Friday, January 04, 2008
On the solstice this year, I decided to take my old walk. I wanted to visit some important personal sites, and do so in the order I always did as a kid. After reading Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines I wondered if this served a similar purpose in my life, but I think the concept of dinnesanchas comes much closer. The term comes from Irish, and means something like 'the naming of place'; the idea as I understand it is that when a place has been inhabited for a long time by people with an unbroken narrative tradition, every rock, hummock, hill, stream, or creek has a name and a story. Describing my little walk with this grand term is pompous, hanging far too much weight on it, but there is still something in the concept that resonates with me.
I break with tradition almost immediately by starting from my sister's and brother-in-law's place, rather than my parents' home, but I realized that the distance between them never really had much of import for me. The special places and the stories start later.
First stop is the kicking post. This was a gift to the college from the class of 1940, and is a simply a small menhir about my height, sitting right next to the main entrance to the campus. I had always thought it was meant to be a way for Quaker students to vent their unseemly anger, but this time I actually read the sign posted on it, and realize that you are supposed to make a wish and kick it for good luck. I'm somewhat surprised the class of 1940 would have been willing to offer such a superstitious, verging on pagan, monument, but I make a wish and kick the post, being something of a pagan myself. Besides, I never turn down a chance to make a wish.
The next stop is actually a recent addition, since my adulthood. Boy for a trip down memory lane, I've already screwed it up. If this were my Songlines, I'd be subject to the death penalty by now. Okay, this stop is an enormous catalpa tree, with a trunk so wide that with our arms out-stretched my mom, dad, and I can only just barely touch fingers. This is the tree friend my mom visits -and hugs- each morning with the dog. She has done so for at least twenty years, I believe. Something about its presence calls to her, and feels welcoming. An enormous pin oak has recently entered her life as well, but I think this catalpa is the only tree she visits every day.
Today I notice that one of its huge limbs has a bee hive in it. It almost looks like the bulge in the branch has been created by the hive, since their entrance is right in the center of it. It's worrisome that the bees are out and about, since it is December 23rd, but since it is almost 60 degrees F, I assume they knew what they're doing.
I then walk along the west edge of the campus, which has a tall fence separating it from the cemetery next door. The fence didn't completely separate the two places when I was a kid and college student; lots of students used to go study in the beautiful surroundings. There was a gentle hazing tradition, maybe still is, where upper- class students would tell first-years to go find the Glass Tomb. There really is one, once you figure out the joke.
The cemetery never played heavily in my childhood fantasies though, so I don't mind the new fence (Mom does). On this side, I'm walking through a windbreak of evergreens that are so tall and dense you can almost stay dry in a rain storm here. An owl had a nest here for many years, but I can't tell if she's still here. I stop to visit the tiny grave of Morton Bisp. For reasons unknown to me, this little tombstone for a child who died before his sixth birthday (in 1953), is separated from the cemetery, one lone stone that didn't make it onto the other side of the fence. I assume he was buried on college property on purpose.
Now I'm at the top of the sledding hill, the place we always came as kids. If you could see this shallow little valley with its two modest peaks, you'd realize just how midwestern my upbringing was. I remember the rides down being quite satisfying, right up until I was thirteen or so, but when I look at it now, I laugh. I know it's still used that way by faculty kids. The family dog before I was born, the first Fang, loved riding on sleds. We tried to get Lilly, the dog I grew up with, to try it but it never appealed to her; she liked running along side barking better. This was also a good rolling hill in the Summer, and you could get some pretty good speed up for that. Once after seeing me do it, Lilly gave it a try, but her legs kept getting in the way. She learned that she liked the feeling however, so from then on her walks usually included rolling blissfully in very clean grass. Dew-covered grass was her favorite, so we think she may have been bathing. She always kept herself very clean.
At the top of the other hill there is a bronze statue honoring Mary Dyer, a Quaker hanged on Boston Common for preaching in defiance of the Puritan authorities. She's seated, looking at her hands. As a kid, I would climb up to sit in her lap, but that no longer seems appropriate, since her hands would now be cupping my ass. Behind her is Stout Meetinghouse, where I went to Sunday meeting from birth through college. I find the building quite beautiful (though that isn't supposed to matter to Quakers), with its white-washed walls, long dark wooden benches and windows looking out on grass and trees in three directions. I check the holly bush on the east side. I don't remember the actual superstition, but I have a vague recollection of it being beneficial to bring holly into the home on the Winter Solstice, so I've brought clippers and a plastic bag for the purpose. This bush has no berries though, so I check out the one behind Stout to the south. Much better in the berry department, but I'll have to come back; my walk is only just begun, and I'd rather not have to carry a bag of spikes for the next half hour.
I sit down on Dan Kinsey's Bench, a granite monument to a former teacher and coach. I still feel the lack of the old honey locust tree behind it, gone now for ten years. It always kept this bench cool in the Summer, and I would spend hours lying here, looking up through the leaves.
I had an epiphany once, sitting on this bench. As a kid I was as dismissive of my hometown and its boring terrain as anyone; I only saw beauty in mountains, lakes, the ocean, at least some dramatic hills. This flat land had nothing to recommend it, as far as I was concerned. Then when I was fourteen, my family spent three months living in London, and traveling all around the UK and Ireland. I wasn't all that fond of London (it made me feel claustrophobic), but I drank in the scenery of the Lake District, and the west coast of Ireland. It felt like I got into a new habit of seeing, and when I got home this habit stayed with me. I sat down on this bench soon after we got back, looked over the playing fields, the far side of the bowl that held the football field, the horse pasture and farmland off in the distance, the big, clear blue sky... and suddenly it was breath-taking to me. It was as if I was seeing this view for the first time. I still crave mountains, lakes, rivers, oceans, big hills, but since that day I feel an expansive sense of well-being whenever I'm in a Midwestern landscape. Here in New York, I have to make sure I go someplace with a wide vista at least once a week, to regain a sense of calm.
Moving on, I walk across the two playing fields (where Fang runs her joyous figure-eights), heading towards the old stables where I took horse-riding lessons as a teenager. This was another of the perks of being a faculty brat. This is my archetypal image of a horse stable. It's low, painted red, with Dutch doors at the entrance. Inside there is a row of stalls and two boxes for horses that needed more space or sequestering. An open area once stored hay, and housed a dynasty of barn cats that helped keep the rat population down. At the other end is the tack room. I have vivid memories of being in there, cleaning my saddle and bridle along with my teacher and classmates, all of us glad to be huddled in the one warm room in the place. In my memory it's alway snowy, rainy or dark when I'm here, which doesn't make any sense, since we took classes on Saturday mornings in the Fall and Spring... but the memory is still cozy, friendly, and for some reason makes me think of John Steinbeck.
Having been replaced at a new location, these stables are no longer in use, and are looking pretty decrepit, so I'm just as happy not to see inside. Besides, I've arrived at the entrance to the real magic of this walk.
The stables sit on the edge of a deep gorge that contains a small creek. These are MY woods. A set of beams carved out steps down into the magical place. Walking here today, I'm struck for the first time by how perfect it was to have this path be so tucked away and hidden, flanked by the stables on one side, and the tree fence of the grave-yard on the other. It couldn't look more like a secret entrance. It makes perfect sense I turned this place into Narnia, Middle-Earth, Mowgli's jungle, and the hunting grounds of the Fianna.
The steps have fallen out of use, so they're overgrown with brambles. The main path down now is the one that used to be only for the horses when we went on trail-rides. For the sake of tradition though I force my way through the first bush, and realize the rest of the steps are still fairly clear. At the foot of the steps, the path forks. I take the right-hand path heading west. I pass the old log where I could often find a six foot bull snake sunning itself on warm days. I find it noteworthy that the log still seems to look the same, since it must have been decomposing for at least 30 years. Looking at the trees on either side of me, I realize for the first time that they're mostly slender, and surrounded by undergrowth. There are some grand old trees with massive trunks, but they are few and far between. At an unconscious level, I think I always thought of this as the forest primeval, but recognize now that it must be less than 200 years old, perhaps much less. I wonder how I'll be able to find out more about its history. Europeans were settling and farming here in the early 1800s and would have farmed every inch of land they could clear. This area was probably last choice, since it's so steep, rocky, and uneven, but it's unlikely it was left untouched.
When I was a kid, though, this was the great wilderness; the old memories take me over, and once again I am Finn MacCool, Cuchulain, Mowgli, Legolas and a Miami Indian Chief. One of my great-grandfathers was American Indian, and as I kid I was absolutely fascinated by this. We never learned what tribe or nation he belonged to, since one day he simply walked out on my great-grandmother; Dad says she was a bitch with oak cluster, which may have had something to do with it. Like a lot of kids (and no few adults) I romanticized this man, desperately wishing at times that I could be ALL Indian -or at least look a little bit like one. In my woods I would try to walk without being seen or heard by my animal quarry or any white men. I occasionally found some arrowheads, which helped the fantasy. I still have one of them sitting on my dresser. I'm not sure we ever even knew this man's name, I'll have to ask Dad. Maybe someday we'll learn something about him. Dad's side of the family consists mostly of questions.
The path forks again, and I take the upper one, which brings me out to a ledge overlooking the creek. In front of me is a huge black pipe that stretches across the shallow water about twenty feet in the air. This, and two other pipes in the woods, used to annoy me. I'd be desperately trying to create the illusion of being far from civilization when boom, here'd be one of these damn reminders that I was still surrounded by it. After I saw Planet of the Apes though, I'd pretend that these pipes were all that was left of an ancient culture that had destroyed itself, leaving the world to return to a state of wild beauty. That helped. It wasn't unusual to find grocery carts abandoned here, which was all the more mystifying since the closest store was a good half-hour's walk away, at least half the walk over grass and mud. I could never figure out why someone would work that hard to make something look so ugly, not yet being familiar with the concept of under-age drinking. That's still the only explanation I'm able to come up with.
The black pipe was also where I was more likely to run into other kids, not always friends, because crossing on it was a popular test of daring-do. One kid broke his arm falling off it, but that's the only accident I can remember hearing about. Some graffiti on the pipe lets me know it's still a fairly popular destination with someone. Off to the southeast lies the white pipe, which is both wider and lower to the ground, so crossing it was less daunting.
Standing on my ledge, I can survey pretty far. I ignore the grave yard looming behind me, and look up and down Clear Creek. When I was a kid, the name of this stream was distressingly ironic, since a local chemical company was dumping waste in it further upstream. Along with giant pipes and grocery carts, I had to ignore dirty foam build-up and algae in the water. That is one thing that has improved in recent years though, due partly to stricter enforcement but probably mostly from the company going out of business. I still wouldn't drink this water, but I think it's doing less damage to the local fauna now. A few years ago I saw a great blue heron here, winging its way silently when I startled it. That was encouraging.
I walk down the hill to the creek's edge, and head downstream. The bed has changed a little since I was a kid, at least one ox-bow now being a straight channel, but over all it looks more or less the same to me. In past winters I've been able to walk along the frozen creek itself, rejoicing in the musical burbling up from the air holes, but today is too warm for that. What was a clear path when I was a kid is almost gone now. At times I'm not sure if I'm following the old track or the previous bed of the creek. I wonder why no one seems to wander down here any longer. When my mom was a student at Earlham, she said no one ever came down here. I was playing here unsupervised by the time I was six, if memory serves. I'm at least a 30 minute walk from my parents' house, and out of sight of any other building or area where there are likely to be crowds. As a kid this was one of the biggest draws of the place, but I wonder if people would see it as too dangerous now. Or maybe fewer kids these days want to go bushwacking, preferring to stay glued to their computers and video games. That just doesn't seem likely though. Kids don't change that much; they still want to have secret hide-outs don't they? Well, if they do, maybe they're finding them elsewhere.
I come out at a fairly wide path. This part of the woods is where the college biology department has been conducting a number of experiments. When I was a kid, I could stand here and look across a fairly large space that had been planted with saplings. Now I can only see about two feet in front of me, the saplings having become a tall forest. Thirty some years, yup. It's almost twenty since I graduated from college. Yipe. There are occasional pink ribbons tied to trees as markers for students, but I don't know what they signify. The study is watching how forests form, seeing what changes and shows up as the place ages. Though I can't remember when it happened, there was a point when the appearance of this robust forest took me by surprise. Maybe I hadn't come this far into the woods for a few years, so the jump was more drastic. That doesn't sit with my memories, but is the only logical explanation.
Now I take the path that loops around and through this place. I pass blackberry canes, now bare of leaves and fruit, glowing purply-white against the greys and browns of the rest of the woods. Fang's immediate predecessor, Sybil, was fond of blackberries, and would even delicately pick them herself, though she found it much easier to beg them from Dad.
In the spring the whole campus is blanketed with violets, one of my seasonal markers, and down here, just a few weeks after the purple ones come out, fields of white violets show up. That has always been one of the reasons I found this place magical as a child. Somehow those flowers felt like secrets, or evidence that unusual forces were at work.
Up a short steep (for Indiana) incline, and I'm at another biology experiment, the big pond. This went in my senior year of college, but it so captivated me that it got woven into my childhood fantasy seamlessly. I've always loved water, have at times wished I were amphibious -when I wasn't wishing I was a wolf, a Miami Indian, or the half-Sidhe hero of Ulster. This pond is particularly ripe for fantasy-making, since it was constructed with an island in it. It sits at one end of the long thin pond, near a large gap in the trees that were created so birds like ducks and geese, which need a runway to take off, would be willing to land here. Almost the minute the pond was finished, a pair of Canada Geese showed up, raised a brood, and took off again. Each Spring I now wait for my family to tell me the geese have arrived, how many goslings they hatched, then what day they all disappeared. We try not to think about how many of the goslings probably stayed behind, in the gullets of snapping turtles. Turtles gotta eat too, I guess. Today I startle a small creature of some kind as I come up. I never get a really good look at it, but am pretty certain it's a muskrat. This feels like an especially nice omen, since I've never seen one here before. Where do these creatures come from?
I swing around the pond, and come out between two more biology experiments; on one side is the meadow, on the other is the prairie. It's astonishing how distinct they are from one another, separated only be a six-foot wide strip. The prairie side gets burned every few years, so that probably helps. In the summer this area is swarming with flocks of goldfinches, and butterflies. Tony the entomologist has taught Mary and me how to identify the sex of Monarchs, along with a lot of other fun information. Who knew we'd all become so interested in bugs someday?
At the edge of the meadow is the school observatory; Indiana is not a good place for serious star gazing, because it's hazy and rainy so much of the year, but when I took astronomy my first year, I got to see several planets in clear detail through this telescope. Saturn was the most beautiful. Across another set of playing fields is Brick City, a whole development of ugly single story red-brick buildings that are used as housing for visiting professors, grad students, and anyone else who chooses to live here. Because of the observatory, all the streetlights nearest are shielded on this side, to cut down on the light pollution.
Then I visit the smaller, older pond that went in sometime while I was in high school. As with the larger one, fish, frogs and other animals simply showed up here almost as soon as the pond filled with water. I believe their eggs were transported by bird guano, but there is still something magical about the apparent spontaneous generation of life that water causes.
Now I'm on the paved road, looking at the old horse-pasture, and on the other side of the bowl, the back side of the college campus. When I was a student here, whenever things seemed particularly overwhelming, I would take a walk out here and look at the school. Somehow seeing it all from a distance like this helped me regain perspective most of the time. Years later I found myself doing the same thing as I road the bus home to Jersey, and looked across the Hudson at Manhattan. Seeing it all contained and distant like that, my blood-pressure would drop immediately.
The former horse pasture now houses the ropes course and a huge community of voles. My family calls it the heath, and Fang is fond of vole-hunting (and crunching) when we let her run here. I cut diagonally through it and arrive at Firefly Lane. This is the name my family gave this narrow corridor of greenspace that runs behind the backyards of College Avenue, alongside the heath. It earned this name one summer when the firefly population was particularly huge, and all the trees here looked like they'd been festooned with Christmas lights. After some attacks, safety required thinning out a lot of the trees to improve visibility, so the Christmas light effect has never been repeated, but the name stuck. At either end it is blocked off by horizontal wooden beams, to dissuade anyone from driving a car through here. In the early 80s, some students went joy-riding down this greenway, then back to their residence in Brick City. I believe drinking may have been involved. The next morning the head of security followed the black, muddy tracks to their door, and came in for a chat. After a brief silence he started mildly "You boys lack discretion." I know all this, having heard the story from the driver, now a good friend and a well-loved, tenured member of the faculty.
Now I head up the bowl, returning to get my holly. I make sure to leave some berries, while still getting enough for both Laceyland and Hazelthorne. After this the walk is more or less complete,
the sites all visited. I'm struck by how much things have actually changed since my childhood, and how little it bothers me. Right after I graduated from college, I was more ruffled by such things. On visits back I'd accompany Mom, Dad, and Sybil on the afternoon walk, and feel disgruntled at any change in the route. It was like I was some cranky, hide-bound anthropologist telling the natives how they were supposed to observe their traditional rituals. Now I'm much more pleased by the evidence of change in my school and my family; it shows that life goes on, and no one is getting frozen in place. My sister is one of the senior faculty on campus now. Dad is long since retired, and off saving the world in other settings. Mom and Fange still take their two daily walks, visiting their tree friends and vole-hunting grounds. Life keeps growing and changing. It feels good. I know this terrain is not to everyone's taste, and even if they like it, they don't see what I see. My place is as much one of imagination as it is grass and trees. I once showed Brian my walk and he was a very good sport about it, but he couldn't possibly have seen what I was seeing. His secret havens, most of them in Cape Breton, are by objective standards spectacularly beautiful, so even if I wasn't seeing what he was, I still fell in love with the place. This place is much more a cultivated taste, I know. I know too though that this will always be home for me, in some primal, archetypal way.