Walking the trails out back the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to sense subtler cues that the earth is folding in towards winter: a scent of ripeness on the verge of decay in the trees, the slight yellowing of pine needles before they drop, the occasional acorn plum gall on the path. My kids used to call the galls “extraordinary berries,” before Google, when unanswered questions could linger in the mind and no imagined explanation was too outlandish. With Google, I would have felt I should explain to them, at five and three years old, that the “extraordinary berries” were formed when the pupa of a gall wasp (Amphibolips quercusjuglans) burrows into an acorn cap and incubates there, forming a protective ball around itself. They, in turn, would have felt they should understand, nodding, their eyes determined (Nate) or anxious (Lucy) to incorporate this esoterica into their worldview as they cradled the precious “berries” in their little palms, fingers grubby with dirt streaked by leaks from their juice boxes.
A collector, Nate used to walk the woods ahead of me and his sisters with his head down, eyes sweeping the path for the telltale flashes of red. A few weeks ago, I encountered an odd old fellow dressed head to toe in khaki cargo gear, pockets up his legs and across his chest, swinging his metal detector along the trail floor, earphones in. I imagined each pocket cataloguing different metals he might have found: an old shell-casing, maybe a lost earring or ring, a zipper pull, a dog’s tag, a dropped key, a quarter. That’s what Nate was like: always on the lookout for a find, arriving home from our daily walk in the woods his pockets stuffed with “special” rocks or sticks, berries or feathers. The Odd Fellow looked up as I drew near and gave me a kid-like grin. “Find anything interesting?” I asked him. It seemed a questionable choice to be out in nature with a metal detector clacking away, while the life of the woods thrums around you, unheard. I feel the same way when I pass someone on the trail palavering on the cellphone.
The Odd Fellow removed a headphone plug from one ear and reached down to scratch my dog Westley between the shoulders. “You’ll never believe what I found!” he said. He showed me a nineteenth century Irish coin he’d dug up about fifty yards back, where the narrow trail intersected with an old cart path. The coin dated to the 1880’s or so, he explained, when Irish immigrants in Boston were plentiful as acorns in October, and their money was readily accepted alongside the local currency of the day. He was breathless at this stroke of luck, striking a vein of history six inches down, on a trail skirting the backyards of newly constructed mansions and mid-century deck houses in millennial suburbia. “Go figure!” he said.
Yet I wasn’t that surprised: The woods near my home have a feeling of proximity to human society, our noisy vehicles, our litter, our cellular packets of bits and voices wafting on the air. Evidence of humankind’s continual presence out here is expected.
Last week I found myself walking a different trail, this time a perimeter path on an isolated private island in Maine I was visiting on a retreat for women writers called “The Salty Quill.” It was a heavenly place, with ten or so women gratefully perched in a favorite alcove or patch of sun, scribbling away all the livelong day, greedily drinking in the quiet. At mealtimes, our chef Nancy would ring the ship’s bell, and we’d scuttle out of our little corners, our eyes dazed from peering at screens or journals, blinking in the sunlight as we walked down the hillside from the main house with its sweeping views and expansive porches to the cozy “cookhouse” where we ate our meals. I arrived mid-week when most of the other women were well established in the routine, and I wasn’t sure how to read the stillness at my first lunch. It would have been easy to mistake the inwardness of my compatriots as coolness to a newcomer. But like them, I didn’t come to the island for a party or group therapy. I came as a statement of commitment to my development as a writer; I came for the freedom from distraction; I came to jumpstart my stalled novel after a summer of emotional jolts. I wanted to give myself no other choice but to write. I quickly caught the focused mood of my more experienced colleagues. I pulled a bentwood chair into a patch of sun and wrote my way across the lawn that first afternoon, shifting my seat five or six feet every half hour as shadows moved over the grass.
Writers differ in how long they can dive deep into the world of their story or research before coming up for air. I once read that John Irving writes for eight hours daily without breaks. I’m good for three hours max of immersion before my brain starts to skip like an old vinyl record and my legs itch to move. So, at around 5:30 p.m. that first day, when the feeling that I just couldn’t sit a moment longer welled up in my gut like a rising tide, I headed back to the main house and pulled on my cross-trainers. The lime green neon laces and orange logo squealed anachronously in the rustic woodiness of my shared room, timber clapboards and beams framing a high ceiling, windows looking across the 1900’s covered porch to the water.
“Are there any good walking trails on the island?” I asked another writer.
“There’s one that goes all the way around. There are buoys hanging from the trees as markers,” said one woman, Joy, or maybe Deb? I was still working on names.
“Don’t be confused when you get to the rocks,” said another. “Just barrel ahead and keep making right turns.”
This seems a pretty good set of directions for writing, actually.
The sun had lowered to eye level as I began the circuit, the air salty and cool. I passed one retreatant seated on a fallen tree trunk, hand shielding her eyes as she looked across the water towards the sunset, an open journal on her lap. “I was planning to walk,” she told me. “But this show is too good, and I’ve got a G&T,” she raised a mug jauntily in salute, “so I decided to just drink it all in and write instead.” I knew how she felt: thirsty for deeper currents. We all had that yearning.
The trail roller-coastered down to a little cove, up through a forest of desiccated trunks, bony fingers of driftwood-like branches scratching the evening sky. I wondered what had happened here to kill the trees. The trunks were upright, bleached out, but the understory was densely green. An osprey nest cradled in the upturned palm of one tree. Another roll of the path curled up, down, and up again through meadows thick with golden ferns. I walked up over a rise and startled two deer on the hillside above me, not ten feet away. I thought it might be a doe and her fawn, although my heart was tap-dancing so fast from their sudden leap into the brush that I couldn’t be sure. Faded buoys hung like charms from tree limbs to mark the trail. Who had come out here to place them, a caretaker, or a posse of family members from the clan that owns the island, a father and his small children dragging a sled of buoys, perhaps? The kids would have been distracted by the little caverns under the roots of trees, or the elaborate whorls on slabs of rock.
The quiet of this place was extravagant. Yes, I heard the typical insects clicking at dusk, plants rustled in the breeze, waves lapped the rocks. Below that hum was a steady silence, a sense that the matter is settled, the plants here could grow and the wildlife could forage and hunt, fly or mate, undisturbed by the business of humanity. It felt almost magically nourishing to me, not to strain as I do in the woods at home to catch the pulse of the natural world. I walked the island trail twice a day. I couldn’t get enough of it.
My time in the company of the other writers felt similarly expansive yet grounded. Each night after Nancy had fed us some gloriously delicious dish that could have been gruel and we’d still have been grateful, except it was beef bourguignon or steamed lobster, we would follow the little beams of our flashlights back up to the big house, where we’d sit by the fire and read from our work. I don’t super love to read my own writing aloud, but I’m learning how important it is to look up from the comfortable confines of my laptop and hear how others experience the quirksome world of my novel. That word, quirksome, resonated for me as I listened to each woman read – individual voice and imagination revealed in her work, each preoccupation particular and salty. Yet we all had so much in common: motherhood, relationships, growing up. Loss. Magic. The fierce intelligence of women. Each time someone finished reading, we’d sit appreciatively, the fire in the massive fireplace crackling and spitting. A minute might pass before anyone spoke; you didn’t want to break the spell. “Wow,” I’d think. “That was good.” I loved that I couldn’t always match the story to the writer’s persona as I’d come to know her over meals or idle chitchat on a break from working. It was like digging into a seven-layer dip; each new flavor spicier than the one before.
On those evenings, we were surrounded by floor to ceiling shelves lined with old books, clothbound volumes published in the 1920’s and 30’s and long since out of print, with titles like “Storm in a Teapot,” “Mr. Henderson Explains,” “A Woman Lost,” stories of a bygone era. And yet each of them was the product of a particular human imagination. We laughed, a little nervously, to think our efforts might end up similarly, on a dusty shelf, long forgotten.
If, that is, we ever manage to publish anything at all.
But we are a salty bunch of wenches, so I think we will. I love this word, “salty.” My daughter Mia and her friends use it all the time, as in “I was pretty salty not to get called on in class today, because I was hella prepared.” It means to feel a kind of proud irritation. It’s righteous. I think about the line in scripture “You are the salt of the earth,” not the honey, or the fruity berries. The salt, the flavor. I recall standing over countless pots of steaming soup or chili or mashed potatoes, holding out a spoonful for one of the kids to taste, asking “does it need more salt?”
The answer: yes. Always.
I haven’t been out on the trails since I got home on Saturday. John walked the dogs yesterday and today. I’ll miss the salt air, the nearness of water, that island quiet, so deep and pure.
Maybe I’ll find a coin though, or a berry. That’s something.
McGee Island, Maine. Thanks, Pam, for giving us the chance to dip our quills in salt.