Thursday, June 22, 2006

Angeline, not dead but gone before

But there are moments which he calls his own,
Then, never less alone than when alone,
Those whom he loved so long and sees no more,
Loved and still loves—not dead—but gone before,
He gathers round him.
– Samuel Rogers

Angeline said she’d like to come with us, so one frigid December morning several years ago, with north winds whispering down from the Arctic and a furze of snow whitening the pockets of grass and staked in the lee of fence posts, we drove out to her house east of the river, turned down the long driveway and crossed the small stone arch bridge. I stepped from the warmth of the car and rapped on the door. Her face swam through the frost on the glass. Sticking her head out, she said, Too cold for me.

There was a smile on her face.

There was always a smile on her face.

So a friend and I drove on, a half-mile to where the road bends sharply to the right and passes over a small culvert. We parked and walked up a narrow two-track, our binoculars dangling from our necks, our breath fogging the crystalline air. Past the old house, collapsing into itself, the stairway leading only to low clouds and drifting snow, the windows hollow and dark. Past the outbuildings, weathered, paintless, sheltered beneath ponderosas, home now to the stratified dens of wood rats. Down to the edge of the pond, where we heard, on the wind, the call of a lone magpie.

When Lori and I went to work last Saturday Angeline Bigham was alive. When we went home she was gone, and in those short few hours Blue Rapids, and those who knew her, lost something precious and irreplaceable.

It’s impossible to measure the impact one individual can make on a place or a person, or, in our case, two persons. It’s not something that can be divided or added to, or poured into a beaker, computated against a yardstick, or quantified. And, sadly, the measurement is only recognizable once that individual is gone, leaving those behind scrambling for memories and, perhaps, reasons for why they didn’t spend more time together.

I listened to Lori the next day commiserating with a friend, and through their tears a story came forth that I had not known. When Lori’s grandfather died, it was Angeline who brought food for the family, the congregation not entirely sure who the widow was. “That was Angeline,” Lori said. “She saw a problem and she handled it. She was that way with everything.” It was not my intent to eavesdrop, or intrude on her grief, but the catch in her voice stopped my heart.

For us transplants from the big city, there was always Angeline. She was there from the start and she was there at the end, befriending us, making us welcome, assuring us that we were now part of an extended family that cut across genealogies, ideologies and bloodlines. When Lori started an informal historical gathering to document the history of Blue Rapids, Angeline was first to help. For the Memories Around the Round Town Square group, and, at the end, the Blue Rapids Historical Society, Angeline was more than the official historian—she was the history.

One of the things we wanted to do was to record oral histories of the old-timers. It was, like many plans mercilessly harried by time, only partly successful. Several important candidates passed away before we could interview them, while others teetered on the edge. In the last two weeks the historical society made plans to purchase a digital video camera to fulfill the mission. We agreed this time to do it right.

Saturday afternoon we saw a fire truck zip past, red lights blazing. A few minutes later, there was another. Someone commented on not hearing the fire whistle.

That evening, we learned that Angeline had wrecked her car east of town. It’s possible she died of a heart attack prior to running off the road. Somehow, we never managed to interview her.

In her last months she’d asked that I write something about the old bridge across Elm Creek. The problem was in finding a paying market for the story. Since the only publication interested in it was the historical society’s newsletter, I made excuses and put if off. Finally, she wrote something herself. It appeared in the June issue under the headline, “Bridge History, as written by Angeline Bigham.”

She once mentioned something about an old cemetery nearby, one that a farmer had plowed under. Though she’d brought two of the finest dowsers in the county out there to search, they drew a blank. She told me someday she hoped to try again.

It was early afternoon when I drove out to the bridge. I almost didn’t recognize the place. The last four or five times I’d been there had been in the dead of winter, with the trees stripped and the ground hard as iron. Now it was a veritable jungle, and standing on the bridge I could hear the trickle of water and the singing of an indigo bunting. If Angeline were here I would tell her I finally understood the importance of doing something for love rather than money.

I wish Angeline could have heard that magpie with us. It was the only one we’ve encountered during five years of Christmas bird counts.

I also wish I knew what that bridge meant to her, why it suddenly seemed so important.

Mostly, I wish we’d had more time.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A beast of improbable lineage

There was something out there, something big, near where the field slopes down from the higher ground to drain through a half-crushed pipe beneath the bend in the road. Something where nothing had ever been. I was already reaching for the rifle when I realized what I was seeing was not what I thought it was.

Not the cat that had been prowling the yard, a feline whose fabled nine lives were set to expire with the first clear shot, but larger. Stockier. Taller. I picked up the binoculars and spun the focus ring until the creature swam from the fog of color to crystallize into a beast standing on its haunches, its dense fur pale and grizzled across its back, washed with cinnamon on its belly and legs. Small blackbutton eyes glinting in the sun, seeming to bore into mine.

I said its name then, whether aloud or silent I could not tell, and the name I spoke or did not speak was of a different mammal, one far removed from this prairie place, and even as I realized my mistake and began to form a different arrangement of vowels and consonants the name swept over me and the walls shimmered and vanished and I stood on a lonely escarpment near the crook of another road. Before me the land fell away in a long green valley misty with a cold thin drizzle, and far below a serpentine creek shone silver in the halflight, a creek whose passage I would never follow and yet would forever drown in. And in that distant place of pitiless beauty and endless yearning a whistle pierced my reverie, and I glanced around to find several mammals watching me intently. And I thought theirs a world I could never inhabit but only briefly share, but in that sharing form a communion. For whenever, or wherever, we met, it would be their world, not mine. A world apart.

I sat down heavily in a chair and braced the binoculars with an elbow on the edge of the table. The creature dropped and began foraging, downing clumps of grass and flower heads and broadleaf weeds. It seemed to float, boneless, slinking through the field like a hoary shadow, occasionally standing upright to warily gaze about. As it approached I again said its name, aloud or silent it does not matter, and again the name was wrong.

Or not wrong, just—not right. I was actually closer to the truth the first time, though I did not know it.


There is a grave injustice here, and a mystery, and a tale to untangle. I fear I am not up to the task, time being an unrelenting foe and the threads of knowledge frayed and scattered across an uncharted universe of electronic bytes, some true, some false, some leading me down paths with no end, or resolution. And always, always, Wuchak stalks the edges.

Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning, or as close as we can get. And let’s be frank, even as Topsell was frank in his “History of the Four-footed Beasts,” an 1100-page bestiary published in 1607. “You must consider,” he disclaimed, “that since Adam went out of Paradise, there was never any that was able perfectly to describe the universal conditions of all sorts of beasts.” Or name them for that matter, though Linnaeus got us on the right track.

Not that Topsell ever made mention of a woodchuck—the second of my names for the beast in the field. But he did cite Julius Scaliger in his description for the alpine mouse, a “beast about the bigness of a badger.” To the French, a marmot.

The French word is problematic and impossible to trace, but its root lie in the terms “monkey” or “little child.” Which is another way of saying dead end.

“Woodchuck” dates to 1674, with its first description as a fur-bearing animal coming in 1778. The Oxford English Dictionary cites few references, leaving a blank spot on the map. But by 1797 the Encyclopedia Britannica listed the New World species using Linnaeus’s taxonomic order, and it is here that we get a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. For included was Arctomys monax, the American marmot.

There are five other species of marmots, including the yellow-bellied marmot of the lower Rockies and the hoary marmot of the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska. Only the woodchuck does not share a marmot name. In the vernacular it is a whistle pig, a monk, a woodshock. A not-marmot.

Monax means “digger.” The species excavates burrows in soft ground, usually concealed by shrubs or trees along the edges of open woods. Its favorite foods are leafy vegetation. But unlike its cousins, the woodchuck is a solitary animal, and can swim and climb trees. It ranges from the eastern United States, across Canada to eastern Alaska. It is not related to the beaver, nor does it chew or eat wood. So why do we call it a woodchuck?

According to several sources, the name resulted from a simple phonic simplification. Early settlers took the Cree Indian word, Wuchak, and morphed it by converting the first syllable to “wood” in an attempt to give meaning to an unfamiliar combination of sounds. The creature lived around woods, and also made a distinctive cluck or chuck, so the name fit.

And yet this beast rooting around in a prairie field took me to that other place, a place I called home though I could not stay, and as I studied it I realized that we were at last together in our own place, on our own home ground, and whatever traces of yearning I still harbored fell away in a hearty laugh. As the beast turned to watch me something inside gave way like the breaking of a dam, and I cried Wuchak! Wuchak! The American marmot!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Everything I need to know I learned from behind a lawn mower

It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use a push mower.(Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637. Annotated.)

According to a not-so-recent article in Newsweek, the latest trend in lawn mowing technology (and suburbia) is for bigger and—bigger. And I mean big. The latest riders from John Deere are the lawn mowing equivalent of an Abrams tank, and about as costly. What genuinely depressed me was the statement that many men who purchase these new extravagant machines are residential owners whose lots sizes frequently run less than a quarter acre in size.

Let that sink in a moment: Less than a quarter acre. That ain’t very big. And these guys need such equipment to do it? Pathetic.

Perhaps I should specify that these aren’t technically riders, but tractors of the sort that can also plow, furrow, excavate and launch nuclear warheads at less-well-tended yards. Not to be pedantic, but if it mows, it’s a lawn mower.

I could sympathize if the lawn size required something gargantuan, but clearly that’s not the case. With a nod toward the buyers, Newsweek admitted that the riders are little more than status symbols.

Let me be blunt: any man who buys one of these monsters for a quarter-acre lawn is a weenie. It doesn’t matter how wealthy, successful, handsome or virile the man is. He’s a weenie, and no amount of primping will change it.

When a man (or woman) attaches himself to such a device, a detachment naturally occurs. The height, power and, let’s admit it, cost separate the user from the land itself, not only in the physical domain but in a psychological dimension as well. This is no mere yard maintenance but an imposition of will upon nature herself. Man the dominant species. And the bigger the engine, the wider the cutting path, the heftier the price, the more dominant the male.

Balderdash, I say. Only by using a push mower can mankind connect to himself, his neighbors, his community, and the universe.

Strong words, yes, but consider: push mowing takes time, and time allows one to think and to study, to visualize, to engage with all one’s senses. The benefits are measurable. The larger the property, the larger the benefit. Given the time I’ve spent behind a push mower, the insights granted by my willingness to compete with nature as an equal have compounded until now, for the first time, I am offering to share my acumen. My only hope is that my humble words will turn others away from the path of behemoth equipment and let them reconnect to themselves and to their world.

1. It isn’t the size of your equipment, it’s the way you use it. My neighbor has a Dixon riding mower that will crop a quarter acre at a time. Mine is a small 21” push mower. He zips back and forth in neat, tidy rows, scything everything in his path. My yard has trees, shrubs and flowers I must avoid, so I plan my attack accordingly. If some other path suddenly strikes my fancy, I deviate and seek adventure. Don’t get stuck in a rut is my motto.

2. The condition of your lawn is not as important as how you feel about it. My neighbor keeps his lawn green, cropped and weed-free. Only Kentucky blue grass is allowed to grow on his property. He weeds, fertilizes, sprays with toxins and spends an exorbitant amount of time perfecting his lawn. Mine is a botanist’s nightmare, a mass of common weeds and plebian grasses. But they’re green and that’s all that matters. They need no guidance, and they provide sustenance for the grasshoppers.

3. All you need is all you need. Too much yard and you waste your life worrying about when it’ll get mowed. Too little and you’ll wish you had more so you could buy a bigger mower. Be content with what you have.

4. Don’t procrastinate. The longer you put off mowing, the deeper the grass gets and the harder it is to manage. Be methodical and you’ll never find yourself in over your head (literally).

4a. Parker’s Corollary: Don’t let your lawn be a dictator. If something comes up you’d rather do, do it. The lawn won’t die.

5. Keep an eye on the little things. Mowing is a time to connect to the natural world. Understand that it does not revolve around you or your desires. It is whole, entire, self-contained. All humans can do is coexist or muck it up. Opt for the former.

6. Your mouth should be closed more than it is open. That way, nothing flies in that shouldn’t. Learn to listen, to refrain from saying something you shouldn’t, to appear concerned about others’ opinions. Even if the speaker is a dolt. (Yes, this is one lesson I still struggle with.)

7. Watch where you’re going. Don’t go blindly into the future; plan, prepare and act.

8. Be patient. Though the amount of yard left to mow looks huge, and though you droop from weariness and humidity, keep on! Success comes through persistence and faith.

9. Reward comes through hard work. Nothing is ever easy and don’t forget it.

10. Neatness counts.

11. Treat others as you would be treated. The Golden Rule is applicable to all things, even yard maintenance. If your lawn looks unkempt, your neighbor’s will as well, and vice-versa.

12. Life is beautiful. Take time to smell the roses. (See #7 or you won’t have any.)

And lastly, the most important lesson I can offer: Life is unfair. Grass grows back. Weeds abound. Work never ceases until winter’s arrival, and that’s just as bad. My only advice: Develop a fondness for your mower. Give her a name. Relish her company. You’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the next few months.