Very soon, my dear writing compatriot and beloved friend, Sue Cummings, will be publishing a memoir about how she became a writer; specifically, how she became a writer through the magic of the July Women’s Writing Retreats up at Pyramid Life Center in Paradox, New York. I have attended retreats there since 2014, and met Sue in 2015 on a sun dappled path near the lake.
This July, several of us had hoped to attend in person (for the first time since 2019) but the B variants of Covid-19 struck many in our online writing community and struck hard, with serious health implications for everyone who contracted it. We decided caution was best.
Four of us met remotely and wrote and wrote in the intense July heat of our respective homes (New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and Maryland). We came to understand that the experience of Adirondack summer writing camp had been planted deep within us. We brought forward those memories of the loons and owls and osprey–along with the serious intent of our fellow women writers from over the years–and created new memories and new writing.
Here is the poem that came to me, almost whole, one Wednesday morning before our group met for lunch on Zoom.
Unlock the door
Enter the heat warily
Sniff the air for dead mice
Listen for wasp intruders
Smell only warm old wood.
Gaze on zinnias
crazy-haired, crisp curled petals
not lush pink, not glowing gold
Swirly whirly on their way to done
on their way to death--
brown-gray leaks from the leaves.
Two days before
eight zinnias gleamed green-stalked
wrapped in brown paper
cut ends dripped
on the quick walk back
from the farmers market
(that bustle of unmasked throngs)
While white-snouted I
won't let go
they have let go
to splash open faced to sunshine,
dogs, tamales, tubs of lemonade
thick lemon slices that float in sugar ice.
Sue wants to include this poem in her book, and as soon as her memoir is available, I will post the details here in the blog.
Hurray for the support of fellow writers, and our communities far and wide. That week of writing and reading with others has rejuvenated me; therefore, I will say–“More to follow, from me as well!”
Sometimes, in the midst of chaos, uncertainty, sadness, frustration, stupefaction and anger (much of what this country has been experiencing for quite some time and especially recently) or sometimes in the middle of life stretching out so dull and repetitive and without reprieve (which we have also endured)—something that feels miraculous shows up. What have I learned to do with it?
Take it in fully, knowing there’s plenty more chaos out there and we’ve got to see everything that we have, not just what is difficult.
Examine it carefully and lovingly, appreciate it from all angles, marvel over it with others.
Appreciate all the ways it could have been missed and also—wow, there it was.
“It” was a hike up Coney Mountain in the Horseshoe Lake Wild Forest north of Long Lake, New York. The rest of my week off from the day job had been catch-up from the holidays (finally making gifts), work on the book (still not available online yet but we’re close), and learning once again to take joy in household projects.
This hike made “time off” a vacation.
According to local folks we chatted with briefly on the trail, it had snowed a week prior and then a more delicate snow dusted the trees on two other days. Unusually, they’d had no wind the whole week, while the sky stayed full of gray clouds. These specific meteorological conditions (once in a decade? once in a lifetime for an intermittent mountain hiker like me?) combined to create what we found.
Because that day, the sun came out.
Therefore, the snow that clung thickly to every millimeter of the branches, stems and twigs was lit from above. The dry frostiness at fifteen degrees Fahrenheit created jewels of every flake, with flashes and glints of rainbow: literal scintillation. On the hike up, shades of blue-white light filled the deeper woods while frosted glacial erratics (boulders dropped from the movement of ancient ice sheets) slumbered between hemlocks and birches. A red squirrel dashed across our path.
The sky above curved a flat cornflower blue. We mistook the white in the sky as clouds beyond the canopy when in fact there were no clouds on that side of the mountain. The puffs were full heads of glistening tree hair, crowns of snow in filigree as well as stubby clubs of silver.
What we found at the end of the trail, up at 2,265 feet, was not only the expected 360 degree view of the Adirondack High Peaks we’d experienced in the autumn, but a frosted world that left us wordless and laughing.
I have been trying for days to describe what made it so moving and joyful. Does it help to say it was one of the top ten hikes of my life?
The bright at the top couldn’t be viewed without sunglasses. As we turned in astonished circles, we discerned flowing blankets of white becoming darker in the distance. The most pure white appeared in the close-in trees and bushes, then below us the tops of full grown evergreens arose white-beige; further away the mountain tops full of trees flashed a shade darker of brown-white. Finally between two evergreens, the restful dark blue of Tupper Lake came into view, with its own islands of brown dotted with miniature Christmas trees.
A forest of saguaro cactus snow shapes surrounded us. The heavy buildup of frozen crystals looked like hoarfrost—layer after layer of hoarfrost, fat like a corndog. It wasn’t icy either, just weightless and fluffy and when I touched it with my finger it crumbled away.
If there had been any wind of note during the previous week, this spectacle would have disintegrated into blobs of snow on the ground, and we would never have known what we missed.
As I snapped image after image, I was afraid of distorting what I was seeing—I had on polarized lenses, could I see through the camera what I was seeing in my eyes, what was really there in front of me? Were the photos all going to be shaky because of the huff-and-puff of the climb and/or because I was so excited about what we saw?
We stayed up top for a half hour, devouring chicken sandwiches with leaf lettuce that startled in its glowing greenness. As we happily headed down, the woods dimmed and shadowed around us; we had taken in all the light we could.
I keep returning to what we saw, how we felt. I can’t get it out of my mind.
The world was so bright up there, so fiercely, sweetly bright. Snow sparkled silently, blindingly, rainbows and diamonds in every direction.
It surprised us but was natural and beautiful even if unexpected, was somehow delicate and yet enduring.
Scarlet oak leaves in the Vlomankill, Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, November 2019
There is something about an autumn leaf caught on a rock in moving water.
Something about the way sunlight hits the tumble of dry and wet with a red-orange glow; the way brown water softly flows around the stone and wobbles the leaf back and forth; how the leaf in turn stirs the water as it rests.
Under the bridge leading into the Great Sacandaga Lake, Northville NY.
Who moves whom? In the water under this bridge, the rock creates ripples—but there are also underwater leaves to the left, almost out of the frame, that ripple the water on its way toward that rock-and-leaf.
There is something in a leaf captured on its way to somewhere else.
Like it’s catching its breath at a temporary stopping place, or making a choice to step out of the moving water and observe.
There is something, something to be noted.
Beaver Tree Trail on a fine November Saturday, Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, Delmar NY.
(I am certain there are leaves on rocks here along the Beaver Tree Trail. We just can’t see them past the clouds and blue sky over and under the bridge.)
What rocks do you rest on, on your way to someplace else? How do you catch your breath and take in the late fall sun? How does it feel to be out of the rushing water?
From the bridge on Route 30, facing Simon Pond, across from Raquette Pond and Tupper River.
It was a mustard-and-rust-colored couple of fall days through the northern Adirondacks, driving Keene Valley and Lake Placid, returning via Blue Mountain Lake and Speculator. The white trunks of broken-topped birches climbed up the side of Route 73/9N along the rocky AuSable River. Rain had been heavy the previous week, so High Falls Gorge rushed amber with hemlock tannin’d water, reminding me of Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, colored also by swamp trees. I piloted my car next to flowing mountain ridges covered with smoky smears, indicating trees whose leaves had already fallen; but then there were these spires of gold, stands of trees matted in green by the pines and balsam firs around and behind them.
The instant these particular trees sparkled at me from a distance, I was entranced; they seemed like perfect Christmas trees, but colored flaxen and lit from within. What were they?
Tamaracks, I was told. What a poetic name for a tree, an Algonquian name I learned later, the only deciduous conifer–a tree that seasonally loses its needles, with a color change first from bright green to yellow.
Tamarack. Here was a plant I’d heard mentioned as part of the name of a place–Tamarack Lodge, Tamarack Inn–but never observed live. Didn’t know they were the source of turpentine, or another moniker for a Larch. I’d even seen the outlines of them on wood signs, just thought it was Plain Ol’ Woods, or Evergreens. And here they aren’t ever-green at all.
Ecstatic with their discovery, I spent my day searching for a wonderful picture to take of the Golden Tamaracks. My travel companion told me they show up in patches here and there, but warned they would not be seen when we headed south, out of the spruce flats of the Adirondack Park. I spied them here and there, but the roadside shoulder was too narrow to park on, or shadows marred their brilliance. Some half-way passable photos were taken at a quick muddy pullover, but electric lines disfigured the oh-so-unforgettable vista I craved in my viewfinder. I comforted myself with more common rust colored beech leaves and the sparse quaking aspen foliage.
Beech leaves, which will stay on the trees all winter, dabbing the snowy landscape with splashes of brown.
Finally, at the end of the day, heading back to the main road from a side trip up Route 8 in Wells, we came upon a single glorious glowing larch, lit by the sunset beyond it, a calendar-perfect shot backed by the curves of the mountains. And yet…I was tired from the fresh air of the day, the five hundred snaps already taken, watching river otters and walking out to Oxbow Marsh at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake. I didn’t want to stop the car and get out yet another time.
So in my lethargy I sat back and watched the tamarack approach, growing taller then taller still, rising like the trunk and down-thrust arms of a giant slender woman, until I was finally staring from below, a child gawping up at the enormity of its towering parent.
The sun behind revealed the black bumpy outlines of the very top shoots, and I twisted my head around to see the back of it, as my auto moved on into the setting sunlight of Route 30 south.
Then the golden tamarack was past, gone, somehow irretrievable even though I could have stopped the car and turned around. As soon as the moment was over, I regretted not photographing it. It became a lost moment, like other lost moments, not seized fully, followed by wondering if I would try to recapture it ever after.
But–I wanted to live it, see it, feel my mouth widen into an O as we advanced on the tree, let the light of the west-falling sun hit the back of my eyeballs, fully; hold that–and let it go. I decided to make do with the other, less impressive photos, to remind me of the one that got away, my own catch and release program for that single vision–only with a mental catch, then mental release. Of course now I attempt to relive it in words, amorphous dances around the reality, redrawing the picture in my head from many angles.
Even this morning, I see the yellow elm leaves outside my kitchen window carried off by the insistent wind, my red ivy leaves thumping the window hard as they fall, the ivy opposite now deepening its blush and splashing Neapolitan against the brick. I feel the urge to take pictures of the shift, but don’t; I can’t stop the change, can’t hold every second, have to let some of them go, and allow the memory to mellow into blurred edges, warm thoughts, awareness of having had an experience without clutching desperately at specificity of the details.
Autumn has come. Autumn will go. In the winter, spring and summer–indeed, until I can search them out again next fall–I will remember (not through a spectacular photo) that I have discovered Golden Tamaracks.