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Excerpts from Part One: Still and Still Moving

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On Writing Fragments


Slow Road Home is a book of glimpses, not a sweeping and continuous panorama of a single life, time or place. I call it a memoir of place, because its subject is as much the what and where that is seen as the one who sees it. It is a memoir, only partially, and in the sense of the term I learned from Joyce Dyer at Hindman last summer.


She described the life of the memoirist as a house that others are allowed, more or less, to see into--not completely, and with different views of the interior depending on the perspectives opened by the author; on the windows left intentionally open, on the clarity or opacity of view that the author choses to allow us. The owner may even rearrange the furniture often within those constant rooms of his life, so that the glimpses show the viewer some new side of the one who lives within those walls.


I open the curtains, I trust, on enough windows so the reader can see inside, while most of the book comes from what I see looking out. The book's vignettes are snapshots taken from that larger panorama. They are as different from each other as each day may be different from the next--some peaks, more troughs or slack sails. Ample humor one day, then melancholy the next.


I considered waiting to publish until I had a more homogenous whole--a book entirely of poetic prose; a whole book of natural history essays; a book in which the people in my life are the heroes or villains. But no, life is not homogeneous, so in the end, I decided the book shouldn't be.


It is a book of fragments, no two of them the same size, texture or shape. And yet, I trust, taken together, they form a whole. Collectively, they open the window into one room of my house and bid you to both look inside and to share the view of Goose Creek through the open window.


Here are a few glimpses from the first part of the book. I hope you enjoy the view.


NOTE: Many recently added excerpts found here.)


Stranger in a Strange Land


I don't have a job to go to and I don't have a plan for what comes next. And yet, somehow, I am not as anxious about this as I would have thought I'd be.


But I do feel guilty--as if I had skipped school. I pull back behind the curtains when the few cars go by the house, lest their drivers, our neighbors, see that I'm not at work on a weekday. I tell myself to relax and enjoy being here while I can. This is not house arrest. It is not punishment. It is an odd kind of time apart from work that might become more like an unplanned vacation between jobs-a strange vacation, I'll grant you-just me here all day, every day. The place seems unfamiliar, like a bed-and-breakfast, somewhere I've spent many nights but not so many days. Maybe the next few weeks will be a sort of spiritual retreat, one novitiate and one big black dog in eighty acres of quiet sanctuary.


My work for now is living fully in this alien world, moving in a smaller orbit. This is a world not made or managed by man--a natural world of cold creeks, inhabited by mayapples and scarlet tanagers. This is a planet where I am learning to smell the changes as the season unfolds, taste the first cup of coffee under stars before the sun comes up over the ridge, and enjoy the comfort and companionship of the pup--blessings that persist even while some things have come undone, for a while.


So here I am all at once, thrown into this brier patch, a beautiful place to be tossed, though I would not have chosen to get here this way. I still feel like a stranger in my own country, but less so than last month. Three months from now, will I be more content with my lot? Will I be by then so immersed in this place that I look like it, become invisible against it, evolving, camouflaged and part of the landscape myself? Will I become lost here, or found?


Summer Lightning


It is late, and I am last to bed, past the usual time. I step out onto the front porch into the cool, sweet air of Early June, and sit on the top step quietly as if not to disturb the wildlife, whose nocturnal day I am entering.


The pasture grasses just beyond the maples are in full flower and their pollen smells like midnight bread baking, while Goose Creek sends up wafts of spearmint, wet mud and turbulence.


My eyes soon learn to see in darkness and I am aware of soundless flashes of summer lightning, and stars overhead. My night vision comes and goes with each flash and pause and flash. Rising from the dark field on the fragrance of grasses are tens of thousands of lightning bugs. Put them in a jar, shake and see them illumined with the cold translucence of memory. They pulse and rise above the field in counterpoint to the tempo of the clouds, signaling ancient syllables that we could understand, if we were more often still, less hurried, and more at home in our own pastures.


Gravity pulls me down and I lie on my back, on cool stone horizontal, before a mock-infinity of space, wondering what is my place in this world of men and of words? Do I deserve to be so blessed among Earth's teeming humanity? What must I do in the warmth of this gentle epiphany that is revealed to me tonight and how should I then live? Maybe I will try to find the words in the morning, after the house is quiet again and the fireflies have gone to bed and the world smells of heat and ozone and toast.


What I Do I Do For a Living


"So, what do you do?" a stranger asks. For him, it's just polite conversation. But this question makes me break out in a cold sweat. What am I supposed to say to him? Am I a gentleman farmer now; a domestic engineer; a stay-at-home husband? Am I a former teacher, former physical therapist, former income earner? I'm not sure if I'm between jobs, or out to pasture, or starting over in a new career that I can't give a name to. I do know that when I wake up in the morning and groggily project my mind forward into the day ahead, it's not the biology classroom or lab where I see myself and it's definitely not a day in the clinic full of patients in pain.


Truth is, the first thing that comes to mind in the morning, before my eyes are open and my feet hit the floor, are the things I want to say and images I want to show to my weblog readers. I've come to think about Fragments from Floyd as my work, what I do with my day, what I look forward to-to simply write out the days as they come. I feel no burning urgency to go back to healthcare where the money is. For a while, with some frugal belt tightening, we can meet our bills on one salary. But it is her salary, not mine and hers, as it has been for more than thirty years. I'm non-productive now, a parasite, and no matter how I turn it in my mind, that shakes up my male ego more than a little.


Our good friend Lynn died suddenly in her sleep last month at forty-five. She left projects that she will never finish. She had visions of things she would someday do that now will be left undone forever. She died one ordinary day in the midst of a busy life. Maybe she expected the end. Maybe she knew her treasure wasn't in making more money. When she left us, I feel sure that she was doing with her life what she would have done, had she known. Months before, she left a lucrative business so she could create, so she could invest her energies in the things she loved. Her death has come just when my life was changing, just when I've been given this opportunity to dig for treasure in a different place.


I am digging, and sometimes finding, even when I'm only working in the garden or bringing in the wood. Maybe this is what I do for a living now. I put away scraps from the ordinary times, collect odd bits of experience and memory-strings of adjectives, strong verbs, the small revelations or perplexities I discover under rocks while sitting on the creek bank. I hold on to curiosities that make me smile-a nice phrase here, an alliterative couplet there, or some odd voice I hear in the wind or water. I once threw away such foolish things. Now I save them all. My journal is a junk drawer-a place to save the parts I might one day need for a paragraph. I dig into the jumbled springs and strings, wires and washers and pull out the piece I need to tie up a sentence. I don't throw away the scraps of language anymore. I am a collector of fragments from these days on Nameless Creek.


Winter Walk


The sun will be up soon, and we will be heading out for our morning walk, this week after Thanksgiving. We are now one season removed from summer and our lives have taken on a different character, a seriousness not familiar in June.


A June morning walk is a casual and spontaneous amble, and we are in no particular hurry to go or to come back. We follow our usual loop down the pasture road. We step across the creek on the dry backs of boulders in the shade of the lanky rhododendron.


We amble home north along the logging road, and use our hiking sticks to keep us from slipping in the wet grass. Now and then we stop to note a new arrival in the calendar of budding and blooming things. The air is still, heavy with the familiar smells of warm earth, fields and woods. A hundred birds sing about themselves from high in tulip poplars that are sprouting tiny leaves. At the end of our walk, the path leads downhill toward the meadow where we cross the creek once more and return home.


Image copyright Fred First When winter comes, our morning walks don't end, but they are no longer a casual tiptoe through the woods. Winter walks are a deep-sea dive into cold and dark, in a submersible of wool and down. Peeking out from stocking hats like diving helmets, we trudge heavily against the stern and biting currents of polar air that wash over us like waves. Without our swaddling spacesuits our frail pink flesh would turn blue and brittle as December leaves, and our expedition would never be heard from again.


A summer breath, outdoors or in, is little different. But with the first breathing in of winter air outdoors, you know that you have stepped out into a world that is remarkable for things missing. Winter outdoors is a play on a stage vaguely familiar, from which most of the props have been temporarily removed. Heat is only one of the absent characters. Diminished too are color, smell and the sounds and motion of living nature. Even molecules move with lethargy.


Come the play of winter, all the best lines have been spoken by autumn; and, except for the wind, there are no words.


Summer is soft, yielding and supple. Winter is hard, unyielding and brittle. You feel winter through your feet and hear it in your steps. Cold dry air has its own smell, and there is a sound that belongs to the cold of winter. It is the sound of breathing, ears muffled, holding the beat of your own heart in wool like an echo in an empty shell. No birds call; insects sleep frozen solid under bark and sod.


Winter smells of wool and of wrapped humanity inside. From beyond the thick shroud of winter clothes there is only the near-fragrance of frost. No motes of aroma escape on warm currents from spicebush, sassafras, white pine, from dank soft creek mud or pasture clover. There should be an olfactory adjective, like monochrome, to describe the lunar-stark aromasphere of winter.


Wind in winter


Last night the wind screamed overhead like a great circling bird, back and forth from ridge to ridge. Every now and then it would swoop down to clutch at our porch roof and ruffle the metal, making a strange rumbling studio-thunder sound effect. Then it would lift again and circle a thousand feet above us, coursing the high places round and round, sounding like a great locomotive caught in a switching yard right over Goose Creek.


Now summer winds throw angry tantrums like this just briefly, and only when performing the accompaniment to a summer thunder storm. A million green living leaves modulate the pitch and timbre of the wind, so that even in the summer gale there is a softness, a lifting and cleansing quality that is altogether missing from wind in winter. Summer wind appears at the height of the storm, strutting and fretting about briefly; and then it exits stage left and its pitch falls off, Doppler like, and only a cooling breeze is left behind. I have no complaints to register against summer winds.


But winter wind arrives here irritable and there is no cheering it up. Dense and gray, heavier than air, it sinks into our valley like a glacier of broken glass, pushing down against hard and frozen earth, and it will not relent. When the wind howls at midnight, I dream of the Old Man Winter of children's books, his cheeks bloated full, lips pursed and brow furrowed, exhaling a malevolent blast below at frail pink children in wet mittens.


If you listen, you may think you hear a tone to the roar of January wind, a discrete pitch of a note that you could find on a piano keyboard. But this isn't so. In the same way all rainbow colors blend to make white light, January wind is the sound of all tones that nature can create, at once together as the Old Man overhead blows through a mouthpiece formed of ridge and ravine, across reeds of oak and poplar trunks.


Winter wind is the white noise of January that won't go away.



ICE: Figments and Formations


You hear of remote country places where so little goes on that the locals sit around and watch the grass grow. I'm here to tell you that I have experienced the winter counterpart of that mindless rapture, and of this fact I am not ashamed. For the past two months, I have watched the ice grow and morph in our creek, and it has been a most beautiful, amazing and confusing hobby. I do not know what I am seeing, cannot explain it, and lament the fact that I have missed fleeting opportunities to capture rare photographic images to remind me of all the wonders I have and have not seen.


Image copyright Fred First Witnessed: crystal stalactites of ice that look every bit as if they were formed from the roof of a limestone cave. And sharp transparent shards like snowflakes that form a visible fringe along the edge of the creek. I have seen the results of something like snow that forms overnight, six inches deep, right along the water's surface in a zone of supersaturated frozen air. This magic leaves a white-spongy pad of airy creek-snow on the rocks, even on mornings when it has not snowed on land the night before.


Fluted. Filigreed. Lacey. Cancellous. Clear as crystal glass, green as a glacier. Granular and rough over here at the top of this rocky ledge; and just there in the shadow of the bluff, a smooth, flat sheet that protects itself by reflecting the pale pastel light of a weak winter sun. Ice buttons and balls, goblets and goblins that decorate the drab grasses at creek's edge with bright colorless ornaments. Air bubbles under glass move rodent-like downstream, in a warren of liquid and crystal.


Summer Symphony


This has been a wonderful day of sun, a reprieve from weeks of spring drizzle, welcomed on the eve of the summer solstice. A cold front passed through and carried away the blue haze so that edges are vibrant-razor-sharp. The greenness soothes the eye today under an achingly blue sky. I had almost forgotten.


While the colors were remarkable, it was the sound of this day that made me take notice. Standing at the edge of the creek in the warm sun in the amphitheater of our valley, sound reverberated in layers, bottom to top-the creek rumbling below, a thousand incessant insects stridulating in the middle, while the northwest wind above played the ridges in the treble clef.


The creeks are risen and clear; much of the water enters the flow from underground. Recent rains have forced cold clear water from deep below the surface into the swollen stream-enough water to call it a torrent, and it is raucous, in a hurry. If you could stand at the shore of the ocean and record the sound of breakers, then take out pauses between waves-this is the sound that roars along the valley floor today. Breakers without a break, the bass undertones in this valley full of sound.


The seventeen-year cicadas relentlessly wax and wane their nasal love songs, although now and then the singing males all stop together at once, just for a moment. They preen circumspectly before getting back to their seductive songs. I'm certain they expect at any moment a lured lady locust will climb up to their singing perch and make arthropodic whoopie. It must be a most orgasmic event-to have waited seventeen years for this very moment. I wonder: if you listened closely, could you hear the instant of those little whoops when the next generation of earth-sleeping insects is conceived, followed by a satisfied sigh, just days before death?


On top of the ridges the wind becomes visible as a million leaves race just ahead of its force, like the standing wave that crowds perform in perfectly timed sequence at football games. Before me, a stadium filled with soft leaves. They rise in unison along the leading edge of the wind; they sit back down as it passes, only to stand and cheer again and again.


The cool air today is light, full of energy and ozone. It has come here all the way from the tundra, never breathed before, save by a few caribou, and fewer wolves. The sound of wind in summer treetops brings a multitude of boreal voices, a soft rushing whisper that lacks the shrill whine inflicted in December by this wind's winter relatives traveling over Nameless Creek though bare branches.


Lucid Daydreams


Image copyright Fred FirstI become very still sitting on the front porch on a calm and tepid summer day. I am asking my mind to wander free from limits, from reason and the burden of gravity. It is time to cast off.


Eyes lose focus, the body rises weightless, and I possess power over time. Nature is at my whim and I call on the century-old maple tree to repeat before my eyes in five minutes and in reverse history a hundred years of growth. I bid it stop at the moment it entered the ground as a winged seed. Then I command it to grow from seed to shade tree again. This I repeat over and over until I become saturated with the details of how a tree twists and lurches and spreads as it grows old, and the converse as it grows young again. And later I may cast this spell on different kinds of trees up the valley noting differences in the choreography.


Farther down the valley where I wonder without leaving my chair, fireflies emit pulses of light and also give out tiny corresponding throbs of percussive sound, a barely perceptible drum beat. Their language reverberates between indigo hillsides at midnight. Is there a rhythm here-a pattern of light and sound, a message that my senses cannot quite make out?


I am still, still moving; still but wandering this new-alien terrain. The soil in our pasture and woods becomes transparent, but it gives shelter and substrate for a legion of insects and burrowing creatures visible, suspended underfoot. Each kind of being has its own unique bioluminescence and I walk spellbound on the surface of invisible ground, above endless thousands of subterranean animals I have never known that swim or float, as if under depth of water.


I walk Nameless Creek at the very edge of this world. I bend and lift one rock, then another-of rounded gray granite or pink quartz; of angular shale or sheets of slate-and each stone I can see in its context of time, can go back to its life at its origin to the Very Beginning. I can follow the journey back to its source ten thousand miles and eons from here, and watch as sharp Paleozoic mountains melt into round-shoulder Blue Ridges of home.

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