Friday, July 27, 2012

Legacy of Ocean Point II: My Aunt Elizabeth

Aunt Elizabeth's cottage in Ocean Point, Maine
I wrote this poem to Aunt Elizabeth sometime in the 80's when I  had just crossed the threshold into middle age. Aunt Elizabeth survived until her late 90's and died in 2001. She was born and raised on the coast of Maine and her spirit and the spirit of Ocean Point (where she and her family spent their summers) were inseparable. When she could no longer maneuver her aging body across the coastal rocks, she would set out in a skiff, rowing from Grimes Cove all the way out to open sea.

To Aunt Elizabeth
You were the one
Who taught me to work with clay,

How to wait out a rainy or foggy day
Creating clumsy replicas of birds
Like the ones who came to your feeder.

You taught me to mark the weather's change
By the pattern of morning cobwebs
On the lawn,

And where to go for blueberries
With a bucket over my arm;

And I followed where your grownup feet would go,
Lithe under branches, supple over rocks.

Yours was the hand I could always let go of,
Wading through slippery rockweed up to my waist,
Small and exposed on the margin of the sea.

You warned me sometimes, but only in a way
That a seasoned explorer might warn
A bold apprentice.

And now you are old:
Your reluctant bones resist
The crags and contours of this granite coast,

And I wander alone,
Lithe under branches, supple over rocks,
A mile down the coast, alone
To the places both of us loved.

I have wondered at times whether it is best
To leave you behind or refuse myself those pleasures
Of the hidden caves:  the Dragon and the Witch,
Or the wide and shallow tide pool you call Diana's Bath.

I know you don't want to be helped
Like some antique statue boosted across a rock
That you cannot climb yourself,
Or carried like fragile cargo across a crevice.

You cannot possibly know
How much it hurts to lose you,
Like seeing the ocean slipping back,
Revealing, bit by bit,
In tidepool and in tiny crack.
So many small and vulnerable lives.

I will try not to burden you with this,
But respect your freedom
As once you respected my own.

The next wave coming in will be mine alone
To take its thrust with courage, or else give in;

Mine will be one of the hands
You can let go of.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Legacy of Ocean Point. Part I: Almost Paradise

Maine. Just hearing that word as a child would induce in me a sudden stillness of anticipation. Are we really going this year? When? For how long?

During my early childhood we drove there by car from Washington, D.C. with my father swearing over clogged traffic in the Baltimore Tunnel. Later, Mother and I took the train (two trains actually) all the way to Bath. Then we'd take a bus to Wiscassit where Aunt Elizabeth would pick us up in her car and drive us to Ocean Point.  At every stage in the journey, excitement would rise in me until I thought I might burst for pure joy.

That was our destination -- Ocean Point, a peninsula with Linikin Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Huge ledges of solid rock (mostly granite)  led down to the sea. At low tide the lower rocks exposed rockweed, sea lettuce, Irish moss, barnacles, mussels, starfish and a million other varieties of marine flora and fauna. Offshore the landscape was broken with islands. So many islands. Closest to us were Green Island, Fisherman's Island, Ram Island with its lighthouse, Outer Heron and the two White Islands. "What's your favorite?" someone would always ask. I  usually flip-flopped between Green Island with its tiny cap of grass and  sprinkle of conifers  and the larger, thickly-forested  Outer Heron.

Cottages built in the New England style line the shore. Many of them have been handed down from generation to generation. Most of them have gardens and I am not speaking here of tidy plots of  limp petunias and stunted marigolds coaxed from unfriendly soils. What I am referring to can best be described as a botanical explosion-- enormous hydrangeas ranging from pure white to marine blue to amethyst. Yellow and orange day lillies, purple loosetrife, giant daisies and black-eyed Susans. These plants are uncommonly well fed, their roots feasting on the richness of moist forest loam.

Ocean Point is Nature in a frenzy of generosity, frantically emptying her conucoepia  into the brief few months of the New England summer.

In fact, Ocean Point was the best of all my summers and what sins I committed there from bratty childhood to stormy adolescence to young adulthood were overwritten, outshouted and upstaged by the magnitude and splendor of all that surrounded me. Bad things could happen there but they were like small burnt places in the earth so quickly overtaken by new growth you scarcely remember what accident or act of ill will caused the brief deformity.

In the end what I remember most is leaping from rock to rock past the Witch's and the Dragon's Caves all the way to Diana's Bath  which is an enormous tide pool, replenished but never entirely covered by the sea.

What else?  Toasting marshmallows over a wood fire on rainy days, wading through tide pools rockweed swirling round my bare legs, reaching through crevices to retrieve an escaped lobster buoy, swimming in Grimes Cove with the cold salt waves bearing me up then pulling myself up onto the wooden float to lie down and let the sun warm my skin that tingles pleasantly.

I remember when blueberries still grew in small open places of the woods, how Aunt Elizabeth would bake them into pies, pancakes, cobblers or just serve them in a dish with cream.  They were smaller than their commercially-grown cousins  -- sweeter, too.  We picked raspberries, also, and those have remained through the years so that in July of 2012 my daughter and grandsons step off the road to reach in gingerly through thorny branches plucking one or two to devour on the spot.

Is this a paean to some earthly paradise? Not  entirely. If humans love Ocean Point, so do mosquitoes and the dreaded black flies. From an anthropomorphic prospective, these pesky inhabitants serve to remind us that we have not, in fact, died and gone to heaven. 

Bug bites notwithstanding, leaving Ocean Point is invariably heartbreaking.  I have been fortunate to have visited and/or lived in several of earth's uniquely beautiful places. Why Ocean Point stands apart I cannot quite explain, perhaps because it is the product of so many memories, so many experiences of joy and shared love.

Sometimes waking from a dream or walking to the laundry room in my apartment building, I imagine I can smell fir balsam mixed with rockweed and mossy loam.  As for the slap and hiss of wave against  granite rock, I can do no better than quote Yates and say...

"I hear it in the deep heart's core."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Main Cause for Rejoicing

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Last year the city of Los Alamos did not celebrate the Fourth of July.

Half the town was empty of residents due to the Las Conchas Fire which still burned nearby on the slopes of the Jemez Mountains. It was, however, no longer a threat to the town.

My family and I, having just returned from our one-week evacuation stint in Albuquerque, met with a friend outside of the local pizza joint and watched the mountains burn while indulging in dark humor. My grandsons played in the parking lot, and, for some reason we were all quite happy.

Well, you can't  remain sad forever without going crazy.

This year, Los Alamos was spared the worst of the Southwest fires and did celebrate the Glorious Fourth, but without fireworks.

We resumed the tradition of the family picnic at Overlook Park. This involves buying a ton of food and hanging out together in a large field flanked by food stands and inflated bouncy structures. Families do this either through genuine feelings of kinship or a begrudging sense of familial obligation. Or both.
After we'd positioned the folding chairs in some rough approximation of a circle, my daughter took me aside and pointed to where the superintendent of schools was strolling across the field. "Remember to watch your mouth," she cautioned me. I have a tendency to think of swear words as just...well, words.  I'm half deaf, too, so whatever I say tends to get yelled out rather than spoken. It's just one of the many ways I have of embarrassing my daughter.

My son-in-law's family arrived, lugging numerous folding chairs, a canopy and several ice chests and looking rather disgruntled.

My middle grandson and his cousin, ages eleven and twelve respectively, soon took off, merging with a cluster of school friends, including girls. Both of them, a it turns out, are quite the ladies' men.

My youngest grandson, age seven, darted hither and yon, clearly loving the open space, the food booths, the people and the holiday atmosphere. He is the one who loves -- openly and unconditionally -- every single member of his extended family. Because of this and because he is cute and charmingly eccentric, his affection is amply reciprocated.

My oldest grandson, age 14, hung out with the adults consuming cookies and complaining repeatedly that all his friends were on vacation.

My daughter's father (aka my ex-husband) who was here on a brief visit, amused himself by purchasing various beverages including a mango latte.

At some point, the high school band proceeded to play a medley of patriotic songs.

Then the clouds moved in...

...a huge cumulus siege engine, dark and menacing.  Like a great celestial cannon, it began firing what felt like cannon ball- sized raindrops that were almost, but not quite, hailstones. Everyone began scurrying about packing up the food, taking down the canopy, collapsing the folding chairs, etc.

Then the heavens opened and we were all instantly drenched in pounding rain.

I grabbed my youngest grandson, along with two bags of uneaten food and a chair and dashed off to find the car. Our route to safety took longer than it should have because I can never , for the life of me, remember where we parked.

Wet to the skin, we climbed into the van where my daughter had already taken shelter. The rest of the family followed eventually.

Once we were all settled, my daughter turned to her father seated next to me in the car, all soggy and shivering.  "Welcome to the monsoon season," she said.

By now the storm was moving off. That's the way it goes in the Southwest -- brief, violent thunderstorms that begin sometime in the afternoon or evening. This time, at least, the lightning didn't come close.

I stared out the window, happily taking in the myriad puddles, dripping foliage and scampering people in rain-saturated clothing.

"This," I thought but didn't say, "is the best thing that's happened all day."

Not to mention that what's left of our forests have been spared for another year. Definitely, the main cause for rejoicing.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Cost of Greed

I live on a plateau seven thousand feet above sea level in North Central New Mexico. This habitat is called the Pinon-Juniper Forest though the dominant tree here, apart from juniper, is Ponderosa Pine
A bit higher up, in the Subalpine Zone, pines mingle with fir and spruce.  Verdant meadows  moistened by melting snow promote diminutive wildflowers harvested by bees and brilliant butterflies. There are chipmonks, squirrels and small black and white woodpeckers. Dragonflies patrol the more sluggish sections of streams and garter snakes glide harmlessly through knee-high grass.

Two years ago, I called this region paradise. I don't know what to call it now.

Not that we weren't warned, and so what has happened should come as no surprise. I'm referring, of course, to human-caused global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. In the Southwest this translates to extended periods of drought which turn the landscape into an open invitation to forest fire.

There have always been fires, of course, but not of the ferocity, frequency and extensiveness of what we have now.

In the year 2000, the Cerro Grande Fire destroyed 400 homes in the city of Los Alamos. Last year the Las Conchas fire destroyed over 100,000 acres, and recently, the Little Bear Fire near Carlsbad Caverns has burned nearly 5,000 acres and is still not completely contained. Each new wildfire is labelled the worst in recorded history.

Among the many examples of human ingenuity is the ability to turn Lothlorien into Mordor in the space of a few weeks.

Zombie sentinels.  Those are the words that came to mind during my latest trip to the Jemez Mountains. The slopes are crowded with the arrow-straight, blackened forms of what once were the soft contours of native conifers. And yet, to me, these trees don't seem entirely dead as if some dark will could still muster them into action. "When Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane..."

 Around these solitary trunks new growth flourishes, enough to convince some people that forest fires are really not such a bad thing after all. So long as they're kept away from human habitations.

But the new growth is not the same as what was there before. Locusts,  miniature oaks and various low-growing shrubs but not pines or firs or spruce. Those will not come back for many years, if they come back at all.

Recently a guide from our local environmental center predicted that our once-forested mountains will become a shrub land. And so from the ashes of the inferno comes life -- a new and different life, a competitive tangle of rambling, ground-hugging plants replacing the towering pines, the majestic spruce and fir.

I wish I had not lived long enough to see this. I wish I had protested harder, fought more fiercely on behalf of the natural beauty that I love. For, if I place the lion's share of the blame on corporate profit-seekers, I must also place part of it on myself.

On TV shows such as Law and Order the cops always say to the families of the victims, "I'm sorry for your loss."

Such a feeble, inadequate sentiment yet it comes to mind now because it's all I can think of to say to my grandsons' children who will probably never wander in the shade of the Southwestern forests.

I am sorry for your loss...