The natural world reveals mirth, mystery, and what we mean by “home.”
Image courtesy via Dick Conrad
Between a pair of gift-shop thermometers, above a trio of 1970s ceramics (an eggplant gravy boat and two rainbow-headed cockatoos), hangs Albert Bierstadt’s Cathedral Rock, Yosemite. The granite mountain glows in the summer-pink light of a day just beginning, or just ended; deer stand like set pieces under a green-leaved tree; dead branches resist Merced River’s merciless pull. This painting—one of four versions of Cathedral Rock—hangs in the living room of a mansion that belonged, most recently, to the Rockefeller family.
In the 1860s, the price of this Vermont home on about two hundred fifty acres of land was the same as a single oil painting by a German immigrant from the City of Blades: about twenty-five thousand dollars. Land under your feet or a landscape you might never see held the same cash value. Bierstadt’s lifetime of Western paintings came from just three trips he made to the West. His work was the product of more time in France and Italy than in the American West.
Natural and cultural reserves were once called “reservoirs,” containers for wildlife and forests and other wild landscapes. We place into reservoirs water or money or objects reserved for later use. They are saved, not protected. It is a system for commodities, not treasures.
George Perkins Marsh, a Vermonter who lived in that Rockefeller home before it grew into a mansion, tried to warn us all. In 1864 he wrote: “Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.”
“Bungalow,” a word brought to us from India: bangla, meaning something from Bengal. The word came to mean a one-story home with a thatched roof. And then, any one-storied home with a wide veranda offering plenty of shade. Now, it means a home like the one where I worked while at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, the national park in Woodstock, Vermont, or like the one where I’ve lived in Seattle for the past seven years.
The Woodstock bungalow is best in the rain, when it falls like a mist or in fat, furious drops, the water drumming a deep rivulet that draws a perfect square into the soil around the house. This house is not yet a century old; it does not know so much of what this land knows.
It did not see the Western Abenaki, the People of the Dawn, clear the undergrowth from Vermont’s original forests. Or witness Timothy Knox, fugitive from Harvard University, mending a broken heart by hunting and trapping animals that are no longer found in Vermont. Or know the homestead built by the Cady family on the hill northwest of a sharp bend in the Ottauquechee River. Or smell the once-boggy Pogue dredged for fertilizer.
This bungalow barely noticed the 2011 torrents from Hurricane Irene–stood impassive as the houses below swirled with mud and river rage. In the aftermath, the bungalow’s well provided water for the entire park, slim red hoses snaking down the fern-furred hill.
After the rain stops, sun beams phosphorescent; the velvet-bright sky fades to grey. Mist lifts from silver-dipped leaves as this house shelters all.
The land underneath the bungalow has always existed—so say Vermont’s longest-time residents, the Abenaki. The Great Tabaldak created the earthly beings that inhabited this place, but the place itself was already here. Odzihózo, Tabaldak’s helper, built himself a body limb by limb, from dust graced by the creator’s touch. Odzihózo, the Transformer, moved the earth, pushed up mountains, carved rivers and lakes, and persuaded wild animals to fall under hunters’s arrows and spears. He made Vermont into a suitable home place: created fresh-water rivers of shad and salmon and hills filled with moose and bear and deer, then finally came to rest in his most cherished creation, Lake Champlain. He lies there still.
For the Abenaki, the lands we now call Vermont had a genius loci, a guardian divinity. A century before George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action in 1864, the term genius loci came to mean the genius of a place, but for much longer it has meant the genius in a place, a guiding spirit.
A century-old photograph of Mount Rainier, the mountain that guards my home in Seattle, hangs on a wooden wall of the park bungalow. The National Park Service has filled Mount Rainier with places named after native tribes: Yakima Peak, Cayuse Pass, Puyallup Glacier and Point and River, and Nisqually Cirque and Cleaver and Icefall. Nevertheless, our maps don’t label the mountain by its original name, Tahoma, just as some still call the Alaska Koyukon’s Denali “Mount McKinley.”
Few native place names survive on the simple brown signs that fringe Vermont’s roads and highways. Ottauquechee, one of the few, is probably not an Abenaki word, but a Natick one. The word might mean “swift mountain stream,” or perhaps “place with many rushes and cattails.” This erasure is an old loss. Two centuries ago, Vermont historian Samuel Williams insisted, futilely, “On account of their originality, antiquity, signification, singularity, and sound, these [native] names ought to be carefully preserved. In every respect they are far preferable to the unmeaning application, and constant repetition of an improper English name.”
Four hundred million years ago, what is now Vermont sat on the equator. The tectonic plate that contained what is now the African continent crashed into the one that is now North America, leaving behind a margin of earth, the violence of the collision written on rocks deep within the Green Mountains.
My childhood street addresses tell a story about the places I lived. They tell another story, too: my father’s changing work moved him through many places, but into none. As a twelve-year-old my father built vegetable crates for Michigan muck farmers; as a thirty-year-old he designed parachutes for Navy pilots. When I was in kindergarten, living on a military base near the California border town of Seeley—named for a white developer, and previously called Silsbee, for a white rancher—my family lived on Gila Bend Drive. We were lucky to live on a street named for a native creature, the country’s only venomous lizard. Streets labeled only by single letters or numbers filled our military neighborhood. Four years later we left Gila Bend for Sparrow Drive, named for a Navy missile (only indirectly for the bird). And four years after that, we moved to Constellation Street, in a neighborhood “off-base,” as we called it, with streets named for Navy ships and aircraft carriers.
While in my twenties, I lived on a Boston street called Glade, next to a city park slightly smaller than Vermont’s national park. Boulders marked the boundary between private backyard and public park. Conglomerations of grayish-brown rocks, with bits of a dozen different colors embedded in them, they spread thirty feet in diameter. These rocks, half a million years old, did not originate here, but likely belonged to the land that is now Africa. My Boston-backyard boulders, called “Roxbury Puddingstone,” have this history in common with eastern Vermont.
Four hundred million years ago, what is now Vermont sat on the equator. The tectonic plate that contained what is now the African continent crashed into the one that is now North America, leaving behind a margin of earth, the violence of the collision written on rocks deep within the Green Mountains. The land of this national park, of all eastern Vermont and Massachusetts, lies on what seems to have been destined to be African soil.
Who killed them? She wants to know. I try to explain the natural cycle of life. That not all death is murder.
That their mothers are not, as she worries aloud, over and over, missing them.
Every morning Lesley and I climb up the hill away from the town of Woodstock and into the park, past the Victorian-gingerbread garden house, past the waterfall garden, past the pile of acorns that Lesley, my four-year-old goddaughter, began gathering her first day in the park. We pass the white-feathered star in the middle of the path and she bends over it, waving her short arms, fingers splayed. “Don’t step here, don’t step here!” she tells me, her voice firm. She knows, though I have said nothing, that this was once a bird, a life soaring overhead, not a splay of feathers on dun soil.
We must keep a wide berth, and give death the space it deserves. I don’t know why she insists on this, or how she knows that this is some glimmer of quotidian sacred. The Abenaki have always known that the bones of hunted animals must be treated with respect. Bear and beaver and muskrat and mink granted the gift of a successful hunt; it was a privilege they could withdraw. In this way, the Abenaki had long since known what George Perkins Marsh tried to tell us so long ago.
Lesley finds lost life all over the park: a mouse curled in a death clutch outside the bungalow’s back door, a black-and-orange butterfly brittled at the edge of a road. Who killed them? She wants to know. I try to explain the natural cycle of life. That not all death is murder. That their mothers are not, as she worries aloud, over and over, missing them.
The creator Tabaldak first built the Abenaki people out of stone, but this left their hearts too cold; he broke up these original, failed humans and scattered their stones across the land. He tried again with wood; this time, he succeeded.
Vermont’s forests blanket a history of fences, fields, feedlots; they lie like a featherbed over a landscape scarred and scarified. Pull back the sylvan quilt, the pine-needle bed, the leaf litter; find micaceous greenschist and quartzite, uncover the terrain that so vexed nineteenth-century farmers. The Wisconsin ice sheet laid waste to this terrain long before we did.
Yet we did. Vermont farmers built walls from stones, heaved up from the deep each cold winter, because there were no trees left to fell. A park ranger stands in the circle of old-growth white pines and says, “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen that sylvan tunnel.”
The Abenaki and their forebears, sustained by their home in Vermont for one hundred centuries before Europeans arrived, usually hunted from one-quarter of their forest each season. Even if rivers flooded, or first frost descended devastatingly early, or winter turned bitterly cold, they would not starve.
I carried home the memory of the Petrified Forest . . . I could not pick up ancient once-wood pebbles that littered the ground, but my father could buy a small container of them at the park gift shop.
On a cross-country train trip, I am surprised to learn that the Empire Builder railway passes right through Glacier National Park. I think of this, ignorantly, as a happy coincidence, a way that I might take a backpacking trip in a national park without a car. When will I learn that there are no simple coincidences, happy or otherwise?
Frederick Billings’s Northern Pacific Railroad carried visitors west, to the lands we call Yellowstone, Glacier, and North Cascades, to the places that the Blackfeet, Chelan, Cheyenne, and Sheepeater Shoshone had called home.
Billings—who lived in the park mansion after the Marshes and before the Rockefellers—headed west from his hometown of Woodstock, Vermont in 1849. He went to seek his part of a fortune that had, until the previous year, belonged to Mexico. At the time of his departure, Vermont’s first railroad tracks had just been laid downriver from his home, in White River Junction. By the time Billings returned home to Vermont in the early 1860s with his gold-rush land-claims fortune—about the same time that George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature—railroads covered his home state and trees no longer covered its once-green hills. The Vermont railroads created their own destruction: the end of lumbering meant the end of the Woodstock railroad, among many others.
“With the disappearance of the forest, all is changed,” George Perkins Marsh observed.
When we love things, we want to take them home, rather than stretch our idea of home so that it might include them.
The year that I turned eight and the United States of America turned two hundred, my family took the National Parks tour. So many landscapes and vistas and miles crammed thirty days: Yosemite and Sequoia (but not Hospital Rock), then Mount Rushmore (but not Wounded Knee), then Bryce and Zion (but not the Anasazi Village), and then the Grand Canyon (where my mother bought me a blue-beaded necklace from a Hopi jewelry-maker). The final national park on our tour stayed most deeply with me. I carried home the memory of the Petrified Forest, close to our home in the desert of Southern California’s Imperial Valley. I carried the memory in the slickness of wood turned to stone under my calloused fingers. In the glint of petrified sap under desert sky.
And I carried it in a vial of tumbled wood—an irony even then not lost on me. I could not pick up ancient once-wood pebbles that littered the ground, but my father could buy a small container of them at the park gift shop.
When we love things, we want to take them home, rather than stretch our idea of home so that it might include them.
Lesley and I sit down to lunch at a Woodstock community table set for seventy-five. The meal is a collective effort. A master furniture-maker taught many hands to sand and polish wood from local trees, building the tables. Those tables hold food that many other local hands sowed and harvested and fed and milked and slaughtered and seasoned and stirred.
The man who directed the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller park for its first dozen or so years welcomes the group. He reminds us of Wendell Berry’s words: We are living on the far side of a broken connection. Rolf Diamant says, “I think by ‘broken connection,’ he was really talking about the difficulty of living more sustainably, and living as a community. I believe we are beginning to reestablish that connection. We are bridging the divide between what our values and aspirations are, and what our relationships and accomplishments are. So perhaps it is particularly fitting that we’re all having lunch on a bridge.”
This table set for seventy-five spans Middle Bridge, one of the covered bridges over the Ottauquechee River, connecting park to town. We savor arugula and leek purée; pull bits from grilled quail. Just as we spoon peach and blueberry cobbler, the sky drops a fury of rain. Many leap up from our long table, the moment of fellowship broken, rain pushing them home. I imagine a short summer squall and stay on the bridge with the diminishing group, safely enclosed, as the Ottauquechee River churns and froths below us. Lesley and I walk home under nearly dry sky.
One week later, Lesley and I spend a full day inside, watching the rain. We’ve been warned that high winds from Hurricane Irene might reach us; everyone in town has tied down everything that might fly. It has been raining all day, but there has been little wind. Lesley raises a fat hand and gestures politely, palm open and fingers together, not pointing. “Look, Wendy, a waterfall,” she says, happiness in her voice, her eyes on the road in front of my rented duplex. I follow her enthusiastic gaze.
What was solid asphalt has fallen clean away; rain tumbles down the hill and into a cataract fifteen feet across and just as deep. “You’re right, Lesley, a waterfall!” I reply, as fear bolts through me. “Should we leave?” I ask myself. We don’t have a car. The park is closed. This mid-1800s house has clung to the side of this hill through seven generations. I decide it will remain solid, even as the rain pours, even as Kedron Brook, usually five feet wide, spreads across three hundred feet of valley below us.
Lesley and I watch Kedron Brook drag enormous tree branches, the deck from someone’s house, and a gas tank toward Ottauquechee River. We can’t see that distant river tearing through Middle Bridge and the rooms of many homes–including Rolf Diamant’s.
More weeks pass. Bridge repairs begin. Hundreds of volunteers shovel mud from hundreds of houses. Communal meals pulled from defrosting freezers in dark houses are shared on plastic folding tables and chairs on Woodstock’s Village Green.
As soon as a floor is laid and a heating system installed, Rolf and his wife Nora can move back home. When I express my sorrow for all that they have lost, Rolf shakes his head, calm. “I really liked those things, but I didn’t cherish them. I didn’t cherish any of those things.”
Wendy Call is author of No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy, winner of the 2011 Grub Street National Book Prize in Nonfiction, and co-editor of the 2007 anthology Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. During 2012 and 2013 Wendy is serving as Artist in Residence at the Everglades, Joshua Tree, and North Cascades National Parks. This essay is excerpted from Tilled Paths Through Wilds of Thought, a chapbook inspired by her two months as Artist in Residence at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. Support from 4Culture, the K2 Family Foundation, and the Seattle CityArtist Projects made this work possible.