I should have known this might happen.
I should have known those blissful days might end and nameless evenings of camp fires and star gazing would give way to a time with harsher edges.
I should have known that a love like this changes, and at some point, you’re forced to ask yourself what it is you love and why you stay.
When that sensation of floating through eight or twelve seasons of rapture subsides, you know you have to ask yourself if it’s time to move on to a new landscape.
I should have known all this because I’ve read and reread two books in particular, underlining and heart-tripping over the words of Rick Bass.
I admire this man. Once, while spending an evening in the company of my dog, Tucker, after a reading in northern New York, Rick Bass declared Tucker was the Rolls Royce of Mutts.
This, from a man who immortalized his German pointer, in Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had. For that comment alone, I place even higher esteem in his words.
First, I read Winter, that slow, honest account of how Bass fell in love with a little place in the Yaak Valley of Montana and never left.
He said he got two years of “free grace” … “wandering around taking from the grace of the woods, and just watching things and listening.”
He followed that with The Book of Yaak, describing the fight within himself to counter all the pleasure he’d drunk from his valley with giving something back to it—to fight for what roadless wilderness remained.
Letters, meetings with Congressmen ensued.
The outside world hurtled in.
My first few years in these Adirondack mountains in northern New York were like that—free grace.
Days flowed by—not by calendar or clock, but by heartbeats and that natural rhythm people say they find when they enter the woods.
A Wednesday might start with an hour of dogs frolicking in the field, four hours of real work at my computer, a run in the woods, a batch of brownies, more work at my computer (this time while basking in the sun on the porch), a man and his dog pulling up to the door in their truck at 5 pm and taking Tucker and me to the lake, and finally a whole evening sitting around the fire drinking beer and watching flames tease the stars.
Day after day, week after week.
Every breath felt like that first gulp taken when you resurface from the depths of a lake.
Then, there was that Sunday in October, coming down off of Noonmark mountain in the dark, where I felt more panther than human, pouncing down into the valley below.
In the pickup, on the ride home, I sat between two men whose breaths smelled of granite and pine needles.
I wanted to climb rock the way they had climbed the cliffs at Noonmark that day.
I wanted to exhale earth.
I imagined someday, maple sap would run from my breasts.
I’d claim veins of quartz and tourmaline.
That first year, the rest of the world—the suburbia I’d left behind, the war news that girdled the airwaves, and the atrocities of humanity—faded away.
I kept sighing at the bliss of it all.
Yet, I kept pulling out The Book of Yaak.
But instead of listening to the tones of panic that Bass spoke of—the intermittent urge to abandon art for advocacy—I concentrated only on that deep knowledge of a place.
I made that man who took me stargazing read Bass.
In bed one night, stuffed under a flannel comforter as the September chill whistled through the drafty window, that man rolled over, towards me, gripping The Book of Yaak:
“We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and river, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence,” he read.
“That is my favorite part,” I exhaled.
Until then, the curve of his shoulder was my favorite thing about him.
Now, it was this recitation.
I imagined my life extending this way deep into time, deep into the mountains.
I imagined all my nights being this cozy, all my slumber sliding by with the exhaustion of a hike, a ski, or a run.
It’s been five years now.
That man left my bed a long time ago, but I sometimes wish he’d come back, if only give me a few more moments like that.
I see what Bass means about the moon always having to answer to the sun.
I wake up some nights, heart pounding.
The outside world has infiltrated the blue-lined border of this place.
The only time I don’t know which day of the week we’re on is when my work schedule is too hectic.
I have begun to question what my writing and editing means in the grand scheme of things, if I am using my words the right way.
I spend whole walks in the woods with the news of Darfur shackled to my ankles, wondering how it is I am here and they are there.
I spend whole weeks heaving my chest for each breath because consuming this place and all its beauty doesn’t seem right anymore.
It demands some payment.
The thing about getting to know a place with this much wilderness cradling your movement is that you start to know it in systems, in contours on a map, particles in a stream.
You reach a point where you know too much to not see what’s broken.
You start becoming aware of the things you cannot see; you become critical of what’s around you, and in all of this, you also begin to sense how you are connected to the outside world.
That grace becomes threatened.
At times, it becomes a contradiction.
You realize, too, that this place does not need you the way you wish it would.
I stand on a mountaintop and feel the contradictions and controversies of this 6-million-acre park rising up from the tree limbs, begging me for some sort of fight.
I find myself asking, if I moved to a new mountain range, would I get another few years of free grace?
Perhaps this rollover from taking to giving is what it means to belong to a place.
Or perhaps it is only how we fool ourselves into thinking this place needs us.
The truth is, the love of landscape will always be unrequited.
That is where this landscape/relationship analogy fails in the traditional sense.
I’ve been challenged lately with the idea of polyamory—multiple loves.
I find myself asking, what if?
What if I don’t chose between fight or flight?
What if my best chance at making “home” is in terra firma polyamory—loving more than one landscape this way, living in more than one landscape, fighting for them all?
No matter, it appears, I must finally learn how to find beauty and how to find peace beyond those first addictive breaths of infatuation.