To the Pond: The Secret Canoe

the secret canoe & blue kayak

Today I water the ducks and pick up apples before I depart. It’s late afternoon, the kids are at soccer with Josh. It’s hot for the second to last day of summer. The sky, a stunning blue, feels like a portal of joy. The leaves look dry, some curling, more changed already since yesterday. I carry my phone and take photos of exploded milkweed, tiny green apples hanging from leafless trees, the expanse of the field. I find a stick as I walk and tap it lightly on the ground. Up the little hill, passing the overgrown yard of the old cabin where George’s daughter once lived, I walk at a quick pace, my mind wandering.

I go to the woods alone, writes Mary Oliver, without a single friend. And I understand this need. To be alone in this slant of light between lush August and barren November is a kind of magic. The veil between worlds seems to lift this time of year — autumn, day of the Harvest Moon. Later, this moon will rise through the trees and I will go out into the wet grass to spy it. All night I will wake intermittently to see the streaky light out my window. I will roll from side to side and reposition the pillow I rest a leg on and feel the light of the world swaddling me.

in the field

Today I reach the pond with a sense of beginning. I take out the blue kayak I bought Josh for our tenth anniversary, but mostly use myself, and paddle around the pond. A slight breeze skims the surface, a bird hovers over the shallow waters near the mouth of the small stream that leaves the pond to eventually join Lake Champlain. I cut across the middle and marvel at the depths, the dark silence beneath me, and then I follow the shoreline to where the secret canoe is hidden.

I found the secret canoe a week ago. It’s well hidden if you’re not looking for it, but once you’ve noticed it, it’s not. Someone has also pounded two nails into a tree and hung the canoe paddles. Along the east edge of the pond, the property only extends inland enough to create a border along the water. But other properties stretch out behind this, into a wooded terrain that has felt vast to me in my wanderings.

I go out today along the well groomed trail, wide enough for a car to pass, much like the pond road. With my phone I track my location against an arial photograph of the property lines. It’s hard to follow exactly. The trees grow tall and thick creating a canopy that blocks out the light and keeps the underbrush sparse. I love the cedar and pine, the old oaks whose branches long ago twisted to reach the sun. I feel the deep comfort of breathing forest air, smelling the scent of this place, touching the bark of its trees.

Last fall, I got lost running on trails like these; stuck in a field, I couldn’t find my way out as the light fell and the owls began to bark. I was hardly clothed. It was a similar warm fall day, but the coming night brought a chill. I’d been running all summer. My body strong and muscled. Finally, I figured out how to backtrack. Only the smallest part of me grew fearful that I would not find my way out, that I could somehow be lost in these acres of wood between two parallel roads not quite miles apart. I wondered what it felt like to be truly lost. liberating. Even if I fell and couldn’t move, I’d likely survive the autumn evening. Josh would somehow find me. Right?

I made it out last year, just as Josh and the boys were headed in on the neighbor’s ATV. I laughed at the idea that they could have found me, so intertwined and unnavigable were those woods to me. So many paths and roads and fields that didn’t lead out. But that is what I want from the woods. The delicious aloneness of these trails where the changing light of the seasons and the coming and going of foliage offers an ever-changing perspective. It is here I find a sense of my own smallness; a smallness that reveals my connectedness to all things. It is here the aura of the living world surrounds me in its richness.

Back in the blue kayak I cross the pond to our little dock. I walk back home along the familiar path, filled with wonder and hope and gratitude.

growing towards the light

To the Pond:[1]

the beginning of the field

At seven months pregnant I feel the need to turn inward towards privacy and protection, towards the quiet of aloneness. I long to burrow into my own warm nest of safety and let the world slide away.

It’s late September and the leaves are just beginning to turn. I had this idea that I would take thirty walks in thirty days to our pond. Walking grounds the soul. The spectacle of the pond enlightens me. I feel its movement, the wild creatures comings and goings, and its constant presence. Walking the same path daily, which is something we did at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, reveals the way the world changes ever so slowly around us and with this grows an intimacy and love for the place we call home.

The pond is about .8 miles from our house. We walk out across the lawn and down the mowed path of the field. The field grass and goldenrod grow over my head along the first part of the path. To the east, the cellar hole from the old farm house, long gone now, is overgrown and home to summer snakes. Cedars grow there and a row of spring flowers stubbornly push through each year where there might have once been a walkway. A white rose vines the fence as well. I’ve stood near the cellar hole in the spring to get a sense of the lives that once lived there. I know where the old barn rose and look up the hill behind our house to the grave yard of husked souls from the 1800s.

This area is also covered with rocks that make it difficult to mow; burdock and prickly vines. In the spring, when the snow has matted down the brush and we can walk there, my husband and I survey the area and articulate big landscaping plans. But usually after spending July away, we no longer attempt to keep it mowed.

The field is long, perhaps two acres – I am not good at measuring land. We’ve let the field grow up all summer but keep a path mowed along its perimeter. We now need to find a tractor to mow in order to keep it a field, but as it is home to so many creatures we worry about when we should take on this task.

At the end of the field we reach the dirt road. Across it, an old apple orchard still produces hard, sour fruits. We turn left or west and head down the road. This evening, a Sunday, the four of us are quiet and tired out from Will’s birthday party and other weekend activities. The cat follows with us. We meander in a long line that occasionally pairs off. Will still likes to hold my hand in the woods, though not around his first grade friends. The boys begin their count of red efts, which they do whenever the conditions are right for the efts to slyly appear. Josh takes the lead; he has always liked to walk the fastest. His hiking pace when I met him required me to jog.

The road is rough and difficult to drive, though drive-able. The forest looms close, made up of maple, beach, oak, shag bark hickory, some birch and poplar, white pine, and cedar. In foliage, the forest looks dark and mysterious – a difficult pass. But once the leaves fall it opens up and there are roads and paths throughout the 180 acres of mostly forested land.

The boys count in total 19 red efts. We pass the path that leads to the other side of the pond where we skate in the winter and the path that goes up the mountain hill deep into a woods I have yet to fully explore. We catch a glimpse of the pond through the cedars. Two Canada geese float in still water. But we don’t stop here, we venture further and then up a little hill and down to the spot surrounded with pine where we come to meet the pond.

There’s a tiny platform – a first section of a dock – that my father built for us when he visited in June. I love this platform because it reminds me of home and my parents’ dock, composed of I’d guess around six of these sections. I can still smell the fresh wood, a scent so close to my childhood and my father who was and is always building something, whether it be his home or furniture or a new sauna when the old one burned.

We say little on these walks. Shrouded in the woods we each occupy our own bodies, our own silent space. The boys will bicker now and then, Will whines, someone will find a stick and whack at the brush, and then there is the counting of the efts. But otherwise we are quiet. I am tired at this stage of the pregnancy.

At the dock, Mo takes out the kayak alone. He fits comfortably into its little bowl seat and paddles off, heading toward the two geese that quickly, but loudly fly away. On the dock I sit cross-legged, while Will hits the metal poles with a stick, making a clinking sound. The sky is blue, the day has been a perfect warm, sunny fall day. Only a few leaves have turned, a few yellow beach leaves scatter the ground.

My husband’s step-grandfather George, died a few days ago in Georgia where he’d lived for two years in a nursing home near his daughter. Before that he had lived with a caretaker friend in Vermont for a few years. But, he had lived on this land for over forty years with his wife, my husband’s Nanny June, who died in 2006. When he arrived in the late-seventies he had already retired from the state police and received a pension. He was in his late-forties. He and June purchased several hundred acres of land and built the log cabin we now live in. He spent the second half of his life farming and engaged in the rural community around him, selling off bits of the land over the years.

swings on the old apple tree

Part of what I think about when I’m walking to the pond or in these woods, has to do with how long we will stay and whether and how we will attempt to purchase at least the house and some of the land. A part of me grieves the loss of this land, which is not mine, even before it’s gone. Human nature projects grief in this way. But it reminds me too of the tender feelings I have about my children growing older, the fear of them leaving. The fear of endings.

I have always felt connected to landscapes of home, have always loved old houses and the histories of the people who lived in them. I want to imagine them walking and moving across floors, through fields, up hills, down roads. It’s a quaint and antiquated desire, I know, but it’s also the part of me that feels wholly immersed in place. A devoted caretaker of the earth, a wanderer of forests, a lover of all water.

On our way back, Mo fusses about the cat getting lost. At one point he starts to cry when we leave him behind. I walk back and wait while he gathers her from the woods. His tender hearted worry over his animals feels mostly like a burden, but I see the beauty in him, his care and love, his devotion to creatures. We walk together discussing the new chicken coop he wants to build and the ducks he plans to get next spring until we reach the yard and he races off to greet our neighbor, tend his flock, and race marbles down the old screen door.

Mo’s chickens

How We Live Our Lives

There are two Canada geese nesting on the pond, but only one mate. My son and I go out in the kayak in the middle of May. The frogs are mating. Guttural and loud, the sound echoes from the shore of the pond. We watch them in the shallow water laying on each other. There must be hundreds of them who have traveled to the water to mate. The male holds the female in a hug called amplexus and she releases eggs that the male fertilizes. Some frogs laze alone at the water’s surface as though relaxing before looking for another mate. The males appear smaller than the females.

Mo in the canoe

            We paddle along the shore. Mo sits in the little indent behind my seat, a perfect perch for an eight-year-old. He notes the animals he sees: fish, turtle, Canada goose, duck, sandpiper, blue heron. Five baby turtles sunning on a log in the pond, slip under the water as we approach. They dive into the murk to hide. We are hot enough to wear t-shirts and worry about burning.

            As we approach the first nest, the two mallards—a male and female pair—swim off. They’re often visiting the goose but depart abruptly when they see we’re coming. She lays out flat with her long black neck along the ground, still and lifeless, waiting for us to move on. We paddle past to the deer head; its hide looks like clean white rubber from its time under the water. It’s face, barely recognizable—blackish mouth, eaten back and teeth protruding. My husband saw it there a few weeks ago on his maiden voyage in the new kayak. It appeared as a kind of horror-movie omen at first. But now, Mo and I like to visit it. We also visit the racoon carcass near the old cabin. We are waiting for it to decompose so that we can take the skull home, like treasure.

            In the time before, he went to school every day and I worked. At night, we ate dinner together, I read him and his brother stories, they went to sleep. On the weekends, I mostly graded papers or wrote or worked on other employment, but, we often walked to the pond or went to a movie, for sushi, to visit friends. Time now has changed. Days pass like afternoons. Yesterday, my husband sat on the porch reading all day. He wasn’t in a good mood. I went for a run and he and the boys came to pick me up at our friends’ goat farm. We chatted outside with our friends while the boys went with their two girls down to the pond. I fed the newest baby goat in their herd of nearly 300 with a bottle and discussed the library plant sale with Holly—no browsing this year, call ahead to order and then pick-up.

Will came back alone from the pond and Holly gave him a cup of fresh, warm goat milk, which he gulped down. I’m very thirsty, he hinted for more. I cherish these brief visits with friends even as I fear what may come as we begin to socialize again.

Back home, we eat dinner, we bring in the chicks, we tuck in the boys, we get into bed. The day passes, and little is accomplished in the way we had once imagined tasks should be completed, days filled with plans and lists. But we no longer rush. We sleep for as long as we can, we rise at seven or eight. We sip coffee in bed for an hour while scrolling on our devices or out in the garden listening to the birds.

The children play imaginary games with animals. Sometimes dragons. The games emulate what they know about the animals—territory, family units, conflict and friendship. Sometimes there is screaming and ranting and whining and so on. The regular sort of expected behavior during a time of difficulty or abnormality. But mostly we don’t mind because time stretches out and releases itself from limits.

Time moves back towards the cyclical kind of time that John Berger writes belongs to another era, one long ago. He writes of two kinds of experiences of time passing. “Our experience of its passing involves not a single but two dynamic processes which are opposed to each other: as accumulation and dissipation.” He says that time seems to move at two different rates. The experiences of deeper meaning, he insists, accumulate and therefore stop the dissipation of time. I interpret this as meaning we remember them more. The springtime hours are much more accumulative because plants grow rapidly, offering a physical sense of passing time, a way of holding it in our mind’s eye.

It is really only our bodies and the things we make that hold up time. Everything else lives in cycles that include and absorb death. It is the physical changing of our bodies alone that creates this concept as far as I can tell. Perhaps too, the desire to thwart death with posterity.

*

All week, I have felt quiet. I’ve reached a shore of silence. Please, sometimes I think, don’t speak to me. Then there are times I look over at my husband in bed, wrapped in his elephant blanket, and wonder who he is. Speak to me, I say, poking him. He grunts and rolls away.

On and on the days go, flowing out towards summer, a time when I usually pack up and head to Minnesota with the kids. Where I sit on the deck and drink coffee with my mom or lounge beside the lake with my siblings and their kids or spouses. Everything about this slower, sunny season in Minnesota or Vermont, feels like a luxury, and affirms my life choices, which are normally a source of anxiety for me.

I wonder what this different life would be like. One in which we are farmers or makers or stay-at-home teachers of children; one in which we value our relationships with our family and the landscapes that surround us so deeply that we refuse to work excessively in offices spaces or the like, and it’s somehow possible to live this other way. I wonder if Berger’s concept of time applies here. But, though I have read and re-read his passages on time in his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, I can’t quite distill them. I only sense an affinity to his words, a knowing that I have held like water through my hands. A flickering that once passed can’t be made into words. There is a different way of knowing death, a way to make it a part of life. To draw up close to it and hold it gently near to you and it is in this way of knowing we return to another way of life lived close to the land, close to each other, in quietude. Our constant longing for more, fed by living. All our loss absorbed in the soil of the body, renewed.