Good Morning, Steelhead (Wherever You Are)

At last, on the first full day of spring, a day that followed an unusually difficult winter in upstate New York, I was out there fishing and moving once again…I felt like a steelhead, perhaps, off on a “swim” from a frozen winter past to the start of a springtime near (appropriately enough) Springville, New York. DSCN6154

Fly-fishing has always seemed like more than any one event or experience for me. Somehow it has its own connections to my varied interests in the natural environment, ecology, philosophy, music, tradition…You might say that fishing has to do with trying to live a full life in the present moment. Keeping this in mind, I stepped into a feeder stream of Cattaraugus Creek in western New York where the season for steelhead is open and about to kick into high gear with the spring run of rainbow trout from Lake Erie.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was happy as a bluesman sitting on top of the world, but that state of mind came only after I had put some less than cheerful aspects of the season on the back-burner.

A good friend of mine, from West Almond, passed away in January. Sean Phelan was my age, a fine craftsman, conservationist, and birder who, like other leaders, had come to the defense of Allegany County when this area was threatened by the placement of a nuclear waste dump. Sean was also my collaborator on several projects that ranged from the successful placement of Keeney Swamp (Allegany County) on New York Audubon’s list of Important Bird Areas to the production of a first-time checklist called “The Birds of Allegany County, New York.”

More recently (this week), I learned that another musical mentor died on March 13th.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Daevid Allen was a co-founder of Soft Machine and then the various incarnations of the band Gong. From the wake of the renowned Beat Poets, Allen became one of the true originals of psychedelic and progressive music through work in his bands and solo career. Over the past 45 years, I’ve spent so many hours listening to the likes of Daevid Allen and Robert Wyatt that today I carried the fly rod like a sad song in the heart.

It had been a helluva winter, filled with more losses than I cared to experience, but such is life, especially with the onset of deep maturity.

DSCN6150That said, it was time to fish!

The morning snow had turned into light rain, but the stream, its banks choked with blocks of stranded ice, was flowing well, its water heavily stained but fishable.

It felt great to be walking and casting again. There were no other anglers on the stream, as far as I could tell, and I made good progress, casting my streamers across the creek and down, through the various stretches that suggested holding water or had been productive in the past.

Usually when there are no other anglers in view at a place and time like this, it means OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthat the big fish probably aren’t around, and that looked to be the case today… So be it. I had heard that a few steelhead had been recently caught, but there were none in sight now.

The important thing was being out-of-doors, on the stream, with trout or no trout.

Although I covered only half of the two-mile distance I had hoped to fish if trout were evident, that was better than being stuck inside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rain intensified by noon and then turned into heavy snow. It was excellent steelhead fishing weather, actually, but when the wind increased and brought on the chills and a consequent numbing of hands, it was time to pack it in.

With winter losses set aside for now, it was time to celebrate a new season. At the Zoar Valley Inn, a fine area roadhouse, I enjoyed a Southern Tier IPA. I gave a toast to the Equinox and to inspirations past and present.

Daevid Allen had returned to his beloved Planet Gong. Friend Sean would be with me on my birding expeditions. Spring, at least in the scientific sense, was here.

 

 

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The Ghost in the Thresher

Part 1/March 1st: Inspired by the new month and the slightly warmer temperatures (20s), I decided to climb Dryden Hill through the falling snow and see if I could reach the old tower behind the house once owned by Pete McKenna and then to locate the abandoned steam DSCN6048 thresher (ca. 1930s) that Pete said might still be found there. Since writing about Dan Redmond and his “custom threshing” days in my post called A Village Celebration, I’ve been interested in having a look at the old machinery.

It was an arduous 40-minute ascent along the old seasonal roadway to the summit of Dryden Hill, with no real track to ease my walk except for the paths made by the overpopulated deer. I saw only an occasional chickadee, a passing crow or raven, and a couple of ruffed grouse startled from the pine trees. Other than the stronger light produced by the late season, there was no sign of an approaching spring whatsoever.

DSCN6086The wind and snow were more intense along the summit, and I was able to advance but a short distance from the house toward the old tower site. The crusted snow was up to my knees with every step I took. Without snowshoes, I abandoned the effort and began my descent.

Did the old tower and abandoned thresher still remain near the woods beyond the pond, or not? Only a return walk, in warmer weather, might provide me with an answer. The ghost of a season had lured me up the hill, then vanished with a gust of wind.

Part 2/March 14: I had no fly-fishing this weekend but I tied a handful of “back in black”DSCN6093 stoneflies and Woolly Buggers in anticipation of the settling of streams and also, in a sense, to feed or nourish the first few sprouts of imminent spring. After that I made another slow climb of Dryden Hill.

Although the wet snow of the woodlands was still deep enough in places to engulf me to my kneecaps, there were patches of the summit fields where the snow DSCN6090had thoroughly melted and was now rushing downhill in a welter of chaotic rills. And small bands of migrating robins could be seen on those patches of brown frozen earth, hungry for the first slimy tubes of life to emerge there in the new year.

Reinforced by the taste of scarlet rosehips pulled from thorny bushes to savor in the desolate afternoon, I approached an old piece of farm machinery that I mistook initially for the steam-powered thresher once used by the likes of Greenwood farmer, Dan Redmond.

The mysterious old machine, reverting slowly to the folds of nature, wasn’t the grain DSCN6103separator that former property owner, Pete McKenna, had told me about. The thresher, a much larger machine, was over at the former site of a small communications tower.

Glancing toward the woods I saw the dark profile of a great reptilian machine. I was surprised that in all my years of hill wandering I had never really taken note of it.

Dan Redmond’s father and uncle had used a grain separator, a threshing machine, powered by a horse-drawn steam engine and a water tank. Three teams of horses were required to haul an entire threshing rig from farm to farm, the job of “custom threshing.”

DSCN6114Dan Redmond was 12 years-old, circa 1920, when he first started feeding grain into a thresher. He followed his father’s footsteps till about 1945 when the threshing era was replaced by mechanization symbolized by the more efficient combine.

Standing near the rusted but remarkably well-preserved threshing machine, I tried to imagine Redmond’s renowned style of hand-feeding the bundles of wheat (as recorded by his wife, Harriet, for the Greenwood Historical Society, 1990), but the best I could do was imagine a grain of wheat being separated from the chaff inside–

DSCN6120…being pulled and tossed by steel claws and rapidly moving arms, encountering a bar with teeth, hearing the rollers whir, feeling the quake and rapid descent into a slotted surface perforated with holes, getting shoved by a blast of air removing the chaff, and being lifted into a bucket, one more kernel added to the load…

Ah, the purity of grain! A new season threshed out by the wheel of time, a cosmos built out of chaos, the seeds of new life…

Like a handful of artificial flies.DSCN5972DSCN6119DSCN6117DSCN6132DSCN6128DSCN6134DSCN6125

DSCN6126

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Bamboo Rods and Prayer Flags

It was a mild late-winter day. The morning sun shone brightly on the spring creek, and it felt good to be back on the water following weeks of northern hibernation.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oddly enough, I was the only angler in view. Granted, this was a weekday morning in the winter season and I was merely passing through en route to Rochester, but I couldn’t recall ever having fished the stream without at least another angler or two in sight along the short stretch of public water.

Several robins greeted me along the stream’s edge. I hadn’t seen a robin since my previous visit here, about six weeks earlier. Were they feeding on the midge hatch hovering over the tressel pool and settling along the snowy banks? An occasional burst of cardinal and titmouse song, a swing of waterfowl above my head, reminded me that, despite the frozen aspect of the countryside, a new season was making shift.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe ravages of winter lay close at hand. A shard of white plastic shone from the riffles. The torn carcass of a duck rotted in the clear spring water. Several small pools seemed shallower and more silted than on previous visits. And, perhaps most disconcerting, I was not seeing the wild trout that are usually apparent from the stream banks and low bridges.

In fact, with more than two hours of pleasant casting with the “Founders’ Rod”– the split-cane rod belonging to the Slate Run Sportsmen and on loan to me for a year (the term expiring later this month)– I didn’t see a single fish in the clear waters of this creek.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI gave it my best shot while I had the opportunity. Carefully delivering a variety of spring creek imitations on a long, tapered leader (including scuds and tiny midge pupa), I did nothing in the way of a hook-up.

Why? Who knows. The fish were here before the big freeze-up late in January. The stream’s relatively constant year-round temperature prevents freezing in the coldest weather, but it doesn’t prevent variability in other factors.

Hopefully the trout were just hiding from the harsh glare of the sun, if that makes any sense, although I couldn’t even flush one from the usual cover. If the rare sun of early March was a shock to my winter-weary bones, then maybe it was all too much for trout, as well, accustomed to finning away in the clouds for weeks on end.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was starting to feel uneasy despite the beauty of the fly rod and the chance to be outside again. What if the major freeze on other upstate waters had forced the fish-eaters– the cormorants, the mergansers, etc.– to converge on the stream and… nah, I had to banish the thought for now… I’d check on it with professionals when I could.

Which brings me to the giddy subject of personal prayer.

I am not a praying guy. I don’t respond to Facebook whining about every personal hiccup with a statement like, “Prayers sent!” I don’t belong to any one religion but I’m quick to acknowledge a universal spirituality because I think that all living things, including the Earth itself, are linked by a common essence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t talk of God with a capital “G” because my only non-human co-pilot is the world of nature. I don’t necessarily equate God and Nature, as do many naturalists. What I mean by “nature” is the world before me here and now, the world-at-large, consisting of our own kind plus millions of other species.

So, en route to see my wife and daughter in Rochester prior to my wife’s surgery to have a tortured nerve along her spine repaired, I was “praying” in the only way that I knew how.

I was casting with a bamboo fly rod, looking for that rhythmic motion of the line that balances thought and feeling, movement of the arm and the sound of flowing water. At the risk of appearing over-indulgent, I compared the casting of a fly line to the waving of prayer flags on the tops of Asian ridges.

Yeah, the use of prayer flags is an ancient idea, as old, perhaps, as prayer itself. Good wishes are transmitted to the local winds and even to global tempests rather than to one god in particular. Traditional prayer flags are often banded together in the colors of blue, white, red, green, and yellow. Looking around me at the stream, I saw some corresponding elements: the sky, the snow, the chirping cardinal, the watercress, and the all-important sun.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo put it all together, I could inhale, back cast, pause, then exhale slowly with the forward cast. With the settling of the fly, I could give my humble best for the land and water and all who depend on them for sustenance.

I thought of my wife and her upcoming surgery (all went very well, by the way; she’ll soon be hiking with me to the streams again!). With all my little banners in the wind, I could even wish the trout good health… then wonder where in the hell they went to spend the late winter days.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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“The Older I Get the Better I Was”

Waiting for the streams and rivers to be freed of winter’s snow and ice (I’m within a day or two of fishing once again!), I recently got a comment on a post concerning a long hike that began and ended at a country bar, and it made me think back to another interim in life when I decided to drive toward the city from my rivertop home and spend some time in the shadows of humanity. For this DSCN6062 account of life downstream, the names have been changed, but the interactions strive for truthfulness. As always, such a visit is time well-spent, even better at departure.

River Street in Small-Town America is awash with bars. Granted, they are fewer than in that golden age prior to Urban Renewal when such superfluities as parks, trees, bars, and classic old buildings were effectively demolished in favor of plazas, Wal-Marts, funeral homes, and Dollar General Stores. The remaining River Street establishments, though decrepit and of dubious merit in the eyes of many who are comfortable in life, help to reevaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the casual visitor.

DSCN6056One afternoon you make a sweep through several River Street bars and meet the local talent.

Patti resists analysis. She’s slightly overweight, divorced, alone. When she speaks, her dark hair ripples like a stream. You listen out of sympathy or pity but you understand her with regard. Her kids have grown and gone away. She works long hours at minimum wage for one of the many Convenient Marts in town. All day she’s dealt with a dysfunctional ATM at the store. She’s says that good jobs are scarce; employers don’t appreciate her efforts or experience. She’s worked for 13 consecutive days and now has two days off for getting loose with drink and dancing.

DSCN6069She invites you to see her apartment. The refrigerator’s full of beer. She’ll drink the hard stuff. You can choose. She tells you calmly, “I am lonely.”

You decline the invitation, and you know her pulse to be the beating of a tavern drum in any bar in any land.

Melvin is young, short, and muscular, a black man in a white man’s town. He is incoherent, loud, exuberant, and probably high on crack. He wants you to buy him a beer. You buy him one, and he inquires, “What kind of music you like, man?”

He apologizes for his interruptions but is unafraid to ask for money. He becomes DSCN6057indignant when you won’t give him any extra. You can see the flames of desperation in his eyes like pulsing red lights on a wall. He slides away, a cooler motion, an impassionate approach to another drinker. It may seem as though he’s stolen fire from the gods outside the city but no mortal will accept his torch.

“Buy your own beer, Melvin. Get the hell out of here!”

Melvin’s the kind of guy who, in a moment of rare sobriety, would be the first to tell you there is no escape from whom we are or from the world-at-large, but there’s often a brief erasement of the blues, a relative tranquility, in the din of words and music. Will he make good use of that tranquility and improve himself tomorrow? It’s anybody’s guess.

DSCN6060Jayne is small and frail. In her 40s, with a hollow, wrinkled face. Two front teeth are missing. Her sand-colored hair reflects both pride and vulnerability in an overall portrait of abuse. Like a mollusc with a broken shell, she swims lamely in the shallowest of social waters, driven to the bar to find some ease. She leans on the faces and the voices that surround her, hope and fear at war inside her chest.

She speaks slowly and without the lubrication of intelligence or wit. “Men are all the same,” she says. “Out to get everything they can.”

Martha is a loud-mouthed bar girl who employs her talents on both sides of Mahogany Ridge. She’s round-faced and her body still retains the cleavage of appeal. She knows all the taverns and recalls who you are, remembers your peculiar taste in beer. She’s distrustful of words and language so she turns up her volume and attempts to be crude and macho, like a strutting male. Her toughness rings hollow but accentuates the beauty underneath. She’ll continue punching her way from the prison of self-pity, but she isn’t likely to leave the bar behind.

A man strides in, confused, defiant. He looks nameless, and his face is beaten, bloody DSCN6064and bruised. Even Martha at her vehement best couldn’t have accomplished a job like that. The poor guy’s ejected only moments before two cops call at the door for questioning. Someone mentions that he wronged a girlfriend (his or someone else’s), and another guy had become involved. Victim, or predator, or both, the fellow obviously wasn’t another drinker ready to adopt a barstool.

Joe works for the the state highway department but proclaims himself to be a painter and an artist despite the criticisms of his parents. He has earrings, long hair, the demeanor of a braggart. His famous uncle once batted for the New York Yankees. He collects autographs from his uncle to sell, but he’ll give you one for nothing if he likes you or believes that you’ll have something useful for him someday.

DSCN6055Joe could use a book offer or a movie deal about his life’s accomplishments, something for the world that shows himself at one in mind and body, full of creativity and wonder. As for you, no Yankee autograph today, and you might have to pay for your last beer.

You hear someone shout, “The older I get, the better I was!” Another fellow says, “One fer… everbody here!”

You don’t even have to pay for your last beer.

 

 

 

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A Long Walk in Steuben County, Early May, 1983

[Years ago, my brother Pete and I, along with a friend or two, would perform an annual rite of spring– taking a long, pathless hike over the hills and thru the valleys linking the towns of Canisteo and Greenwood, NY. One year we invited our poet friend, Steve Lewandowski, to come along and be initiated. Steve eventually felt moved enough to write a short account of his adventure with us and, more recently, agreed to share his DSCN6030upland tale with the readers of this blog. The following account, then, written and forwarded by Stephen Lewandowski is  (as he has stated elsewhere) “indebted in part to Peter Franklin who not only kept a journal of May 7, 1983 and shared it… but drew a map by hand of the Town of Greenwood with the streams and ridges named.”]

Walt and Peter Franklin and their friend Tim and I began in the early morning to walk from a bar in Canisteo to the Greenwood Hotel in Greenwood for a drink. The distance is twelve or fifteen miles.

DSCN6031We meant to start out with a drink and found Orville’s bar in Canisteo open at 7:15 am. Actually I think it wasn’t so much open as being cleaned out. But anyway, the door was open and we walked in on the surprised owner, had our ritualistic beer, played a game of pool and set out. We walked out of the Village of Canisteo past the school and through the cemetary and the living sign made of yew on the hillside. It says “Canisteo.” By the time we had walked that far, the beer was beginning to work its way out, so we paused gratefully among the giant, sheltering letters.

We walked to the west of Bennett’s Creek as it parallels New York State Route 248 in the Towns of Canisteo and Greenwood. Instead of following the creek or road, we went OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthrough the hills. We crossed five ridges, including Purdy Hill and Call Hill (2401′ above sea level) of about seven to nine hundred feet “lift” each above the valley floor.

We crossed the tributary streams flowing east to Bennett’s Creek, which in turn flows north to join the Canisteo River then flowing east to join the Chemung which, many miles east, becomes the North Branch of the Susquehanna. In other words, we were fording the headwaters of the Susquehanna in country where its name is almost unknown.

DSCN6036Like the bear, we went over the mountain “to see what we could see.” Mostly we saw the tail end of each other scrambling madly for footing either up or down a ridge or splashing through a creek. When we had the smallest moment of respite, we also saw spring wild flowers– spring beauty, hepatica, dutchman’s breeches, cranesbill, trout lily, and trillium– and heard and saw birds– warblers, thrushes, sparrows, towhees, and an oriole. I only remember taking one real break, which was for lunch, and I was so tired by then that I had an eerie feeling watching the clouds drift effortlessly over the territory that we had crossed with such effort.

The others had made this walk before, but it was my first time. We went through BearOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Lick Hollow, over Purdy Creek, across Fall Creek, over Call Hill, pausing for lunch, crossed Sugar Creek, Slate Creek and Slate Creek Road, through Erskine Hollow to Rock Creek, along Rock Creek to Brown Hollow, along the Hollow Road to Greenwood Hill and a piney state forest from which we descended in the late afternoon to the Greenwood Hotel situated in Cole Hollow.

DSCN6039When we set out, we intended to walk all the way to Walt’s house in Christian or Bootleg Hollow, over one more ridge to the south, but my legs were shot. From the bar, over renewed provisions of beer and wings, we called Walt’s wife, Leighanne, to pick us up. Someone in the group toted up our scramble– 4320′ of ascent and 3700′ descent– on a bar napkin.

I’d been invited to a party that night at the studio and home of a sculptor in Scottsville, so I got my car from Walt & Leighanne’s house where I’d left it and drove to Scottsville. The party was in one big room that served as the sculptor’s studio, and in one corner of theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA room was a bed. Probably the sculptor used that bed when tuckered out  from sculpting but for the evening it was being used to hold the pile of coats from fifty or sixty guests.

I talked and drank and ate. After a while, I went into the corner where the bed was and sat on the floor and talked some  more. Then I sat on  the bed and ate some dessert. Then I leaned back on the bed for just a moment of rest.

When I woke up, there were three or four guests left, the party debris had been all cleaned up and the coats were all gone from the bed. I told them about my walk earlier in the day, put on my coat (it was chilly) and drove home.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

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Pillow Cases (Kid You Not)

[What’s goin’ on here, anyway? Have the “shack nasties” settled in so badly that Old DSCN6021Man Winter just rambles around the place while looking for the Exit sign and forcing me to write stuff like… well, you’ll see. I mean, it’s almost steelhead fishing time but the snow and ice have still got a lock on most of the waters. Well, I’ve got one more tale to tell, a true one, with a strand of fiction blended in. Hopefully you’ll find it entertaining, something to sleep on as we more or less remain in hibernation, dreaming of the great outdoors…]

Long ago, before the age of personal computers, I worked in a private, residential institution that had once been a traditional Southern Plantation. The school, designed for learning disabled and emotionally disturbed students in the northern districts of Virginia, had a crisis.

The severity of the crisis in this school with 80-plus students was such that I’m able to describe it only by revealing the contents of a series of handwritten memos that had been passed along from one department to another. The subject of the memos was a load of…pillow cases… yeah, those sleeping items necessary for the health and well-being of everyone who lived or worked at the school.

DSCN5997Chuck, the school’s director, had written to Scott, the residential supervisor: “Scott, Can you check the pillow case supply? Dorothy [a maid] indicates that none have been coming back from Laundry.”

Scott then wrote to Sue, a residential shift coordinator: “Sue, Do you know anything about our pillow cases?”

I was employed as residential coordinator of the work shift opposite of Sue’s, and I learned that she knew nothing whatsoever of the pillow cases. Sue then wrote to Larry, one of the counselors on her shift:

DSCN6029“Larry, We need more pillow cases. Can I put you in charge of this?”

Larry’s four-day/three-night shift was coming to a close when he received Sue’s message, so he wrote to his replacement who was due to arrive in an hour:

“Hey John– Can you please find us some pillow cases?”

In the hectic moments of his first day back at work, John the counselor scribbled a message on a photocopy of all the linked memos that had come down the chain from Dorothy and director Chuck. John addressed his message to Brian, the most reliable eight year-old student in the group that he supervised in residence:DSCN6000

“Brian, We need someone who knows what’s going on. Can I depend on you to help us?”

The next day, little Brian took a big pencil in his hand and added to the list of memos. He addressed his message to Allyson, coordinator of academics: “Allyson, We need HELP!”

To this point, dear Reader, I have not strayed one degree from what actually transpired at this high-browed institution, this residential school, where I met my wife-to-be and also made some long-lasting friendships. From this point on, however, please feel free to welcome an element of fiction…

DSCN5998I imagined the lost pillow cases cavorting ghost-like near the laundry center in the basement of the school. There were dozens of them, feeling empty and useless, wafting back and forth above the darkened machines, bereft of their previous form and function.

They were victims of bureaucratic bumbling. Although I never bothered to look for them myself, I pretended to be of help.

I gave several of these pillow cases a name– Slagbrain, Thistledown, and Ubu Roi– thinking to assist them by providing motivation to return to the realms of practicality. Maybe if I personalized these cases, they would lead their sheep-like brethren to the light.

Surely someone on the staff, removed briefly from pressing matters of the day, such as fretting over Progress and Efficiency and new Construction and the ultimate installation of Computers, would stumble on them for the betterment of all.DSCN6001

To help them pass the time, I gave the lost pillow cases a game to play. “Warp!” could be lots of fun. It didn’t have many rules to learn, so they could play with complete abandon. The goal of Warp! was to escape the Wheel of Time and enter the… Eternal Zone. The winner would be the case who realized, with the suddenness of a smack to the head, the Zen reality of having been a winner all along.

The prospect of winning was especially appealing to the Pillow Case named Slagbrain.

I reassured them all that, until recent days, pillow cases mattered. In fact, students had mattered, physical and psychological health had mattered, but now what seemed to matter most around the place was something alien, something of growing concern to the staff.

It was rumored, for example, that in coming months, the residential staff would no longer be allowed to drink beer in the after-hours while on duty in the lounge.

One night the lost pillow cases heard a crash from the rowdy staff lounge overhead. Plaster rained down from the ceiling of the Laundry Room.

DSCN5995The kids were all asleep in their beds but the staff was getting loose. No one cared about the Pillow Cases– they who had no TV, radio, beer, or human head for company. Warp! was not enough to ease their tribulations.

I felt sorry for the Pillow Cases and, with beer in hand, made an exit from the lounge. I urged the cases to come out, to have some fun, to remove themselves from the constraints imposed by Homo sapiens.

I believed that some of the Pillow Cases heard me. Slagbrain, Thistledown and Ubu Roi must have heard. A sound of laughter rippled from the twilight zone, an area of the building other than the lighted windows of the lounge.

I stood beneath the great oaks of a wonderful plantation house, a school about to change with the times. I took a drink from my bottle, confident that those Pillow Cases would soon be found. They would again be reunited with a pillow. They’d be happy in their home.

 

 

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A Village Celebration

About 22 years ago the local historical society planned a party. The town of Greenwood was turning 165 years old, and the group approached me to write and to share a poem or two for a gathering at the Methodist Church.DSCN6016

I wasn’t interested enough in town/village history at the time to sit down and write a new poem for the occasion, but I figured I might have some older pieces I could share, if folklore and natural history counted.

Apparently they did. When the town’s birthday came around, I sucked on a beer or two then went to the church to read my poems.

This reading of mine had the potential to be another bust or… something of a pinnacle in my writing career at the time. My rationale was that a writer/poet could read for the public far and wide and be published almost everywhere, but such accomplishment rang hollow if there wasn’t also some connection to the local community.

DSCN6003It stood to reason that if a poet valued real people and real places in his work, he should then be able to speak quite freely among the people of his hive. I assumed erroneously that I would have little or no response at the church, that I’d be looked at merely as another “expert” in the art of word manipulation and would receive, at best, polite applause.

But strangers and acquaintances alike gave thanks for what they perceived as knowledge worth remembering. I felt honored that the poems were appreciated in the way that poetry was welcomed long ago– before the academics and the garden-weed versifiers stole it wilfully or ignorantly from the body of viable literature.

One man who had been a life-long resident of Greenwood and now had some connection to the area historical society commented on a poem about a locally famous pine tree that was levelled in the mid or latter 1800s. He had never heard the story about the giant “pine saplin’.” I experienced a brief anxiety attack. Perhaps, then, no one in the room of 40 or 45 people had understood what the hell I was talking about…DSCN6020

Maybe no one here had heard about the tree that was converted into a neighborhood farmhouse, or about the square dance that was held on the great tree’s stump when bullfrogs of the marsh chorused inbetween the fiddle songs and bouts of merriment.

And if no one knew the story of the early settlers and the “saplin,'” maybe it was just a figment of a poet’s deluded mind…

Fortunately I was soon conversing with Daniel Redmond, age 84, a life-long resident of the town. Dan remarked that his hearing aid had behaved itself for my reading and, certainly, he had known about the pine tree saplin‘, as it was called in library documents. In fact, Dan had witnessed that incredible stump himself. The old square-jawed, muscular farmer claimed that the pine tree’s stump reminded him of comparable, though slightly lesser, trees that once stood on his well-kept farm on Greenwood Hill.

DSCN6009Dan had been a “custom” grain thresher until 1945 when combines would displace the steam-powered, horse-drawn mechanization that had been a large part of the Redmond family life. Dan recalled how the changes came and made their impact on the land and people. His work experience on the local farms had added to a growing body of Greenwood lore.

Rooted in one place throughout the century, Dan lamented how people seemed disinterested in their land beyond its monetary value. For example, landowners invited destructive lumbering techniques, assuring a quick and easy haul with big machinery. Redmond knew the ecological value of trees. “They give us more than most of us suspect,” he said.DSCN6017

Although agribusiness and outside interests came along and lent their hand to the break-down of community spirit, Dan applied an antidote of sorts; he planted trees. He planted them on cut-over lands and on swampy acreage where he’s found that native pines grow well.

I had also read a poem about the vanquished American chestnut tree, and Dan recalled the species well. He’d collected chestnuts early in the century before a blight came along and demolished the tree throughout the Appalachian districts.

Though I’ll never feel completely comfortable with the broken and diminished farm community of which I am a part, I’m pleased to have contributed a little something to its re-empowerment (miracles can happen, right?).DSCN6014

Old crank that I am, I didn’t feel like singing “Happy Birthday” at the village’s 165th, but I had fun eating cake. For several minutes I’d been like a fiddler at the dance floor of a 19th-century tree stump. I was less than thrilled about the early settlers’ destruction of the wilderness, but pleased for the chance of striking up a tune with the chorusing frogs of night.

 

 

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