Monday, February 8, 2010

The Smoking Rock

While growing up, my opinion of houses went something like this: Houses are good places for keeping possessions 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. Houses do, however, require you to spend time indoors on upkeep tasks such as cleaning when you'd much rather be outdoors.

Not everyone shared this somewhat low opinion of houses. In fact many people, I found, actually like spending time in them even more than they like spending time outdoors. Such as my family. While I preferred the outdoors and always had a special place or two where I spent a great deal of time, the rest of the family sat around indoors, sewing, chatting, 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 would ask, as if she didn't know. I’d cringe for fear of being caught in the snare of some household task or errand.



“Just out.”

“To do what?”

“I don’t know. Maybe write.”

On a lucky day, the conversation would end here. Otherwise, I'd have to finish my chores before escaping.

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.

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 that you could write on. In the center of the clearing sat a large pock-marked granite rock, discarded long ago by a 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.

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 cigarette smoke and indoor air. Then I’d settle down on the pine needle carpet and lean back against the cool rock, waiting quietly. If no one appeared right away, I’d begin scratching words into my Think Book. 

The woods would be quiet at first, the silence broken 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. A chipmunk might  reveal his bright eyes over the top of a log. If I held very still, he might even 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 bolder. They’d perch on branches that bent low to the ground, so close that I could reach over and touch them if I dared try. 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.

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 home. 

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

On other days, if 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. 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 could 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. 

My reward was 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.

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.

No comments: