sight. Flies, too. And pantry moths, those powdery, ash-colored microlepidoptera who find their way into my pancake mix and flour. Anyway, nature seems just as ruthless. The bees I don’t swat tire at window screens, bake and die and pile in the sills. In a cupboard in the pantry of this cabin is a jar of such bees some previous resident collected and labeled “Squeeky’s Bugs.”
If spring swept through this place like the hand of God in that week of his creations, summer came like a plague in Revelations. For a time everything was green and alive. I watched dragonflies change from nymphs to adults and take to the sky. I heard the chicks of gilded flickers peeping from a hollow tree. I had to mow the lush meadows every other day. Then those relentless rains and mists riding in from the Pacific died out like the Indians. The last clouds plumed like smoke signals and were gone. Blue sky. Naked sun. On the rocket-shaped thermometer outside my kitchen window, I watched the mercury rise and rise and rise. One-hundred and five, one-hundred and ten. The meadows, so long green with well-fed grasses, white with daisies, purple with elegant brodiaea, withered and dried a pale brown. Mud puddles turned to dust and where once mosquitoes hatched, now ant lions made their sandy craters and waited for the least trembling. With no electricity in the cabin, and so no fan, I suffered the long, hot afternoons. Cool baths. Pond plunges. River swims. The firs and pines, alders and madrones, their tap roots deep, stayed green. My garden, too, thanks to two sprinklers and an endless supply of water pressurized by gravity. But all else seemed dead. And when darkness fell I found myself more often than before swinging in the netlike cradle of my hammock and gazing through vast distances at the ancient light of stars. Some of those stars, I knew, had already died out, nothing left but the speed of their bright leaving.
It is late August now. Last night I reached in the dark for the eider down and, half asleep, smiled when Gus jumped on the bed and spun himself into a ball between my legs. I’ve gotten used to sleeping alone, but I miss the sensation of a warm body beside me, the smell of Sharen’s hair, the rise and fall of her respiration, the eyelid flutters of her dreams. In a small way my dog reminds me of this. A warm weight alongside. Something dear on a cool morning. We each lie in the bed we make, and—for better or worse—I have either chosen this one or been consigned it. Who can say which? But should I die and my wish for cremation go unfulfilled, the coffin won’t seem so strange. I have slept alone and woken alone and spent over a hundred days alone at this cabin. I have felt small beneath the stars, large standing over a long line of black ants marching across a dusty road. With no one to talk to I’ve conversed with a spotted owl, calling it closer and closer to the cabin until it made a full circle around me in the dark. I’ve talked often to my dog and to my self, if only to know that I still had a voice. I’ve spoken to friends and family on the radio phone and in my dreams. I have listened to a wild river, watched it drop a good five feet from its spring high to its summer low. I have seen things birthed and seen things die, and through all of it I have, like the river, moved closer to the wide mouth of my ending, when I will join the confluence of every other thing that on this third planet from the sun has lived and died. Yes, I think I fear that ending a little less than I used to. When the time comes and if I’m conscious, perhaps that won’t be true at all. Maybe all the old dread will spill right back and carry me off in eddies.
Twelve years of Catholic school gave me a good education, and I’ll always be grateful that my parents provided me that, but however much the nuns, brothers, priests, and monsignors tried, I resisted the indoctrination. Like Thomas, I doubted and still doubt, and one root of my misgiving is the Christian notion of the afterlife. Believe in Jesus and you’ll have everlasting life. To me that sounds too much like a sales pitch, as indeed it is. The easiest way for a business to stay in business is to corner the market. Hence missionaries. Hence the Crusades. Hence the logo swinging at the ends of beads. Church as a social institution makes sense: neighbors gathering in good cheer to share a ritual; in essence, to share a meal, albeit one made of much hocus pocus. It’s the spiel I can’t swallow. Maybe in ten or twenty years—if I’m still walking this earth, still struggling to make sense of this and the million other mysteries—I’ll feel differently. Maybe in time I’ll come to find comfort in the repeated words, the statuary, the stained glass, the golden tabernacle the priest opens with his secret key. After all, resistance is a kind of attachment, isn’t it? Otherwise, there’s just a letting go. I cling to the teachings even as I slough them off. Still, I know I’ll never believe what the nuns and brothers and deacons and priests would have had me believe. I couldn’t stand a minute in an eternity without birds.
I’ve always admired the Transcendentalist notion of the Oversoul, a vast energy into which and out of which all living things take and give up shape. If matter can neither be created nor destroyed, it exists somehow and somewhere and sometime, and no matter is excluded. I like the thought of my matter mixing with the maggot’s and the blue whale’s, with the mendicant’s and the king’s. Most religions are, like country clubs, exclusive. And this is precisely why I don’t want to join one. Cormac McCarthy, in his violent novel Blood Meridian, writes that “every man is tabernacled in every other, and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world.” Were this the universal scripture there might be hope of ending the cycles of war. And were we to change the word “man” to “living thing,” it might be a truer mission statement to try to live by. One problem is that it’s so easy to swat the fly, and somewhere in that endless complexity there’s the urge that would make a boy sight a rabbit at the end of a rifle. Or another man. Maybe I’m no closer to understanding any of this, these mysteries of solitude and loneliness, death and love.
This morning, for the first time, I caught a whiff of autumn. Woodsmoke seeping from my stove. Curled bark of madrone. Pine cones. Stacked logs. Apples. My time here will end in the season of endings, in the last colorful splash before the snows. In two weeks I’ll be making a brief trip back East, to northern New Jersey, to find an apartment close to the high school where I teach. Then I’ll return here and stay through mid-October. My sabbatical ends November 1st. I fear this next step. Forty and divorced and living in the suburbs. A lone human on the fringes of a vast metropolis. I fear I may be more lonely there, though I’ll have my students to keep me company and raise my spirits as they always do. I fear the noise, which alone might be enough to drive me mad. I fear the cars and pollution, the strip malls and $6.00 bridge tolls. Out here I have gotten used to not carrying a wallet or wearing a watch. I fear alarm clocks and schedules, landlords and bills. I have lived there before, in the mid-‘90s. I didn’t like it then. In the glow of New York City there are no stars. There are no hummingbirds, no pileated woodpeckers, no bears. I fear it will be an adjustment for Gus, too. So long unleashed, he will feel quite tethered to his new life, romping through huge meadows only in his leg-twitching dreams. These 95 acres surrounded by countless miles of federally protected wilderness will seem to both of us, then, like a heaven we knew once, a place to which, with any luck, we might one day return intrepid and together.
Maybe it was because I had the essay at the forefront of my mind this week that I had so much trouble with the following poem. Or maybe it’s the form: another terza rima. Whatever the case, I’ve been struggling with this one for about a week now. But I’ve put it to bed, and I’m happy with it:
When I see them—three boys crossing turned earth—
I fall in step as the brother I was
before the seasons squandered all their worth
through thirty calendars or more. Because
they would never let me, I slow their pace
to know, if I might, how time undoes
the smooth construction of a young boy’s face
or dims the burning at the rims of eyes.
And as the sun sinks low and barn swallows trace
figures in the air, something in me dies
to see the furrows of tilled acres fill
with shadows and a lone vulture’s clockwise
spiral count the seconds as they spill.
When I look again the field’s empty. Still.
Looking over this blog posting, I realize it’s been a busy and productive ten days out here. My trip to Bend energized me.
Leave me comments. Let me know what you think of all this.
And in case you’re wondering if I look like Grizzly Adams…