Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Life everlasting

Though I am taking time off from work this week, the rest of the world is busy making things. It’s easy to be awed by what I see people doing with their lives. This first day away from home has been a study for me in human creativity and industry.

We are in Vermont with special friends who recently suffered the loss of two beloved parents. The father — to ensure his family's privacy I'll call him Hann — was a master woodworker who grew up and trained in Germany. He was an electric, commanding presence who did not like holding still. My own grandfather was a woodworker from Berlin who came to Southern California to build houses. From the moment I met Hann and his family, I felt a kinship hewn from sawdust and ancestry. Though we are acutely aware of Hann's absence on this visit, we see his handsome work all about us. It will be impossible to forget him.

The woodworking patriarch loved to spend time on Spirit II
which is docked on Lake Champlain. 
Among the many pieces he made for Spirit II is this table.

Upon waking on the first bright and chilly morning of our stay in Vermont, my friend Berta, who is Hann's daughter-in-law, and I took a walk in the woods. We both routinely start our day with a little vigorous exercise outdoors. This morning a strong wind roughed up Burr Pond and sent leaves scrambling. On September 22 fall finally gave us a sobering nudge. Berta had her walking sticks and I had my iPhone camera. We plunged on and up. 

Such early morning outings in the woods or along the shore give us time to recharge. We’ve learned that undistracted time spent outdoors boosts our creativity. And, as this day has reminded me, humans are, at their core, creative beings.

Berta pointed out the many salamanders crossing the path we took. 
Soon the leaves, which are just starting to turn and fall, 
will match the salamanders’ glorious coloring.

It was so early in the morning that the pond 
we hiked to looked and sounded like it was just waking up.

Hann came to America to practice his craft and support his family. What he started, his son carries on. Erich built and periodically expands the growing plant in Rutland to produce the beautiful wood windows and doors he and his crew make for customers around the country. Often they are called upon to design windows doors that seem more like works of art than a means of access or merely conveyors of light and fresh air. I've seen groups of architects and contractors gather in Erich's shop to marvel, in awe and respect, at his feats of breathtaking design and workmanship.

Just down the street from Erich's plant is the Carving and Sculpting Center in West Rutland, site of a former marble quarry. Here carvers and other artists now gather annually to create and exhibit works made from marble, stone and found objects. The vast grounds are littered with all shades of glistening marble. Sculptural works are found throughout the property. Marble crunches underfoot when you walk. And the sculptors at work on their pieces are covered in marble dust, looking not unlike the pieces they're carving.

33-year-old Alasdair Thomson of Edinburgh, Scotland, 
carved this 2,400-pound wedding dress after a dress 
by designer Pnina Tornai. Next week he moves this piece 
to Kleinfield bridal boutique in NYC to sit among the real gowns. 
“If people in the shop don’t realize at first that it’s marble, 
then I have succeeded,” he told a newspaper reporter.

Hann started the window and door crafting company
that his son Erich now runs. They 
made these windows in the Sculpting Center, 
which is built of marble.

Rick Rothrock of Wilmington, Delaware, 
is working on this marble bench for Newburyport, Massachusetts.
It will take him another year to finish the bench.

Here’s another sculpture by Rothrock. 
It’s impossible not to run your hand 
along the silky finish of the white marble.

Here are three more sculptures (of many) that we discovered on 
the trails at the marble quarry. 
The marble undies are just one of the items on the clothesline below. 

This bittersweet trip to Vermont, spent in affection and appreciation, has been a poignant reminder of the creative drive we all nurture, rue, ignore, and sometimes milk for all it's worth. Whether carving wood or marble, words or song, a juicy roast chicken from the local farm or a classic shoulder-length bob, we all want to pause to recharge and reconsider. It's different for each of us. Hann, whose remarkable drive kindled a network of love and livelihood for many, had Spirit I and II to bring him where he needed to be. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vacation imagination

This is where I watch the sun come up. 

So much of the pleasure of a vacation happens weeks in advance.

My upcoming three-day hiking trip to my favorite wilderness retreat — Pittsburg, New Hampshire — begins next Tuesday. But in my heart and my imagination, my nature getaway begins the minute I open Evernote and begin itemizing packing and to do lists.

  • S’mores ingredients. Check.
  • Hat and gloves. Check.
  • Running shoes. Check.
  • Walking stick. Check.
  • Travel mug. Check.

Each item on the list comes with a treasured repository of memory. There’s the hilly, chilly morning run past First Lake and on to Happy Corners restaurant for celebration pancakes. Hat and gloves a must. There’s the late-night, fire-pit roasting of marshmallows under a jewel box of radiant stars. And that steep and miserable climb up to Magalloway’s summit, where my walking stick’s a necessary appendage? Up there, breathtaking — oooh, aaaah — tempts hyperventilation it is all so beautiful.

And what about the travel mug? My daughter Ardis and I sip coffee on our before-dawn photo safaris up and down remote logging roads, where fox, bull moose and deer bound in front of us, flushed from their meanderings, as surprised as we are. Ardis, the daring one, takes our off-road vehicle places I would never go alone.

Full moon over First Connecticut Lake.

For years I have opted for Pittsburg adventures in lieu of travel to Italy or France or Greece or Spain — all places I have no personal knowledge of despite how right they seem for me. I choose nature. And it calls to me so persistently that I never fail to reserve a cabin and let myself be drawn, mile by forested mile, till I am breathing pine and peat and wood smoke. My hiking buddy Lynn called it “the Pittsburg effect.” Once I pull away from it and head home, and that is a wrenching moment, it haunts when I blink, turn my head, bring a fork to my mouth, mount a lectern to greet an audience. I know the siren call personally. And so did Lynn.

And yet, you cannot know what is to come.

I often open my iPhoto library and scroll through Pittsburg photos taken year after year, season after season. How many photos do I have of Murphy Dam? Of the moose feeding in the wallows? Of Lynn? Of Cliff? Two of my favorite hiking companions, Lynn Harnett and Cliff Post, died within a week of each other just a couple of years ago. They both look so happy in Pittsburg, with the panorama of Maine, Canada, Vermont at their backs and the solid granite summit stone at their feet. I miss them most right there and in the memory of there.

Cliff Post, left, feeling content,
at the end of the scramble
to Table Rock. Lynn Harnett, right
thrilled to have found a new trail
in nearby Vermont. 

I have packing-for-Pittsburg rituals that keep up my end of the bargain so that Pittsburg won’t disappoint. I wedge a sharp chopping knife into the middle of a roll of paper towels because my knife is a good one. I bring two-ply toilet paper because we do appreciate our creature comforts more than the lodge owners do. I have a gin-and-tonic on the deck after a long day of hiking and exploring so that, despite the chill this time of year, I suck in enough of her essence to carry me through the winter and bring me back to her next year.

As the sun sets, there's time to commune.

In the top tier of New Hampshire, where Pittsburg spreads its ever-changing woodlands and waterways like a Secret Garden, there is always something new to see and do in nature. Or, put another way, there’s always another way to bully fate.

Pittsburg doesn’t get old. It is the lover with always the new trick up her sleeve. Or the soft shale on the precipice’s tempting edge.   

All this pre-travel fantasy may psyche me for my next rendezvous with Pittsburg, but it will never prepare me. Imagination gets me only so far. I have to be there to truly know.