Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Nature Nosh

It's starting to look like winter in these woods.

It’s been a hard week.

Most days I’ve been at my computer at 6 am banging out work on deadline. Personal issues too tricky and morally ambiguous to share with friends send me on a 14-day course of Prilosec. The usual Christmas-and-I-am-an-atheist-and-on-a-tight-budget dilemma gets papered over with lots of gift-wrap and tied up in red and green ribbons. Oh well. Five worrying water leaks made worse by four Nor’easters that rammed my northeast-Atlantic-facing Rockport home this fall shake me sleepless every time it rains. And it rains all the time.

I think I’ll stop right here.

Because I’m writing about what happens when I step into the winter woods — which surround me in Rockport. This is when my consciousness shifts from the pain that’s tearing at my stomach to the impossibly verdant green of the moss on the Kieran Trail. To the deeply resonant, hallowed hoot of the Great Horned Owl. To the slippery log bridge that traverses yet another swollen, rocky stream.

Pay attention. Don’t fall in.

Because I’m writing today about what happens to us on a recent woods walk on one of the worst of the hard days. My friends Ruth and Matt let me tag along on their daily 3-to-4.5-mile woods hikes if our schedules mesh. These lunchtime excursions into Dogtown and the South Woods are ostensibly for the standard poodle, Maggie, and the golden doodle, Ellie, who have yet to experience exhaustion. They go and go. We keep up; maybe grow a bit stronger day by day.

Maggie and Ellie never think the water is too cold.

As we often do, we set off for South Woods. Matt knows every trail in these networks of trails. He can judge hiking times regardless of the creative trail braiding he does as we weave this way, then that. And on this day he veers off course and leads us somewhere new.

As beautiful as this new pocket of woods is, we are dismayed for underfoot is a continuous trail of broken glass. We crunch our way to an elevated granite clearing that exposes a 360-degree-view of feathery young, green pines; seemingly impenetrable woods to the west; and strewn about — half-burnt logs, scores of broken bottles, discarded cans and food wrappers. Someday some archaeologist will class this site “Party Mound” and shake her head in incomprehension.

We vow then and there to come back with bags, brooms and dustpans and clean it all up. This will be our Christmas gift to the woods. The perfect ‘give-back’ effort we’ve been seeking, right here.

Someone has strung and wound popcorn around this maple.

We turn, eventually, and crunch back the way we came for a quarter mile or so when, noticing a single strand of popcorn wound round a maple trunk, Matt steps off the path and though we wonder about this deviation from the course, we do the same. He has some adventure in mind, perhaps?

Wait a minute.

“Look!” Matt is ecstatic.

We cannot not believe our eyes.

We reorient our sights. Refocus. Narrow down and look sharply all about us.

Everywhere, in all directions, we see beautiful, edible decorations. The woods transformed. South Woods as Christmas tree. Just brilliant!

There are millet seeds embedded in slices of bread that have been soaked in honey and peanut butter. Ice cream cones filled, not with chocolate chip ice cream, but with lard and seeds and nuts and dried fruit. Plump cranberry chains. Luminous slices of orange aglow in the afternoon light. Bits of dried apricot dangling from low-hanging branches. Pinecones stuffed with fruits and fats and seeds. Carrots. Celery. Apples. What a spread! A nature nosh, I say, only half joking, for I nearly hit my head on half a bagel strung from a tree on a piece of ribbon.

 Luscious berries!

Apricots and berries looped around a branch. 
So full of light they are hard to photograph.

Nuts, berries and lard in an ice cream cone. Pemmican for birds.

A stuffed pine cone. Inspired, I went home and made stuffed artichokes.

Bacon strung on a wire sculpture.

Melon, too!

A study in textures.

Here's to a good nosh!

Gifts for creatures of all sorts.

Who did this?

We look for the sparrows. Chickadees. Grackles and stray waxwing — be here, please. Cardinals and jays — flash your blues and reds this way. Fill up. Our feast is for the eyes and the soul. Yours is more essential. Winter will set in for real. There will be snow and cold and wind and ice that make foraging all but impossible.

Scouts? Bird watchers? Neighbor? Who amongst us did this?

A wonder of nature, strung from a tree.

Thank you. This perfect slice orange, a miracle all by itself, lights an afternoon woods. It lights my heart, too. Soon it will please, in far more important ways, another unsuspecting critter.

Happy New Year to my friends and to the friends of nature who tend to the trails and all that roam there.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My second Thanksgiving: Long lost friend, found

Heading north

I hadn’t seen my friend Myv for fifteen or twenty years. Something came between us, I don’t know what, and we lost touch with each other. Then I heard she moved away. Years and years went by. I found her on Facebook and sent a friend request that languished. More years passed.

I thought often of Myv for I was quite fond of her. We had a lot in common and we had, at a certain time in our lives, spent good times together. She read many of the same books I did, loved many of the same authors I loved, and she looked forward with relish to the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Sometimes we would have Sunday supper together and talk about the books reviewed there.

Myv told me she maintained a running list of the books she wanted to own and read. When they came out in paperback, she would purchase them and check them off the list. Her patience and her enduring passion — waiting a whole year for a book she really wanted to read — impressed me. There are few people who can converse as thoroughly and as enthusiastically about books as Myv, and this might be a source of disappointment to her. It makes sense that she reads and rereads Christopher Hitchens. He is a spiritual soul mate. She even named a pet Sports Fan in honor of Richard Ford’s book “Sportswriter.”

I saw Richard Ford at BookExpo America last spring, 
and I sent Myv this picture of him. 
He looks good and his new book, 
"Let Me Be Frank with You," came out November 4.

Myv is a wonderful cook. She is an artist who, to my amazement, can paint and watch TV at the same time. And she can fit herself into any social situation and hold her own. I used to love looking at her gorgeous journals full of notes she made in thick, black ink. She chooses wide-nibbed pens and writes in bold, block letters. I read her as daring and unabashed. I see her as incapable of holding back, as compelled to make a strong impression. Myv lives her aesthetic. She is her aesthetic.

Myv is the first friend I made when my daughter and I moved, alone and with very limited resources, to Cape Ann from New Hampshire. We met in a casual, loosely structured group of men and women gathered to discuss personal issues. I had just left a full, rich professional life, a long-term relationship and scores of good friends. I was starting over from scratch. And there was Myv, someone who caught my interest immediately.

We had a lot of fun till it all stopped.

Thanksgiving came twice this year for me. On November 27 I had a fabulous time eating, talking, joking, playing charades with good friends and family. We laughed a lot. It was as close to the ideal Thanksgiving as I have ever had though there was little tradition to it beyond all the special dishes that cleaved to the dictates of habit and preference.

And then, after driving from NYC to Rockport, after cooking all day, after washing and drying load upon load of sopping wet towels when my house sprang leaks during Wednesday’s Nor’easter, we got in the car again and drove another 170 miles. We drove north and west. We drove up into a network of snow-covered roads off the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. So utterly beautiful, this place where every pine needle was encased in snow — a high-definition moment of lasting wonder struck through with a sense of unease, of navigating on ice, of going blind into the unknown. I gasped, awestruck and unnerved. Defenseless. We drove on and the thermometer plummeted. We drove on till the road became impassable and we turned around.

Try again. Don’t give up.

This is Myv's front yard. The shed decomposing to the left 
of the picnic table is the first cabin built on this site. 
To the right is the kitchen for that cabin.

We tried another road, drove on till we found Myv, living in a semi-winterized cabin, heating with wood, smiling, welcoming us as if those twenty years had never come between us. Sometimes twenty years feels like the blink of an eye. Sometimes twenty years is nothing more than the blink of an eye.
And that’s how it often is with friends. We find each other early in life and we bond. Then we move away, pull away, go away, drift off. However it happens, we find ourselves apart. We get busy with work and kids and lovers and we lose track, not because we don’t love each other, but because we can go decades with little in common. Something triggers a reunion, be it renewed proximity or a health scare or a fierce longing for what once was. In my case, it was all of the above.

We arrive with smiles, some goodies, and anxious concern. If a dog can be a harbinger of good will, then Myv’s huge puppy, bounding and bouncing, spoke for all of us. We are so happy for this moment.

Here is Myv's cabin and, of course, 
her big and exuberant puppy, Desmond. 
Myv took this photo before the snowstorm.

We stand at Myv’s threshold and take a long breath. It’s time. We stomp our boots till the snow and ice fall away, we hand off the bag of treats and the bag of books, we hug each other hard, and then we step inside and pick up where we left off, closing the door on the dark night and the crunch and squeak of the snow and the slice of moon and the vast wilderness that holds Myv here, happy and game, as always, and keenly interested in what comes next.