Barkskins

Listening to an Annie Proulx’s Barkskins on audiobook while painting today, I think I am no storyteller. A poet, yes. Fleshing out characters for a story seems intrusive somehow, as though I were borrowing another’s eyes so that I might view the world in a different way. And in return, the spirits behind those eyes would have a right to claim real estate in my brain, intruding on what little peace of mind I currently possess in these crazy times.

Yet I am ever enthralled by the talented storytellers among us. Proulx at eighty-plus must have spent years researching the late seventeenth century forward, telling the tale of how abundant forests of the northeast, along with their original inhabitants, were impacted and stripped of a way of being forever. First the French settlers who came to New France (now Canada) to seek their fortunes in the lumber business and how they related to its native human inhabitants (the Mi’kmaq, pronounced Mikmaw). Then as lumbering migrated south into Maine and New Hampshire, the English imposing settlements where they wished, nevermind the tribes who had lived, loved and traversed these places for generations. The horrors of eminent domain, as these interlopers insisted the land belonged to whomever worked it – and they could not fathom how living in harmony with nature and residing in wigwams could possibly constitute any rights whatsoever. For the part of the Indians, they could not comprehend the white man’s obsession with surplus. One elder simply could not grasp why white men had to build such large homes with such high roofs – did they expect visits from giants? Confusion also stemmed from the concept of land ownership, something I’ve struggled with for years while holding title to my own real estate. Stewardship has always been our way of life, no matter where we’ve lived.

The relationships Proulx entertains possess the power to pull me into the story to the point that I find it difficult to put it aside. After thirty-four years in the Maine woods in a place known to be summer grounds for Wabanaki tribes, I only begin to apprehend the fullness of history of that place thanks to Proulx, although I always felt the magical nature of the forest. Knowing the varieties of trees from lumber families in that region, things begin to click. The land’s profusion of hemlock and birch stemmed from the clearcutting of more valuable species like white pine, maple and oak, which I was aware of in a general sense. Yet to understand those markets in a richer way is to finally mourn the loss of place in the name of displaced wildlife and native people. And even though Hawaii is clearly our home now, how could I forget those formative years in which I was lucky enough to reside that close to the heartbeat of Mother Earth’s woody breast?

 

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Survivors

On this wet Sunday afternoon, quiet beckons
with slender tendrils and we head out, dogless
and solitary, seeking only a spit of dry ground
to wander the rock-encrusted coastline
just down the road from our little town;

Recently returned from half a world away
heads full of urban din, the endless thrum
that redefines silence as simply a lack
of jackhammers and belching traffic,
the background buzz of commuting hordes
tromping ceaselessly along sidewalks rimmed
with unearthed asphalt overturning business
as usual long enough to enhance the means
by which one might traverse one end
of concrete jungle to the other, tracks
not yet laid onto ground before being
seamlessly pressed into blacktop,
correcting grey stone walkways
and the polished granite foyers
of high-end hotels inconvenienced just now
by this perpetual digging;

We are survivors, my husband and I, who
between us possess knowledge of the sort
it takes to fashion a living from soil
and surroundings, though I’ve said it
countless times before, those skills
would languish in a place built
on broken stone and steel;

Give us rich volcanic earth and blue breath,
the howl of wind and rain driven sideways
or straight down and penetrating, turquoise
ocean troughs tempered by amber fields
of scrub and twists of prickly kiawe rising
to knobs of verdant velvet and ironwood
clad cinder cones punctuated only by flocks
of paper-white egrets seeking shelter
in the paint brush hues of evening,
and we are home.

WAITING

What do I expect

as death approaches the air’s edge,

colors once borne by maple and oak

now displayed garishly on store manikins,

tight muscles and thoughts

that curl back on themselves;

 

Hunger for inspiration, the drawing in

of breath begging to be twice inhaled,

cupped hands, skin hardened

like tanned leather over bony knot

of muscles, woolen softness

over all;

 

What’s real,

what artifice.

iu