Michael-Finkel-The-Stranger-in-the-Woods

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with journalist Michael Finkel . He is the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which was made into a film starring Jonah Hill and James Franco. His latest book is called The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, available now from Knopf.

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Kate Christensen 4 KB copyI fell in love with Kate Christensen’s fiction for the smart but deeply flawed characters, the vibrant settings, the good old-fashioned plot twists and, of course, the prose, once described by Janelle Brown in the San Francisco Chronicle as “visceral and poetic, like being bludgeoned with an exquisitely painted sledgehammer.” Always in the mix, lusciously omnipresent, was food and booze, flavoring the titles (In The Drink, The Epicure’s Lament) and served generously through the scenes. There was no doubt the author was deeply involved with eating and drinking.

HOW TO COOK A MOOSE_COV_hr copyA Tale of Two Kitchens

Right away, when we first moved to Portland, I noticed the large numbers of homeless and mentally ill and drug-addicted and hardscrabble people on the streets. Walking Dingo through our new neighborhood, I saw a lot of strung-out-looking people talking to themselves with unselfconscious intensity as they took refundable bottles from recycling bins, and couples screeching at each other, enraged and incoherent, often many feet apart on the sidewalk. Every time we drove to buy groceries, passing by a series of homeless shelters on and near Preble Street, I’d look out the window of our warm car at the faces of the people standing there, huddled groups of down-and-out men and women, a few black but mostly white, hunched in wool pea coats and hats with earflaps, or watch caps and down jackets, rubbing hands together, kibitzing and standing around waiting for the soup kitchen to open and exhaling cigarette smoke as if it had warming properties.

There was a time in the 1970s when getting The New Yorker magazine delivered to my house was something of an event. (I don’t feel that way now and it sometimes makes me sad.) In those days the magazine was posted with a brown paper covering. I tore off the brown paper, checked out the cover art, then turned to the Table of Contents looking for Ann Beattie’s name. When she was listed there (48 times now, and counting), I was happy. When she wasn’t, I made do.

Everything I expected not to happen was happening. I hadn’t altered previous bad behavior, in fact, I vehemently flouted rules, honor codes, basic human truths. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Once again, I found myself facing the repercussions of willful teenage rebellion. Once again, I found myself on the short end of a stick I’d whittled down to nothing.  Snowshoeing through Maine in February with a group of other at risk kids also fanning their kaleidoscopic refusal to face  responsibility. The first night a question was put to me, just like it was put to all the rest of the group. Had I accepted my role in the actions of my past? I didn’t want to answer the question because it sounded like any answer I made would make me sound stupid. What teenaged kid accepts anything, really? The world has yet to fully develop before your eyes. What you know is so far outweighed by what you don’t know, any thought of acceptance is lost in the white matter mountain ranges of our brains that scientists have yet to define. Sure, sure, I said, eager to move on. I am responsible for all the bullshit bad behavior I dished out over the years, next. Once again, I was telling anyone who would listen what they wanted to hear.

I was seventeen, hadn’t made any of the wise choices most of my close friends had. Instead, I found ways to get tossed out of one school twice, which led to me to the kids on the skids place up in Dublin, New Hampshire. On the night in question, all action remains a blur, a drunken ballet performed under the star bright night in the crisp freeze that so often comes after a northeast snow, outside the dormitory where I lived. Faces drift in and out of view, but never find focus. The alcohol- cooking wine and a case of beer-  purloined from the kitchen, and once spent, discarded like a child’s candy wrapper on the ground, leaving a definite trail leading back to me.  You must have wanted to get caught, people have told me over and over again through the years. While that might be so, I don’t speak to it. The real truth of the matter is that I wanted to get fucked up. And I did. And when you’re as fucked up as I was that night, you don’t think about covering your tracks, and if you do, you aren’t bothered, or worried about much of anything at all, let alone getting caught, and so you don’t do anything because, well, you’re too fucked up to care. At seventeen, my worldview was a little myopic. So, in the morning, when the powers that were recognized they had a problem on their hands, I recognized nothing out of the ordinary. Which is to say, I’d grown accustomed to my own drama. By evening the school administrators had set up a meeting with the rehab up the road, Beech Hill.

Instead of cycling through daylong clinical assessments by equally clinical counselors up the hill, they pushed an Outward Bound rehab program. I’d heard a little about Outward Bound. A few friends had taken the challenge a summer before, just for fun. They had sailed in two and three man sloops off the coast of Maryland, to islands that housed wild horses, and armies of gnats and black flies. Lived in tents. Ate toothpaste when they got hungry. Found themselves, and readied themselves to go to colleges like Amherst, and Sewanee, and Stanford. Panic severed any logic I might have had, connecting the experience of Outward Bound with an increase in academic prowess. What I already knew about Outward Bound unfurled into an absolutely blissful picture, an idyllic sailing trip where you ate weird stuff, and came back bronzed, smart, and charmingly sophisticated. I didn’t stir the rehab part of the trip into the mix, and why would I? This was fantasy I was creating, an acceptable image to get stoned on. Someone at school had mentioned an Outward Bound rehab program that operated out of the Florida keys, on sailboats. Now that information came rushing back at me, and I stupidly embraced it. I embraced it until I could embrace no more. Then some reality started to seep in. The trip I was going on would also be a drug rehabilitation, to be billed to health insurance. They were definitely going to have group therapy meetings. And what I knew of group was from 80’s movies, and maladjusted teens looking to vilify any and all process they came in contact with. God, I thought to myself, what kind of lies am I going to have to tell in group?

The thing is, they didn’t send me on that Florida Keys sailing trip. Instead, Beech Hill had cooked up their first winter snow shoeing adventure rehab in conjunction with Outward Bound. A paragon of winter mountain climbing was brought in, a black haired beardo named Rick, or Frank. And Rick or Frank would lead us through the mountains of Maine, in the deep of February, as snow piled three feet high and upwards. That’s what the craggy faced drug counselor Rudy told me when the school administrators brought me to the school owned lodge for our meet and greet.

When he asked me what drugs I’d done, an eagerness to please, to fit in, and took over. I listed every single drug I had ever conceptualized, all the things I’d heard about, all the things I’d wanted to take, and then, the few actual ones I had taken.

What about drinking, how often do you drink?

I was a teenager, born of controlled situations, but still, a teenager. I knew the foul flavor of warm Gin taking straight. Rudy was waiting for a response.

Whenever I get the chance, I said, both bewildered and cocksure.

I sat there, repeating the line in my head. Rudy marked another box on his list. Then he was standing, offering me a hand. That was it.

You’re on the team, he said, breaking into a comforting grin that convinced me this excursion snowshoeing through Maine was exactly what I needed. His confidence took me with it. I was good enough, I thought, to make it into rehab before I turned eighteen. When the logic of that sentence hit me, I crumpled, and started for my dorm room.

Rudy stopped me. My bags had been packed. I was heading up the hill.

The Beech Hill counselors didn’t know what to do with me. They stuck me in a sterile hospital room, with an older fellow. He was out of it, semi-conscious, sweating, sick in mind and body. His nose exploded into a veiny approximations of blisters, almost like a piece of cauliflower. At night he heard voices and spoke back to them. In the morning, I told the nurse about it. She explained, rather coolly, the guy was experiencing the DT’s.

I don’t know what you mean.

She shook her head.

Delirium tremens, she said, tapping her clipboard, and walking away.

My own Nurse Ratchet. Beech Hill was like an infection you couldn’t cure. Everyone either over medicated, or in need of restraints. I showed up with three strikes against me- I lacked clarity, was a teenager, and would be leaving in a few days.  Anyone who might have had some insight as to how to handle the place avoided me. It’s a selfish program, as they say.

At night, the man I shared my room with would moan, float over to the curtains, and return to his bed one hundred thousand times, until daylight finally arrived, and he could sleep, no longer tormented by darkness. I’d never conceptualized physical addiction before. I still wanted to get fucked up, but here I was trapped in a room with someone who needed to get fucked up to keep his mind from turning on him. A wintry month in Maine had nothing on this guy.

The morning we left, Rudy, and Rick or Frank, the two counselors loaded us onto the two white institutional Dodge vans and drove us well into Maine, to the Outward Bound staging offices. There, we suited up- boots, coats and backpacks. Some of us would carry more than the others. Being tallest I was designated to carry more. Cooking equipment, and food. They let us bring cartons of cigarettes, and lighters. They handed us monstrous white paratrooper jump boots for our feet. Lined with carpet. When you get cold feet, Rick or Frank told us, take off your boots, put them in your sleeping bags, and go to sleep. They’ll be nice and toasty in the morning. There were other tricks and instructions, but I didn’t pay attention, I was trying to figure out why there was only the one girl on the trip. There were two, Holly, a short pale wisp of a person, and this other girl, from Rhode Island, only she didn’t like white kids, and told each white kid on the trip that she didn’t like white kids. Right from the beginning we found ourselves couched in racial stereotypes- the black kids and the Latin kids had history smoking crack. In their opinion, us white kids were over privileged long hairs testing high times. Karim didn’t care much about our different skin tone, only that we had to carry more than the rest of the gang.

Ain’t fair, ain’t fair a t’all.

He told me his eyes were buggy because he’d smoked some crack in the bathroom about an hour ago.

Where’d you get it?

I had it crammed up my ass.

He started to show me.

I understand completely, I said, stopping him.

Then, we were on the side of a snow-covered road. Rudy outlined our next three hours, the last three hours of daylight, on a topographical map. Esmeralda, the girl who didn’t trust whitey, trumpeted her disapproval. Rudy stood up at that. Lit a cigarette. Blew out some smoke.

You can stay here, Esmeralda. But the rest of us are heading into the forest. And we’ve got the tents, the food, and the iodine drops to put into the water so you don’t get Giardia.

Esmeralda was a tough girl, I’ll giver her that.

Jardee-fucking-what, she asked with defiance, struggling not to lose face, but we all knew she was coming with us, and so did she. Rudy had been waiting for the moment, ready to pounce. And he stood there gloating. Rick or Frank readied the gear, prepping those of us who knew something about hiking and cold weather on how to take care of those of us who did not. His dog wagging his tail beside him.

The first afternoon of hiking was our first on snowshoes, and it was full of complaints and arguments. By dinner we’d only traveled 2/3rds of the distance the counselors wanted us to cover. Before anyone had a chance to relax, Rudy broke us up into groups. I landed with the long hair brothers from western Massachusetts and Holly. We were to gather up fire wood. The rest would set up tents, and start prepping the camp and dinner. Everyone was overwhelmed by irritation, fatigue and curiosity. The four of us grabbed enough sticks and logs to make fifteen fires, but we wanted to avoid doubling up on chores. Besides, it gave us all the chance to get to know each another.

The brothers were pot smokers, drinkers, acid takers. Holly, too. They were incredulous when I mentioned harder drugs- cocaine, and heroin. I backtracked, seeking approval once again.

Yeah, I know, it sounds like another planet, I told them.

Mostly, I like the way a few beers makes me feel.

The red headed brother, the older one nodded.

But it never ends there does it, he said. All of us turned to him like he’d said our first names, like he’d captured everything we were feeling in one small sentence. I liked him immediately.

I’ve done this before, he told us.

I was sober for almost a year.

Holly and I sucked in the cool air. A fucking year?

He nodded. Somehow, a car and a girl got in the way of it, and so here he was back in rehab, little brother in tow.

Holly told us her story while she dragged the top part of a fallen birch tree behind her, a cigarette hanging precariously from the tip her bottom lip, like they did in Audie Murphy movies. Holly had the same sprouting hair as the Hollywood soldiers, too. But her skin was marvelously white and her brown eyes sparkled with a haunting femininity. There was no mistaking her for a boy.

Her story gave top billing to a trifecta of troubling players- Opium, the Grateful Dead, and an abusive father. She didn’t mention what kind of abuse or how bad, which I knew was code for the worst kind.

My tent mate was Karim. When we rolled out our sleeping bags, after jamming our boots into them, we pretended to sleep until finally, we did. The next day I awoke to the smell of coffee eggs, and the bitter cold. Karim tore out of his bag, dressed in only his white paratrooper boots and long johns and ran off into the bush to urinate. Be careful of bears, one of us yelled after him, but it wasn’t me. I wasn’t worried about bears.

The next week followed the same routine, day in day out. Breakfast, cigarettes, break down camp. Then the counselors marched us through miles of backwoods snow drifted Maine, forcing us through an inclining valley between mountain ranges to our left and right. Noon, we broke for the same lunch- frozen cheese, frozen salami, and frozen white bread. Rudy got one half hour for group, where he pressed us until we were agitated enough to hike the next mountain.

Rick or Frank explained early in the trip  why he thought we fit the Outward Bound program perfectly. He had a term for us- at riskers.

Here’s an example, he said, after lunch one day, the rest of us laying on top of our packs and staring at the newly appeared sun.

One of you is getting water, and you don’t have iodine. The other one doesn’t care, and you both drink it. That’s at risk behavior. Or you’re unwilling to properly warm your feet on your tent-mate’s belly when they start to freeze, because it isn’t cool. Each case has serious repercussions. And each case is avoidable if you work as a team, instead of like the at riskers you’ve become. Suddenly, the rebellion each of us had launched our risky behavior upon didn’t seem so appealing. We were desperate to be a part of something each of us could trust.

That trust came about slowly, individually, in slight shifts of consciousness that eked out of us, incrementally, while Rudy pounded his concept of logic into our skulls, while Rick or Frank seduced us with the power of our own bodies. We climbed a mountain a day for a week and a half. We made our own fires. We cooked our own food. We could survive in snowstorms, and operate snowshoes through dense forests. We had done it all together. Esmeralda no longer called out the distinction between our racial divide. For the first time, expectation lost out to acceptance.

But something happened after the second week. We got cocky. One of the other kids, his name is lost to me over two decades later, knew which clouds meant snow, and which ones meant nothing, which ones delivered freezing rain, and which ones evaporated into billowy photographic epiphanies. He pointed to the group of them gathered over the next range, blowing slowly our way.

I got up and went over to the counselors.

There’s no way I’m hiking up that mountain.

That so, Rudy said, not expecting much more out of me. I guess you’ll have to hike back to base camp then.

I stood up, and lit a cigarette. Blew the smoke onto him, same as he had done to Esmerelda days before.

I know what those clouds mean. They mean snow. I don’t want to hike into any God damned snowstorm. We should camp here.

My face flushed, but Holly was behind me, and Karim, and the rest of them. I was at the head of a mutiny.

Rick or Frank ignored the situation, busying himself around our impromptu camp. Leave nothing but your bootprints, he said.

Are you done, Rudy asked.

I nodded.

He unfolded a map.

You know how to read a map? He stabbed the map with his finger.

That’s where the vans are parked. That’s the other side of the mountain. Which one is less of a hike?

We don’t want to hike to either place, Holly answered.

Esmeralda unbuttoned her coat.

Yeah, we don’t wanna hike anymore today.

We ain’t going nowhere, Karim said.

Rudy folded up the map.

Two ways you can go, he said, holding up two fingers. Two

The van, which if you choose it means you’re off the trip, you’ll have to explain why to your parents. Or over that mountain.

He pulled me aside.

They listen to you. You fix this, or you’re gone.

That’s all he said. He read me. He knew from group I feared my old man’s temper. He had me where he wanted me.

I gave an impassioned speech. I waved both hands toward the mountains, willing all of us over them, if not by words, by sheer force of suggestion. One by one, they came around. Everyone that is, but Karim, Esmerelda, and the kid who noticed the storm clouds in the first place.

Rudy looked at me like I was a piece of shit stuck to his shoe.

What about them, he said, pointing at the last of the mutineers.

I should march you off to the van with them.

I didn’t say anything. The vein in his neck was pumping. I could read a face, too. Rudy was so pissed he started for me anyway, when Frank or Rick appeared out of nowhere.

Here’s the keys, he said, placing them in Rudy’s palm.

We’ll meet you at the spot. Tomorrow night.

Tomorrow night, Rudy grunted.

He wanted to scrape my smug face on the icy frost heaved road. I know that because he told me so, right before he hiked Karim, and Esmeralda and what’s his name off into the forest.

Had we not argued over clouds, we would have made it over the mountain free of snow.

Instead, we made the summit in time to meet the storm. The ripping winds and snow drove us into submission. Rick or Frank stopped us, and had us find places to tie down our tent so they wouldn’t fly off the side of the mountain. Since Rudy had to take a large tent with his crew, two of our kids would have to sleep under a tarp, and Rick or Frank would sleep outside, just a sleeping bag for him and his dog. We drew straws. I got a long one. No tarp for me.

In the morning, we skipped breakfast, quickly packed up our tents, and smoked cigarettes as we jammed down the mountain. Everyone hated me. If only I hadn’t opened up my mouth, each glance my way seemed to say.

After that, the trip disintegrated. I didn’t want to share my feelings in group.  At night I sat next to Holly, our hands slipping into each other’s pockets.

Worst of all, I stopped listening to Rick or Frank, stopped paying attention to Rudy. When I went to drink from a stream during a break, I tuned out the iodine warning that trailed after me, slurping greedily straight from the stream.

The next day was dedicated to ice climbing. I spent all of it shitting in the woods, unable to squirt the last of the giardiasis out of me.

By the last week, I let my shirt tail hang out of my wool pants, stopped carrying food for the others, continuing to hike hard only to keep the elements at bay.

Then, with a van ride to Outward Bound offices to give back the gear, and one more to Beech Hill, it was over. We had hiked what felt like a hundred mountains, a thousand miles, discussed innumerable topics, battled all facets of our addictions. Holly and I literally hugged goodbye while our parents pulled us off each other.

I’d led a mutiny in the middle of Maine, reassessed, and coerced my allies in rebellion to rethink our adolescent logic.

There were other things that happened on the trip. We saw spectacular views of valleys and mountains we had to memorize if we wanted to see them again. We took van rides over beat up frost heaved Maine roads, which then broke into ridiculously foulmouthed sing alongs. We stopped at the L.L. Bean outlet and when everyone in the store marveled at the hardcore winter hikers before them, we played it cool and said nothing. Like the rest of the group, I did a solo, twenty-four hours by myself in the woods, alone with a tent, a watch, a bag of nuts and raisins, some matches and a pack of cigarettes. An hour before the counselors came, three birds landed on me, as the cold took into my body. It was as spiritual a moment as I’d had up to that point. But it featured none of the lessons the mutiny offered.

In the end, each of us fell from the hold of sobriety like over ripe maggots from a carcass bone. I lasted longest, going three years and change. But even for me, the concept of having a legal drink a few days after my twenty-first birthday proved too much a lure.

When I ended up back in rehab nine years later, whining to myself about all that wasted time, two things came back to me, the guy with the delirium tremens, and  that month in the woods of Maine. Like some rediscovered postcard reminding me that I’d had a real chance at scouring myself of the demons before I’d graduated from high school, and I’d let it go.

As a literary form and commercial endeavor, the modern memoir is overwhelmingly popular. A quick perusal of the non-fiction stacks confirms this. From Donald Rumsfeld to Annie Dillard, the memoir is ubiquitous. Too, as a confirming note, there is the backlash, as there is always a backlash against things trending popular. I site Neil Genzlinger’s recent anti-memoir diatribe in the New York Time’s Book Review of a few weeks ago. It begins: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” In his essay Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, giving just one the nod. He took the others to task for various reasons. One author, for instance, had not earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy.” Ouch. He argued that if you did not have an extremely unique experience or were deemed to be less than “a brilliant writer,” you were “obliged to keep quiet.” The current plethora of memoirs is, he reasons, a result of “our current age of oversharing.” His essay trespassed to the edge of being mean-spirited and the dust-up caused a flurry of activity in literary circles. (A backlash to the backlash confirming the maturation of a trend, indeed.)

If you discount the dodgy crosswind twin-prop landings, the post-lunch deep-sea swims, the near-misses out on the autoroute, the closest I ever came to dying was in deep midwinter at Sugarloaf Mountain in Kingfield, Maine. Every winter my family traveled there for a week-long ski vacation, and in my eleventh year we rented the holy grail of all condos: the slopeside villa.

An Idyllic Place

By Doug Bruns

Essay

I write in a place some might refer to as a “man cave.” I prefer to call it my study. Many labels and tags of today, like man cave, seem crass and fleeting. I seek the world–at least in words–of greater tested substance. But should a person happen in here, he or she would likely think, or speak, “man cave.” Here are rough-hewed beams. I don’t know how old this building is in the Old Port area of Portland, but I suspect the beams were put here by hand for real reasons, and not a later aesthetic to appeal to those sensitive to such things. Strewn about my study is my rock collection: small stones picked up from world travels and labeled accordingly: Stonehenge, Loch Ness, the Great Wall, Hemingway’s garden in Key West, Rio Grande in Terra del Fuego and so forth. On the old chimney brick I have stretched prayer flags from Tibet. My photographs are strewn about, some in plastic sleeves, some matted and framed. A few pieces of photographic equipment, as well as developer chemicals rest against walls and in dark cabinets. Overflow books reside here, mainly books on fly-fishing, map and compass navigation, literary criticism and guide books to hiking trails in New England.

Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

Despite my titanium hip, and the foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this 55 year-old aging-athlete’s body, I (still) like walking. It does not escape me that my ancestors trekked from the savanna plains of Africa over 100,000 years ago and never stopped. It comforts me that, as a species, we have walked virtually everywhere, planting our feet on most every single spot planet earth has to offer.  It comforts me too, that despite the automobile and the jet, the boat and the train, our first inclination is to get up and walk. I do not take walking for granted. Over the years I have occasionally been in traction, on crutches, in pain or in some other way disposed of my ability to walk. When this has happened, I pretend that I will never walk again. I do this, like thinking of sickness when I am perfectly healthy, as a way to remind myself not to take walking for granted. (This is not unlike the Buddhist practice of going to the cemetery to remind oneself that one day it will all come to an end.) There are a lot of people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this.

I wonder if going to the woods, Thoreau-style, is still possible? It is sadly troubling that my first response to this not-so-rhetorical question is: Ted Kaczynski. “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” So begins the so-called Unabomber Manifesto, or, as Kaczynski titled it, Industrial Society and its Future. The influence upon Kaczynski by the Transcendentalist from Walden is well documented. Kaczynski even modeled his Montana cabin after Thoreau’s. But of course one of the men was a paranoid schizophrenic.

My garden taunted me all winter long. And that’s a long time in Maine. For several weeks, the snow was so high that the small wrought-iron fences that give the garden some sort of organization and form were completely invisible. I couldn’t wait until spring to dig my hands into the soil again.

My husband always corrects me when I call the area behind our house a “garden.” “It’s a yard,” he says, and I think he is wrong. A yard, to me, is some sort of vast expanse of grass, maybe some bushes and hedges. Perhaps a flower bed.  I am sure that there is a dictionary definition that would clear all this up, but frankly, I am just not that interested in the terminology.

What we have is a garden.

What we have is an unruly, wild, mossy wildlife area. In the fall when we moved in, the entire garden was shaded from a couple of huge trees and a forest of smaller ones. There are mysterious and as of yet unidentified bushes of various sizes growing out of a stone wall that keeps our house from falling into the brook. Because we also have a brook.  The lower half of the garden is a favorite of the neighborhood kids. There is some sort of a bamboo growing along the brook that’s great for forts, paintball fights and for hunting down frogs and helicopter-sized dragonflies.

I have to admit that I had some romantic notions about gardening when we bought the house. The shade, the seclusion made it all seem very cozy. As I was getting acquainted with the garden I found all sorts of cute surprises – a garden gnome, a bird feeder, a couple of stepping stones, little frog statuettes and a stone turtle. Lovely, right?

The one freaky discovery I had was a cross nailed to one of the trees. It’s a small, ornate cross and it’s positioned where a larger limb must have been cut off. Maybe lighting hit there? Who knows? And even though I am not a cross-type girl, you just don’t remove something like that. What if that’s the only little piece of protection that’s keeping our house intact?

But back to the garden… So, those romantic notions of gardening quickly disappeared as the leaves fell from the trees. All 97 million of them. Pretty soon, gardening became nothing more than leaf management. Sure, they were yellow, and red, and rusty, and orange, and crunchy, and had that amazing fall-leaf smell. But I was knee-deep in them, with no end in sight.

The first snow was a relief. By spring, all of those leaves on the ground will become good, nutritious compost for the soil, I thought.

Not so. Spring leaf management is similar to fall leaf management. The only difference is that there are juicy, fat worms between the layers of wet leaves, along with more unidentified sprigs of life – bright green, cheery, hopeful.

While in the fall I was happy to let things take their natural course in the garden, the spring is making me nervous. I am responsible for this living, breathing piece of land behind my house. I should know what it needs, right? Trimming? More water? Less water? Sun? Shade? Should I just let it be?

Landscapers have come and gone, shaking their heads, making me feel like a bad parent for not forking over large sums of money and also for not doing it all on my own. I feel like the working mother of a piece of land.

I am looking out at the garden as I write this. The sloping terrace with its hidden steps, the curve of the brook, the lone pine tree – I still find it all very soothing. So I go outside from time to time to check things out. I rake some leaves. Pick up a couple of broken branches. Sweep the dirt off the stepping stones. I’ll buy some pansies this week and fill the planters on the garage and in our windows.

Slowly, leaf by leaf, the garden and I come to an understanding. I do the best I can. She will keep the leaves on the trees as long as possible next fall. I will hire the weird Italian man with the scar to do a bit of cleanup. She will make sure that the hibiscus bush produces golf ball-sized blooms.

It will all work out.  

One morning in Maine, two 30-something women and a hound-dog of a Rhodesian Ridgeback mix made their way along the circumference of Mackworth Island.

Carol is playing tour guide.