Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Premenstrual Nature Writer

I went to the woods because I wished to kill my husband, to front his head into a glove compartment and kick it closed a few times, to see if I could not learn to push him down a hill, and not, when it came time to smack him upside the head with a heavy shoe, discover that I had not smacked hard enough. 

Three or four inches of fresh snow
I brought a little bit of baggage with me to Piedmont Lake today. We take our baggage everywhere, don't we? Just because we're traipsing through the wilds of Eastern Ohio doesn't mean we get to leave it behind. Unfortunately, the baggage I brought along really bogged me down and I viewed my experience through the lens of my own emotions. That's true of every experience, but the negative lenses are so noticeable.

It was a rough morning and I needed to escape.

All week I've been grouchily kicking myself for choosing a place 50 minutes away from home, a place which cannot just be popped into and out of. This time has to be scheduled, and weather is a factor, particularly this week, with all of my schoolwork. What kind of buffoon chooses a location that requires a half-day of travel?

I hit the road, only to realize I'd forgotten my gloves. (Last time it was my hat.) Today was 16 degrees. Son of a.... I got off the interstate. I found a Dollar Store. I spent too long at the checkout line staring at a magazine about America's worst serial killers and four people jumped in line ahead of me. In the car I realized I had to do some smart phone banking to cover the check I floated this morning. My nose began to bleed and I'll be the first to admit I stuck my finger up there to see where the blood was coming from, only to be spotted doing so at an intersection.

That's a federal offense, by the way. Check floating, not nasal inspection. Both, however, are terribly gauche. 

So much work. So much stress.

Quaking shepherd
I was not a sojourner today. Nor was I enjoying the travel. Every red light glared crimson at me. Every slow driver wedged into my lane. How desperately I sought to make it out into nature and how angry I was that I couldn't reach my nature and begin to be a nature writer. Blue sky is so rare in the winter that I worried I'd lose it before I reached the lake, or that somehow the cabin would evaporate if I didn't get out there in time. The shepherd heard the radio buttons make a frightening beep and began to quake with fear. She climbed into Benjamin's car seat and I lost my temper and tried to spear her with an ice scraper at 70mph.

I was a real jerk.

Today, I epitomized our problem. Our instant-gratification nature-on-demand society holds an umbrella over me, too. Did Thoreau ever just want to get to the damn woods already? I don't know if I wanted to get out there so I could do my required nature thing and get home or if I wanted to get out there so I could drop my "baggage" down in the driveway and breathe. Perhaps both.

I really blew the first half of the experience, proving myself inescapably human. The difference is that I'm writing about it, rather than glossing over the ugly parts.

Excuse me ma'am, your transcendentalism seems questionable. We'll need to do a Thoreau examination of your methods.

The scene in the country was very Bob Ross - white snow and the blue sky that only comes on the first day of a high pressure system. All week I'd been hoping for a snow paddle in my kayak (an adventure my husband and father weren't wild about) but the lake was frozen again. I tried to find Emerson's ice harp, but a thick layer of snow blanketed the surface and it made no sounds today whatsoever. Everywhere I looked I saw diamonds; the quality of the snow for the past few days has been fluffy, and I arrived at the right hour of the day to see it twinkle. The diamonds relaxed me a bit, and I was drawn into a calmer state, and began to feel a bit of appreciation.

Buried under the snow, I couldn't see the ice or determine its thickness, but it was not to be trusted. Since Frick and Frack the canine stooges were with me, a hike in the woods made far more sense. I had a Doberman once, and a Corgi, and when the Corgi fell through the ice and was subsequently plucked to safety, the Dobie had to go investigate the hole and fell in herself.

Diamonds in the snow

Hiking in the dead of winter feels effortless. No brambles snag your clothing; no bushwhacking required. I hiked where I wanted, in circles and curves, through the deserted church camp and on to the 4H camp. Nugget, who is fleecy and soft, quickly developed ice balls in her paws, and stopped every hundred yards to tear at them. At the 4H camp I found a bench and sat in the sunshine and listened.
Sparkles, everwhere

Last time the hum of air traffic and fracking machinery volleyed around the lake. Today, perhaps due to the cold, the frackers uttered nothing whatsoever. As I walked I heard chickadees and crows, and several times a yipping sound that could have been anything from bird to coyote to shnauzer. Step by step I thought about my rotten attitude this morning, and how it didn't matter one hoot whether I arrived with a scowl or a smile; the lake didn't care. I thought about this blog entry, and how it would invariably be colored by sarcasm and grump if I didn't get my head out of my posterior. And most of all, I felt as though I'd failed to be a nature writer today, suddenly considering that the lens of human emotion is the most vital ingredient in a piece, whether positive or negative. What we do to nature may not be natural, but we are natural, and my craptastic mood was too.

The remnants of the Magnificent
Beech Tree
Beech trees pepper the woods at the lake. I love beech trees, but they seem too fragile for their own good, and church campers target their trunks for carvings. It seems to be the beech tree's bad luck to have such smooth skin. For decades one large beech tree has been a favorite of ours, and my father used to tell me it was Piglet's "magnificent beech tree". Dad loves A.A. Milne, and the author is really quite funny. Dad's always called it The Magnificent Beech Tree, and when I was little I'd sit in a hollowed out spot and pretend to be Piglet. In the last 20 years I've rather forgotten about the tree. Perspectives change as we grow, and things that caught our eyes as children may no longer do so.

I saw the Magnificent Beech Tree today. It's dead. I know the tree lived its life and toppled in a storm, very naturally. The trunk snapped and the remaining spear is 15 feet tall. Carvings--why do you little bastards do that?--are all over the trunk. I circled the tree today and touched it, and then I noticed dozens and dozens of woodpecker holes. The tree died, the bugs moved in, and so did the peckers.

Evidence of pecker activity
I love a good pecker.

And if the Magnificent Beech Tree can take its place in the forest web, I can ask no more of Nature. The tree continues to serve and support, and only my silly tendency to anthromorphize it tears at my heart. It's The Giving Tree, but this tree gave to the forest, not to some greedy man. Oops. Anthropomorphizing again.

I began to think about children and nature, and the importance of establishing a connection as young as possible. When I was a child, the tree truly was magnificent to me; now, though I see a stump I can still picture the tree in its glory and always will. But if I brought an outsider with me, an adult, they'd see a stump. Nothing more. We must create sacred spaces for our children so that they will always have a Magnificent Beech Tree, and a connection to the space around it. I don't expect anyone to look at my photo and see what I see. I would not expect you to feel anything for the stump. We cannot forge connections that do not exist. Weave your childrens' story with that of a specific place, as Barbara Kingsolver does in "The Memory Place". It will root in their soul and flourish, and neither pollution nor degradation can wipe the memory of their own Magnificent Beech Tree. I hope, when I'm an old gray goat, that my kids will fight for Piedmont.

As if on cue, as I dictated these thoughts into my phone I came upon the equally-magnificent frog pond in the woods, which in reality is just a depression in the forest, a vernal pool that remains naught but muck over the summer. And behind the cabin I stumbled into the remnants of my old swingset. They seemed like echoes, and they seemed as fresh as this morning.

My very, very old swingset, a la 1979.

Back in the house I had to call my dad to ask about putting antifreeze in the toilets, and the spell cast by the memories of the beech tree was broken. I drove home listening to Sirius XM 80's on 8 (continuing to revisit my formative years), and the moon hovered in front of my windshield the entire way.

I refused to call my husband to tell him I was alive.

Beautiful geometry

The trail

The church camp



  1. Oh, I LOVED Bob Ross! I loved his "happy little trees" here, and "happy rocks" over there. What a great way to capture the image. I knew exactly what to imagine at that line.

    Your writing is very honest Laura. It is so refreshing that you simply say it how it is. And I like that you kept at it there, pushing yourself to look past the grumpiness. You may regret that you chose a spot far from home, but I think you'll eventually find it worth it. It looks like an amazing place to explore, both your past, and your present.

    I also love your dogs, goofy as they are. So cute-- they make me miss my pup all the more.

    1. They're good girls. And even though I took my grumpiness out on her, Maya was ever-loyal, walking with me wherever I went. Dogs deserve to inherit the earth; they're so much better than people. :)

  2. Like Amanda, I love that you are being honest in your blog. We all venturing out into the cold and snow. And you have to make so much more effort to travel to your place. It seems natural to be grumpy at least once in a while. I so appreciated that you walked us through your process of trying to change your lens for the sake of your writing. And the result is beautiful! The nostalgia of the beech tree and the swing set were so touching.

  3. I love your writing style - I am laughing hysterically one second (that opening passage is the best!) and then am contemplating something profoundly serious that you've said. I most appreciated this insight: And most of all, I felt as though I'd failed to be a nature writer today, suddenly considering that the lens of human emotion is the most vital ingredient in a piece, whether positive or negative. Bingo. That human emotion we bring to our work, even if it's all ranty and grumpy, is what will ring true. Nature is not all rainbows and puppies and "happy little trees." And I'm glad for that.

  4. I loved this post, Laura. It was funny, insightful and honest. I can relate to your feeling of wanting to shake your craptastic mood before writing, but then accepting it and moving on. This is exactly how I felt writing my second blog entry...why should I subject the poor women in ENG584 to my complaining about my oh-so-terrible life?? But, the honesty of this piece is something very relateable.

    I also loved how you go back and forth from memories of your childhood to wanting to ensure your children create memories of their own. "Weave your childrens' story with that of a specific place, as Barbara Kingsolver does in "The Memory Place". It will root in their soul and flourish, and neither pollution nor degradation can wipe the memory of their own Magnificent Beech Tree." What a great goal to aim for.