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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The Sixties (Deja Vu, Again)

[The rivertop freeze is taking its sweet time to unbuckle and depart. Not much I can do about it except to keep piling on the wood, and to write. Fly fishing? It’ll be a while. But this is a workingman/woman’s blog. I can’t just whisk off to the Caribbean on a whim. I need to write, and to keep in mind those readers who enjoy this blog. Since I try to repeat myself as little as possible, my subject matter might seem a bit digressive at times, but there’s a point to it, as surely as the sun will reappear and the trout rise again.]

frost fern 1

frost fern 1

“The 60s are Back!” gushed a late 1990s flyer for a literary magazine requesting thoughts about the strange old decade. I remember reading the flyer and stopping in my tracks. Why would anyone proclaim such a thing? Had the past few years produced some kind of cultural equivalent to that time of madness and assassination, of social protest and war in Vietnam, of the hippies and the Beatles, etcetera? Was I really 30 years down the road, too encrusted and anesthetized to see the similarities?

Glancing back, I saw myself standing in the junior high gymnasium after lunch… It was one year past the time when a teacher had rushed into our school library tearfully announcing President Kennedy’s assassination. The nation had been reeling from racial inequality and strife, from a look at the Cuban missile crisis, from a glimpse of Armageddon and the brink of nuclear war… Malaise was in the air.

DSCN5987I was in the school gym and the large speakers were blaring Beatles music. Everyone was shouting and singing to the likes of “I wanna hold your ha-aa-nd”– energy and articulation overcoming the numbness of our lives, at last.

I was never quite in synch with those times. I preferred Dylan and the Rolling Stones (then) over the Beatles. I enjoyed the instrumental Ventures and garage band geekiness on 45 rpm records. Hair would not begin to creep down testily until 1967, and would not fall free of all restraint until 1970.

I hated the decision of my parents to remove us from rural eastern New York to an urban plot along the Mississsippi River in Wisconsin. I didn’t feel like I could live without the fields and forest I had grown with. One day, however, my new friend Ian and I were browsing through a record store, amazed at the blur of possibilities. The rippling psychedelia of Vanilla Fudge blasted from a stereo and carried us into the streets. Set me free, why don’cha babe! …From there on out, Diana Ross and Top 40 pop was history, as far as I was concerned.DSCN5979

In my 60s rites of passage, music was all garbled up with the presence of girls, of course. The scent of dope was in the air. One girl was unlike all the other females of my decade. She was an acquaintance, and then a friend, with sophisticated tastes in art and music. Like listening to good music itself, she helped me comb away frustration from the pleasures of my age.

My friend Ian had come to the city of LaCrosse about the same time that I arrived there. We were neighbors and attended high school classes together. After graduation Ian enlisted for the war in Vietnam, and I attended South Dakota State on the pretext of furthering my education. Correspondence with my war pal grew increasingly sporadic, but Ian eventually returned to LaCrosse in one piece.

frost fern 2

frost fern 2

I transferred to a university in upstate New York and never heard from my Wisconsin friend again. I would soon skirt the fringes of war, drugs, sex, and deep relationships, thus entering the grubby fist of the 1970s.

I mention all of this because my involvement with the 60s and early 70s youth culture was the biggest stride I ever took in the way of self-education. Eventually I learned that dealers, death, and materialism had fully penetrated the aesthetics of the so-called revolution, even in rural America.

My experiments in “mind expansion” ranged from blissful involvement to trials by fire. I do not endorse the paths I took, nor do I disclaim them. They worked for me, and needed to be taken. That’s all I can say for sure.

DSCN5985Every generation has its own pleasure drugs, mentors, and rites of passage. In my case, I was able to return happily to a world of country living that I had known when I was a kid. In a sense, I never grew up at all.

In response to that literary flyer of the 90s, I decided that if the 60s had returned in spirit I had no idea where those years were hiding. We baby-boomers would do well to let them go although, admittedly, that time of youthful dreams and creative energy and vision is powerfully influential.

Only now, after the passage of all these decades, have I found a way to express how I feel about that time. Only now can I admit that I’m unable to let that period go, or even wish to erase it from my life.DSCN5976

I’m still learning from the 60s/70s because the struggle for identity in this soul-crushing present era never ends… I live with the earth and feel its strength. I recognize the falsehoods of consumerism and see some dangers in the dominant paradigm of political and economic power.

I still like to think I can work for peace and a healthier environment. Whereas I may have rocked to the Beatles and to Frank Zappa and the Mothers playing “Louie Louie” (ca. 1969) at the Royal Albert Hall, I’m still finding new music that I should have found back then.

DSCN5970Take the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, for example. I’m ashamed to say that I never really listened to the band at its peak. Every once in a while, an inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2015) is actually deserving of the honor.

Now, if I can only find a way to keep the grooves in my vinyl LPs free of dust, and capable of tracking a dulling stylus.

 

 

 

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Of Birth and Poetry

[At seven degrees below zero (F.) it’s way too cold for fly-fishing; there’s enough artificial flies tied up and secured in little boxes, so it’s natural for me to have myDSCN5893 thoughts go wayward on this post, a meditation on my daughter’s birth, a Valentine’s thing…]

Our first-born, a boy, came to us the night before our small-town literary group was holding its monthly meeting. Four years later, our second, a girl, was born an hour after that same literary group had ended its activity for the evening.

My wife, who’d started labor earlier that day, decided, what the hell, she would go to the poetry reading with me. If her bodily contractions quickened dramatically, we would shoot on over to the nearby hospital and check ourselves in.

We were glad for the less-than-satisfactory reading and the chance to speak with old friends. Eventually we drove ourselves to the cool indifference of the hospital’s delivery room. As my wife got hooked up to the fetal monitor, I reached for the opiate of television, like millions of uneasy husbands before me, and observed the action of a New York Yankees game.

Mind and body, changed to the consistency of luke-warm Jello, rejected the ball game and forced me to shut off the contrivance.DSCN5905

Our doctor was busy coaxing someone else’s baby into the world. I checked with my wife. Her vital signs were good. The monitor suggested that our young one had the heartbeat of a white-tail on a mission.

By 10:30 p.m. the doc declared that he’d had a helluva day and it was time to move things along– to break the sac, to burst the dam.  My wife didn’t like the idea, preferring to wait it out. The tension mounted. I figured that whatever would happen had already been placed in the hands of fate, with specialists in all their expertise and fallibility. No need to show concern. The hospital staff seemed to shuffle about with confidence and thoroughness.

A plastic hook appeared and wavered. Water broke. My wife began to sweat, to push, to breathe Lamaze through narrow gaps in her teeth, stabilizing the moments in a frenzy of no return.

The baby appeared too rapidly, and the staff went reeling for equipment. A squirmingDSCN5943 body shot into practiced hands of one with barely enough time to adjust his gown and mask. The child’s umbilical cord had been wrapped around the neck but, as luck and skill would have it, no lasting damage would be done.

I was speechless, all expectancy and nerves. I heard, “It’s a girl this time,” as if I’d never before considered that possibility. She was being cleansed and studied in a bath of terrible fluorescence, an infant foreign to me, severed from the womb, a healthy eight-pound body from our body.

Naively I began to wonder whom she looked like. For now she didn’t look anything like me or like Leighanne, my wife. Thank god she didn’t look like somebody’s repairman or a questionable friend. Eventually I came to realize that the wonder isn’t in a child’s appearance. It was in the touch, reception. In the miracle of birth.

My wife was losing blood, and the doctor sewed her up quickly. When I saw that she was stabilized I slipped away and dropped some coins into a payphone, blurting the news across the miles.

DSCN5950I met some friends at a neighborhood tavern, friends who’d been waiting there since the poetry session had ended. Actually the friends had been standing on the parking lot of the bar because the young daughter of a poet friend hadn’t been allowed to come inside with her father. Undaunted by this stand against youth and family, we stood around our vehicles in the midnight hour, talking and drinking and having fun.

We didn’t know it at the time, but complaints had been lodged against us by the bartender or by neighbors, or by everyone around. I was accepting cheap cigars of congratulations when a city cop pulled up beside us.

We were breaking the “open container law” and, according to reports, were disturbing the Maple City peace. From behind the policeman’s driver seat, a caged German shepherd snarled and pressed its fangs against the window. Good old Tom S., irrepressible as ever, began to chitchat with the animal.

I explained to the enforcer that our gathering was a mere celebration of my daughter’s arrival in the world and in his fair city. That was all it took. The officer stuck his hand through the opened window and clasped my own. His jowls shook when he smiled and said, “Congratulations, man, and best wishes to ya.”DSCN5954

We departed for a visit to the hospital. It was way past the traditional social hours for the place. My wife had her own room now and kept the nurses bustling. No one was allowed to see her, other than myself, but the staff was too busy to harass the people with me.

We peered through the glass walls of the baby ward. Which of the eight or nine tiny souls asleep on those beds had come here as a result of some action I’d participated in long months before? We decided it was the little one in pink, the one closest to our vantage point. I meditated on the presence of a human being only 52 minutes old, then stepped away for a goodnight to Leighanne.

My friends dispersed. My brother and I heard the call of Jack’s Bar and retreated to its pool tables for a whiskey and a beer.DSCN5958

Surely there was poetry in the whole event, beyond any coincidence of a reading and a birth that night. Surely there would come a bundle of words, a phrase of music, someday far down the line.

It would come on a day like this, a cold winter night with my daughter (now in her 20s) in a warm house, and my wife in these rooms, as well.DSCN5944

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Off the Beaten Track But Going Strong

[A bit of southern, rivertop non-fiction, though the names have been changed to protect the guilty. This is the longest post I’ve ever done or am likely to do again. At twice the usual word count, I realize that to post this is a risk, but hey, if DSCN5931 you’ve been reading RR for any length of time, you are not a typical reader of the Blogosphere. You have more than the average attention span, not to mention the ability to recognize decent writing (wink!) when you see it… Please enjoy…]

1.

Matt McCloskey had been tending his bar for 35 years. He lived on the building’s second floor and, with exception of his wife who scrubbed the floor and tables six days a week, had worked the business by himself.

On the drab and peeling face of the establishment, the words RIVERTOP BAR & RESTAURANT arched above a gravel parking lot. The bar-cum-restaurant was situated in the curve of an obscure road and drew farmers and various denizens of the hills to the allure of beer and words with friends.

By early afternoon, Matt had not yet switched on the power for the jukebox. A window, broken from a weekend tussle, wore its aging cardboard pane. A stuffed grouse flew as always just above a taxidermied trout. The creatures’ habitat, an anemic green wall paint, led the eye to a bathroom door for “Bucks” (with a sign that read “Wood For Sale”) and to a doorway for “Does” (with a fading sign prohibiting the use of foul language).

For 35 years the short and stocky barman had worked the place and never felt what he was feeling now. Old Ben Newgate, thin and wiry as a sapling with his leg-brace and handcarved walking stick, may have noticed Matt’s altered state but didn’t show it. As if nothing special was about to happen, a handful of friends tossed a steady stream of jokes and insults at each other. Matt, sitting crosslegged on his stool behind the bar, was chewing a cigar stub, as accustomed, but I could see the specter of anxiety on his lined round face.DSCN5914

His smoky blue pants, matching jacket and shiny zippered boots, were worn for a reason. It would come– the long-awaited interview!

Kyle Everson, a reporter with The Cawtakarp Times, was scheduled to arrive in minutes and her article would land him in the valley papers. I asked Matt how he felt about being interviewed. He smiled and bared his dentures, turned and ambled toward the television. “She’ll be late,” he said. “Probably scared to come inside.”

I thought of how, after two years of steady patronage, I had finally become a friend. One day Matt handed me a glass of dregs and stated, “On the house.” I knew I had arrived. Old friends got the bottom of a keg for free, while relative strangers had to pay for it. At no other time did anyone, ever, get a free beer at the Rivertop Bar & Restaurant.

Matt turned down the volume of the TV. Long before, I had learned that in here the TV could be blaring in obligatory fashion but the customers would rarely give it a glance. The local gossip, news, comedy, and put-downs were typically strong enough to relegate the tube to something like a mumbling and obsequious customer alone with his schizophrenia.

Kyle’s slender form soon cut boldly into the room. All eyes fell upon her. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Kyle Everson… Matthew McCloskey?”

I wondered if this blonde-haired reporter imagined hushed obscenities from the men who sat behind her but, if so, she kept her poise and moved easily to the bar and sat beside the jars of fat green pickles and pinkish hog knuckles. Matt introduced her to his customers. “Old-timers, mostly,” he said. “Been here since I opened up the place.”

Kyle ordered a Coke and then commenced the interview by asking if rowdiness was a problem here. “Naw,” answered Matt. “Most of my customers are nice and quiet.”

“Not when they’s under the affluence of incohol!” cackled Benjamin.

Matt confessed. “I gotta throw out a few every now and then.” He jerked his thumb toward the kitchen door through which came sounds of a large dog trying to paw its way past an obstruction. “That,” he added, “will keep anybody at his seat.”DSCN5930

It was time to show off the bullet hole in the woodwork of his bar. Since the wide aperture appeared, he had taken to holstering a .38 beneath his jacket. He spoke proudly of the ragged hole, as if for the first time. “I have trouble once in a while with hippies. They smoke that marijuana out there, or get drunk and litter up the parking lot. Sometimes I get disrespective of them.”

“I don’t understand them young cats nowadays,” mused Ben Newgate. “That stuff they smoke– it don’t make yer heels kick up like that tasty corn likker do. Whoops!… Shouldn’t a said that in front of a newspaper woman!” Everyone laughed and watched Benjamin struggle to his feet and then lurch toward the men’s room.

Kyle ordered another Coke and, then, buckling from persistent ribbing from the guys, changed her mind and asked for a beer. Matt handed her a “Lite” and said, “On the house.”

A congratulatory cheer rang out from the customers. Someone shouted, “Christ, I been drinkin’ here for 30 years and never once…!”

2.

For 35 years Matt had been proprietor and never had a word about his business come to print in the local papers. Sure, there had been some mention of the infamous curve in which the restaurant was nestled– of how the cars, trucks and buses had spun off the road and tumbled into a stone wall. Matt and his wife had made their share of calls to state police and rescue squads for assistance to the dazed and injured travelers. “Accidents used to happen every dang time it rained. Sloshed-over gas and oil coated the road, and when it rained it was slicker than hell,” said Matt.

“You don’t mind that they’ve rerouted most of the traffic from your business?” asked Kyle. She knew the restaurant’s location was like an oasis drying in a desert of the modern world. For years the restaurant had been a salient feature of the main road looping through this mountain range. Then a four-lane road was slung across the ridge above the restaurant and nearby hamlet. It gave the valley dwellers safer, more efficient access to the cities beyond, and it gave the urban dwellers an open road to the mountains when they sought a respite from the summer heat and madness. The Rivertop never benefitted from their visits.

“Oh my business really depends on old friends and customers,” replied Matt. He exchanged an over-chewed cigar for a bright red pipe and then lit it. Thinking that Kyle would soon be taking photographs, he doffed his spectacles. “My friends come back no matter where the road is,” he added. “I got second generations coming in here now. Sons of fathers who are friends of mine stop by. It’s a quiet place and folks like it that way. This place is all I know.”DSCN5934

A man in his 60s entered the bar and sat beside Kyle. “Hey, you’re with the newspaper aren’t you? Is it possible to advertise for a wife in your paper? I got social security and a good pension. Hey! You’re not married are you?”

“Off it Henry!” protested Benjamin. “She’s probably got a husband big enough to fight bear with a fly swatter.” He rose from his seat and balanced on his braces. “Didja hear the joke about the newlyweds who….”

Kyle began to look uneasy, slightly out of the control she liked to have. Matt complained. “Alright guys… she’s gonna think you’re a bunch of dirty old men.”

“We’re not dirty old men,” quipped Henry. “We’re just vulgar senior citizens!”

Kyle reached for her camera while Matt McCloskey rocked from his stool and pulled a veteran black cowboy hat from beneath the bar. He twisted back into his seat and slapped the cowboy hat firmly on his head.

For months I’d known that cowboy hat as an integral part of Matt’s daily wardrobe. Its curled and pointed front had given visual balance to the square-rimmed glasses and the all-seeing eyes. But today the hat had been mysteriously shelved and then procured as if with an afterthought.DSCN5920

I turned to face the large windows of the Rivertop Bar & Restaurant, the woods that edged the road, the home of bobcat, bear and ghost of American chestnut tree. I saw the quietude and then the face of an urban menace growling everywhere beyond. Here, for now, humanity and wildness bought each other drinks.

3.

Two weeks after Matt’s interview, I dropped in to see him. I had read Kyle’s feature article, “It’s Off the Beaten Track But Going Strong,” in The Cawtakarp Times and thought it pretty good. Matt was jubilant and already had a copy of the full-page article framed and hanging underneath the taxidermied trout and grouse.

One photograph was interesting, if not a bit absurd. It showed Matt standing underneath his cowboy hat and offering a porcelain cup of coffee to the viewer. The cup, distorted hugely past proportion, outsized Matt McCloskey’s head with hat and all.

Matt was smiling as he lit a new cigar. After 35 years of working in one place, he was noticed by the papers, and the article shone like a star.

“Did that article drum up any new business for you?” I asked.

“Naw. Not really,” answered Matt. “Just some old friends who returned from who knows where to rib me about that picture with the coffee cup.”DSCN5939

 

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A Century Gone

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant wild bird in North America and, perhaps, in all the world. It’s been said that more than a quarter of all the birds in North America in the 1800s were Ectopistes migratorius, the bluish bird significantly larger than our mourning dove and most closely related to the western band-tailed pigeon.

no live takes possible

no live takes possible

Many of us have read of the enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that once passed through the skies of northeastern America in the 19th-century, but it’s doubtful that anyone alive today has ever seen a live bird of this species, or ever will. The last “wild pigeon” died in 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Curious about the one-time presence of the passenger pigeon in this haunted neck of woods, I checked into a little history book devoted to my Town of Greenwood, New York. The book called “Pioneer Life in Greenwood, 1888,” by Dennis McGraw, echoes the demise of the pigeon in a way that many local histories have. McGraw wrote:

“On the upland the timber was mostly beech and maple. The maple was a great help to the people as from them we got our sugar and molasses. The beech used to furnish feed to fat our pork and to call pigeons to nest which supplied us with young “squabs.” They used to nest there in an early day, every bearing year. Once when at work in the sugar camp on the head of Bennett’s Creek, about five O’Clock in the evening, we discovered

what's that guy up to now?

what’s that guy up to now?

pigeons in clouds; there were so many of them they fairly darkened the sky, and they kept coming until after dark when the tree tops were black with them. After nightfall we thought we could get a large quantity of them by falling the trees one against the other, but in that we were disappointed, for as soon as we struck a tree with an ax they would flutter off. We never got one pigeon that night, but what we got was better. They nested in the big marsh and we got any quantity of “squabs” as fat as butter.

People came from a great distance with wagons and barrels, and fell acres of timber to get them. It was a sight to see and one that we shall never see in this country.”

The passenger was destroyed by overhunting and habitat destruction. A migratory Ontario flock was described as “one mile wide, 300 miles long, taking 14 hours to pass one point” which, if accurate, could have accounted for most of the estimated 3.5 billion pigeons in North America at the time. But an avian holocaust was about to occur.

from the bobcat of Cryder Creek

from the bobcat of Cryder Creek

Pigeons were found to be good for feeding the nation’s slaves and poor. Massive mechanized hunting methods were designed. Typically birds flocked together for predator protection and lived in large colonies, sometimes building hundreds of nests in a single tree.

Nesting trees were burned, sometimes with sulphur; flocks were drawn down using a blinded “stool pigeon”; double-barreled shotguns might bring down 60 birds at a time. At one Michigan site, boys were encouraged to kill up to 50,000 roosting birds per day, for five months duration… You get the picture.

a pause for the paws

a pause for the paws

Studying local history can be enlightening, not only for the dour news about events such as this extinction, but for a wealth of entertaining and lighter news as well. Many people simply disregard the local. They have too much information at their fingertips already; they have busy schedules and bills to pay; the power mongers have stripped their lives of heritage and pride, etcetera. Local history seems far too precious and… unnecessary.

For the folks who care, however, it’s different. To get local and to take an interest in community and environment seems almost… revolutionary, in a sense. I think of the ideas, beliefs and feelings that eventually tore a new American spirit free from 18th-century tyranny.

But we’ve become a nation of extremely mobile and unsettled people with diminishing stakes in the past. We don’t have time for romantic ruminations, don’t have time to develop a sense of place or to see ourselves in an evolving time-frame. We no longer wish to know the old ways, or to see ourselves as part of a natural community with interacting and dependent parts.

(probable) 5-toed prints of fisher (Rough & Ready, NY)

(probable) 5-toed prints of fisher (Rough & Ready, NY)

Or do we? Have we learned some serious lessons this past century? No doubt we have learned a few, but… look at the news today– the same old wars and pestilence, the continued ravages of Industrial Age pollution….

The last wild passenger pigeon was killed by an Ohio boy with a BB gun in 1900.

The extinction finally aroused public interest in the conservation movement. The great Aldo Leopold would soon pay a public tribute to the bird on a formerly large Wisconsin roosting site.

The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “The historical sense involves a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”

And, finally, the politician Henry Kissinger weighs in on the topic with his well-known line, “It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it.”DSCN5910

 

 

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A Pine Creek Ramble

“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.” –John BurroughsDSCN5841

The winter air in the Pine Creek Natural Area, aka the Pine Creek Gorge, or the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, was all of this and more.

DSCN5845I took a four-mile ramble on the canyon’s Rail Trail following the mostly ice-covered waters of upper Pine Creek. The air was a crisp 23 degrees Fahrenheit, although the sun was shining now and then, illuminating the snow and ice and the several tracks of skiers and hikers.

I had total solitude in this 20-mile stretch of wildness flowing north to south at depths of a thousand feet below the sandstone escarpments at each rim. Oh, I saw a great blue heron and a pileated woodpecker and an animal which I’ll speak of in a minute, but I felt quite sheltered from the mundane world. The “longest creek in America” was at my feet, and a vast state forestland embraced the cliffs just east and west of me.

DSCN5870The Pine Creek Gorge Natural Area contains (according to a 1960s report by the National Park Service) “superlative scenery, geological and ecological value, and is one of the finest examples of a deep gorge in the eastern United States.”

I agree, and feel the need to finally do some fly-fishing here along the creek’s Delayed Harvest water in April. I have visited the gorge on many occasions over the last few decades but have never rafted its course from Ansonia to Blackwell or even traversed it with a fly rod or a bicycle along the popular Rail Trail.

I don’t know what I’ve been waiting for, but since I’m not getting any younger, there isDSCN5864 no time like the present to become better acquainted. Lots of people take a raft, canoe or kayak through the gorge when the flow is good, but my own thoughts settle with a trail bike– ah, to pedal, and to stop at each side canyon for a bit of brook trout fishing with a short four-piece rod…

This natural area was a gift from the last Ice Age when the melting glaciers thwarted Pine Creek’s northward flow and reversed it through impressionable sandstone. The creek, rerouted, helped to carve this complicated landscape of forested hills and gorges. This was wilderness until the late nineteenth-century logging boom occurred.

DSCN5865I was near Deadman Hollow, named for an early twentieth-century trapper whose decomposed body was found in a bear trap he had set. Earlier, the Iroquois and Susquehannock hunters had traveled this course for many years. More recently, the Jersey Shore, Pine Creek and Buffalo Railway had traversed the gorge with passenger and freight service, forming the backbone for the 13 logging companies that eventually established themselves in the larger watershed.

The old growth forests were stripped bare by the early 1900s. Nothing was left but treetops which eventually fueled great fires that ravaged the land. Along with the floods that followed the fires, there were landslides and erosion to the point of ecological ruin. The region took on the appearance of a desert.DSCN5858

Over the past century, however, the forests have regrown and much of the wildlife has returned. Although the wolves and elk and panthers are gone, the bears and otters and eagles can be found, and wild trout thrive in many of Pine Creek’s tributaries.

Visitors arrive en masse to enjoy the state parks, hiking trails and waterways. Following the demise of the train era, the Rail Trail opened in 1996 and has become very popular with bicyclists, hikers, anglers, and other recreationalists.

This hiker had neglected to carry food and water, thinking at first he wouldn’t walk so far, and he became thirsty after the first mile of rambling. I was at the point of scooping up snow when I heard the song of water from the rocks on my left. Water was gushing from a pipe thrust outward from the cliff. Wonderful!

Returned to the trail, I glanced at an open stretch of water in the creek. A dark-furred animal stood 50 feet away on the edge of the ice, its eyes already well-fastened to my being. River otter! There it was, my first good look at an otter in the East. I’ve seen this animal in some western states, but this was special.River otter

I wanted a photo of the moment, but the unblinking eyes told me it wouldn’t be easy. I positioned my walking stick, slowly removed my gloves, and tried to ready the camera. Looking up from my settings I saw that the river otter was gone– the photo wasn’t meant to be, not now, although I managed to capture the animal’s unusual tracks.DSCN5853

Otters were reintroduced to the Pine Creek Natural Area from other regions of the wild about 20 to 25 years ago, and they’ve been doing well. These fast swimming fish-eaters require pristine water conditions, and there’s plenty of suckers and stocked trout in the Pine to keep them healthy.

Maybe on my next excursion I’ll get lucky with the camera.DSCN5855DSCN5851

 

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