Monday, the morning after, gray and muggy following hard overnight rains. Heavy wet pods atop waist-high 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 scent 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 better off now, 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 them, 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 that problem with a hardy, green, braided, lasso leash and the front-yard, nozzled hose, which never takes long but is inconvenient nonetheless.
Chubby spotted the flock first and froze momentarily, silently proclaiming, “Oh boy!” He sprinted at them and quickly scattered every last one into an airborne wheel of opportunistic circling scavengers waiting for our rude intrusion to pass so they can tough down for a peaceful return to their 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 into captivating introspection that started to hum like a tuning fork wedged deep between my ears, the Green River swollen from purl to growl. Yes, that again, my cranial wheels awhirl.
Schoolmarms called it daydreaming when a warm April breeze or ray of bright sunlight pierced a stifling classroom window to pull young minds off task and into acrobatic 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. And like most of these contemplations, the one at Sunken Meadow was ignited by the senses, a scent in heavy air, pleasing, sweetest of sweet, alluring indeed, even seductive, a harbinger of summer — the white wild rose. I knew that soon the uplifting scent would fill the meadow, 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, which bleed a salubrious tint of red into the morning cereal’s almond milk and maple-sweetened oatmeal. Yes, there it was, the first welcome whiff of the white wild 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 standing sentry. God, I can only imagine what that tree which also blossoms white has witnessed over the years at a peaceful, secluded spot along by the water’s edge; to me, no church mouse, a comforting thought related to human frailties.
The powerful yet delicate scent 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 bought it and is building an eco-village called Katywil, which is, from the best I could tell, an upscale, new-age version of the small cooperative communities encouraged by Ivy League “Good Life” outcast Scott Nearing, that radical Wharton School professor with the audacity to outspokenly oppose World War I. He miraculously managed to keep himself out of prison back in the Palmer-Raid days, choosing instead to withdrew forever from conventional society.
If Cole is following Nearing’s model, I’m totally cool with it. I do 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. Who knows? I met Cole briefly before the concert overlooking Catamount and may even seek him out again someday, but Sunday he was on my periphery. I was there 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 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, sucked 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, the proverbial sixth one. As the other five fade with age, my sense of place only sharpens, strengthens, deepens, hardens as bedrock. So, yes, I think I hold a profound understanding of the concept, in fact worship it as 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 at home or work, challenging an authority figure who deserves no respect, walking Sunken Meadow’s fragrant 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 my DNA.
I suppose a man can live in many places and have a sense of 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 I briefly 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 that still live in the budding trees, the greening pastures, the springs trickling from cold black ledge. I wonder what the Indians think? They were here before us and must feel the same attachment to place. I think people are born with it but must discover it within. Lucky ones find it; fools and unfortunates walk right past it without a clue.
I’m grateful to be capable of attending a short event in a strange place, looking around, listening, initiating a few brief conversations and departing with enough absorbed to continue processing it internally. The thoughts were still there when I passed that wild rose bush at the river’s edge, and they later carried me back to young, wilder days passed. I vividly, even fondly, recall those days on the road, 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,” 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 mother’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 Red-Scare shame. I guess it’s all about perception, but that was mine and I returned to my home, the place of my ancestors, and have remained without regret, constantly exploring new angles that fine-tune my understanding.
I pray I’ll live long enough to instill in my grandsons this passion for place. Whether they know it or not, it’s their place, too, which I hope to teach them. I think I can connect the dots if they listen.
Some seem bemused when I call myself spiritual, not religious. I don’t see what’s so difficult to understand. My religion is a sense of place, the chapel an open, mature oak grove bordering a ridge-top shag-bark alter overlooking a bloated aquifer shimmering through skeletal forest in bright noontime sun. There’s no glitter of gold, no scent of incense, no leaf, vine and rosette-carved walnut pulpit from which to brainwash a bulging congregation of crown-of-thorn cookies punched out of flat, ghostly dough by a portly, bespectacled prophet.
I guess some would call that rant blasphemy.
Be my guest.
Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.