I know with a new book out I should be flogging it (to flog: 1. To beat severely with a whip or rod. 2. Informal To publicize aggressively: flogging a new book.) – but I’m just a mild-mannered poet, so it has taken me a week to make a post. The book launch was lots of fun. Novelist Ann Leary introduced me and said that when she had first heard Moses Pendleton describe me, she thought I must be his imaginary friend. My reading showed, however, that he is mine. I should mention that I don’t actually read, I recite from memory, and I try not to recite so much as speak as if I were just casually telling stories in rhyme. Now that I’ve seen I can do it, I’m going to take it a little further, Mark Twain style, with more pauses and other little performance effects. (Mark Twain would arrive at the lectern with speech in hand, a thought would apparently strike him, he would tuck his papers under his arm and ramble on for an hour as one thing led to the next – crafty fellow, he had memorized his monologue in advance, right down to the stammerings and confusions). The point is, I got to see many copies of the book, with that stunning cover photo by Moses, piled on a table. Cynics will be thinking, “You’ll see them again when your book is remaindered – no one buys poetry.” Well, sales were brisk – albeit to a hometown crowd. And there are pictures! Extraordinary pictures, in fact…
The Dance Must Follow has just been published by West Mountain Press. The launch will take place this Saturday, May 23, at the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, CT, at 4 pm. I wrote the poems; Moses Pendleton took most of the photographs. Moses is a founder of Pilobolus and the artistic director of Momix, a dance company with a global following. 27 years ago he asked my help with a poem he was writing about his creative process. 16 cantos and an epilogue later, I finished his poem for him. It’s a light-verse portrait of the artist as dancer, choreographer, dreamer, gardener, photographer, and showman. The University Press of New England is distributing the hardcover version, which is also now available as an ebook for various devices and will soon be issued as an audiobook as well. Amazon will have stock in a week or so. Order your copy today!
There was still plenty of snow on the ground on Monday (there still is), but it was blindingly sunny and in the upper 30s. I noticed a chipmunk, fresh from his winter’s sleep, scampering around my woodpile for leftover birdseed. Then I noticed that the shape of the flat rock in front of the goat shed, only recently emerged from the deep snow, had changed. A large woodchuck was sitting on it, right where he had sat before retiring. He didn’t look noticeably leaner, but no doubt he was hungry.
By coincidence, my order of vegetable seeds from Johnny’s had just arrived.
I immediately made plans to kill the woodchuck. I would give my .22 a good cleaning. It had last been fired, mortally, 25 years ago, at a woodchuck from the steps of the cabin. I remember my little daughter Phoebe looking out the doorway and cheering. I would pick this one off while he was perching on that rock, before he could beget – or she could bear – another generation. The thought of woodchucks reproducing like rabbits under the goat shed was frankly appalling. I am a pretty good shot. I drew a bead on this would-be varmint progenitor in my mind’s eye and imagined shooting out the kitchen window, pioneer-style.
The snow was firm enough, after a series of meltings and freezings, for a walk in the woods up the mountainside. I hadn’t been out all winter – the snow had been too deep. I put on my down vest and a pair of tall boots and headed up the trail. I figured I would take a look at Dailey’s camp over the shoulder of the mountain, which had been built at some time during my 20-year absence from Vermont. Up I hiked, in my sunglasses and buffalo-plaid wool cap with visor and earflaps, which I deployed against the fresh, cold breeze.
There were plenty of deer trails through the snow along and across the woods road I was following. As I approached the ridge, where the land rises more steeply and there are caves in the rocks – about which more later – I thought of bears. Black bears live on this mountain. I have seen them myself once or twice, loping across the driveway up into the woods. I suppose they live somewhere up in the rocks. A neighbor once told me he had found their den. I became aware that I was in fact entering their territory. I vaguely started looking for bear sign. I remember seeing the claw marks on a huge yellow birch on top of the mountain years ago. As my mind was reimagining the past, my eyes suddenly lit on those same marks freshly gashed into a beech ahead of me. No doubt about it: the bears too had awoken. All of us creatures had emerged from our winter homes, perhaps on this same day. As I tramped on and up, I saw another tree that the bear had raked with its claws. Gash, rake, and of course maul: verbs of the bear.
I became a little anxious. A bear’s territory is extensive – several square miles, I believe. The odds against an encounter were high. I thought back to my murderous, predatory gloating at the sight of the woodchuck. Now I was the woodchuck. No. The bear would run from me (and I from the bear). That is what happened when I surprised a bear while hiking through the Olympic National Forest in Washington state years ago. I replayed our meeting in my head. True, that was in July. This bear (these bears?) would be hungry.
I paused to pee in the snow. The sun was warm on my face, I was heated from my climb, and peeing in the snow (well away from one’s back door) is one of life’s little pleasures. Then I began to wonder. What if the bear passes by? Or catches wind (literally) of my man sign? I had once read that a bear’s sense of smell is seven times more sensitive than a dog’s. Will he think that I am marking up this corner of the woods for myself? Will he smell the potential of a good meal in my urine? He was lean from winter; I, on the other hand, was fat. The bacon I had had for breakfast – he could probably tell I had been eating pigs. Any leftover lipids in my urine would make it particularly savory (to bears) – appetizing, so to speak. I suddenly realized that this was a contest to see who would be at the top of the food chain. Two alpha predators were simultaneously roaming the same woods. I have faced off against a woodchuck before (carrying a small cudgel), but I was totally unarmed and up against a larger opponent known to be (on occasion) a random, impulsive killer on the paleo diet.
My walk in the sun took on the cast of nightmare. What would happen if we met? I have never seen the movie “Grizzly” but I know Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” which contains the famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Phrases from the ensuing passage, from an eye-witness to the off-stage attack, floated into my mind. “And then to see how the bear tore out his shoulder bone…and how the poor gentleman roared and the bear mocked him…half-dined on the gentleman… he’s at it now.” I had reached the ridge top. I stopped in my tracks and scanned the snowy, sunny landscape in every direction. No one would be witnessing anything up here, I reasoned. What the bear didn’t dine on would be cleaned up by the coyotes, the Vermont version of hyenas. Someone might come across my iPhone and part of leg in the spring. My phone! I could always call for help. It wouldn’t save me, but I might get the call reported in a grisly story on the Huffington Post. I could be my own witness, at least for a while. “Vermont man quotes Shakespeare to 911 as bear attacks.”
The thought of minor posthumous celebrity somehow buoyed my spirits. I decided I might as well forge ahead, vigilantly. But I soon found myself daydreaming again. I was thinking back to the time I had stuck my head in the coyotes’ mountainside den one summer in the presence of my family. (I say coyotes. They could have been bobcats. In any case, the scat at the mouth of the cave was fresh). I didn’t really insert my head into the opening, merely bent over and placed it at the hole and peered in. I immediately heard a loud snarl coming (as it seemed to me) from the depths of the den. I bolted. This is the so-called flight reaction hard-wired into our genes by ancient encounters with wildlife on the African savannah and in the caves of Europe. I sprang away from that den with a tremendous bound. Then I looked back at my family to try to save them. They, however, were all laughing uncontrollably, like jackals. My four-year old son Freedom seemed particularly jubilant. He had been the source of the snarl. Very life-like, too, at least to my vivid imagination.
It was not the first time I had run from a supposed predator. That would have been the time I was carrying a piece of plywood up the driveway with my wife in mud season many years ago, the mud having briefly rendered the road impassable. It was after dark. (This does not sound like good planning on our part, but we were young and it didn’t matter). We had a flashlight, an ordinary household flashlight. The beam must have swept up the driveway at one point, because it caught a flash of something ahead of us. Holly steadied the beam. It was reflected by two large yellow eyes. By coincidence, we had just been reading about the catamounts of old Vermont (now known as the Eastern Mountain Lion). I had dreamed of seeing one in our woods, which we had scarcely explored in our rush to build our cabin. (The last confirmed catamount in Vermont was the so-called Barnard Painter, shot in 1881, but there had been numerous reports of sightings since, some of them relatively recent). Holly kept shining our weak beam at the animal. It was too dark to make out the body, but the shoulder seemed quite high off the ground. It took a step towards us. We put the plywood down. Then the animal charged. I can still see those large yellow eyes coming at me – at least for the time it took me to turn tail down the driveway, slowly at first, then (looking over my shoulder) with alacrity. My wife leveled the beam long enough to recognize Artemis, our cabin housecat, who had come down to greet us. The rise in the ground ahead of us had somehow elevated her stature. I was somewhat embarrassed. Holly was highly amused.
I brake for animals, and it seems that I also run from them. If saw a bear and survived, whether by holding my ground or being pursued and escaping, I reasoned that I would have another story to tell. And if the bear won one for the quadrupeds, perhaps that was only fair. The woodchuck would be fruitful and multiply, as the Lord intended. But if I lived, he would surely die.
I saw no bears in the woods, nor more bear sign. Nothing more than a squirrel, and I did not take him for a cougar.
(as published in the Bennington Banner, Nov. 10, 2014)
I just moved back to the Bennington area after an absence of twenty years, during which time I was teaching English in Greece. Like Rip van Winkle, I now have a beard, though mine is not as long as Rip’s was. Like Odysseus, I am returning to my own home, on West Mountain in Shaftsbury.
Unlike these fictional heroes, however, I’ve been back a number of times for short visits over the years, so I’ve spoiled some of the surprises. Still, driving in from Boston via Brattleboro on Route 9 the other day, I was able for the first time to take the bypass north. I believe that was forty or fifty years in the making: Hallelujah. And then, going north on 7A through South Shaftsbury, although I had read about the new 25-mph speed limit on-line in the Banner, I was not prepared for the experience. Time slowed. I watched a leaf drop from a branch, drift through the air, and settle on the ground, all while I was passing by the tree. Very Zen.
Downtown looks more or less the same. My two favorite Main Street stores, Shaffe’s and Katie Cleaver’s tiny jewelry shop, are still there. Gary Jones is still barbering in an establishment that doesn’t seem to have changed much since the Coolidge administration; Gary himself has been there since 1970. Bennington still has a bookshop and a daily newspaper, though you can barely start the woodstove with it now. The stores on Northside Drive – and the people shopping in them – have grown larger. The Blue Benn is reassuringly the same.
The lights at the Four Corners were redone some years ago, and I notice that they no longer chirp at pedestrians but order them to walk, when the time comes, in two voices, male and female, speaking at the same time, like an old couple arguing. I think that if the lights are going to talk, they should at least apologize for keeping us waiting so long. As I stood there like a statue, I noticed that the sidewalks were mostly empty. Bennington seems pretty sleepy to me, but perhaps I’m just used to the rhythms of city life in Salonika.
Because I’ve been reading the Banner, and the New York Times, I know that Bennington now has its share of what used to be only urban problems. There was no heroin epidemic in Vermont twenty years ago. Yipes.
Even the woods pose new dangers. My house is in a forest clearing: deer tick territory. I’d read about the ticks, and now I’ve seen one live and crawling on the back of my hand. It was a neighbor who pointed the insect out to me as she was casually terrifying me with stories of the infestation. “Don’t look now,” she interjected. The tick had evidently jumped me when I cleared a little brush from the path on the way over. Remind me to collect some of the critters in a vial and send them to the climate-change-denier caucus in Congress.
But the trees themselves – I hadn’t been in Vermont in the fall for all these years, and the colors have been stunning. The air is clear, and even the clouds seem exotic after those monotonously blue Greek skies. Moreover, the people are so friendly – and they all speak English! The Vermont wit is intact, too. The day of my return I stopped in at Paulin’s and picked up a box of spaghetti, a jar of sauce, and a can of beer. As the young woman at the register handed me my change, she deadpanned, “Enjoy your dinner.”
The mountains, the Monument, and cheerful Judy Stratton, who as Shaftsbury Town Clerk recorded our property deed and marriage in 1983, they remain. Many of the people I knew, including my neighbors, are right where I left them. But others, friends and former colleagues, the man who married us (it was Zeke Cross), and the woman I married, are gone forever.