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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Observations On the Train – Part One

Swaying with the rhythm of the rails, today’s trains glide rather than clack along the tracks. In 1925, Southern Pacific was contracted to build a railroad spanning from Roseville, California to Springfield Junction, Oregon near the town of Eugene. This feat of engineering surpasses the imagination: men with picks and hammers, the ringing of iron, and the leaching of sweat and blood from their pores. Memory frames such as these are rarely conjured by most passengers. Instead they stagger from car to car on unsteady sea legs to feast on provender or panorama, occasionally guzzling far too much booze. One woman in particular on this train has become loud and inebriated. Attired from head to toe in white, her small frame weighed down by too much gold jewelry, she brags about her PhD in English Literature. In slurred parlance unusual for the decorum of the average elderly university professor, I silently question the veracity of her assertion. Others gaze at the magnificent scenery, while passing under tunnel after cool tunnel, carved through mountain upon mountain. Old telegraph wires bisect the beauty of vast lakes and rivers pooled at the foot of the Cascades. Apparently the cost of taking them down trumps any improvement in the majesty of the view.

The Conductor strikes up a conversation with a few of us in the Parlour Car. His retirement is imminent, and he is anxious to get into his wood shop and create things of beauty doubtlessly inspired by twenty years on this particular run. Pointing out grazing grounds for deer and elk, he pauses to indicate a hillside that collapsed onto the train a year ago, taking out tall fir and pines along with their giant root systems. Tumbling downhill onto the moving train, miraculously no one was hurt. They had to detach some cars and move the debris, then move the cars again. In an offhand manner, he pulls out his wallet and shows me a black and white photograph of his Los Angeles policeman father, killed in the line of duty when his boy was seven years old. Buddies of his dad on the force stepped in to replace the irreplaceable, and he recalls with fondness: I lost a dad, but gained over a hundred of them.

 

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