Blasphemous Riverside Ramble

Monday, the morning after, gray and muggy following hard overnight rains. Heavy wet pods topping tall orchard-grass stems droop low, seeds shedding onto my shoe-tops, collecting on the shaft of my tiger-striped chestnut crook cane. My feet are wet, getting wetter with each step as a hidden yet discernible sun fights to penetrate deep cloud cover I sense will vaporize to a warm, powdery, midday blue.

The dogs are drenched and covered with tiny light-green seeds as they bounce joyfully through tall, dense cover they were born for, lingering scents clinging to the sodden turf, even more enticing for gun dogs bred for the sporting chase. God, how I wish I could still bounce and dart and leap and sprint like them. Then again, back when I could, I was clueless. So I guess I’m now better off, lame but sentient, aware of what life’s about, who I am and where I fit into this place called Happy Valley.

The dogs break through the tall hayfield into a scalped rye field burnt a shredded-wheat tan. A flock of maybe 20 turkey vultures is standing right there, 100 yards ahead, enjoying a ripe carrion breakfast, the smell of which had first drawn the dogs a couple days earlier. In such fields, Lily and Chubby tend to chow down a little but prefer dropping onto their backs and rolling in the stench with forbidden carnal glee, eventually returning with the most unpleasant odor and streaks of slimy, stinky flesh smeared like grease deep into their necks and ears. I always get a passing downwind whiff here and there along our walk, but the rancid odor of that violent mechanized carnage is most intense after I’ve crated the pets, closed the black fiberglass cap, driven a short distance home and opened the tailgate to a hot flatulent release that could gag and bring tears to the eyes of a weak-stomached man, which I am not. I typically remedy the problem with a hardy, green, braided lasso leash and the nozzled front-yard hose, which never takes long but is inconvenient.

Chubby spotted the flock first. He froze momentarily, silently proclaimed, “Oh boy!”, and sprinted at the birds, quickly scattered every last one into an airborne wheel of circling scavengers waiting for our rude intrusion to pass so they could touch down for another round of savory breakfast buffet. “Be my guest,” I quipped under my breath. “The sooner that decomposing slop vanishes from the field, the better.”

The prelude behind us, we dropped into Sunken Meadow, where, as so often happens, I quickly spun off into captivating introspection that started humming like a tuning fork wedged deep between my ears, swollen Green River’s rattle elevated from purl to growl. Yes, that again, my cranial wheels awhirl. Schoolmarms used to call it daydreaming when a warm April breeze or ray of bright sunlight pierced a stifling classroom’s window to pull young inquisitive minds off task and into liberating fancy. Not me. Such metaphysical adventures can be creative indeed, even productive, maybe therapeutic, and likely far more interesting than the subject scratched on the blackboard or the droning instructor repeating a lesson delivered many times before. Like most contemplations, the one at Sunken Meadow was ignited by the senses, a pleasing scent in heavy air, sweetest of sweet, so alluring, even seductive, a harbinger of summer — the fragrant white wild rose. I knew that soon the uplifting scent will fill the meadow like a scent bomb, signaling: the arrival of swooping field swallows and flittering, scolding bobolinks; the migration of turtles seeking sandy riverside soil in which to deposit eggs; the subtle scent of native strawberries bleeding a salubrious red tint into morning cereal’s almond milk or maple-sweetened oatmeal. Yes, there it was, the first welcome whiff of the wild white rose, a scourge to those managing meadows, but not to me. It walloped me at the far corner of a small riverside woodlot leading to a secluded swimming hole graced by a tall, solitary apple-tree sentry. God, I can only imagine what that tree which also blossoms white has witnessed over the years at such a a peaceful, secluded spot along by the water’s edge. To me, no church mouse, it’s a comforting thought related to human frailties.

The powerful yet delicate scent of those tiny riverside roses filled my nostrils and immediately for some reason got me thinking back to the charming home concert I had attended the previous afternoon. With work looming, I knew it would be tight but found my way to that little slice of Franklin County paradise high atop a majestic Colrain hill. Owned for generations by the Stowe family, Bill Cole now owns it and is building an eco-village called Katywil, which is, from the best I can tell, an upscale, new-age version of the small cooperative communities encouraged by Ivy League outcast Scott Nearing, that radical Wharton School professor and “Good Life” advocate who had the audacity to take a public stance against World War I. The man defended himself and miraculously kept himself out of prison back in the Palmer-Raid days, then  withdrew forever from conventional society.

If Cole is following Nearing’s path, I’m totally cool with it. I believe in “localism,” local economy and finding a way to live “off the grid” even though that lifestyle-change has probably passed me by; too independent at this point, I think. But who knows? I met Cole briefly before the concert overlooking Catamount and may even seek him out again someday. Sunday he was on my periphery. I was at his home to get a little taste of singer-songwriter Erica Wheeler’s music and leave it at that. I do hope it wasn’t rude to leave before the last chord was struck. But what can I say? Work beckoned from the distant shire town mired in dysfunction. No choice.

What immediately attracted me to this green, hillside Sunday service was the Pioneer Valley Institute’s email notice a month or two back. Titled “Sense of Place,” it immediately piqued my curiosity, pulled me in like a Venus fly-trap. I flagged the message. Sense of place is important to me. I live it, do believe it to be my strongest sense, that proverbial sixth one. As the other five fade with age, my sense of place only sharpens, strengthens and deepens, hardens as bedrock. So, yes, I think I hold a profound understanding of the concept. In fact, I’d take it a step further and admit I worship it, an airborne inhalant that inflates my consciousness with each breath. I feel it wherever I am, be it reading a book on the warm flagstone terrace, engaged in marketplace chatter, pecking away at a keyboard here or at work, challenging an arogant authority figure who deserves no respect, walking Sunken Meadow’s perimeter, swimming the Picomegan, chasing the dogs through a thorny, mucky alder swamp, following a ridge-top stonewall through regal shagbark hickories, or strolling the isles of ancient, lichen-layered graveyards soaked with family DNA.

I suppose a man can live in many places and have a sense of them all. Not me. This is my place. That’s why I’m here, why I came back, will die here. Where else can I walk in the woods, any woods, sit on a stonewall, any stonewall, swim in a river or lake, any river or lake, breathe the air, thick or thin, high or low, and know it contains my DNA? Even there at that bucolic Sunday site visited, it was comforting to know that if I researched it I’d surely find Colrain ancestors who once walked that property and left indelible stains which still live in the budding trees, the greening pastures, the springs trickling from stern black ledge. I wonder what the Indians think? They were here before us and must feel a smilar, even deeper, attachment to place. I think people are born with place but must discover it within. Lucky ones are successful. Fools and unfortunates pass it undetected.

It’s gratifying to be capable of attending a short event in a strange place, looking around, listening, speaking to a few people and departing with enough information absorbed to continue processing it internally for days. That pondering was still there when I passed the wild rose bush at the river’s edge, and it reappeared later, carrying me back to younger, wilder days. I vividly, even fondly, recall my road daze, touring the country lost in an intoxicated fog while fund-raising for cops in faraway spots like Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and, worst of all, “Joysie,” all places where I didn’t belong or want to stay. I felt like a foreigner. Even swimming in that gorgeous northern-Illinois lake named Wauconda, 60 or 70 miles south of my mom’s natal Wauwatosa, Wis., I could not, no matter how hard I tried, feel like I belonged or had anything in common with those folks in the land of fascist Joe McCarthy and his Red-Scare shame. I guess it’s all about perception, but that was mine and I returned home, to the place of my ancestors, and have remained without regret, constantly exploring new concepts to fine-tune understanding.

I pray I live long enough to instill in my grandsons this passion for place. They may not know it but it’s their place, too, which I hope to teach them. I think I can connect the dots if they listen.

In closing, I must say it’s difficult to understand those who seem bemused when I claim to be spiritual, not religious. My religion is a sense of place, the chapel an open, mature oak grove bordering a ridge-top shagbark alter overlooking a bloated aquifer shimmering through skeletal forest in bright noontime sun. There’s no golden glitter, no incense, no leaf, vine and rosette-carved walnut pulpit from which to brainwash a bulging congregation of crown-of-thorn cookies punched out of flattened, ghostly dough by a portly prophet.

I guess some will call me blasphemous.

Be my guest.

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