PART I – WHAT I HAVE LIVED FOR
I Have Lived For Nature
Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature.” One of the reasons why his writing resonates so strongly with me is his deep appreciation of nature. When I sort through my internal photograph album and the columns that I’ve written I see that one of the most important things that I have lived for through all the seasons of my life is the beauty of nature.
The process of living – whether it’s the hermit crab’s moving into a new shell when it has outgrown an old one, the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly or the survival of the oldest thing living thing on Earth, a bristle cone pine named Methuselah, never ceases to amaze me. I am reminded that each life is unique and precious.
Sarah Ward set us a planter of amaryllis bulbs that produced red flowers as large as saucers. There would be two flowers at the top of the stem and two buds that would grow alongside them until a tinge of red appeared, The the first blooms began to droop while the new ones opened. This seems so simple, and yet is so complex. An elegant mechanism must be built into the plant’s genes that directs old blooms to wilt at the proper time so that the sustenance goes to nourish the buds that they might reach glorious maturity.
I have lived for meadows of wildflowers in the Teton and Rocky mountains, the risings and settings of the sun and for moonglow, I have lived for the call of the cardinal, the loon’s cry and the silvery trill of the wren. I have lived for the blues of the Mediterranean and the Pacific, the vastmess of the Grand Canyon, the vividly hued pinnacles of Bryce Canyon, the leaves of autumn, the snows of winter and daffodils nodding in the April breeze.
Oh what treasures I’ve stored up in the mind’s eye and ear that are worth more than any amount of money in the bank!
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH NATURE
Above me it is beautiful,
Below me it is beautiful,
Before me it is beautiful,
Behind me it is beautiful,
All around me it is beautiful.
Listen to the quiet power of beauty.
Ah, to be with nature! Picture this: Vicki and I are on the top deck of a houseboat on one of the lakes connected by streams that form the huge labyrinthine water-world of Voyageur National Park at the boundary of Minnesota and Canada. An eyebrow of sun peeps over the dense, dew-drenched forest that extends for miles. With the coming of daylight, the water turns blue/purple so that
I understand what Homer meant when he wrote about the wine-colored waters of the Mediterranean. Puffy clouds float on the blue vault of Heaven. Below them the lake is a silver/blue mirror. It’s so beautiful that it clutches at my heart.
Shh! Don’t say a word, don’t breathe. Listen to the quiet: Silence has its own unique quality just as do the notes of a symphony. The quietude and loveliness of this place soaks into the very core of my being where the secret Rose Mary dwells, and fill me with peace and serenity.
Such moments of total oneness with the universe are rare, and I carefully examine, catalogue, and store them away so that I can replay my internal view of them in years to come: the scent of wild roses and clean dry earth on the Grand Canyon’s rim: sunrise turning Bryce Canyon’s pinnacles to flame; the pungent aroma of wild sage after a shower at Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo reservation; a wildflower-strewn meadow below the snowy peaks of my beloved Tetons where a moose browses next to a rushing brook into which a water ouzel dives; glorious sunrises and sunset over the ocean; the Adirondacks in autumn; the view of the Pacific from California’s coastal highway…
The things remind me of the vastness and beauty of this land that is my heritage. A part of me will always dwell among them, stooping to examine a flower, listening to the lap-lap of waves or the wail of gulls, walking barefoot on the seashore…
I put down my pen and listen with my whole being when a loon utters its wild, free call, I imagine myself as free as the creatures of this place. Perhaps I would soar on the empyrean like a gull or perch like a bald eagle on the tiptop of a pine, surveying my empire. I might stand with pelicans and cormorants on a rock, watching for whom I might devour or live deep in the forest with the shy wolves.
We were thrilled when an otter swam into the little cove where our boat was moored, It would stick its head out of the water, look around and then with a graceful, arching back dive and resurface with a fish. It would float on its back like a baby with a bottle and devour bones and all, so close that we could hear it. “Crunch, crunch, crunch, munch, munch, munch!” Ah wilderness!
Ouch! Paradise has its price, We have yet to encounter a snake in the Eden, but there must be ten thousand bugs for every human: spider, Mayflies, clouds of no-see-ums, huge mosquitoes and horrible black, stinging flies. The stores even sell net hats with nets like bee-keepers’ headgear. We agreed that we would never tent-camp here.
I think that one of the most offensive and ignorant statements that I’ve ever heard was, “What does it matter if some birds or animals become extinct? We can look at them in zoos.” I may never see another otter or hear another loon, but the memory of them is stored in the center of my being and seeing them and the other creatures of this place-living free- has enriched me.
Of course, I know that neither the loons nor the eagles nor the wolves nor I are entirely free. It’s nice to imagine that it were so…
A PLACE I’LL ALWAYS BE
Friends Bill and Jean asked what they should see out West. “Grand Teton National Park is one of the most beautify places in America!” Les Grands Tetons was slang used by French fur trappers who thought that the mountains resembles women’s breasts. Grands means big; you can figure out Tetons! Snow-capped peaks rise straight up out of pine forests. Blue lakes from a sapphire necklace at their feet. To the East are hills the the trappers named Gros Ventre-Big Belly.
Bill called to say that they were at Jenny Lake. I saw what they were seeing in my mind’s eye because Jenny Lake was one of our favorite places to camp. It always took me a long time to cook a meal on the Colman stove because I had to stop frequently to admire Grand Teton Mountain that rises up orver 14,000 feet.
Down a hill next to the lake is a little grocery. The first time we were there, I thought that the place had been invaded by a nunch of hippies because unshave, barefoot, grubby guys lay sprawled on the porch and in the yard. Actually, there were exhausted climber, just down off the nountains and had removed their hiking boots to ease their feet. Jenny lake is a major trailhead. Climbing is taken seriously. Anyone caught climbing up on the mountainsides without a permit is fined. One summer three young men died when they were playing around on a glacier without using ice axes and slid off.
We spent a week there with Bill’s brother, sister-in-law and some of their familly. Our campsite was the envy of other campers as we had a beach umbrella over our table and Rick’s portable bar from which he dispensed martinis at cocktail hour and hot buttered rum around the campfire.
I shall not again hike up a mountain path, but a part of me will always abide in the Teton Mountains. Still young and vigorous in my mind, I stride with long steps up the path that runs through Cascade Canyon next to clear, rushing , boulder-strewn Cascade Creek that bisects an alpine meadow carpeted with wild columbine, Indian paint-brush, larkspur, wild roses, genitians, lupines and many other varieties of wildflowers. The pure air is scented with pines and flowers. I hear the “meep” of a pica, a little rabbit-like, tailless animal with small ears as I rest on a boulder, watching a browsing moose. Far below lies azure, jewel-like Jenny Lake.
Another time, it is early evenning. Seven-year-old Vicki, Bill and I sit on a log at our cmapsite on a sandy beach at Leigh Lake to which we have backpacked. The twilight hush is broken only by the sleepy peeping of a covey of little Merganser ducks swimming to their night-time roost. slowly a full moon rises, and snow-capped, majestic Mt. Moran across the lake is vividly reflected by moonshine onto the tranquil waters.
The deep peace of this exquisite moment seeps into my very soul and soothes me. It takes over my consciousness so that I am transported out of myself to a realm of total bliss and serentiy. I can still enter this mystical place by conjuring up in my mind’s eye and bringing to present time this vision of utmost beauty that I beheld nearly fourty years ago…
Jean called: “These mountains are so beautiful that you get choked up.” I knew what she meant. Great beauty – be it nature, music, art or literature – has a transforming power that sweeps away one’s cares and nourshes one’s inner self. I need to seek out more othen the beauty in my life.
ALONE IN THE WOODS
Sometimes I sit in my log cabin as in a cocoon, sheltered by swaying spruces from outside the world… Then the chirp of a swallow winging over the lake reminds me that there’s always a new beginning.
Ann LaBastille – Woodswoman
People get stuck one plateau of living. It’s easier to stay in our familiar ruts. The thought of changing my comfortable existence and striking out into unknown territory frightens me. Also, most of us are bound by the bonds of important relationships.
If you want to enjoy a real-life adventure from your armchair, do read Woodswoman by Ann LaBastille PhD. I feel a kinship with LaBas-tille because she loved nature and was a fellow admirer of Thoreau’s Walden. As old Granny said, reading makes our worlds match up.
She abandoned her big-city upbringing to become an ecologist. One summer she worked at a lodge in the Adirondacks wehre she fell in love with the owner and the great North Woods. Then her husband found someone else and told her that she had to leave within two months. What to do?
Often our lives are like a boar without a rudder, carried hither and thither by the eddies and currents of life. Timidly we can’t make up our minds to act until it’s too late to achieve our innermost desires.
Bruised in spirit and homeless, she used her freedom to set another course on her own terms in order to heal her spiritual melancholy and homelessness. Having no other choice about the overturning of her life, LaBastille set out to achieveher dream of living all alone in the forest primeval.
Her tale briefly stirs up a longing within me to set forth on an adventure as she did, but common sense quickly returns, Her account is a fascinating read for the likes of people like me who love nature but don’t want to suffer the discomforts of living at its mercy.
Iv’e never wielded an ax, cut tress with a chain saw, used a portable generator, fired a gun, tied expert knots in ropes, used a compass with any certainty, used show shoes, or skied. The one time I tried to paddle a canoe, I ran it into the bank. Also, the simple, back-to-nature life turned out to be for more complicated, uncomfortable and dangerous than even she had anticipated.
LaBastille bought 22 acres of land forested with virgin pines, spruces, firs, maples, burches and beeches bordering a lake in one of the most primitive areas of the Adirondack Mountains. Many of the trees were three hundred years old. A tree to me is more than an inanimate object – it is a living presence. I understandi what she means when she writes, “Clearly the land belonged for more to the trees than to any human being.”
She got her wish to get away from people! The closest settlement was five miles away, and it was twenty-five miles to the nearest town. The dirt road eneded a mile and a half up the lake, There was no path around the lake, electricity or telephone service. There were only a few cottages around the lake, called “camps” in the Aditondacks. Their resisdents all left during the winder when she would be snowed in with only her dog for companionship.
The main living space of LaBastille’s cabin with only 12 by 12 feet. A tiny kitchen was on the enclosed porch. She built a sleeping loft with a steep ladder going up to it. Imagine having to cram all the impedimenta of our affluent lifestyles into such a tiny space!
Her refrigerator and little stove worked on propane gas. Heat was an urgent priority as temperatures drop to near freezing even in July and are often several degrees below zero for most of the winter. Friends helped her manhandle a three-hundred-pount, cast iron Franklin stove onto a boat, cross the lake and drag it up the hill.
LaBastille used a chain saw to cut down dead trees and saw them into logs to last through the winter. This was a matter of life and death as she would freeze to death without heat. She had to tote buckets of water from the lake, Having a supply of water in the cabin at all times was crucial in case of fire. If her isolated cabin burned down during the harsh winter, she would freeze to death because no help was avaiable.
Think of trudging two hundred feet through ice and snow to visit the outhouse! My childhood home had an outhouse, and I have abso-lutly no inclination to live like that again. It isn’t fun to have to put on a coat and boots to use the restroom. Afraid that her bottom would freeze to the “throne” during the bitterly cold winter, she started keeping the toilet seat inside to keep it warm. Finally she installed a chemical toilet in the kitchen.
She wrote that while she was building her tiny cabin time slipped backward. She felt like a stubborn pioneer woman swinging her axe.
I was saddened to hear of her death in July 2011.
In Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” Frodo touched a tree and felt it as a living being. To me trees are almost as much a sentient presence as an animal. I understand people who chain themselves to redwoods, attempting to save them. When I was a girl many people mourned the deaths of Knightstown’s huge elm trees, including one that stood the in schoolyard.
What some of us prize so highly, others destroy frivolously. They cut down thousand-year-old redwoods for fences and decks. An acquaintance who once owned a lumber company in northern California used to assert that we had trees to spare. Now she sings a different tune. She went back a few years ago, and a friend flew her along the coast. “There was one row of redwoods left; behind them all of the others were gone.”
After a wind storm I was stricken when I drove from out Warren Park home along Pleasant Run from the southeast corner of the golf course into Irvington. It was like driving a slalom, turning back and forth because of huge limbs down in the street. Ugly gashes marred the old trees. An Irvington acquaintance reported that it was difficult to get from his Irvington home to the Benton House because there were at least thirty trees down in his neighborhood. “Oh dear,” I said. “Would you check the Kile Oak on your way home?”
I worry about this venerable burr oak that’s estimated to be between three and four hundred years old. Think of it: It was here when Indians were present and is the oak tree’s equivalent of a giant redwood. Still growing, it’s 92 feet high and has a spread of 125 feet. Its diameter is nearly six feet, and it’s eighteen feet around!
It is named for the Kiles who built a house near it in 1901. Their daughter, Mae, lived there for 71 years. When she had to leave her only concern was that the oak be preserved. The property was bought with the help of the Lilly Co., the Irvington Historic Society and the Irvington Union of Clubs and is owned by the Irvington Historic Landmarks Foundation that also owns the Benton House. The house was torn down because it was dilapidated.
I called a neighbor who knew Miss Kile. “She was a very intelligent, ladylike person and was J.K. Lilly’s secretary. She adored that tree and drove tiles down next to its roots and carried buckets of water from her house to pour down them to water the tree.” Imagine trying to water such a huge tree!
The oak is much more thanjust an inanimate collecton of trunk, branches, roots, and leaves. There’s a cadre of people who care intensely about it. The Irvington Garden Club donates money; master gardener Ed Myers works unstintingly on the grounds; and the Irvington Historic Landmarks Fondation provides funds.
The neighbor whom I interviewed said, “I wish I could do more to help.” “You watch over the tree, and it needs watchers,” I responded. She replied, “You know, I dometimes believe that it’s the tree who watches over me.”