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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Fishways

Onto the written page they march, good little minions
of inspiration cultivated since childhood, dipping pen
into wells of collective memory, stories taking shape
like the smooth drape of river water flowing
over the Penobscot Dam, where I would sit
and contemplate the lot I was dealt that brought me
to that stark beauty where ice, wind and water honed
and fashioned bones and spirit, remaking refinement
into rugged woods nymph, intrepid wanderer,
philosopher’s stone placed into trembling hands;

To these ancient Wabanaki fishing grounds came
lumberjacks floating logs down sacred rivers,
suffocating sustenance with their detritus and paper pulp,
displacing people versed in surviving extremes, easily
pushed now to the fringes of their own flesh and blood
on land nobody wanted until outsiders came and took charge,
populated it with brick and steel and drunken street brawls,
sending refugees like rats into alleyways where they sat noisily
mumbling incoherencies, greasy caps pulled low
across weary faces etched with soot, intoxicated
on sterno strained through grimy socks and rammed
down throats parched raw from lack of dreaming,
a pebble’s throw from the river, giver of life, mother
of fish, silently dying like the last breath of spring;

Time changes little of the nature of places, there is
wildness percolating in deep crevasses of memory,
every rock and watercourse recalls its origins in obscurity
like the things we forgot, misplaced keys or human conscience,
and when the last fish is caught, there are traces that remember
in the dormancy of darkness and it will be discovered
when the last plume is plucked and the osprey soars no more
and something dredges from the depths like a slow-moving thing
winding up the ancient fishways like it did when time was younger,
gills flexing lifeblood, scales shimmering in the moonlight.

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