Tag Archives: Annie Dillard

Earth’s Second Chance

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

“A culture is no better than its woods.” W.H. Auden

 

Even in fiction, trees seem to be leading characters in every book my friend, Diana, and I are reading lately. One book runs into another, no, it grows into another and gets passed back and forth. I see no end to it. We are on a tear, Diana and I.

The Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

The Living, by Annie Dillard

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

 

You have to remember: one third of the earth’s land was once forested.

Many of us have a tree we remember from childhood, when trees really were main characters in our lives. It was an apple tree for me in Connecticut. Its branches were as familiar as the fingers on my hands. Being up in the tree was nothing less than Swiss Family Robinson in my mind, until I was called down for dinner.

Two trees in particular captured Diana’s imagination growing up in Pittsburgh. One was a neighbor’s large mulberry tree with branches reaching into her yard. She and her friends constructed tents, “sort of girl clubhouses,” by hanging sheets from the branches. “Late in the summertime, there would be blue/black mulberries all over both yards, and we’d always have stained feet and shoes from running around back there.”

“The other personal tree was a tall fir in front of my grandparents’ summer cottage in Slippery Rock. As a young girl, I used to climb high into that tree, and just perch up there. It smelled like Christmas, and I loved being up in that tree. Nobody knew where I was, nobody could see me up there… my own private getaway.”

Decades later, Diana is once again fortunate to have a certain tree in her life, known as Grandfather Tree. “What can I say about him?” she asks. “Well, it starts with thinking about how long he’s been here, keeping watch over everything… It’s weathered storms and heat, it once held a treehouse where kids played, it survived the awful chainsaw “trimming” of limbs, it’s a favorite perch for bald eagles when they are in the neighborhood, it’s got families of ants running up and down its trunk all day, and it just feels sacred to me.”

In white hands, most of our trees were cut down east to west and on both sides of the US/Canadian border. With a few old-growth exceptions such as Grandfather Tree on island, most of our woods today are second-growth. Today we respect our forests as we do our gardens, but the early twentieth century woods witnessed unbridled logging much like whaling at sea.

“When a colonist looked at a pine tree he saw a ship’s mast; in an oak he saw barrel staves.” (Michael Pollen, Second Nature)

Native Americans knew how to look at trees, how to live with trees, and love them. “The Indian landscape was animated by all manner of spirits, and trees were thought to possess venerable souls one was careful not to offend. In the shade of certain trees one found insight. Trees had feeling, eyes, and ears… and you did not cut one down unless absolutely necessary. Even then,” continues Michael Pollen, “you took the trouble to explain your reasons to the tree and beg its forgiveness.”

Second-growth forests are earth’s second chance, so to speak. And another opportunity for us to recapture, as my friend has, what we knew when we were young.

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Into the Hut

Gertrude Stein did it in her Model T Ford while her partner, Alice, drove the car. Virginia Woolf did it standing up. Saul Bellow stood up as well. Whereas, James Joyce preferred to lie on his stomach in bed.

Nude and cold, Benjamin Franklin did it in a dry bathtub. Agatha Christie, a bathtub filled with warm water.

E.B. White did it in a boathouse on a saltwater farm in Maine. Rita Dove, by candlelight in a cabin. And Annie Dillard, in a tent pitched in her yard on Cape Cod.

Where writers write.

What are the chances? Two friends on two coasts, landing in their respective writing huts. But that is just what is happening.

Dulcie's cabinHers in Maine

Kim's hut Water

Mine on San Juan Island, Washington

In his introduction to Jill Krementz’s photographic book, The Writer’s Desk, John Updike notes “… the requirement of any writing space is that it disappear from the mind’s eye of the inhabitant, to be replaced, by the verbal vistas of poetry and prose.”

Apparently some of us build it so it can disappear.

For me, “a hut in the woods” had always been hypothetical. Nevertheless I coveted it, the proverbial writing hut. What a formidable writer I might be, I thought, if I only had a hut in the woods!

So much more than a room of one’s own, it’s a little house of one’s own.

My friend’s hut is still under construction. “The shell is done and it is insulated now from top to bottom,” she wrote last month. “But it’s still sitting beside my house waiting for walls and flooring and electricity and a bed and a fireplace and a water pitcher and a coffee pot and, well you get the picture.”

I recently asked for an update, but of course everything in Maine is frozen in place and under four or five feet of snow. I learned that she has another site in mind for her hut. Note: my friend’s hut has a gender and it’s a “she.”

“She did not make it to her pond destination before the snows descended upon us. So there she waits, very quiet, for spring thaw. She still has a lighted tree on her porch, like a twinkle in her eye, waiting for the next chapter of life to unfold.”

“So do I,” adds my friend.

My hut sits in an old growth forest at the edge of a bay. Both of us will have water views, water sounds, and water fowl.

My hut came with the house, as a shed. The old shed got a new roof, hardwood floors, French doors, new windows, electricity, insulation, cedar shingle siding, tongue and groove pine ceiling, beaded board walls. More than I ever dreamt.

I had hoped to keep the oars that were up in the rafters, but I lost the rafters when we insulated the ceiling.

And I too wanted to bring a daybed into my writing hut, but an overflow of living room furniture bumped the daybed. To make up for the missing daybed, we put an Aerobed in the hut’s loft, sleeping double.

With a settee, a pair of upholstered French chairs, and a small marble topped coffeetable on guilded legs, my hut looks like a salon. The antique pine table that our family once dined at morning, noon and night is now my writing table. A dresser holds my papers. And books, books, books are piled on an enormous baker’s rack and in a glass-fronted legal bookcase I found in a thrift store on island for forty dollars.

Investments in my writing life are starting to stack up. The MFA at Goddard, attending various writers conferences, a travel writing workshop in Tuscany, and now this. I don’t know how my friend in Maine is going to feel when her hut is up and running, but I am a little afraid of it.

In part, because it is so much more than I, or anyone, needed. And in part, because writing is hard work.

“Our task as we sit (or stand or lie) is to rise above the setting, with its comforts and distractions,” explains John Updike, “into a relationship with our ideal reader, who wishes from us nothing but the fruits of our best instincts, most honest inklings, and firmest persuasions.”

John Cheever, who wrote in a room looking into a wood, liked to imagine that his readers were out there, in that forest.

From my hut in the San Juan Islands to her hut in Maine, we are not alone.

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