Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Good Dog

December 31, 2012

I am not one for omens. Actually that is a lie – I am sensitive to omens, but useless in their interpretation. So when I drove through the town of Pettigrew this morning, east on highway 16, and honked at the house of the late Wayne Martin as usual, I had to pull over to watch a Bald Eagle circling extremely low over the place, over and over, making a slight shift in position at precisely the right moment in each circle that would reflect sun off of snow-white head and tail – just in case I was having trouble identifying her species, or the uniqueness of the experience.

I am a biologist through and through. I do not believe in ghosts. I do not believe in reincarnation, I do not believe in messages from another parallel dimension. But, often my solid declarations feel like nothing more than semantics, so it was no surprise to me (or Carl) that I waved at the Eagle and smiled and said “good morning Wayne,” before continuing toward the Buffalo River.

I am sitting at the confluence of two streams. In typical Ozark fashion, I am surrounded by massive bluffs and shelters, Beech and Sweet Gum growing next to and into and around solid sandstone, small waterfalls, and the total isolation from humans that I seek this morning. It would be more appropriate to say living humans, since I have been following an ancient rock wall on and off for an hour or so.

We are deep in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area - two rugged hours deep, Carl and I, and our ages are showing. If we were keeping score, Carl would be ninety-one. I am thirty years his junior. My relative youth is not serving me well on these steeply sloped hillsides; several inches of new snow are complicating things in a most interesting manner.

It is one of those days when a photographer can spend the entire afternoon within ten feet of her truck, stopped by the myriad play of shadows on white snow – trees, rocks, skeletons of flowers, fallen leaves, even mosses and reindeer lichens catching the slanting winter light. And the bluff lines are solid with huge icicles that could kill an adult in the wrong place at the right time. On the north facing rock, the ice cylinders are solid and up to fifteen centimeters in diameter and two meters long. On the south facing, they are melting and dropping with a force that can be felt through the rubber and leather of my Danners, even across the distance of the valley.

Daniel Boone once said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” This area lends itself to confusion. On our last visit a few weeks ago, we nearly had to spend the night unexpectedly because of a serious case of confusion and poor planning. And the confusion is the type that has a person questioning the accuracy of a compass, weighing technology against intuition, knowing that either choice will probably lead to embarrassing headlines.

For most wanderers, a GPS unit or a topo map and compass, or of course, intuitive reckoning are the choices. For me, there is Carl. Never wrong, unless I override his decisions with my stupidity, all I have to do is say “Take me home,” and he puts his nose to the ground and backtracks perfectly to the truck, which has been waiting patiently, thermos of hot coffee hidden behind the seat. It is only when I think I know a shortcut that we go astray, with him pointing his nose to home while I head off through impenetrable under-story, until at last, his call of duty to follow and protect overrides his better judgment.

Today, rounding the end of the bluff line, we ascend to the top to find a hundred square meter section of forest floor completely bare of snow and tossed like a salad. As I was pondering what animal could have done it – bear, herd of deer, gaggle of armadillos, wild hogs, I heard a cluck and caught the tail end of a flock of turkey going over the ridge.
Twenty-two were still visible to me, and in no hurry to disappear. Apparently, Carl and I were not an intimidating couple. That break in routine made me pay attention to the dropping sun and temperature, and the need to return. “Take me home, Carl” and off we went, at his arthritic pace, one that seems to match mine more closely of late.

Twelve years together has made for such ease. Like two old cowboys, we no longer need to speak in complete sentences (although I have been known to talk his head off because of his listening skills). Carl knows when I stop on the trail whether I am just going to relieve myself, and will be right back, or whether I am about to take a photograph, and he had better find a comfortable spot to lie down. He can tell when I really do know where I’m going, or when I’m faking it and he had better be more assertive.

As we plod through the snow, I am surprised to see Carl lose the trail – our tracks clear and deep spiraling off in another direction. I head us back and he looks over his shoulder at me, embarrassed and confused, then takes the lead only to lose it again a hundred meters later. I’m laughing at him, telling him I’ll have to buy a GPS if he keeps this up. He wasn’t laughing with me. We had plenty of light and made it to the truck without incident, drove west, honked a hello at the Fallsville store, but didn’t stop.

One of the wonderful benefits of living in a cabin off the grid is the silence at night. Or not really silence, but an absence of non-essential noise. No refrigerator compressors kicking in, no central furnaces firing up. It allows you to pay attention to things – the woodstove, rain on the roof, the movement of an animal inside. You become accustomed to all the right sounds and sensitive to ones that are off somehow. I can easily hear Carl stand up and walk to the door. If he wants out, he flaps his ears – the loudest non-bark noise he makes. If he doesn’t flap, he’s just looking, and will return to bed or go get a drink. I listen, note whether I need to get up or not, then drift back to sleep.

Tonight, I hear the usual sound of Carl getting up, and wait for the flapping, but instead he falls over, hard, gets up and falls again. By the time I get downstairs he is unable to move and breathing hard, struggling for air. His gums are pale; he is in serous trouble. I comfort him as best I can and ponder options. He signed a do-not-resuscitate document years ago, after he had gone in for a surgery. He looked at me when I picked him up at the Vet’s and said as clearly as if it had been in English, “don’t ever do that to me again, I would rather die at home”

As the hours passed, I decided to go back on my promise, and lifted him into the front seat of the truck and headed for the emergency clinic. When we were half way out of the valley, he sniffed the air, knew exactly where he was, then let the full weight of his head rest on my thigh, and died.

In the opening scene of the film The English Patient, a small airplane is flying over the desert. In the cockpit is a man with an anguished face, next to him is a woman who appears to be sleeping serenely. We will find out later that the woman is dead. What did the people in the pickups that passed me think, I wonder, as I drove slowly home, distorted face visible through the windshield, the peaceful sleeping dog out of sight.

Carl  2000 – 2012


It has been two days since Carl’s death. I woke early this morning to the sound of serious rain, then the flapping of ears. The sound was so clear. I jumped out of bed and looked over the railing to the spot by the woodstove, and was confused by the emptiness. I walked downstairs to put on a pot of coffee, and glanced out the door to see the windows on my truck wide open and funneling water into the interior. I nodded at the woodstove, said “Thank you, Carl”, then ran naked outside, clutching a handful of keys, the freezing rain a welcome distraction.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Cardinal Concerns

September 10, 2011

I am making a calculation that a sane person should never make. I am thinking of the cost of gas and the miles per gallon that a fifteen year old Ford delivers, and the length of drive, and coming up with a dollar per piece number for the fruit I am hunting today. Grateful that I am so capable of ignoring these kinds of calculations, I coax Carl into the truck and head east, the late afternoon sun behind us, pushing like a wind at our backs.

I stop in Fallsville for gas. Out of habit, I check the pot, but it is too late for coffee, so I just scrounge for the cash I have on hand, and Sky makes the calculation – $10 dollars =2.8 US gallons. Her old pump has a problem with high prices, so you simply ignore that part of the machine and dispense the correct volume. I am humming the tune to an old Vince Gill song:
…There was no road too winding, nowhere too far, with two bucks of gas and my old yellow car…
 I nearly abort the trip and spend the rest of the afternoon talking to Sky. She is willing to make another pot.

This time of year - early Fall - something very southern - both in cultural and botanical meanings of the word - begins to ripen. Huge purple black berries hang singly or in pairs from small-leaved vines that tend to rise above the ground to perfect picking height. Muscadine, vitis rotundifolia, also known as Scuppernong. The flavor is unlike anything else on earth and is concentrated in the thick tart skins. Tough and resilient, unlike their cultivated vitis brethren that demand babying and chemical codling, they do have one inconvenient habit - their hideout is a good eighty miles distant.

There are botanical lines drawn in the thin topsoil of the Boston mountains, and one of those lines is highway 7, running north south from Hot Springs to Harrison. If you drive its length, you will cross another line – the Arkansas river – running perpendicular, about half way along your trip. Highway 7 runs through both the Boston and the Ouachita mountains, but the river separates them into the distinct environments that they really are. To find muscadine, you must go south, below the river, or, and this is where luck comes in, go east to the other side of highway 7, where things are also to their liking.

Today I am in a foul mood. There is no particularly good reason, just a series of minor irritations – forgot my walking stick, forgot Carl’s collar, got a late start, forgot my thermos, made the mistake of listening to national news on NPR - but as usual the wind, the road, the thinking time, do their job, and when I pull off the highway three hours later at the secret spot, I have changed for the better. (It also helps that I have stopped at a cemetery along the way and photographed a humorous juxtaposition of outhouse and signage). I carry a full pack of camera gear and tripod just for the pleasant weight of it all, and head downhill.

Muscadine choose their homes carefully, and only fruit when they damn well please, so I pass stand after stand of vines with no grapes attached, before getting to the spot I know from years past, and there they are, waiting. The vines climb on understory trees and stay about six feet off the ground, and there are plenty, but I am also about ten days too early, the grapes green and hard as rocks. The cost per grape has escalated since I will have to return, but I am also thrilled to see them at all, considering the droughty, unbelievably hot summer they have had to endure.

When I reach the actual bluff line, and the view west into the setting sun, I begin looking for a spring that I remember, knowing Carl needs water. It is not where it should be, and I begin walking up a narrow drainage in pursuit. The sides are moist and there has been a hatching of eye gnats and mosquitoes that are driving me to use language I generally reserve for humans. Just as I am about to retreat, I hear the wonderful sound of moving water, and turn the corner to see a tiny clear pool, and next to it, a Cardinal flower in full red bloom, shyly acting as if it is no big deal, just an everyday display of magnificence.

Cardinal flowers surprise with the intensity of color, and with their late-year appearance when so much else has lapsed into end-of-summer depression, or pre-winter preparation. I have seen them in flower as late as thanksgiving in the Ozarks. They can reach several feet high, and the flower head is a cluster of individuals, each with unusual stamens that stick out above the petals, and demand closer attention. The scientific name Lobelia cardinalis, refers both to the early (1500s) botanist Von Lobe, and, of course, the color red. Like muscadine, they choose location carefully, and it is always near water.

As we hike out, I choose another route, one that will follow the bluff line for half a mile before climbing back to the truck. Carl walks ahead, and I can see the effects of arthritis and age in the odd movements of his hips. Two years ago, Carl’s kind and gentle veterinarian, Gerald Kelso (recently retired), had taken my hands and placed them on Carl’s hips and made me feel the grinding of bone on bone, the total absence of cartilage - the explanation of Carl’s increasing difficulty climbing into the truck, of his occasional yelps of pain. “This did not happen overnight,” Kelso told me, “he’s been dealing with it for a long time.”

Light is falling fast. I have dallied along the bluff longer than I intended. Dusk and sandstone can be siren calls to a photographer, and it takes serious effort to break away and head up into the dark woods. I have taken no more than a dozen steps when I get tangled in a low-hanging vine – the tripod on my pack snagging it and pulling it down over my head. As I curse and work to free myself, I see dark round grapes hanging everywhere around me - muscadine in profusion - the southern bluff exposure bringing them to ripeness before their higher, shaded cousins. I fill one of the pockets of my vest to bulging – not enough to make jam or wine, but enough to secret away in the freezer for a mid-winter burst of flavor and a reminder of the heat of summer.

The climb has been rough on Carl, and he’s unable to put even his front feet into the cab of the truck. I lift them, one by one, making comments designed to help him maintain his dignity, then hoist his rear end onto the seat. He gives me a sideways glance of gratitude then stares out the windshield, waiting for the door to close. As I stow gear in the back, I am thinking of another dog and another man. Years ago, while working together on a book project(Buffalo Creek Chronicles), the writer Gary Lantz would drive over from Oklahoma and pick me up for a day of discussion and exploration. His old dog Jack would be in the back of the jeep, having been lovingly lifted and prodded and pushed into position. Three friends on the road, the two middle-aged men in the front knowing without speaking of it, that they are working under a time constraint of their own, that speed is of the essence.

It is fully dark when I pull back onto the highway – the kind of dark that is only possible away from cities and street lights, and yard lights. With just an occasional exception as I pass a house near the road, the only lights visible are moon, stars, headlights and instrument panel. I often feel as if I’m flying a small airplane at times like this. My preference for older trucks makes for a louder level of road noise, a constant rattle of metal parts, the roar of wind through open windows, and the roadbed can take on the appearance of earth at a great distance.

A blinking red light on the dash informs me that I have misjudged the gas. The dial is pointing deep into the red and I have sixty miles to go. I know that at 9PM, there will be no open station between here and home. An error has been made. I think of stories of WWII bomber pilots coming back to base, flying over the ocean, fuel gage on empty, no way to make it back. There must be a moment of calm acceptance. Nothing you can do will stop what is about to happen. There is no creative solution. The engine will sputter and stop, and then there will be only the sound of the wind, and all will change.

I could think of scenarios – a makeshift leash for Carl and a hike down highway 16 in the dark, all the way home, or perhaps to a homestead with a light in the window and a gas can in the barn, or leaving Carl and flagging down the next rare vehicle, or climbing the side of a mountain to find phone signal and a friend three hours away in Fayetteville. I refuse to think about it now. The choice will come soon enough, after the engine dies. Now, I just stare out of the windshield, watching the white and yellow lines moving, the moon challenging my headlights, the reflected eyes of deer mocking me. And I wait, almost euphoric, for the glorious silence, the feel of the wind.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Swimming Hole

In the middle of August, when temperatures begin to break records, and when no one in her right mind would even think about hiking, I throw Carl in the truck and once again head east on highway 16. There is a serious attraction waiting, and the oppressive heat only sweetens the allure. Only an hour after sunrise, and I am already sweating, windows down, wind blowing, Carl panting with the regularity and intensity of a diesel engine.

Today I decide to let Wanda at the Combs café break my fast with biscuits and gravy, two eggs over hard, hash browns, coffee and conversation with the cook - about grandchildren, men, hunting, working, and growing up in the Ozarks. While I eat, she sits at a sewing machine repairing a large camo jacket that a customer has dropped off the day before. The sound of that machine is a powerful time bender for me, and if Wanda had looked up, she might well have seen a twelve year old boy sitting there at the table, scarfing down his breakfast before running off to catch the bus, with a quick kiss on her cheek as he passed.

There is a magical little window in the natural history seasonal calendar of this hill country, what the writer Gary Lantz calls the tick rapture – the big ones are gone for good, and the seed ticks haven’t yet appeared in numbers – so it’s possible to walk all day along a dry riverbed and not be inundated. But even if I miss that window, nothing could keep me from this spot along the Buffalo River, not intense heat; not humidity measured in gallons per breath, because it is the time of the spring-fed hole.

I park along the national forest road, check my pack for camera, tripod, water, dried apples and cashews, then drop steeply to the river and begin walking downstream in the middle of what will, in a month or so, be a torrent of impassable water. Today it is astonishingly hot and bone dry, the rounded sandstone river rock acting like a solar reflector oven. It is difficult to imagine that there ever has been water here. Carl hugs the bank where there is a few-inch band of shaded stone that eases his abused footpads. After a quarter mile, we reach a long shallow pool that has more psychological value than its bath-water temperature warrants. I don’t bother taking off leather boots, (they will dry later) and just wade in, continuing downstream.

Anyone who spends time in an Ozark riverbed in mid-summer knows that there will be an oasis within a bend or two, and true to form, in half a mile, a deep aqua-blue pool materializes on the near horizon like a desert mirage. Carl is the first in, drinking and wading and wagging with a rhythm of pure relief. One of the benefits of summer hiking on the upper reaches is that nary a soul will be seen all day, so I don’t even hesitate – there is a line of pack, canteens, clothing and boots that lead to the sandy spot I use as a launch pad.

The hole is so deep and cold I can only stay in a few minutes, just long enough to drop my core temperature back within the green range on the dial. Without bothering to get dressed, I unpack camera and tripod and try once again, and fail once again, to transfer the essence of this place onto film.

A person has to be careful here. There is magic. Bring someone with you, and you will fall in love. Bring children, and they will go feral right before your eyes. Come alone, and you may just wake up twenty years later, hair down to your waist, your friends all gone, your film fogged and useless.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Passion Fruit

July 1, 2011

I would not be the first man to be thinking of a woman while sitting on a gravel bar on the upper reaches of the Buffalo National River, or for that matter, while standing, as I am this droughty-hot afternoon, in the middle of the dry pasture of an old homestead, trying to keep sweat from dripping onto the lens of my camera. I am staring at a flower, and traveling through time.

Anyone who has seen passiflora incarnata, otherwise known as passion flower, or maypop, knows that this flower does not belong on earth. The color and structure and surprise of it are otherworldly – living, blooming proof that meteorites carry ancient seeds from planet to planet. And I cannot look at them without thinking of Nancy Maier – musician, poet, artist, songwriter, and rather otherworldly herself.

In 2003, Nancy called me to schedule a day of copy work – the mundane production photography that every artist must arrange to document their finished pieces, or in this case, to make her paintings useful for the insert of a CD of her latest songs. Nancy had just made it through a bout with cancer, and as we drank tea and made small talk, I knew I was in the presence of someone who had shaken hands with death and walked away to tell about it. Her paintings and her songs were a witness, a warning, an encouragement – a distillation of the horrors of treatment and the joys of discovery that seemed to walk hand in hand for her.

While I saw to the technical end of things – setting up flashes, taking exposure readings – Nancy began walking up the long driveway to the house and the nearest bathroom. I was watching her from the studio door, enjoying the scene – a woman in a long dress, one hand holding her hat against the breeze, moving through deep grass and morning sun, Carl padding silently behind her. Just as I was registering the oddity of that old dog leaving me alone to follow a stranger, I heard her give a loud sigh and saw her collapse.

By the time I reached her, my silly little first aid kit in hand, she had already begun a small watercolor painting; her sudden exclamation and drop to the ground a reaction to the unexpected sighting of a cluster of passion flowers climbing over the fescue along the path. I hid the kit behind my back and answered her questions as best I could – the name’s reference to Christian themes that some saw in the structure of the flower, the crown of thorns, the cross, and the implications of death and resurrection. I personally could attest only to the resilience of the plant and the odd fruit that when green and plump and attractive is dry and inedible inside, and only when brown and papery and unappealing, holds a treasure of plump, juicy, thirst-quenching tart seeds. I finally left her to her work, with Carl nervously circling at a distance, as if trying to protect her from something neither of us could see.

A few months later when I received a copy of the new CD, I was most interested in hearing again a song that she had played for me that summer day, sitting in a rocking chair, while on the other side of the studio, I methodically photographed one painting after another – The Buffalo River. She had spoken eloquently of the spiritual cleansing and regeneration she often found there during the stress of what seemed like endless chemotherapy.

The river takes me down to places I have known
The river takes me down into my home
The river takes me down with people I have known
The river takes me down into my home

Love is like a river flowing
Steals your breath and keeps on going
Will I win or will I lose
The question doesn’t matter to a fool

Nancy died last year. I have four things to remember her by – that song of the river, a thriving patch of passion flower that I pass daily on the way to the studio, a small watercolor of my home that Nancy painted from her position in the driveway, and perhaps most powerful of all, the memory of the way she handed it to me, laughing, like a child clutching dandelions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


May 16, 2011

I seem to be thinking of death to the exclusion of all else lately.  Today, it is my father’s death that sends me east down highway 16 toward the comforting arms of wilderness.

When the undertaker came for my father’s body, I asked to have my well-used walking stick placed with him in the crematorium. It was a rather desperate attempt to establish a pathway, associating something of mine with him that would, even after death, allow an instant connection between us each time I lifted a stick and headed for the woods. This one was made from a branch of Arkansas alder, thin reddish bark left intact, with three feet of black gaffer’s tape tightly wrapped around the shaft – ready for use against the hordes of mid-summer seed ticks. It had served me well for ten years.  I have found these pathways to be useful in the past. A buckeye, a coffee mug, a wedding ring, have all worked their magic over the years. It was worth a try.

The word conflicted comes to mind when describing our relationship, probably not an uncommon sentiment between fathers and sons, and as with any death, guilt, loss, love, and regret appear daily in ever-changing proportions, and will for the rest of my life.
Our own Lucinda Williams put it so nicely in her song Blue:

We don't talk about heaven and we don't talk about hell
We come to depend on one another so damn well
So go to confession whatever gets you through
You can count your blessings I'll just count on blue

This morning I pause at the creek near my home and grab a length of sycamore branch that has washed down in the last flood, cut it to perfect size using the formula my father taught me forty-eight years ago, then stop in Fallsville for breakfast. Sky fixes me her version of what’s good for what ails me, something that involves whole grain bread, baked eggs, tomato, avocado, onion, lettuce and mayo, along with a large mug of strong organic coffee. I would like to sit and talk - Sky has a calming influence on her customers – but I have a date with a beautiful woman.

When speaking of flowering plants, botanists might caution me to avoid referring to them as male or female – most are both, or neither – but I would argue that in one instance at least, there can be no doubt. In every way that matters, orchids are female, and one in particular, Yellow Lady’s Slipper is queen. In five years of returning to this magical spot, I have noted that it is impossible not to drop to my knees in her presence.

My mental calendar of Spring seasonal responsibilities goes something like this:
            February 15th – tap maple trees
            March 15 – find watercress and chives
            April 15 – pay taxes, then look for morel mushrooms
            May 15 – plant tomatoes
            Mother’s Day – visit the lady's slippers

This year, I am a week late, and what a difference that makes in the Ozarks. It is all about green now. Where two weeks ago, flowers dominated the forest floor, screaming for attention, today all are gone, or really still there but looking as if they’re coming off of a month long binge of intense sexual excess, and I suppose they are.  They have shed the tuxes and evening gowns of celebration and are hunkering down for the real work of growth and reproduction. As I push through ankle-deep poison ivy, I call out loud the names of those I recognize, and nod to the ones I don’t: may apple, orange pucoon, magnolia, trillium, wood betony, wild hyacinth, jack-in-the-pulpit, four leaved milkweed, false Solomon’s seal, woodbine, maiden hair fern, true Solomon’s seal, lyre leaf sage, spiderwort, false dandelion, sweet cicely, and woodland sunflower. Strangers outnumber acquaintances ten to one.

I know now that I am too late for the orchid, and I slow my walk, stop and talk to Carl, drink from my canteen, photograph a rock wall. I am reluctant to find them past their prime. I am moving toward them, but slowly, taking the round-a-bout way. It feels like I am heading to the morgue, knowing what awaits me, but determined to do my duty of identification. Death and the passage of time. I make mental calculations of how many more spring viewings I could possible have. When I find them - the large monocot parallel-veined leaves easy to spot - the capsule in which seed is forming has already taken the stage, and the once complex and beautiful flower is brown and wilted and decomposing.

As a punishment, I suppose, I decide to take the rough way out, up a steep muddy drainage jammed with boulders slick with runoff. Carl questions my choice and refuses to follow until I am almost out of sight, then catches up just in time to see an upper middle-aged man lose his footing on a creek boulder, and the dance of hands trying to cushion an expensive camera, body twisting at odd angles and walking stick flying upstream. I sit in the cold shallow water unhurt, laughing at myself in that great, loud, long-lasting way I can when there is no other human within miles.  When I see that my walking stick, which has landed in the water a dozen feet away, is floating back toward me, I turn and say “Carl, what are the chances?” then reach for it.  The act of reaching puts my head at a different level, and when I look up, I am facing a hillside of perfect, just-bloomed Yellow Lady’s Slippers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dealing With Death

 April 20, 2011

There is a cemetery. 

So many of my journal notes seem to start with that line. Cemeteries hold a special power over me – I rarely pass one without stopping, or making a note to return later, perhaps when no one else is around.

I often attribute that power to the simple fact that so many people I’ve known and loved inhabit them, and by extension, all cemeteries are filled with the loved ones of others.  Each stone tells the story – some more decipherable than others – of the tragedy. And, in spite of any belief in the circular nature of the life/death cycle on this planet, to me, any death is a tragedy, and grief, guilt, anger, despair, fear and disbelief are part and parcel. Or, perhaps, as it has been pointed out from time to time, I tend to walk on the dark side of things.

There is a cemetery in northwest Arkansas that seems dedicated to children. Something in the very layout, the placement on a little rise, speaks of it. And the stones finish the story, many without saying a word. There is one in particular that draws me back, over and over. It is a small rectangle of sandstone with the hand of a child chiseled at the base, as if reaching out of the ground.

Hands appear frequently on gravestones – pointing to heaven, clasping the hand of a spouse – but this one is different. As I kneel in the grass under ancient cedars and fumble with camera and tripod, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the hand was carved by a grieving parent in a desperate attempt to maintain contact, to have something to touch, when they knelt in the same grass, but with purposes different than mine.

Within the same afternoon, it is possible to encounter two other icons of death. One, on a lonely stretch of mountain top dirt road, is powerful because of the surprise of encountering it in deep grass, out of the context of a cemetery, and the stark whiteness of the catholic imagery.  Hiking through the Ozarks, that color is usually reserved for bones.
I’ve never seen anyone else stop there, but I have to. A nod to the family and the young man whose life ended there in an accident a few years ago.

Death is not reserved for humans. On the same beautiful Spring day, when violets, bellwort, trillium, blue star, wild hyacinth, mandrake, phlox, and orange puccoon are begging for attention, walk a bit farther, and find this perplexing display. Did the coyote, along with five of his friends and relatives, fail to read the sign and paid the price? Was this a personal feud with the landowner? Is the killer showing off his skill to passersby, or warning off other animals: cross this line and die! I decided not to stop and ask.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Combat Dance

April 2, 2011

I suppose it’s clear by now that I use the word magical way too much when speaking of the Buffalo River Wilderness Area, but so be it. There is an energy about the place, and it speaks to whoever wants to listen. Sometimes I’ll be bushwhacking along a bench on the side of a mountain, or in the bottomlands along the river, when something changes, some disturbance in that energy field, perhaps.  I’ll stop in place and start looking around, and invariably there will be signs of human habitation – a rock wall, a cluster of cedars, an old foundation, rusted metal, a spray of jonquils.

Ask me when I’m in town, sipping coffee at Baba Boudan’s, trying to ignore the traffic on College avenue, and I can be intellectual about it. I am willing to suppose that my eyes and brain simply put the signs together and inform me to pay attention; there is no spiritual or supernatural aspect to it. But, ask me when I’m standing in the forest, looking at the opening to an ancient root cellar, and I will swear on a stack of bibles that it was the laughter of children, the movement of mules, an axe splitting wood, that stopped me in my tracks. So real, that I am confused by the absence of faces.

Sometimes, there is only a pond, or the dried up remnants of one.  A natural progression  takes place with abandoned ponds over time – they fill in with layers of leaves and mud, or dry up as trees nearby grow and siphon off the reservoir, so often all that remains is a small deep pool and a surrounding area of occasional flooding, or simply a depression in the forest floor that begs an explanation. Nearby trees usually tell the story – a copse of water-lovers out of place. At one of my favorites, on the upper stretches of the river, sweet gums grow in profusion, the soil is compacted in an odd way, and grasses, rare even a hundred yards distant, appear to have been planted by machinery.

Gums, Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area

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Years ago, when I stumbled on this pond, I sat for a while listening for the voices as I tend to do, when movement nearby caught my attention. About three yards distant, two large copperheads were facing each other. As I watched, they reared up a foot or so into the air and glided forward, entwining their bodies in a vertical spiral. They would then slowly unwrap, pull back, then reengage. It lasted for an hour as I watched – the most graceful, gentle choreography imaginable. I could have reached for my camera, but didn’t, feeling too much like an intruder, and finally tiptoed away, not wanting to disturb what I assumed was a mating ritual. When I called a biologist at the University of Arkansas the next day, I was told to consider myself lucky indeed – I had witnessed what is known as a combat dance between two male snakes, vying for the female who was probably coiled on the other side of the log on which I sat.

Is it any wonder?

A note about the photographs:  The images in this series of journal entries are part of a collection that will be on display during the month of April, 2011, at the Fayetteville Underground Vault gallery. The exhibition, titled 30 Days In The Life, will include 17 photographs, all new work. I offer them for sale to my journal followers, and also a special version – a smaller 4x6 photograph  that will only be available for a short time after each entry.