I just wanted to express thanks for all the helpful comments about my borked MacBook.
During the past couple of years I've had a strange time. Divorced, lived in a tent for four months,
thought constantly about a novel I'd started to write a thousand times, and finally started writing, also a thousand times. It just felt very forced to me, like my voice was masked. I'm finally happy with my voice in this, the opening chapter of book called "Salamander Ranch".
It is very raw, unedited. There a couple minor issues with tense, a bit of repetitiveness I need to adjust, a missing or misspelled word here and there. But I want to just keep writing before I go back to it. Don't want to start overthinking.
Anyway, here it is, chapter one: Underwear are Frivolous (or possibly: Enough, depending on my mood).
I bought this tent because it was blue and yellow, two of my favorite colors, one hot, one cool, together green. I like green too, the thousand shades of green of leaves that shelter and rain my tent with leaves and pinging needles in the noisy night while I try to sleep. My air mattress is beside me when I wake. A silly big thing, comfortable too. Not as lovely as the cold ground that yields just a little, only because I raked loamy earth to mound the spot where I pitched the tent, a precaution to assure that I was uphill from the manic rain this summer. Today it's dry. No rain, but dry in this place, in the hundred yards between the North Branch of the Mehoopany Creek and the fresh spring stream that traces it north and south for half a mile, creating a peninsula of elevated land that has seen a hundred thousand little floods. I pull on my jeans, mismatched wool socks, boots. Wrap my hair in a long wild tail, and unzip the double doors. It's morning again.
The wet air almost chokes me because it's hot outside, already 80 at 6am. The hot air meets the wet and turns dew into steamy mist that hangs like wet cotton wrapping me in a blanket of damp. I don't mind in the least, in fact, its discomfort comforts me like my mothers loud yells on school days when I was a kid, summoning me and my brothers and sisters to wake and face the dawn, startling me out of the realm of dreams. I know the fire is cold, that I must start fresh with moist twigs that I gather beneath the giant Spruce that hangs above my tent. There are plenty and I'm good at this now. In a few minutes, my breakfast stove is hot.
Last night I was late getting back to my fire, the center of the world, a world all mine, extending everywhere, beyond where I could see or even hike. Yes, the world, all of it that mattered, mine. I don't own it, I just live here, like a child living in his mother's home. But the perfectly fresh air, clean and beautiful like babies' breath scolded me and points me toward the deep hole in the stream, where I need to bathe now. Bathing in the stream in morning and bathing there at dusk are two very different matters. At the end of the day, the million rocks that decorate the rushing water catch the sun's heat and leak it into the the icy water. The 5 foot hole in the creek then has two distinct layers of water--warm water that floats in the upper half and stiller, icy water that resides always in the deeper parts. In the morning the rocks are cold. So is the water. All of it. Having to bathe in the morning upset me once, just once, the very first time, the time I learned. Now, knowing, I take it as a challenge, to smile in the ice water, take my time in the torturous cold, and smile singing all the while, as I do in the warm day's end water.
Self-consciously I look around, as if someone might see in the world of my own, and strip. Naked and barefoot, a towel around my shoulders, I tread lightly with care among the sharp rocks and sticks that threaten my bare soles, to the bathing hole on the far side of the wide stream. I have to get my shins wet doing this, and this is good too, because it forewarns me like a laughing dare calling to my nerves the flowing absence of warmth and the chill that awaits the rest of me. I stand at the edge of the hole, place my towel neatly on the enormous slab of slate that just juts out over the edge of the hole. I stretch my arms into the air, a sigh of muscle not breath, and plunge into the deep. It's only five feet deep, so I'm always careful to dive shallow. A head or neck injury would be fatal. And the ice water clothes me in a liquid silk icy vice, squeezing the breath from my lungs, Even my heart protests and I feel it lurch, skip two beats, and rapid fire beat til I'm warm again by the fire that waits for me.
First I must wash, and sing, and smile, even in the silk cold jaws of the Mehoopany. I meet the challenge, welcome the tingling sharp pain. I acknowledge it, submit myself to it like it were an unannounced lover who likes to claw, I understand that my discomfort is two things alone: the chemical electrical reactions miniscule enough to be dismissed; and the judgmental conviction that these little synapses being crossed is somehow bad, painful, wrong. I say "So what" to the first, and "So, come," to the second, And I sing until my leisurely bath is complete. Then wrapping the towel around my neck again, I tip-toe back to the fireside where I let the smoky heat turn my wetness into steam. I listen to black walnut crackling in the fire, watch ants and spiders scurry away from the heat across the carefully stacked rings of the fire circle, I whistle with songbirds, I tilt my head way back, to feel the sun on my face as it chin-ups slow over the steep mountain bordering the eastern shore of the stream that cleansed me, and I smile as naturally as sunlight caught in the clouds. I'm happy.
Thanks to the fire circle I'm dry. I love the taught feeling that caresses my skin as clear spring water evaporates in the smoky heat. I stand and look closely first facing north, upstream, into the tall trees, mostly Elm and Ironwood, the decaying trunks of their ancestors scattered like family on the fern-covered, forest floor. Puddles of sunshine make it through the canopy here and there, and wildflowers, snapdragons and other pretty things whose names escape me grow in those sunny pools among brown scarlet green zebra ferns. Darryl and I walk through these woods slow and silent, together just moving mute through the woods, seeing and listening to the woods around us, with the quiet rustle of the Mehoopany echoing soft off the steep mountainside as the world against which the sharper cries of jays, the scream of a hawk, the song of a cardinal emerge clear and distinct. Once in a while Darryl breaks the silence sacred to both of us, to point out the scientific and common names of this flower, whose sap relieves itchy skin, or that mushroom which makes a lovely addition to venison stew, or that owl, whose unusual calls means she's protecting her territory. I acknowledge him with a nod, a smile, "I didn't know that, thanks." And we move on this way for an hour or two across his 80 acres.
I smell like smoke of course, even though I just bathed. This is good. I'd prefer that the several bears whose home I've barged into catch my scent as I move quietly through the think brush. I haven't seen a bear yet though, just sign of their presence, fresh sign and new sign. For caution's sake, and out of respect for my hosts, I pay them the curtousy and me the security of announcing my sneaky presence. Common sense, nothing more. Treat what you love lovingly, I think, and you'll dwell in a world of love. Maybe I should write that tonight in the tent on the refreshing cool ground before I sleep. I haven't written much, I think further. Maybe tonight. But the sounds of the forest, and the dancing shadows on the white roof of the tent when the moon is bright seem more important to attend to I, consider. I can write any time. But perhaps a few notes. Time to dress. There's a lot of work to be done and Darryl will have been up for two hours already, drinking his unusual teas whose packages are plain brown wrappers, and bright scarlet ones, all lettered with bright yellow chinese characters announcing the contents within, always a dense, chunk of black material that looks to me more like a compressed soap bar sized chunk of unchewed coarse tobacco, and caring for the animals with an unlit had-rolled organic tobacco cigarette dangling from his full, determined lip, usually suppressing a goofy warm smile at his joy in this land. Yes, I bet getter moving.
Underwear, Darryl says, are a frivolous expense. I never thought of it that way but by now, I realize he's right. One more thing to buy, to wash, to hang dry, to put on, to replace. Unnecessary. So I pull up my jeans, grab two wool socks from the sock pile, unconcerned if they match, strap on my worn leather work boots and take an Underarmour T-shirt from the top of its pile. Yellow today. There will be jokes from the guys. It's their way of expressing love, their gift: a quick jab to the ego to build toughness and a lesson in smiling through a tiny discomfort. Next I clip two pocket knives to either front pocket, a tool I may use one hundred times in a day and which I too often misplace. I think, I should be a little more careful about such things. Then: But even a great mind cannot to everything. God is in the details, but there are too many intricacies surrounding us, inviting our attention and welcoming our delight that one must choose. I choose greater things than pocketknives and matching socks, underwear. That is well enough. So be it. Thus I make my way out of the tent. I retrieve my broad rimmed army green fishing hat from a sharp, broken branch that sticks dangerously out at eye level from the trunk of my sheltering pine. The first thing I do whenever I get back to camp is place the hat on that branch, and it's the last thing I do when I leave. My mind is many places, but not often on a dry broken branch threatening from the pine. Common sense. I know who I am.
Thus attired and armed I make my way around the west side of the eight man tent, large enough to house me indefinitely with all my needed possessions. I duck habitually and low under the branch of a young spruce whose sparse and soft branches rub against the tent there, making a soft brushing sound that helps whisper me to sleep at night and which I do not wish to harm. This trail winds fifty yards across the little peninsula, through ferns and fledgling knee-high pines which the deer, the raccoons, and I seem united in our effort avoid trampling. In a half minute I'm at the spring. The land I'm standing now is five feet higher than the stream below and drops straight down, a ledge cut by the water's passage over thousands of years. My right hand holds the helpful branch of a pine whose roots are now exposed by the spring's erosion, and which I use as slippery stairs down to the 4 inch wide, ten foot long branch which lies across the spring-fed stream. I place my right foot on the bending, springy fresh branch, crouch very low beneath another low branch of the spruce and lightly, as lightly as a broad muscled 200 pond man may do so, quick step balanced across the bridge, leaping off my right foot to the pebbly bank on the other side.
I land happily with my boots crunching in the stones, content that I haven't yet fallen into the chilly spring. Now it's become such a natural part of my routine that my crossing from that little islandish home to this other world, the world of farming and hay bailing, stacking, dust and sweat, my crossing seems like a bodily prayer of thanks that every fiber of my grateful muscles sends grinning to God. I love living here I smile, and continue my hike toward Darryl's trailer. Darryl the Rocket, Uncle Paul calls him. And both Darryl and I call Uncle Paul by that loving name because whenever we need the wisdom and expertise of someone who knows more than us about the day to day pitfalls and breakdowns that occur in the hay farming process, we call him, Uncle Paul. And like that uncle who always has your back, Uncle Paul has never let us down when we call. Now I'm at the steep, almost vertical 14 foot bank that I must climb to reach the south end of the horses' pasture. I climb, wondering if the three horses will be out and about on this hot morning, or if they, knowing, have remained beneath the barn in their open stalls in the shade, facing east. It took three days of careful, reassuring approach before the horses would respond to my call. Now they greet me when I pass near with a nuzzle that throws me off balance, a playful and loving reminder that they're bigger than me, but still want to goof around. Why not? Today they are inside. Maybe Darryl hasn't fed them yet and when I offer to do it I'll see them then. I cross the pasture, carefully avoiding the many squishy piles, and duck beneath the smooth wire fence that surrounds the pasture on three sides. But the south end of the pasture is open, terminating downstream in the spring and providing the horses with wonderful, mineral rich, fresh spring water, pure elixir squeezed out of the weighty rock of the mountain.
I cross eight feet of ferns and jog up the dirt road that leads to the end of the spring traveling parallel to it, the source of Darryl's water for bathing and doing dishes: a deep hole he dug at the southern terminal of the spring. He attaches a 500 gallon stainless steel water tank on a metal wheeled cart to his Farmall 650, one of the smaller tractors we use each day. He owns a small mechanical water pump attachment for the antique International Harvester tractor, attaches one end of 1 and a half inch diameter hose to the pump, and the other he places in the deep pool of spring water, careful not to stir up mud. Next he attaches a hose from the output valve on the pump to the water tank. He starts the tractor and walks the property for twenty minutes while the tank fills. Bare chested, lean muscled, wavy dark blonde hair springing with his overlarge bounding strides, wearing boots and fly-fishing shorts and his wide ever-present grin, the fire in him shines through his eyes as they check on his friends, the many trees gracing his property. He's an arborist by trade, in addition to being a former Marine, if there is such a thing, and a man content to raise animals and live a self-sustained life. Six feet, four inches of powerful honesty, abiding loyalty, and truth. There was never any lie in him, nor I think will there ever be.
The north end of this dirt road that I'm jogging ends in a ninety degree turn up a thirty five foot steep hill and terminates in a T intersection with the common dirt road that bisects his property from north to south and which his neighbors, the nearest being a half mile north, use to reach their homes. I cross this dirt road and step through the wide, overgrown lawn where Darry's house once stood. Since the fire, only green grass, and a pile of rubble, the piled corpse of foundation and chimney, remain, overgrown with blackberry bushes ripe with fruit. Another thirty yards back is his trailer, in front of it, a large picnic table, where Darryl sits and drinks his tea, where we take all our meals except the few we treat ourselves to at the Tombstone Inn, a local bar and eatery where Barb and her son take kindly good care of Darryl and I, like family. Most of the people in these parts treat each other as brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, in part because of their generous caring natures, and in part because in these mountains, where farming, fishing and hunting are a necessity more than a choice, those who share, prosper. We help One-armed Jimmy with the several thousand bales of hay he requires for his milk cows, he provides us with the freshest organic milk on earth, from his farm atop Golden Hill. Walter kills a timber rattler, Darryl skins it and cleans it, gives it to Barb, who then makes it for her friends at the Tombstone for a dinner treat. Michael P needs a hand with some auto repairs and Darryl obliges while I watch and learn, absorbing his knowledge like moss soaking up sunlight. Michael P feeds the animals when neither Darryl nor I are there to do so in a timely manner. Uncle Paul helps repair a difficulty with one of the old Farmalls and I treat everyone to a fresh steak and chops dinner at sunset, cooked as all of our food was, over aged firewood in a large grill, which we ignite with a propane torch. As always, the food is served on one large platter, everyone taking their food from the same plate with bare hands, and without silverware, simply using our calloused hands and teeth to enjoy the organic fresh meat. Silverware too is unimportant, frivolous, even a distraction from the simple act of holding one's hot food in bare fingers and eating. We're tired at the end of each day. No one wants to do dishes or silverware.
One might get the impression that this is a tough group of weathered men, unconcerned about acting like animals and eating whole steaks with bare hands. But this would be a mistaken impression. It's true, certainly, that most of us were deeply familiar with grime and toil, often appearing at the Tombstone in sweat soaked clothes, covered with blood and filth and bits of hay. It's true that when your body is pushed to the limits of endurance day in and day out, from dusk through scorching long day until dawn, the strictest matters of basic hygienic manners are set gruffly aside deferring to the immediate needs of the body: water and food and a brief pause to rest before finally attending to the very last matters of the day, like cleaning up after dinner, planning the work of the following day after catching the latest weather update on the short wave radio at the picnic table, closing the guinea hen and pheasant coop to protect them from predating foxes, coons and other predators after dark to ensure all are safely perched within, and at last making grateful peace with our Gods in thanks for another perfect day. No, we are not barbarians. But we live in this manner because it suits us. The challenges of mind and body, the friendships we cherish, the perfect reward of the fruits of our farming and a hundred other projects, the freedom to live contemplatively, deliberately, using all the marvelous gifts of human nature, especially thoughtfulness, gratitude, and kindness, the perfect rest after a simple day of working hard with silence and laughter and joy, the sun smiling on us in the fields, or working through lovely days of summer rain, coon, and wet and clean. All these suit us just fine, a little band of brothers of a common mother, all different, all the same. We are free because we know that come what may, we can live off of this land forever and be perfectly content with a life of labor, and of love. This enough. Enough.
You'll forgive me, dear ones, if I wander in thought. It is an old habit of all those who are quiet and one it would be dishonest to exclude if the truth is to be told, if I am to welcome you as a friend into my world. By now I'm at the picnic table and Darell leans back on the bench, arching and stretching his bare chest, tosses his head back with a jerk to remove a few long curly hairs from his face and as is his custom, welcomes me with "Mornin'," and his warm and friendly smile that seemed to melt the women he knew, or who knew him. To his friends it said something different though. It said "I live by law of the land, I'm king of this world, and you my friend, will never need worry for a thing, so long as you're true." It also said "Stop daydreaming and let's get to work, and laugh at being so fortunate while we break our bodies." It said exactly what radiated from the rest of his 6 feet four inches too: "I'm made for this life and couldn't be happier." Once in a while it said: "My heart is troubled but I won't let it bring me down." Today his smile said "Good to see you, buddy, Ready for some fun?"
I would have hugged him each morning but he wasn't the hugging sort. So I sit down across from him, take out my pouch of American Spirit organic tobacco, a rice paper, and begin to roll a cigarette, waiting to hear what is on Darrell's mind, in his own good time. Neither of us says all that much, unless it's important. We prefer to listen. Our fathers taught us the wisdom in this, sometimes the hard way, behind the wood shed with a switch, metaphorically speaking in my case, but realistically in Darrell's. He is a farmer's son, as was his father, and his father. I am the son of a business executive, the son of a coal miner, who still managed to take ample time to teach me the most valuable lessons of mother nature. I grew up in a small town, he in these mountains. But we knew we were blood brothers when we met, like brothers from some past and forgotten existence now reunited. He wouldn't say it in my decorative manner. His handshake and conversation made his thoughts plain enough to one who listens.
Take care nutters. I've missed this list :)