Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tree Trimming 2011 (It sounds like a college course.)

In the 1950’s a former owner of our property planted many acres to Scotch pine and spruces for Christmas trees. When we came to Irish Hill Road in 1980, the blocks of Scotch pines had become impenetrable jungles, perfect hideouts for deer. Gradually, porcupines and disease were killing them off. The spruces fared better, growing into handsome stands where crows and blue jays love to nest. All over the property seedlings from those plantings have sprung up.

Fred and I both come from traditions of wild Christmas trees. My family cut willowy hemlocks at our camp in New Hampshire. The Beckhorns cut bushy little white pines from Grampa Gach’s farm in Alfred. In our youth we both worked at Stutzman’s Christmas tree farm in Hornell and we well know how a nicely pruned Christmas tree should look, but we’ve always been happy with our “Dr. Seuss “ trees, as Fred sometimes calls the more unruly ones. Sometimes we have cut a big tree and lopped off the top. Most years we locate a suitable one growing on our property right alongside Irish Hill Road.

This year we found our tree right across from Fred’s shop. We’d passed it many times with a thought towards the holidays, but the little spruce’s double trunk always nixed it. How could we ever get it into the stand? The young evergreens that spring up in the ditch along the south side of the road shade it and ice remains here long after it has melted other places. They need to come out anyway. Well, let’s just take a look. . . Lo and behold, the double trunk had split from a single stem eight inches from the ground—just enough to fit into the stand. It was perfect. Once set up in the front room, there was no room to actually put a gift under the tree, but no matter.

With the kids grown, decorating is my business. Football is Fred’s. But this year I made a bargain—you put on the lights and I’ll handle the ornaments. It worked. He dutifully tackled the job—but of course I found myself helping to untangle strings, tightening bulbs, and replacing duds. It was fun doing it together. Now I was in the mood. Fred retired to the couch and the game and I, blind and mostly deaf to the NFL or whatever FL was running roaringly around on the screen—set to work.

My husband is an apple tree pruner, a fire wood cutter, a wood butcher, and furniture builder, but he is not a tree decorator. Well, what self respecting woman would trust a man to trim a tree anyway? I ask myself. There’s an art to it. You can’t hang six ornaments on one branch, fragile ones within cat reach, or the best ones at the back—as my man has been known to do—and he may be a wood artist, but you don’t want to set him loose with a box of tinsel.

Now if you’re going to decorate something, a tree is a damn good choice. There are all those branches! Every year I tell myself, you don’t have to put all the ornaments on, but every year, one by one, each with a memory, finds its place. There is the little black ceramic sheep with wool made by pressing clay through a sieve that Fern made at Gammy Lou’s house a quarter of a century ago. It sounds better than it looks. Usually I have hung it low, but this year my newly married older daughter is spending her first Christmas with her husband in Colorado. It is suddenly precious. I place it high in the front. There are all the hand made ornaments: chickadees, Santas, reindeer, rocking horses, a miniature basket full of tiny balls of wool with pins for knitting needles. My sister Cathy has given them to me over the years. She makes them for her church bazaar and always sends me the current year’s model. I could decorate the whole tree with them!

But I can’t leave out the scrollwork star that my high school friend Shiori made, or the stained glass star that Ken made, or the real starfish star. I hang all three stars in the top with the cheap K-Mart angel that Fern and I bought when she was three and still called it the “Ball Store.” I have to set the angel high enough above the top white light so that it doesn’t look as if her feet are burning up. There’s the crudely carved wooden squirrel that I bought from a boy with muscular dystrophy the summer I worked for the Frontier Nursing Association in Kentucky. His mother hated to part with it, but they needed money and I loved it so much that she relented. I feel badly about buying him from her now, so every year I make sure to honor this little squirrel. I hope he carved another. There’s the tiny paper and glitter crèche from Loudonville—at least as old as I am. There’s the porcelain Beatrix Potter mouse, Hunca Munca with her babies, that Aunt Shirley sent me when I was first married. There’s the little wooden sled that I painted with the words "hope" and "joy"  when, in 1982, I was miraculously pregnant with our first child. There’s the sea-blue, blown-glass orb that Spring bought as a little girl on a visit to Frankenmuth, Michigan which will go to her tree when she has a home of her own. Each ornament has a story. I revel in Christmas past as I create Christmas present.

A week later, it is Christmas Eve and Spring and her dad have both gone to bed. But I am still unwinding from the night’s festivities. I help Santa stuff Spring’s stocking, tuck a couple of things into Fred’s and mine, and find gift bags for the dog toys. Poor old Spike’s Christmas present is a bag of tasty pill pockets. The Jack Russells will be sure to gratify us by finding their gifts, snuffling their noses into the bags, and digging out their new toys.

Then I pour myself a little Grand Marnier in one of the surviving delicate pink liquor glasses from my parents’ house, recalling the Christmas Eve I was allowed to sip my first crème de menthe—perhaps from this very same glass. I turn out all the other lights and sit a moment to sip, and savor the magic of the tree. Everything is done now: the baking, the cards, the making, the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating. Christmas can come in now.

But wait! The white light at the top of the tree under the angel is out! I shuffle to the cellar, find a new bulb, and unmindful of the glass of champagne I had a t Jeri and Ken’s house earlier and the Grand Marnier just now, climb the kitchen stool and screw in a new one.

It doesn’t work.

Doggedly, I return to the cellar for another. Yes! We have white light at the top of the tree, and an angel and stars!

There is one more sip in my glass. Not a creature is stirring. The little wild, double- stemmed spruce glimmers and glitters. Mum used to wrap all her gifts in shiny paper to enhance the shimmer. This year’s tree is truly beautiful—as always, the best one yet. But are there too many red lights? Should I put in a green one there, mid-way to the left? That’s it Susan! Sternly I send myself to bed and into Christmas future.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Apple Daze

Bubble Bubble, Toil and Trouble

Aching joints and endless scrubble

Bubble bubble, toil and pleasure

Fill the hold with apple treasure

The apples are in. Yesterday I finished a last task, canning five gallons of cider. Now, aside from taking stock of the rosy fruit crowding our fridge and root cellar, watching for those rotters that might spoil a whole box, and perhaps making another batch of applesauce, we are done. It was a bumper year for our little Toad Hill Orchard after two barren seasons. At last we feel like apple farmers. When the sun shines you make hay and when the orchard bears, you put away fruit—who knows what we will get next year.

When we bought our original thirty acres in 1980, there was a pair of big old apple trees in the little sloping field next to the road, a Baldwin and a Snow. The former is a venerable New England favorite cooking apple, the latter a crisp, luscious “eater” with snow white flesh and cherry red skin. We knew them from our years working in orchards in New Hampshire and the Champlain Valley. I can imagine the first settlers in Whitesville traveling out toe western New York with these two precious and essential apple trees which would eventually fill their cellars—as ours is filled this year.

Our second spring, we planted about thirty trees of many varieties to keep the two elder trees company. Hopefully the original chart is somewhere in Fred’s desk—the untidiness of which is only surpassed by mine. Perhaps one winter day I’ll take on the project of digging it out. Several of the trees are planted too closely and they all need to be pruned to accommodate ladders. Every spring for the fleeting few days that the trees are in bloom, we savor the ethereal scent and beauty, and hold our breaths hoping that frost and rain will hold off enough for the bees to do their work. It’s an organic orchard. We could improve our management, but we have never sprayed. We’ve had some good crops in past years, but nothing like this year.

We two fifty-eight year olds felt like we were in our twenties again, climbing ladders and limbs with one ratty old picking bag and a canvas shopping bag—until evening when aching joints reminded us of our age. Twigs tugged at my hair and leaves slipped down my shirt. Geese winged southward across the sky. Ravens circled overhead. Perfect apples are rare without chemical assistance. I tuck especially lovely ones into my jacket pockets. Sometimes I find one so irresistible that I crunch right into it on the spot. Eve had it right. Apples are definitely meant to be eaten. And there is nothing like picking apples on a bright autumn day. One afternoon Mom and Dad Beckhorn, both eighty-one, helped pick the lower branches, Dad from a lawn chair using his metal grabber. Later the two of them make and can a big batch of sauce in my kitchen. We reserved a sweetly laden little tree for my six Girl Scouts to pick to make into apple crisp for one of their meetings. I’ve made apple pie, kuchen, sauce, cider, and one batch of deep red crab apple jelly. The deer have been busily cleaning up drops and I’ve been giving our three horses armfuls of apples every day.

Fred has become a fanatic hard cider maker, traveling to western Massachusetts to attend workshops, and collecting wild fruit and special varieties to add to his blends. He went to Lains’ Cider Mill in Canisteo to press large batches, three times, some of which we sold fresh. He rebuilt our antique press to do small specialty mixes. (Unfortunately the grinder is horribly inefficient and it’s a bear to turn the handle, especially when grinding hard, small apples. But the exercise is great!) Now the cellar audibly gurgles with many yeasty, fragrant brews, one mixed with black currants, another purely from wild varieties.

There is an amazing difference in apples. One of our favorite findings this year is the pale yellow, thin skinned Calville Blanc D’Hiver (white winter). Our daughter Spring, home for the holiday weekend, made apple tart with it, crumbly with butter and ground almonds. Wow. Everywhere Fred goes, he spots wild trees—potential taste discoveries. I roll my eyes. I’m ready to be done with the harvest. With Spring, we pick up yet more small, hard, wild apples for her to make chutney. “That’s it!” I say, walking back to the car. “I am finished picking apples this year!” We drive up the driveway. It’s satisfying to see the trees bare except for a few stray apples that the deer and grouse will enjoy. High in the branches of the tall old Baldwin tree, the sun catches a tantalizing cluster of bright red fruit, enough for a couple of pies . . .


Monday, November 21, 2011

Wolves in the Neighborhood

Ah-roooooooooh, ah-roooooooooh! Ooooooooooooo . . .

There is no translating the sound into human language or writing. We share the same vocal range, but only Canis lupus comprehends the message in the undulating vowels, the drawn out, sweeping, or staccato rhythms, the rising and falling tones. The sound is riveting, joyous, sad, mysterious. It is the voice of wildness. Ever since I read Little House on the Prairie, Julie of the Wolves, and The Call of the Wild, I have longed to hear a wolf howl. On occasion I have heard my own tail wagging creature, who shares 98% of her genetic material with wolves, croon her own eerie little song, but it’s not the same.

Yesterday I heard wolves.

One of the things that I like best about cities is that they are fun and exciting to visit, but you can leave them quickly behind. Head north less than an hour from the Big Apple and you will find The Wolf Conservation Center. www.wolfconservationcenter.org. Yes, you are still in the suburbs, but here in 27 acres of hilltop forest, you can meet wolves that are part of a program which is working to bring Mexican red and gray wolves back from the brink of extinction, and which is educating people about the true nature of wolves. They won’t eat your grandma, but they will eat the slow, the weak, and the sick ungulates and help bring ecosystems back into balance.

Here in western New York, I can’t plant so much as a white pine tree without putting a cage around it to protect it from the ravenous, swollen deer herd. I love deer—precious dappled fawns, big eyed does, and heart stopping bucks silhouetted against misty pines—I love deer in healthy numbers, and deer on my dinner plate. Maybe we need a few more wolves back in their rightful place in the world.

It was an unforgettable day. I met “ambassador” wolves who are socialized to humans. The two yearlings Alawa and Zephyr, played in their enclosure, leaping, delighted and begging for treats and attention. The autumn sunlight glistened on their fur. Each wolfed down, in a couple of minutes, a chicken carcass that I might have stuffed for Sunday dinner, tenderizing it first in their powerful jaws. The elder wolf, Atka, visited aimiably, then lay down and posed as if he were expecting Ernest Thompson Seton to set up an easel nearby and paint his portrait. I glimpsed two rare Mexican grays in their wooded enclosure. If you “hack’ a captive born wolf pup into a wild wolf mom’s nest of pups, she will adopt it 100 percent of the time.

I’m sorry my computer wan’t read my photos today, but you can log onto the WCC website. The Wolf Conservation Center needs our help to win a $25,000. grant from the Chase giving Program. You can help if you are on Facebook by going to www.nywolf.org and clicking on the link on the left.



Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why I Write

A rare day of brilliant sun and blue sky! I have bulbs to tuck into the ground for the winter, and a little horse in the pasture who is itching for a good gallop. I've been working on a collection of poems about my four legged friends. I'd like to illustrate them. Just trying to find time and courage. . . Yesterday at the Rochester Children's Book Festival it was exciting to meet readers who loved my books. One little girl had worn out her paperback copy of Wind Rider and was buying a hardcover, plus two for friends. That's why I write--for that one reader who connects. Here's a fun photo of one of my first riding experiences at age three in 1956. My brothers took lessons at Stewart's stable near where we lived in Loudonville, NY. They would let Cathy and me tool around on Trigger, a Shetland of un-numbered years. He was a great babysitter. Cathy was the only one who could make him canter. We have that documented on home movies that my dad made.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Throw-Away Dogs: The Skeletons in Our Gullies

"Mahoney" learning that not all humans are ugly.
 Mary’s voice was strained. “Someone dumped nine puppies up on Mahoney Gully Road. Two were hit in the road. Ray and I managed to catch five, and Heidi caught another, which she is keeping. We think there’s one more hiding in a culvert.”

My heart twisted. Two dead. How long had they been out there? What kind of person . . . I had a flashback of the carcasses two dead dogs I had found in Heseltine Gully when I was hunting up rocks for my garden pool. The ear of one of them had twitched—but the dog had been dead for weeks. It was seething with feasting maggots. The hauntingly beautiful gullies here in western New York, are with decked with cascades of white trillium and other woodland flowers, birdsong, and sadly—trash. People dump old refrigerators, household garbage, and sometimes fluffy, toddling puppies.

“I’ll help you look,” I said.

As we drove slowly up the winding, seasonal road, which reminded me of my summer with the Frontier Nursing Service in Kentucky, we were dreading the sight of the dead pups. “We should move them,” I said. But thankfully, someone had done that—or perhaps coyotes had already dragged them off.

We rounded a bend and saw a black puppy scuttle into the ditch. I pulled over and parked on the narrow verge. The bank fell away steeply in a dense growth of hemlock, yellow birch, and maple. The puppy growled in terror as we approached. I crouched in the wet ditch—we’ve had a lot of rain—and opened a can of dog food. The little creature stared at me, still growling valiantly. Carefully I held out a handful of dog food. The pup backed further into the culvert. I dropped a few chunks and withdrew my hand. Instantly, the pup leaned forward and snapped up the food.

By this time, Mary had silently taken a place above the culvert. I dropped some more food a few inches ahead of the little muzzle. The pup wriggled after it. Another bit of food. Another wriggle forward. Slowly, I coaxed the pup toward the opening of the pipe, while Mary eased her hand down. At last, she was able to grab the puppy’s scruff and pin her well enough so that I could also get hold. The little dog braced its feet and resisted for all it was worth, but finally, I was able to drag it out—a little female with white freckled forepaws and soft eyes. She didn’t growl now or make the least offer to bite.

The puppy and I were equally wet and muddy, so Mary drove my car back to her house. Even though the pup smelled as if she’d been raised in a barn, I couldn’t help nuzzling her. She responded by wagging her tail. I knew I couldn’t adopt her—I’m already at my limit of pets—but Oh, I wanted to. Her ears perked when she saw her litter mates on Mary's deck, and she trotted happily to a greeting of licks and wags.

I gazed at the six baby dogs. They were shy—nothing a day or two of love and attention wouldn’t cure. They were beautiful, each with the potential for a decade or more of devotion to the right human. A challenge to place, but do-able. It would have been better to spay and neuter the parents. I’m pretty sure that the “human” who thinks they can’t afford to spay or neuter a dog or cat somehow manages to find the money for beer, cigarettes, lotto tickets, potato chips, and soft drinks.

Mary and Ray took the puppies to Jim Hoover for shots and worming. Then they will go to Joyful Rescue in Cuba, NY for placement. With luck, they will find deserving humans.

"Hidey" back with her litter mates

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Thousand Cranes for Japan

Whitesville New York, Girl Scout Troop 76 Origami Crane Challenge

When the five scouts in Troop 76 heard about the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in Japan, they were especially concerned as they had recently represented Japan at their International Thinking Day celebration. As part of their study of traditional Japanese culture, they learned to fold paper cranes. The day of the quake in fact, they hosted a tea party where they taught girls from another troop how to fold cranes.

The policy that prohibits Girls Scouts from raising money for other organizations has temporarily been suspended in order that Girl Scouts can support the relief efforts. Our girls learned that Japanese Girl Scouts folded and sent thousands of paper cranes to New York to show their goodwill and sympathy after the 9/11 attacks. In Japan, strings of a thousand paper cranes senbazuru are often given as wedding or baby gifts. The crane, said to live for a thousand years, is symbolic of good luck, hope and world peace.

After discussing the logistics of mailing 1000 paper cranes to Japan, the girls decided that they will fold a thousand cranes, but rather than sending them, will sell the cranes for one dollar each and send a check, along with a picture of themselves, with the cranes they have folded. Others wishing to donate can make checks payable to Girl Scouts of the USA-Fund Development, PO Box 5046, NY, NY (Memo: Girl Scouts of Japan relief efforts). Those wishing to send cranes can send them to: USAGSO-West Pacific, HQ USARJ/9th TSC, Unit 45005, APO, AP 96343-5005. Directions for folding origami paper cranes can be found on YouTubeVideos. Anyone who would like to help Troop 76 meet their goal, either by folding or purchasing cranes, can contact Sue Beckhorn at 607-356-3154, susb@zoominternet.net or Marsha Van Vlack at 607-356-3414.

How Real Life Affects My Writing

My daughters, Spring and Fern,
sitting under the Weeping Mulberry tree, about 2001.

Recently I was asked to participate in a panel discussion of fantasy writing at the Empire State Book Festival with three other writers, Julie Berry, Janine De Tillio Cammarata, and Vivian Vande Velde. Each of us was to speak for seven minutes on how our real lives affect our writing. Then we took turns answering questions from the floor. To prepare, I wrote the following essay, but in the end, just spoke off the cuff:

When I first saw my middle grade novel, The Kingfisher’s Gift, listed as fantasy, I was astonished. To me, fantasy was sorcerers and vampires, dragons and spells, something, well, fantastic! My story, built out of my memory and life experiences, but set in 1912 and based on an idea I had in seventh grade, seemed pretty real to me. My heroine, Franny Morrow, is shy, awkward, introverted, and imaginative. She is, in many ways, me at eleven years old.

The story is firmly rooted in historical fact. I did lots of research on life in New England in the period. I thumbed through pictures of automobiles to find one that fit my mental picture of Grandmother’s car—it turned out to be a Cadillac Touring Car. The setting is based on memories of my great grandmother, Mina Vestal French, and her estate in Wayland, Massachusetts. I was even able to go back and visit, where I discovered that the weeping mulberry tree that I remembered from half a century ago, is alive and well, and in use by the new owners’ grandchildren—and their fairies.



In The Kingfisher’s Gift, there is Meadowsweet, the changeling water sprite who yearns to fly, and her parents, King Tamarack and Queen Iris. They are real to Franny, real to many of my readers, and I, the author, cannot say for certain that fairies do not exist. I am grateful to editors Patty Gauch and Michael Green for helping me to develop and preserve their realness in my story. I never say in the story that the Franny’s fairies are not real. It’s up to the reader to decide. I think that is perhaps the strongest part of The Kingfisher’s Gift.

So I had to ask myself, what is fantasy? I looked at the definition from my old World Book double volume dictionary: “Fantasy: 1. a play of the mind (I love that!); a product of the imagination; fancy. Many stories, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland, are fantasies.” I wondered: what sort of fantasy is The Kingfisher’s Gift? Are any of my other books fantasy? Is all fiction really fantasy since it is “a play of the mind”—or must fantasy have something in it which most of us believe to be untrue?

But what is truth? When I asked my then eight year-old daughter, Spring, where the porcupine got his quills and she answered, “from the thorn apple tree,” I instantly recognized a truth in her words—and asked her permission to use her idea in a story! (In the Morning of the World, Down East Books 2000, How Porcupine came to Have Quills).

But the thing about fantasy is we need to believe it or it doesn’t work. Believability is built from a foundation of detail based on reality. Writers are often asked if their work is autobiographical. What a silly question! If we didn’t have lives, we’d have nothing to write about. We could rehash the writings of others infinitely—and dully. But to speak with a fresh and an individual voice, to create the illusion of reality—that lovely “play of the mind”—we must refer to our lives. Everything that happens to us is material for the crazy quilt of story we piece together. I heard one writer liken her work to dumping an armful of her experiences into a washing machine, hitting agitate and spin, and seeing what comes out.

Memory is a bottomless well that can be dipped into for all of one’s days. When I’m composing fresh material, I stare into space, letting my inner eye and senses take charge. I ask myself, How might that have happened? What if? How might that smell? Taste? Feel? Sound? Then I begin dredging up diamonds of my life. As they say, there’s nothing more amazing and fascinating than real life.

Often things pop into my stories without any conscious intention on my part. One day, long after The Kingfisher’s Gift had gone to press, when visiting my parents, I ran down to the basement for something. I looked up on a high shelf and stopped and stared. There sat a small, rectangular, covered basket—a basket that I thought I had not thought about since I carried my sock puppets in it as a little girl. It was also the very same basket that Franny uses for her fairies to travel in.

Other borrowings from real life come about through serendipitous discoveries—like the vintage advertisement that I found in the Mather Homestead Museum in Wellsville, NY. It shows a little girl with wings, sitting on a bar of floating Fairy Soap, with the slogan: “Is there a little fairy in your home?” Of course, Fanny had to find a bar of Fairy Soap at Grandmother’s house!

To help make Meadowsweet come to life, I gave her a pet, a wooly bear caterpillar which she smuggles with her to Grandmother’s house—just as my daughter Spring once smuggled a gerbil to camp in New Hampshire. What would its name be? What might a little girl name a striped pet? I thought of my other daughter Fern and her kitten—well it had to be Stripesy!

I could go on and on . . . the bearskin rug that I played on as a child, the miniature fishing poles that my brothers rigged and set on toy boats to catch real fish—which towed their boats crazily, the baby squirrel that I raised on a bottle, the golden winged warbler’s nest with a canopy of feathers woven delicately into its rim—exactly like a fairies cradle—that my friend Jill found, the Luna moth that once came to the screen porch late at night—too lovely to describe, every detail of Nin’s house: the mounted birds in bell jars, the portrait of Robert E. Lee . . . All that and more is tucked into The Kingfisher’s Gift.

What about my other books? In a way, writing prehistory is like writing fantasy too. We know just so much from scientific study, and the rest we have to guess, based on what we know of human nature, similar cultures, climate, geography, flora, and fauna, etc. When I wrote Wind Rider, a YA novel in which a young girl tames a wild horse and becomes the first human on earth to ride horseback, I wondered how it might have happened. Where and when was easy. I had only to look at the archaeology: 6000 years ago in what is now Kazakhstan. But how? Well, there was the time the mare I was riding got mired up to her belly. . . She was entirely helpless. I’m not sure she could have gotten out on her own. What if a wild horse got mired, a young one, and what a girl with an affinity for animals, who doesn’t want to see her people eat the horse, finds her? That became the germ for Wind Rider.

How might Moose get flat antlers? I’m pretty intimate with big rocks after building a stone house, and I know the foolishness of the ruffed grouse from the silly birds that strut at the side of Irish Hill Road and sometimes attack the side view mirror of my car. When Fern was tiny, she was afraid of the water heater and called it the Blue Moose, so I told my children many long forgotten stories about two baby moose named Sphagnum and Hemlock. When Moose finally gets his longed for children—not out of eggs I might add—I couldn’t resist naming them.

Shortly after the publication of Moose Eggs, a friend sent me a fake photo of a moose in harness. I come from a family of lumber men. I have harnessed and driven draft horses to gather maple sap. I have a cranky little Morgan mare named Kate who doesn’t tolerate flies on her belly, but who will work all day for you if you understand her. A story evolved called Moose Power.

I may never need to write a memoir or autobiography. It’s all there, woven into my stories in bits and pieces like the golden warbler’s nest. Reality becomes mind play—a fantasy—a reflection of my life.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winter on Toad Hill

I am awakened in the dark to a cup of coffee being set gently down on my nightstand. Fred goes to his bath. Old dog Spike asks to go out and in a few minutes, gravity carries him around the house and down to the kitchen door, where he barks. I make a reluctant dash downstairs to let him in, trying to ignore the three cats who try their feline best to waylay me the moment I rise in hopes of being fed. Then, because reading is part of my work as a writer, I go directly back to my counterpane office where young dog George is still snoozing under the covers, and set to work on both coffee and book.

As of December first, our daily walk has become our daily ski tour at the top of the hill. We love the old Keeton Homestead. It must have been a beautiful farm once, a self-sufficient world of its own. The well is so close to the cellar hole that we think it might have been incorporated into the dwelling. Cuckoos and blue winged warblers sing among the thorn apple trees in summer. Now George races through the snow hunting field mice and playing stick. She tried biting a small porcupine in a brush pile the other morning. We were able to get the 20 or so quills out on the spot. The next day she barked at the same porky, but refrained from making her muzzle a pincushion a second time. Spike lags far behind, but he still wants to go, so we wait for him back at the car. Yestderday it was seventeen below when we got up. Just for kicks, at 8:00, when the thermometer had zoomed up to negative five, we decided to ski anyway. I wore my usual two salvation army sweaters, an ancient turquoise chashmere and a thick alpaca, over a tutrle neck and topped by a windbreaker parka. Goggles helped keep my face warm and my eyes from tearing. With a neck muffler and warm gloves, I was toasty, eeven sweating by the time we finished.

These days I have been working on a story about a puppy learning to be a good camp dog, playing with some rhymes about my childhood, submitting to agents, and promoting Moose Power! Fred has worked up some new table designs, shelves, picture frames, and lamps. He goes to shows and I go to book festivals, signings, and presentations. Come five o’clock now, it’s nearly dark. I give Shady, the old pony, her senior feed. She lets herself from the run-in shed into the tacking-up area, eats, and then lets herself back out. The two horses, Katy and Star, have yet to figure out how to nose open the gate with its hydraulic hinge, so I can be sure Shady gets her chow without having to stand guard. Then I walk down to the garden where we keep our two hens and one rooster in their tiny coop. They are already perching quietly, and as I shut them safely in for the night I like to stoke their glossy feathers and thank them for their gifts. We’re getting an egg every other day now—always a precious, warm miracle in my hand as I return to the house. Every few days, Fred and I each breakfast on an egg with a yolk the color of an orange nasturtium. We dine on veggies and venison—bounty from Irish Hill.

Fern is in Pine, Colorado with Scott, and their dogs Sylvie and Addie. The big news is that we will welcome Scott as a son on their wedding day next July! He manages the restaurant at the Golden Hotel. Fern works as a massage therapist, runs many races, and is applying to the CU Boulder MFA program for next fall.

Spring, friend Christopher, and their dog Chloe are in Northampton, MA. Spring works mornings in a school infant care room and loves her babies, but sometimes seven diapers in a row are a bit daunting! Afternoons, she teaches at a YMCA after-school program. Chris is now the brewer of fabulous beers for the People’s Pint in Greenfield.

We are well. We are happy. We wish such blessings to each of you in 2011. Cheers!

Sue/Sus and Fred/Wiz

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Rowboat

Mum, her dad and brothers (each kid with a turtle) in the rowboat about 1930.

I think it’s no mistake that cathedral arches and the prows of boats take the same shape. Both are structures of beautiful form following function, created to lift us through the stormy waves of life and keep body and soul afloat. I am not sure my father thought our old row boat was beautiful on the days he spent in the hot sun with it inverted on a pair of saw horses, laboring to patch it up for another season. Like Burt Dow’s colorful Tidely Idely, our vessel had a few “tender places” between her planks. She was a classic New England dory of some sort, happily retired to the tame, silky-warm waters of our southern New Hampshire Lake. Our boat was always referred to simply as the rowboat.
My father was an ocean boy, who grew up summering in Duxbury, Massachusetts. He had been in the Navy on a destroyer during World War II and was one of the few sailors on his ship who liked to swim off her side if the water was warm enough. Once he swam clear under the ship from one side to the other. After the Battle of Santa Cruz, he defied rules and jumped overboard to save a drowning seaman—probably not the best idea, as he was the ship’s chief engineer. The captain “balled him out,” then presented him with the ship’s flag, flown during the battle. He never told us the story until he was well up in his eighties, waking at night thinking he was still aboard the Mansfield.
Like Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, Daddy adored messing around with boats. He taught me to splice rope and let me help him make outhauls for our boats. He built us a raft complete with a narrow, canvas-covered, plank for a diving board which was conducive to games of pirates and Billy Goats Gruff. He made a ramp for our dogs to scramble aboard by, and maintained the raft with copious amounts of creosote every season. Still the rowboat was a challenge.
I have no idea how old she was. My mother, born in 1920, had grown up with her and I scarcely believe that my grandfather bought her new. By my era, the fifties, she may well have been half a century old. In any case, I have a vivid picture in my mind of Daddy blistering the paint off the bottom of the boat with some sort of electric paint-stripping tool. I can still smell the fumes, mixed with sun on pine needles, lake water, and sand. Then there were hours of hand scraping, sanding, and carefully packing the seams with oakum. At last, he would give her a new coat of white paint over the thick strata of many summers past, with perhaps a fresh layer of dark green for the inside as well. My brother, environmental journalist, Ted Williams, once wrote in Gray’s Sporting Journal that in her latter years our boat was probably more of a paint rowboat than a wooden one.
She was heavy. It must have been a job to wrestle her onto the sawhorses. Then she was dragged down to the water and launched for another summer. What a vessel for four kids! She had three plank seats that fitted into place, as well as a triangular built-in bow seat which was much fought over. She had floorboards which also fitted neatly into their appointed sections and which kept our bare feet out of the bilge. A few inches of water in the bottom was inevitable, no matter how carefully Daddy caulked her seams. This bilge was ripe with dead worms, soggy sandwich crusts, potato chips, rusty hooks, and the occasional bloated sunfish. After a rain, there was no choice but baling. Atlas himself could not have lifted the rowboat to dump her out once she was filled with water.
But the crowning glory of our boat was a spacious, built-in stern seat which curved along each side and boasted a dark, sloshy, and odoriferous well, perfect for storing bait, turtles, empty cans, or any flotsam and jetsam picked up on the lake. This stern seat easily accommodated an aunt or grandmother’s ample bottom as well as the smaller butts of several children, usually myself, my sister and a cousin or so.
Mummy liked to tell of the time her father (Baba to us) caught a snapping turtle by getting it to bite onto an oar. With thoughts of dinner, he argued the beast into the well and delegated his six year old daughter to sit on the cover. It was a scary ride home for little Mary Lou, seated atop an angry, thrashing turtle. It was fruitless to boot, as she always described the soup, boiled up after the turtle was given the coup de grace with a brush hook, as “vile.”
Our destination was usually “the swamp” which lay directly across the lake from our camp. Drew Brook winds under three small bridges before opening into a lovely little marsh as it flows into the pond. In the fifties when fewer camps had been built in wetland areas and weeds were not a problem, the water level was kept lower. It was low enough for us to enjoy a sandy beach at home and for the rowboat to bump and scrape—passengers crouching, eyes squeezed shut against falling flakes of rust and rotten wood—under the first two bridges.
We loaded the boat with fishing rods, shiner nets and pails, picnic lunch, butterfly nets, and most important for my sister and me—nets for catching turtles. Then we donned the cumbersome, many strapped, life jackets of the era which were about as comfortable as wearing an empty cider keg around one’s chest, and set off across the lake. I spent much of the voyage staring over the transom into the water. From the first dimly waving pondweed as we approached the sandbar, to the murky depths beyond the second bridge—which offered up hornpout, perch and the occasional trout—there was much to fascinate a kid.
We caught snappers and musk turtles, but the sought-after jewels were painted turtles. Maneuvering the rowboat through the weeds was heavy work. Mum had a bad back, but that didn’t stop her. She was as keen a turtler as we were. It was a matter of pride to be able to spot a yellow and black striped head among the myriad broken weed stubs glittering in the sun. There’s one . . . about ten feet away on the right . . . it just went under . . . I think it was a baby . . . wait . . . everyone be quiet . . . scoop under it . . . There! It might be a miss, or the net might be held triumphantly aloft containing a tangle of weeds and a frantically clawing turtle. One extracted, the turtle was passed around for all to admire its bright yellow plastron and gorgeous black carapace edged with red.
We kept our turtles as summer pets in a cage on our beach, to be released the morning we once again donned shoes and returned to school. It was a small comfort, as we faced another year confined to the classroom, to set something free. When my girls and their cousins were small, my sister and I took them up the inlet in kayaks and canoes, portaging over instead of under the bridges. We caught many turtles, but always let them go before paddling home.
The rowboat didn’t last forever, except in my memory. One year, Daddy gave up and purchased a noisy, nearly indestructible, maintenance-free aluminum canoe. On the Fourth of July he piled the rowboat with driftwood and brush, anchored her a hundred feet out from our dock, paddled out in the new canoe, and set her alight. She burned to the water-line on a summer night filled with fireflies, fireworks, and shooting stars. It was as fitting an end for her as a Viking funeral pyre. I remember a sense of honorable celebration more than sadness. The next day, my brothers towed the blackened ribs, which arched eerily up from her bottom, to the swamp--there to dissolve, like so much other organic matter, into the muck of the wet wilderness she had so often prowled.