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To Build a Fire

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Feeling nostalgic already, I left the frost flowers before they could melt in the quick-warming sun 

and made my way down into the Valley of Orchids where on May 4, 2020, the kids and I found a population of showy orchis on our land,

                                                         Phoebe and showy orchis, backlit

one of the best and most unexpected things we've ever found here! There was a little bunch of them growing around a ring of mossy stones

stones that now, in November, look like this.

With awe and wonder, when we came down here back in May, it hit us that this mossy ring of rocks where delicate little orchids were growing  was a campfire ring the kids had built with their Daddy when they were very young. Late one January afternoon, as the sun was slipping down this valley, we had packed some hamburger, a cast-iron skillet, a can of beans, a little saucepan, silverware and bowls and various implements of fire and cavemannery down into the woods. I remember it clanking and rattling as we descended through briars and snow.

It was the coldest day of the year with snow lying deep, and it had taken absolutely forever to pick the site, gather kindling, get the hamburgers done and the baked beans even remotely warm, using the wet wood we scrounged from under the snow, and the feeble flames we tried to encourage by blowing on them. Many of Bill's highly exciting and hastily planned adventures were thus. A LOT of effort and brouhaha to accomplish something that would have been (as I muttered in my head) ever so much easier to do at home in the kitchen. 

My little saucepan and frypan all got black from the smoke and it was dead dark by the time we trudged back up out of the gully and home. Thank goodness he'd also thought to bring a flashlight! There were snow clothes piled deep in the foyer, icy puddles on the tile and lots of gear to unpack. That's what I remember, as unofficial crew, but I'm sure the kids remember it more glowingly!

And here we were, probably 16 years later, looking down at the ring of stones, remembering how good those burgers were, the taste of smoked beef mingling with the freezing air, when we finally were able to eat them. Remembering the trudge through the snow, and the sweet long-ago days when their big bounding dad had crazy ideas of what would be fun for all of us to do. 

I was thinking about all these things down on that little point of land, and I was thinking about how this land holds so many of our secrets, our memories and our joys, and just then I turned to my right to see a hollow beech, a miracle beech, with a shell of bark standing firm around nothing at all. It was missing its  heartwood.

I walked around to the other side of the tree. It doesn't look great, kind of cankery, in fact, but it gives little hint that it's completely hollow inside. 

There's a spray of leaves at the top, coming off live's making quite a show for all it's been through. 

The bark seems to be trying to meet itself on either side of the chasm, reaching out in strange protoplasmic shapes.

Trees never cease to amaze me, the way they find a way to survive the most awful insults-in this case, lethal heart rot. It takes a tree a long, long time to die, though, and it does a lot of living on the way.

And don't I sometimes feel like that beech tree, all hollowed out, but throwing branches and leaves out anyway, shouting "I'm alive! I'm alive! I get to be here! and hallelujah for that!"

because what else is there to do? There is so much to be celebrated on this good green earth. I get to cut trails on my own land, down to this magic valley full of snowy memories and spring orchids and beautiful oaks and beeches all year round. I get to bring my kids and dearest friends to this secret, almost-pristine hideaway that I actually own. That nobody's going to cut or ruin out from under us. I get to listen for the jingling bells of a good dog, circling around to come check on me as he makes his doggy dream rounds, free to run. And all that, my love of my work, and my wonderful kids and sisters and brother and friends, adds up to a life I feel deeply blessed to inhabit.

Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I finished hand- cutting the trail all the way down to the orchid patch, as a Thanksgiving gift to my kids and me. I tied yellow flagging all along trail, kicked rocks and logs out of the way, pulled up endless multiflora and honeysuckle plants, brutalized Russian olive shrubs that were too big to cut, and cleared head and heartspace all along the trail until it opened out into blessed beech forest you can see clear through.

Done with my labors, I came diagonally up a very steep slope, picking my way along a deer trail, and looked up at an enormous beech, thinking, "That's got to be our line tree, or someone would have cut it by now."

and sure enough, there were the foolish wires of human territoriality, buried deep in its elephant's skin. And stretching out behind it were the remains of a stone wall, a much more ancient and beautiful way to say, "This piece be mine." 

And scuffing around in the leaves a bit, I turned up a third way that humans serve notice; a surveyor's pin, demarcating the official edge of our property.

I felt the ancients around me--the old beeches; the people who nailed that wire to a young tree; the people before them who piled the shaly rock; the people before them to whom it didn't occur to mark anything.

 And the forest people who hide from us, and sometimes get hung up in our cruel wires.

I found their beds.

I found where the heat of their bodies had ironed the oak leaves. 

It's good to find the beds of the forest people

and to go from smilax to smilax, 

looking at the hard-won patina on their leaves, the only real color in the woods now.

I cut multiflora and honeysuckle like nobody's business, but I leave most of the smilax, because it belongs here, and several crazy, wonderful caterpillars need it.

I love those little leathern hearts, beat up but still glowing through the long, slow autumn.

Now, while the turkey brines and everyone is still asleep, Curtis and I are going down to check our work.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 


Happy thanksgiving to all of you! And love and peace and joy and good food!

Goddamn gurl, you lay me flat. Love you.

Such sweet memories to make and be thankful for. I am thankful for the treasures you share.
Love, Kathy in Delray Beach

Thank you, Julie, for this gift and all the ways you share your wonderful world and life with us - you open our hearts along with yours. Nose boops to Curtis and hugs to you and your chirrens. Love from Snitzi Lynne and our world, to yours.

What a beautiful piece, a Thanksgiving gift. thank you.

Thank you, Julie, for sharing and caring. Much love to you and the kids. Hugs, pats, and turkey scraps for Curtis! Happy, Happy Thanksgiving!!

This is beautiful. When I walk in our woods I can hear our children's cries/whoops/shouts- and barking and meows - from the memories that are part of who we are. The orchids are amazing! You don't find those gifts unless you go out there. I'll go out today. The poignancy of your words are magnificent. The beech tree is amazing from every side. Soon I'll be ready to get a new dog, but not yet. Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks so much for sharing. Love, hugs, and pats to you all.

Done in the kitchen, that family cookout would likely have been forgotten!

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