Smoke and Paper

Everyone knows about the effect smoke can have on…well, nearly everything.  Smoke damage can be responsible for the loss of furniture, art, clothes and so many other objects.  Cigarette smoke is truly an evil presence.  Before the smoking ban in pubs of NYC, I would come home stinking of the left-over Marlboros.  It was disgusting to me then and it’s retchingly disgusting to me now.

“Lips that touch tobacco shall not touch mine”.

But let’s consider the other side of smoke.  Wood smoke is so important in many recipes.  Who can live without smoked salmon from Norway?  Not me.

And woodsmoke gives an extra something to Irish Whiskey and such fine things as whitefish.  Woodsmoke on someones clothes does not recall a visit to a bar, no, it evokes a certain freshness.  It speaks to the camaraderie of a camp fire, the stories, the tall tales and the thoughtful silence of staring into the flames.

I’m sitting near our fire pit.  It’s the first fire we’ve had this year.  The temperature is in the 40’s.  I’m reading a book titled The Five.  It’s about the untold lives of the victims of Jack the Ripper.  I love history and I love Ripper lore.  There is smoke from the fire circling around me and my wine and my book.  The smoke wafts over my book.  It stings my eyes.  Will the book absorb the smoke?  Will I open the book one evening in the future, re-reading the part of Annie Chapman…and smell the smoke?  Perhaps when we leave this lakeside cottage for an apartment in NYC, will I open the book and begin to remember the May evening when I sat and sipped white wine and read about the tragic lives of five victims?

Smoke induces memories.

For me, most of them are fond and worth keeping in my heart.  I’m recalling campfires from my childhood days of Adirondack camping, hiking in the High Peaks as a teenager, canoe camping with my wife and my late brother, Chris.

Woodsmoke…..

 

 

 

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Two-Tree Island (How Do I Live Without You?)

The physical geography of the place can be hard to describe.  One has to see it from the air…from the height of a soaring hawk or eagle, or, better yet, from the seat of a kayak or canoe.  But one can get lost in the words…just as easily as one can get lost in the miles of wilderness, mountains, bogs and small ponds.

There is a large lake in the northern portion of the Adirondack Park.  It’s linear, like a fat river.  Along its long axis is an esker, a glacial leftover of sand and gravel and topped with second-growth pines.  A notch in the esker leads to a long and ever-narrowing arm of the larger lake.  Another esker appears.  There is another lake…another esker and then the main lake.

Like I said, it’s hard to paint the scene in nouns and adjectives.

If you walked the crest of one of these eskers, you would come to a gap.  To cross the water and continue, you would need to wade, knee-deep in crystal-clear water to continue on your walk.  But this gap has a stone structure on either side.  It’s been reinforced…tampered with by humans.

And, this is where the story begins.  Decades ago, there was a house built on the “bridge” over the water.  It was a camp…but not one of tents and sleeping bags.  In the Adirondacks, “camps” were cottages or cabins.  Some of the “Great Camps” still exist, places like Sagamore and White Pine and Topridge.  Many more fell victim to fires and unthinkable and purposeful destruction.  They are wonders of the Rustic Style of architecture .

This particular camp that I’m thinking about was of an average size.  It sat over the short connecting flow of two lakes for decades.

Many families would come to the camp and stay in the guest rooms and out buildings.  Adults would hunt or fish or smoke and read.  The children would swim and then when they were dried and fed…would swim again.  A great campfire would blaze in the evening and stories would be told.  Songs.  Quiet.  Laughter.  Then all would retire to their beds…the children still moving their flannel covered legs and arms as they swam away to sleep.

A young girl came with her family one summer.  A boy, a few years older, came with his family that same summer.  The children became shy friends…then inseparable companions.  They hiked the narrow esker.  They climbed the sticky pines.  They swam the chilly waters.

They watched the roaring flames of the evening fire at night.

There was a small island about fifty yards from the main camp.  The boy and the girl would swim there everyday when the weather allowed.  They usually swam together.  She was a much better swimmer than he; one time he struggled to make the distance, short as it was.  He gasped for breath.  She turned around and pulled him along to the island.  After he caught his breath, he turned to her and said: “I don’t know how I could have made it without you.”

It was on this island with several rocks and enough soil to support shrubs of blueberries, they would sit and talk for hours…or they would lay back and watch the sky and the clouds.

Two small saplings grew on either end of the island.  Only a few yards apart.

The children returned to the camp by the lake for many years.  They grew up.  They watched each other grow up in their own special way.

The saplings grew rapidly in the sun and abundant water.

The island was a special place for the two young adults.  They named it Two-Tree Island.  The saplings outgrew the couple.

The boy and girl…now a young man and woman…found the pleasure and excitement of a first kiss on the island.  The couple found that as they grew older, they could sneak off and swim out in the night and hold each other.

She would often say: “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

The parents of the man and woman died.  The owner of the camp grew very old and soon moved to a nursing home.  The house was abandoned.

The young couple married.  They enjoyed a modest wealth.  They bought the camp and refurbished it with modern plumbing and electricity.  They spent many summers at the old place…and every day they would swim out to the island, circle it several times and then swim back.  This went on for many years.

“What would we do without this tiny island of ours?”  They said this often. The trees grew very tall and stately.

The couple grew old and missed more than a few summers at the camp.  They often spent summers with their children and grandchildren in Myrtle Beach.

Then one day at their home in Saratoga Springs, the man felt a lump in his testicle.  He had it checked.

They knew they had one more summer left together, so they decided to send their son and son-in-law to open and clean out the camp.  They arrived late one afternoon in July.  He was feeble but still able to wade in the chilly waters of the lake.

The two made plans to paddle over to the island, but when they had the canoe brought down to the water they saw the island through the morning mist.  They looked in sadness at the two trees.  One had died…but still stood tall and proud.

“What are we going to do without those two trees?”  They asked each other, without speaking, using their eyes to convey the question.

A year later, the old woman, returned to the camp.  She knew it was going to be her last visit.  Not that she was in ill-health…she just didn’t have any desire to stay more than a few days alone.  Her once slender and beautiful legs were now white and streaked with purple veins.  She slipped on her water shoes and waded toward Two-Tree Island until the water was over her knees.  Oh, how he loved my knees, she said to herself.

She looked at the island.  One tree stood alive and firm and unbending.  The other stood mute as a column of stone.

She thought of her first kiss, his hand on her back, his hand on her breast, his hand in her hair.  A thousand memories flew over and through her head like the clouds she and her husband used to watch…from Two-Tree Island.

“Oh, how can I live without you?”

She waded toward the island, the water came to her thighs and then covered her hips.  She kept walking, toward the island with two trees.  Only one of was living.  Then she saw the saplings growing from the base of both trees!

Her thoughts raced forward a hundred years.  She thought of her Great-great-great grandchildren.  She knew then that two trees will always grow on Two-Tree Island.  The tiny island where she held a young boy’s hand and kissed his young lips.

TwoTreeIslandRainbow

 

On a Night Like This

sparks

‘I remember it was on a night very much like this…’

—Words spoken around 10,000 campfires by a billion storytellers for a million years.

I found myself staring at the clouds drifting slowly past the quarter moon.  In these early days of autumn, it should be  a little cooler, but it was a mild evening.  The fire wasn’t needed for warmth…the fire was needed for the mood.

An almost imperceptible breeze blew in from the lake.  I watched the clouds and the moon.  The wind was from the northwest…the weather was going to get cooler.

I poked at the fire and a flurry of sparks rose up into the darkness.  Suddenly, a story came into my mind.

It was a time for tales and legends.

The story came quickly into my head.  It was about a young teenage boy who had to say good-bye to the girl he loved. She was going to travel to a distant land…a place where the people were different and the language was hard to follow.  I saw storm clouds.  I saw lightning.  I heard thunder.  Not in real life, mind you, just in my mind.  The boy was going to worry about his love.

“There was a boy,” I began.  “He had a girlfriend he used to play with.  He always used to love to walk her home on nights like this…on nights very much like this…and they would kick leaves and kiss when the moon went behind a cloud.  But someone came to tell the girl that she had to come home right away…the time to catch the train was near.”

“Wait a minute!” my wife said with a sudden movement.  She got up and leaned over to me.  “Come here…closer,” she said.

I did.

She brushed something out of my hair.

“You had a tiny red spark from the fire caught in your hair.  Gone now.”

“Thanks,” I said, and prepared to continue my story…but there was nothing to say…no words to speak.  No story to tell.  I had forgotten what the tale was about.  I stared at the fire.  I was frustrated.  I knew it was a good story…I just had no idea what it was about.

~~~

All this, the fire, the story and the forgetting happened  many years ago.  But I know now what occurred.  That’s because I’m older and presumably wiser.

The spark, I found out, was my idea.  My idea became my story I began to tell.  Without the spark, I had nothing.

Throughout my lifetime, on mountain tops, ancient forests, deserts, glaciers, beaches, islands or backyards…I had countless sparks fall on me.  Most of the time, I just took the story that came with them and put it away…somewhere in my mind…where no one could find it or where I could get it when I needed it.  Some of the time, I would have the spark fall on me and I would tell a fable or a legend.  There were even times when I didn’t need a fire…the sparks fell on me while I sat at my laptop, or with my notebook while I drifted in my kayak, or when I would let the others on a hike go on ahead…so I could be alone.  Or, when I would sit by a tree and rest and think.

I’m sitting here on the dock.  The lake water has become like glass.  The western sky is red.  I’m remembering a place called the Brick Pond, in Owego, NY.  A place in my hometown where magical things happened.  But, right now I can feel the chill of winter approaching.  My summers are over…my springs are a memory and my autumns…well, its autumn now…but it will soon be over.  But, my memory keeps returning to the Brick Pond…in the winter, the dead-cold middle of winter…when my friends and I would build a bonfire.  Oh God, the sparks flew from those huge blazes!  And they fell down on the snow and made tiny black holes before they died.  And they fell down on the snow-covered tree limbs, and for a brief moment, the leafless oak was like a Christmas tree with tiny red lights.  And they fell down on the heads of my friends…all my friends (yes, even my little girlfriend).  I believe with all my heart that they were filled with stories and memories and fables at that moment.

But, today, the bonfire site at the Brick Pond is a small patch of blackened charcoal.  The furry trim of my friends’ hoods, the knit caps and the scarves have been given away and resold countless times.  The black and brown hair of all my childhood companions is most likely gray now…mine is.

A French poet once asked: “Where are the snows of yesterday?”

But, I’m wondering where are the sparks, the lighter-than-air embers that gave us all dreams and hopes and fears?

I’m sitting on the dock.  It’s dark now…the skies are filled with a zillion points of light…like white sparks.  I pray that my friends see these stars and feel the memories fall down on them like rain, like snow or like sparks from the bonfires of yesterday.

~~~

I’m ready to make the climb the hill to our cottage.  I walk away from the dock and something hits me in the face.  It’s a maple leaf.  I think of the autumn again and something occurs to me.  Our memories, our personal legends, don’t have to be hot sparks…they can be a falling leaf, a falling snowflake, a raindrop, a photograph or a cloud.  It can be anything that once happened to us…or anything we’ve seen in our past.  These can bring on the memories of our lives.  My childhood friends can watch the Susquehanna flow under a bridge, see something in a window of an antique store, a book, a poem, a song…any relic of our past and the days can be relived, in detail, for even a moment.  The real beauty of all this opportunity to connect with a fable or a story is that it can happen anywhere.  My friends are scattered around the world.  A girl (woman now) lives on a farm in Oregon.  Someone else in Florida.  Someone in  Texas, Maine or Paris.

But, for me, it’s a campfire just steps from our house that opens those dusty doors.

And, it happens on a night just like this one…

TheLeaves

Waiting For All Hallow’s Eve VII: “Beyond The Campfire”

CampFire

The autumn leaves are rustling in the chilly breeze–the chilly breeze that is coming from the lake–drifting through the trees with the promise or a threat of the coming winter.  He threw another split piece of hardwood on the already warm fire.

His wife looks at him when the pack of coyotes begin to howl.  There is a den that is only about a half-mile away, out in the woods, near Grandma’s Pond.  It gets very dark out by Grandma’s Pond–a good place for a pack of coyotes to live.  A few years ago, a neighbor let her brown labrador out for the night.  The poor dog was never seen again.  The coyotes?

Another pack picks up the howling.  Or is it just an echo from the esker across the lake?  It’s hard to tell sometimes when only one wild animal screeches in the night…or whether it’s twenty wild animals.  The echoes can fool anyone.

He’s been planning on attempting a hike that will take several days to complete.  That would mean several nights too.  He tried the hike forty years ago, solo.  He found that as much as he loved the forest, the quiet, the trees and the sounds…during the day, that it was very different when the sun went down.  A flashlight only provides a person with a small cone of light in a large cathedral of dark trees.  And, once the flashlight is switched “ON”, the batteries begin to drain…ever so slowly.  A hiker can’t carry a pound of Duracells for several nights out.  The weight is too much…like the darkness.  It tends to envelope the solo camper.  It tends to act like a shroud.  The burden of the dark and being alone can sometimes drive a “normal” person into levels of fear that can alter their psychology…that can make them do irrational things…think irrational thoughts…make irrational plans.

Those pressures have been known to drive people insane.  The fear of what lurks in the dark forest, is as bad as the fear of what lurks in your brain.

What are people capable of doing?

But he’s not alone on this night.  His wife is sipping her Chardonnay.  Their house is just behind them.  There are motion lights in several locations around the house…able to detect someone (or something) approaching.  Or, just to make sure you don’t trip over a log.

Or an axe.  He remembered he sank the blade of the axe into a stump.  He looked around to check it.  He could see the orange plastic.  The handle arched at an obscene angle…about 45 degrees and pointed toward the area where the coyotes were howling.

The perfect sized fire gave off plenty of light.  There were two Tiki torches on each side of the stone fire pit.  But, even with this light, there was an intense and awful darkness just beyond the limit of sight.

Was there anything out there?  What did he just hear?

As a child, afraid of the dark, he was told by adults that the night forest is just like the day forest.  If you could turn on a light at midnight, everything would be the same as if it were noon.

He knew as an educated adult and former science teacher that those reassuring remarks were simply not true.  The night forest is very different from the day forest.

But what was out there?  He rose from the chair and went to get the axe.  He brought it back and leaned it against the stump that held his wife’s wine glass.

He avoided looking into the darkness.  Instead, he stared into the bright flames and the red embers.  There was comfort there.

It was getting colder.  The coyotes stopped howling.

He put his hand on the axe handle.  There was comfort there.

He stared into the embers.  There was comfort and ease there.

But away from the fire…was overwhelming and terrible discomfort and unease.

Out there.