Thursday morning, I went to town with my mask, met one of our egg suppliers and bought several dozen eggs, visited the grocery store and thanked the young man sanitizing grocery carts and controlling the number of people allowed inside. One of my sons is doing the same work in Denver, and as I went back to the car with loaded plastic grocery bags dangling from my hands, I thought of him.
On the way home it began to rain.
An hour later, snow was falling in thick, wet clumps, filling the air and coating every surface it touched.
Six hours later, as night fell, we had several inches of snow and the air swirled with flakes, smaller and harder now as the warmth of the day faded. The power began to flicker as we watched TV. We turned off our computers and unplugged them.
At bedtime, I cracked a window open and crawled under the covers to read. The power stuttered over and over, making our carbon monoxide detector beep and my office electronics in the adjoining room click and clack.
I turned out the light and thought of the smothering weight of the snow on the roof above me, how quickly it was accumulating and how typical that an April storm just before Easter would be the worst of the season. Plows passed by, their lights shining through my unshielded windows, illuminating my room in flashes and moving stripes of light.
Sometime around 10:00 p.m. the power went out for good. The house was abruptly silenced, but the night outside was filled with sound and movement. The storm was like an immense creature padding around the house, breathing in erratic gulps, thumping, pawing, scrabbling. The trees groaned and soughed in their wooden throats, the merciless blanketing snow pressing down on their bodies and limbs.
At 12:40 a.m. a long, slumping crash filled the night. I lay, tense and fearful, listening. Was that part of our roof? Had the deck torn away from the house? I turned on my small LED reading light, thrust myself into robe and slippers and went downstairs.
Dark. The lights we usually leave on in the kitchen and living room were out, of course, along with the bathroom nightlight. Outside the large window over our dining table, nothing but soft, formless white, except for a great black shadow between the barn and the trunk of a 200-year-old maple alongside the driveway.
A black shadow, taller than a man and longer than a car. A black shadow in a white night. I strained to see clearly, but it was impossible to make out any details. I let my eyes move up the tree trunk. Was the top of the tree still there, or had it fallen away?
I went back up the stairs, feeling sick and pretty sure we’d lost the tree. Had it hit the barn? If so, there was nothing I could do about it.
I lay in bed, listening to the storm and the beleaguered forest. It was like a battle between the violent, inexorable snow and the patient, giant trees. Creaks, cracks, booms, explosions, and the muffled sound of crashes and heavy bodies falling filled the night. I knew some of what I was hearing was transformers blowing and electrical noise, but I couldn’t tell how much. I wept for the trees as the storm rent and tore at them, bearing them down with its cold, white weight.
I checked my small battery-operated clock at 3:30 a.m. Dawn was not far away. I felt calmer, and now I heard only the hush of heavy snowfall. The weight on the roof above my head felt less ominous. I blew my nose, flipped over my pillow and turned onto my side, finding sleep at last.
At 6:30 a.m., my partner and I looked out the front window at the shattered maple, which had fallen onto an old apple and snapped it like a toothpick, as well as tearing all the limbs off one side of a younger, healthier maple near it. The fallen tree did not hit the barn, or our cars, or the house.
Fourteen inches of heavy snow had fallen, and it was still snowing, though lazily. We went from window to window, seeing trees split, snapped and torn in every direction. Several had fallen across our pond. Our favorite swamp maple, every year the earliest to turn and the most intensely colored, had split down through the trunk, each heavy branch peeling away like a banana peel until it rested on the ground. Shrubs, branches and wires hung flat and low, bowed with the terrible weight of the clinging snow. Many trees were broken but still clasped in the arms of their neighbors.
My partner called the power company on his cell and got a recorded message saying the estimated time of power returning was 11:15 p.m. the day before! Not encouraging.
We spent most of the day in the living room, near the wood stove, each with a blanket and a book. Clouds surged across the sky, bringing periods of heavy snow interspersed with lighter showers. Plows and sand trucks went by, but we saw no tree service or power trucks. We boiled water on the wood stove for tea, scrambled eggs, heated soup, fed the fire. I felt thick-headed and wretched — too much crying, too much devastation, too little sleep. We had no power; no Internet; no more than a trickle of water, inadequate to flush the toilet. Our cell phones were not fully charged.
I felt utterly cut off and isolated, and too tired to make any sensible plans to help myself.
Before it was fully dark, I went to bed, lit a candle, and reread Rosamunde Pilcher, the most comforting author I know. After blowing out the candle, I lay absorbing the quiet. The storm was over. The injured, dead and dying trees were silent, now beginning the long work of rotting or healing. I knew we had months of work in front of us, too, with chainsaw, hatchet, splitter and wheelbarrow. We will not need to buy firewood this summer.
I turned onto my side and fell into a dark well of sleep.
When I was pregnant with my first son in 1989, I approached parenthood the way I approach every new endeavor. I read whatever I could get my hands on. I had a shelf of books on pregnancy, labor and delivery, breastfeeding and parenting. Like most parents, I wanted to be the best I could possibly be.
Twenty-five years later that I came across the only book I needed, a simple paperback I’d never heard of or seen, a book never mentioned by health professionals, teachers or anyone else. The book was The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. It only took me a couple of days to read, and I cried through the whole thing. I’ve rarely read a book that so completely captured my private longings and sense of being broken.
By then, of course, it was far too late to apply the information as a parent.
As I embark on the second half of my life, I think about the continuum concept every day. I grieve for us all, victims of rape culture, many of us broken and maimed sexually, physically, mentally and emotionally. Few of us have any idea what a healthy human relationship looks like, and fewer still know how to go about creating and participating in one, or are in fact able to because of the damage current parenting practices and other social norms cause.
My own needs for affectionate, nurturing touch and in-arms experience are chronically unmet and over the years I’ve learned to spend time in water, in the sun, with animals and in nature as substitutes for human contact.
The trees and forests here are nothing like the pine and aspen forests I knew growing up in Colorado. The broadleaf forests in Maine are tall and deep and thick, every layer incredibly rich and complex. The trees are a mix of fruit, evergreen and hardwood such as birch, beech, oak, ash and maple, to name but a few.
Over the months, as I’ve walked this place and made friends with it, I notice a thing about this forest.
The trees die in one another’s arms.
Trees of all ages grow here. Older, damaged or weak trees begin to lean and die. They can remain standing in death, becoming snags for wildlife and insects, or rot from the inside out and the roots up with the help of fungi and moss. These can be pushed over with one hand, and as they fall they collapse wetly into pieces, releasing the woody smell of mushrooms. Smaller trees can sometimes find a way to fall all the way to the ground, especially at the edges of forested areas or along the river, but the huge old trees away from the edges have no room to fall entirely. They might drop branches or break at various points up the trunk, but the whole tree can’t come down at once.
Die in my arms 09/27/17
All over this 26 acres old trees are leaning, dying or dead, held in the arms of their healthy, living neighbors. Some neighbors of the same species are no doubt family members, but it doesn’t matter. A tall, strong ash might hold an old beech, or a maple support the skeleton of a pine.
This is not a dutiful, quick, can’t-wait-to-get-it-over-with embrace, but a years-long in-arms relationship while the dead tree rots and breaks down, feeding its patient supporter and the rest of the forest, until the moment comes when the last of its body decays enough to fully rest on the ground where it was born.
The forest grows together, lives together and dies together.
Die in my arms 09/27/17
Yesterday morning I went out to clear around an old shed we plan to put a foundation under and use. At one time there was an arbor along the south side of the building that supported a grapevine. The arbor is long gone now, and the sprawling grapevine is as thick as my wrist in some places and has spread over an area of about 50 square feet. I went to work, lopping saplings and woody growth and pruning the rest. The vine had produced some purple grapes as it crawled up the shed wall. I’ve never tasted a grape with such intense flavor, but there weren’t many. I wondered if we built a temporary trellis and I gave it some attention we might be able to take cuttings and save it. If it can survive years of neglect and still fruit, it seems to me it’s happy here.
Apple and grapevine 09/27/17
I worked away until I came to the foot of an old apple. This tree is gnarled and twisted, as they often are, and the entire trunk is hollow from below eye level to my highest reach with several entrances and exits. This particular apple is early, and the fruit has mostly dropped and been eaten by wildlife. As I knelt under the tree, cutting back woody undergrowth, I looked up.
The grapevine, having no trellis to climb on, had over the years climbed the tree instead, and pounds and pounds of purple grapes hung down from the apple tree canopy, invisible unless you stand right under the tree.
Die in my arms, I thought, looking up in wonder. Live in my arms. Flourish, shelter and fruit in my arms.
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash
Trees are not people. Clearly, people are not trees. We have demonized the continuum concept. We have civilized ourselves into cities of concrete and steel, hospitals, institutions and prisons. Touch in our culture is about rape, violence, abuse, capitalism and control. The need and desire to give and receive touch is viewed as inappropriate and dangerous. We’re addicts, homeless, outcast, broken, sick and lonely. We’re divided from one another, competitors and enemies. Few of us will die in anyone’s arms.
Recently I went back to the little mountain town in the Southern Colorado Rockies I called home for twenty years, and wrapped up the sale of my house. It was an important trip for me, one which I’ve been anticipating ever since I arrived in Maine two and a half years ago. My partner and I drove out and drove back. I didn’t try to blog or write on the road, but I made a lot of notes and I discovered a persistent theme.
Reclamation, according to a quickie internet search, means “the process of claiming something back or of reasserting a right” or “the cultivation of waste land or land formerly under water.” It strikes me there’s an interesting and subtle possibility of conflict in those two definitions. What exactly is waste land, and who has the power to define it? Also, what does cultivation mean? Big Ag? Monocropping? Pesticides and Roundup? Or cultivation by plants, animals and wind?
In any event, I’ve been carrying the word reclamation for some years now like a talisman. It’s a cord linking events and choices of the last years of my life together.
Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash
I remember exactly when it started. I was sitting in a chair in the salon where a friend cut my hair for years. In the mirror, I could see my hair falling over my shoulders and down my back, thick and wavy and beginning to be streaked with grey. I was desolate because of a broken relationship, and I saw a woman who was unwanted in that mirror. I didn’t want to be her anymore. I wanted to be someone else. My friend asked me what I wanted to do and I told her to cut it all off. “Reclamation,” I said. I couldn’t say more because I didn’t want to break into sobs, but she knew exactly what I meant, and she tied a smock around my neck and started cutting.
My ex-boyfriend had loved my hair. I loved it, too. It made me feel sexy and beautiful and feminine. Cutting it was the first step I took on the road leading me to this attic space in central Maine, where I sit this summer morning (with short hair) writing with the windows open and the sound of crickets, frogs and birds flowing in.
I held onto that word, reclamation. It became a boat to sail away in, and then a lifeboat, and then a raft and then a spar of wood in a fathomless sea of floating debris that kept me alive until current and waves took me back to shore.
Photo by Edewaa Foster on Unsplash
The little town I lived in had no claim to fame or big dollar tourism except for a golf course. When I moved there the course was renowned for being one of the most beautiful in the country, and visitors came from all over during the summer to play there, filling the inns and RV parks. Then drought struck that part of Colorado, the golf course was sold to an absentee owner who immediately got crosswise with the town, and gradually, due to a mixture of water problems, politics and general assholery on the part of the owner, the golf course went downhill, people lost jobs, the greens became unkempt and the tourists stopped coming. Then, just about the time I left town, the golf course closed.
I don’t play golf and my living fortunately didn’t depend on the tourist trade, but every morning, just before dawn, I walked on the golf course.
I didn’t do it for exercise or as a discipline. It was my lifeline. It was the one place where I never failed. I was guaranteed solitude and peace. Nobody knew where I was. I knew the course so well I could disappear into it, be absorbed. I had several routes, one for ordinary days, one for days of grief, one for days of rage and the longest one for days of despair. I used some of the cart paths, but mostly I followed the contours and edges of the greens and walked along the river, which was generally only a trickle, if not entirely dry. I often heard owls going to roost as meadowlarks began their morning chorus. I saw bears, foxes, skunks, deer and geese.
In the days of relative plenty, maintenance men worked as early as I was walking, but I was a familiar local figure and we ignored each other. I avoided them and they only saw me at a distance. There was an elaborate sprinkler system, of course, that worked all night every night and made the whole place fresh and green and cool, a stark contrast to my daily reality of hauling or pumping grey water out to my garden because of drought and watering restrictions. I lived a five-minute walk away.
During our recent trip we only spent one night in that little town, but I woke early, slid into my clothes and walked to the golf course. I knew it had been closed altogether for some time. This year the drought momentarily broke in the valley with record amounts of snow and rain, and the river that so often dried up flooded, both on the course and through the town. As I slipped through the gates and passed the “no trespassing” signs in the dark of early dawn, I could hear the river, an amazing, miraculous sound. The scent and chill kiss in the air of running water was very different from the mechanical chik, chik, chik of an automatic sprinkler.
The cart path was rutted, muddy and overgrown. Large tree limbs had fallen and nobody cleared them away. The river actually broke out of its banks and spread across a former green. I’d seen pictures in the local paper, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. The town sent in machinery to make barriers out of heaped-up debris and mud. Whole trees had toppled, their root balls pathetically exposed to the sky.
Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash
Once, I could have walked several paths on the golf course blindfolded. I often was there in the dark. Now my footing was uncertain. The grass grew up to my waist and I kept tripping over hidden windfall branches. Weeds filled the sand traps. The greens were, of course, gone. The groomed contours that once marked my route had vanished, forcing me to slow down and move more cautiously. I strained my eyes to discover familiar slopes and hollows in the dim light.
As I moved deeper into the old course, I thought of all the hundreds of mornings I’ve spent there, praying, weeping, raging, pressing myself against nature in every mood and season. I took my joy there, my hope, my dreams, and my gratitude practice. The golf course was a place of creative inspiration, a place of guidance and comfort, a place in which to staunch wounds enough to carry on another day. I was real there. I didn’t try to hide from myself.
That highly-groomed, herbicide-gagged, shaved, enslaved, money-making piece of land (a waste land) is going wild again. It was captured, bought, and pimped by a businessman in order to create a profit. Now, Mother Nature reclaims her own. The land begins to remember itself. As I walked and the light increased, showing me myriad signs of healing, I felt akin to the land. What is happening there is happening to me. I had a pimp, too — myself. I sold myself for what I thought I was worth in order to get what I needed. Now the land and I reclaim ourselves from a bleak and limited culture that relies on chemicals, profit and power-over rather than natural cycles and cooperation.
Reclamation is not a controlled, civilized process. It’s wild, sometimes catastrophic. The river made a scar where it broke its banks and uprooted trees, but it carved out a new bed for itself. The old bed will fill in. New growth will cover all that exposed earth. The downed limbs and trees will rot and feed the soil and mycelium while native plants and grasses return. Is this what we mean by waste land? Forest fire, flood and storm are acts of nature that reshape the land and environment. Life dies and renews, one act leading to the other. We often experience reclamation as terrifying and tragic. Human beings, for the most part, don’t welcome change unless we control it.
Yet we do change. The world changes. The weather changes. Those around us change. We can neither stop nor control it in any significant way, and I’m entirely grateful for that. The golf course and I are messy. Our hair is disheveled. Our trim, neat lines are blurred. The high unmown grass through which I waded brushed against the hair on my bare legs. The water feeding the land and the water of feeling that feeds me have carved a new, wider path. Bridges and trees sag and unravel, not trash but compost for the next thing. Paths and fences fall into disrepair. Grass and saplings mingle freely, each reaching toward the other at the edges.
Photo by Laterjay Photography on Unsplash
Snakes, rabbits and insects live again in the shelter of the grasses. Does can leave their fawns safely concealed while they browse, and their presence will bring the mountain lions down from the foothills. Owls will find abundant mice, voles and other rodents in what was a carpet of sterile green velvet. The beaver and raccoons will no longer be trapped or shot, lest they disturb the regulated beauty of the water features or annoy the tourists. Over all this complex, creative system, the meadowlark still sings, that king of the high fields and plains, and his song still brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my throat.
That land will always be home to the woman I was. I was glad to return for a brief hour and realize my beloved place has moved on, just as I have. The land and I were both over-civilized into waste land, but now we’re reclaiming ourselves. The golf course and I reassert our right to be what we are. We surrender to change, to mess, and to the transformative edge of chaos.