Monday, February 8, 2010

The Smoking Rock

While growing up, my opinion of houses went something like this: Houses are good places for keeping things warm and dry, things such as clothes, bedding, and books. Houses have conveniences such as running hot and cold water and electricity, so that you can cook food more easily and wash and dry clothes even when it’s raining. Houses also help you have successful parties. Many people won’t come to a party that is outdoors, especially if it’s cold and rainy. Otherwise houses have few advantages, mostly outweighed by the need to spend time indoors on upkeep tasks such as cleaning. 

Not everyone shared my opinion about houses. Some people, I found, actually liked spending time in them even more than they liked spending time outdoors. Such as my family. While I preferred the outdoors and always had a special place or two there where I spent a great deal of time, the rest of the family sat around indoors, watching TV and reading the paper.

Each day I would arrive home from school, change into outdoor clothes and head for the door. “Where are you going?” my mother might ask. I’d cringe for fear of being caught in the snare of some household task or errand.

“Out.” 

“Where?”

“Just out.”

“To do what?”

“I don’t know. Maybe write.”

If I were lucky, the conversation would now end, and I could leave with no further ado. 

If it were my sister asking where I was going, then she’d come out with me. Not that she liked the outdoors particularly, but it was a good excuse to get away and smoke. I didn’t have anything against smoking. I smoked, too, but it wasn’t my main reason for going outdoors. I went out because that’s where I wanted to be.

So, on a lucky day, I’d walk out of the house into the surrounding New Hampshire woods, sister in tow. We’d both light up and walk along the path we’d made with countless foot strikes over months and years. 

The path ended in a small clearing carpeted with vinca and pine needles and surrounded by fresh-scented pines and a few white birches with peeling bark you could write on. In the center of the clearing sat a large pock-marked granite rock discarded there by some long-ago glacier. The rock was big enough for both of us to sit on. In fact, it would have been big enough for several people to sit on, if anyone had cared to join us. But they never did. 

After a time, cigarettes smoked and butts carefully buried, my sister would stand up. “Well, I’m going back. You staying here?” Not waiting for an answer, she’d head back to the house. 

I’d pull some fresh air deep into my chest and then sigh it back out, expelling the last few molecules of indoor air. Then I’d settle down on the pine needle carpet and lean back against the cool rock, waiting, quietly, for any visitors. If no one appeared right away, I’d begin scratching words into my Think Book. 

The woods would be quiet at first, their silence broken periodically by treetops applauding a passing breeze, roaring like a narrow river in spring, or the plop of a pine cone hitting the ground. Eventually my stillness would be rewarded by the sounds little creatures make when they move around in the woods. Rustlings and scritchings would grow closer to my sitting place. A chipmunk might then reveal his bright eyes over the top of a log. If I held very still, he might come over and check me out. Then a slight movement of an arm or a too-noisy breath would send him racing back to safety. Chickadees were far bolder. They’d perch on branches that bent low to the ground, so close that I could reach over and touch them, if only they’d let me. The chickadees would talk to each other. I imagined their conversations about the weather, their children, and the pine nut harvest this year. I’d talk back to them sometimes, in human language, about my school, my boyfriends, and favorite songs on the radio. I don’t think they understood me either.

Then, after sitting long enough, listening to enough bird talk, writing enough words, and soaking in enough of the place to sustain me until the next day, I’d slowly stand up and walk back. 

As I opened the backdoor, warm air laden with house smells would find its way up my nose, replacing the cool piney air that had been there just a moment before. The mantle clock would be ticking loudly above the rustling of my father’s newspaper and some tinny applause and laughter on the TV. I might also hear the clanging of pots in the kitchen and my mother’s voice calling me to come set the table.

On other days, especially if I were alone, I’d take a different route up the driveway, turning right onto the road’s gravel shoulder, and following its ascent to an ancient pine tree where it towered over another glacial boulder like the one in the woods, only three times its size. The pine’s fat branches spread wide, inviting me to climb into their embrace. Standing tip-toe on the giant boulder, I’d stretch into my longest reach until I could work my fingers between the sharp ridges of bark on the lowest branch. Then hanging on tightly with my nails, I’d walk up the side of the tree until I was able to just get my knee onto the top of the branch. After resting a moment, I’d gain my feet on the branch and stretch up again, following the same process to get as high in the tree as I dared that day. 

My toils would be rewarded with a broadened view of the woods sloping down to the blue lake below, the pungent smell of pine sap, the sensation of sharp bark poking through my shirt and jeans, and a slight sense of superiority. I would indulge in this sense until my body got tired of being poked, got cold, or both. Then down I’d slide, back to the ground, and back to the house.

This time, even after crossing the threshold of the house, the scent of the woods would remain in my nostrils, drifting up from the pine sap on my fingers or the butt of my pants to mix with the smell of the indoors until my mother told me I had to change my clothes and wash for dinner. If I were hungry, dinner smells might make my stomach rumble. If I had been feeling cold out in my perch, I might be enjoying the warmth inside the house, just a bit.

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