Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Returning to the Woods

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.
-Mary Oliver, Upstream

There are times when I desire to get lost. Walk out the back door, climb over the fence and escape the modern world and the humans that inhabit it. I have always been a solitary soul. I spend too much time inside of my head, and without something to observe and attempt to draw conclusions from, I tend to get restless. I can spend hours walking hillsides and valleys looking for nothing in particular. Often I walk along the roadside, jotting down notes if I have pen and paper on me, or try my best to commit something to my faulty memory. My perfect day would involve watching a cliff swallow building a nest under a bridge that crosses the river. Or seeing a young doe hurrying her young across a country road on a late summer evening. What I gather from the earth does not have a market value. It cannot be bought, it cannot be sold. It is there for the taking, but you have to be there, be open and observant to receive the messages, the lessons that the natural world provides. Science, art, literature, philosophy, and religion draw inspiration from the wonders of nature, though all of these disciplines have their own ideas of how it came to be and what it all means. We can take these ideas and throw them against the wall and see which ones stick, or we can simply be present and mindful of our surroundings, and find our own meaning in the leaves and rocks and water. I am an observer of these things-- an observer of life in all of its forms. I have no answers, but I have plenty of questions, and if the day comes when I stop questioning life, I hope to catch a ride on the wind, cross over the river, fade out of this life and into another. And maybe on the other side find more questions to ask.

The natural world has always been the centerpiece of my writing, whether it be poetry, fiction or nonfiction pieces like this. I have stacks and stacks of stories and poems and letters that are not fit to be read by anyone, and I hope they never will be. But if I were to go through all of that work-- all the failed magazine articles, opening chapters of novels that fell apart after twenty pages, dark humor pieces so twisted that I should probably burn them-- there is this common theme. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get away from it. I never set out to be a "Nature" writer, it just happens every time I sit down and scratch something out. I wrote a story recently about a missed connection between an estranged husband and wife, set in a coffee shop in the city, but there it was-- the slate gray sky and the humid smell of grass and the sound of water spouting from the fountains and the impending bad weather, with the lightning streaking from cloud to cloud. The story wouldn't have worked for me if that hadn't been in there. That was just as important to me as the human emotions of loss and hurt and pain was.

When I started writing, I had the idea that with all the world at my fingertips, I would never draw a blank as to what to write about. I learned early on that it wasn't so true. I tried to write magazine articles like the ones I read in Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, but I found out fast how hard that is to do. When I started trying to write fiction, I realized how easy it is to fall flat on the page. I discovered how hard writing was, especially for someone like me who was basically self taught. I had written poetry in some shape or form from the time I discovered Frost and Whitman and Sandburg in English class in high school. I was a struggling guitar player who wasn't very good, but I'd compose something sounding more like a sonnet than a song and try to put music to it in the back room of our house while I was all alone. Even then, the words I wrote were about things I knew, things that were closest to my heart. I wrote verses about the trees and the rivers and the sun breaking the silhouette of a mountain ridge. I wrote a song one time about a coon hound, and to this day, I think it is quite possibly the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

A few years back, I hit some roadblocks on my life's journey. I was right in the middle of my thirties, a time I thought that I would finally start to figure things out. I was making a little headway in my writing, and even though I knew it would never be as good as the writing in the numerous books, magazines and journals I had read over the years, I was as determined as ever. Funny how determination terminates when you hit a brick wall. Up until that point, the only mental illness I had ever faced was the delusions of wanting to be a writer; that, and thinking I was a decent guitar player. But when it hit me, it hit me, and I was powerless against the force of my despair. Among the many things I lost in that dark place, my sense of self had been erased. I didn't know if I would make it through the next day, because along with the black hole of despair came anxiety. I couldn't think of what I wanted to say to my own family in person, much less be creative on the page. Something else that was lost during that time that also attributed to my disassociation with myself was the loss of connection with the natural world. I didn't want to hike or hunt or fish anymore. I didn't even care if I looked out the window at the kids playing outside. My emotions were mixed up, and fear took over in the place of wonderment and my lost sense of adventure.

But from somewhere deep inside of me, this ember was still there, to my surprise, it hadn't been completely snuffed out. It was like after I thought all was lost, God was showing me that I had a part of myself deep down inside that would never die. It didn't happen over night, in fact, it's something that I have had to work on daily, ever since. Gradually, I began to go outside again. Sit among the trees and the ancient rocks. I started back fishing again. Taking a walk in the woods, I found, would clear my mind, even if only for a little while. Every little bit helped. One day I sat down and I started writing again. It wasn't very good, but it was a start. I started taking note of things again, close observation of the tiniest details, and I attempted to write them down. Even when I'd go into restaurants or convenience stores, I'd listen to the language, how different people talked. Sometimes I'd write an overheard conversation down, just to try and get the rhythm of how people talk. I was able to get out of my own head (for a little while) so that I could be present in the life of my family and friends.

 Of all the things I've learned from nature, learning to stop and listen and observe has helped me tremendously over the past few years. The natural world has a way of healing us when medication and a shrink can't. Had I known that the answer to my prayers were right outside my back door, maybe I could have started the healing process months and months before I did. Maybe not. Either way, I'm glad that I have found my way. I have a long way to go, we all do. Life is full of obstacles and trials, and each one of us has our own way of coping. For some it is prayer and meditation, for others, it is exercise and a change of lifestyle. Sad to say, many turn to their addictions just to deal. My approach to wellness-- mentally, physically, and spiritually-- comes from a walk in the woods. A place to sit underneath an oak tree, or on top of Bald Rock, where I can see the the foothills roll away in all directions from the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Time in nature-- even if it is in your own back yard or on an apartment rooftop, watching a vine climbing up the cracks in the brick--is time well spent. My return to the woods has helped me return to myself, and return to my place in the world.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Morning Ritual

Waking naturally before light pierces through bedroom curtains does not happen often. On mornings when a full day of work awaits, the alarm clock has a hard time pulling me from the netherworld. When at last I do recognize the persistent buzzing and chirping, after I distinguish the sound from that which is emanating from some found object in my dream, my first physical reaction is to pull the covers up over my head, and pretend I don't hear it, pretend I am still dreaming. That feeling you get on Sundays, when by mistake you forget and set your alarm the night before, and when you finally do answer the alarm clock's call, you realize it's Sunday, and you can sleep in-- I always hope it's one of those mornings. But more times than not, it isn't. They're are some mornings, though, when I somehow gain consciousness, like I've been given a shot in the arm. On those mornings, I throw back the covers and get to my feet, put on a pot of coffee, and gather my things. It's on these mornings, when the fish are rising in some far off stream or lake, or a trail leading beyond the reach of phone signal beckons to me, that I rise and perform this sacred morning ritual.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Letter To My Father

Two years ago, this very night, you were still here among the living. You had no idea of what was to come in the early hours of the morning, but I know you had some inkling. You'd been talking about it for a while, and the Sunday before, I was told that you 'd made things right.Your mind and body were weak from fighting to hold onto your spirit, but your spirit was so much stronger, and it was determined to be set free. Your pain would soon be over, but you liked to fight, always did. You were the most stubborn human being that I have ever known, and I know that at the end, you were no different. I'm sure it wasn't your choice to go, despite all those times you cried, saying you wanted to die and be put out of your misery. When the medics had worked so long on you and decided to give up on you, your heart started back beating, as if out of spite.  I wonder sometimes what those last few hours were like for you. I wish I could've been there for you, like all the times you had been there for me. Had I known, I would have tried to comfort you, sat there and talked to you to get your mind off of things. We would have eventually fought about something. We always did. At least I could've had that time with you. I would give anything to argue with you again. I'd love to see your face wrinkle up and your eyebrows furrow after I'd said something just to piss you off. Still, despite all of that, I know you loved me, and I hope you know that I loved you, too.

That night, did you listen outside your window at the soft breeze blowing through the water oak beside the house and wish that you could get just one good breath of that night air? When you went to sleep that night, did your dreams take you back to a time before your body failed you, before your lungs were filled with fibers and dust and smoke? Did you dream of a time back before the mornings when you'd have to go outside at three in the morning to smoke a cigarette and cough until you were able get your breath again? I remember those times before that. I remember when we'd walk the woods all night, following a pack of dogs without stopping for hours. The logs you hefted, stacking them and nailing them in place, they were sometimes more than you could handle after a long day at your regular job. But you did it anyway. I remember how hard you worked building that house for us. How you saved up to buy materials as you had the money, often having to make do with what you had at the moment. Any extra time you had, you put into building that house. You sacrificed more than your share to provide for us a home. I wonder if you knew then, the night before you died, how much I appreciated you.

I know that I put my share of wrinkles on your forehead and white hairs on your head. All the stupid mistakes I made, and all the times I let you down. Maybe I didn't turn out quite as good as you hoped I would, but I did turn out. I know you had an idea of what you thought I should do with my life, and I'm sorry, but I didn't agree with that. You'd have to admit though, I got some good traits from you, one thing, in particular that you valued above everything else-- a deep love for my family. I, like you, will sacrifice anything to provide for my family. I learned that by watching you. I would die for my wife and kids. Like you, too, I'm as stubborn as a jackass. As you always said, You can't tell that boy nothing. You always fussed about how hard-headed I was, where do you think that came from?

In the final years of your life, I spent many long nights crying over you. I worried myself to death over you, taking years off of my own life, trying to save yours. I prayed for you and cursed your name in the same breath. I loved you and I hated you. The man that gave me life was killing me, and I kept on trying to fix you. I know you would have done the same for me. Everyday, in some way, you still effect me. I see you every time I look at my reflection. I hear myself say things, and it's the same thing you would've said, and that drives me crazy. I couldn't escape you then, I can't escape you now. When I least expect it, there you are. Driving down the road, a thought crosses my mind, and I can't see to drive for the tears. When I drive your old truck, I sometimes feel like you're right beside me. When I pass your house, I can still see you sitting on the porch swing, still motioning for me to stop, and I still keep driving on.

I thank you for introducing me to the outdoors, and for encouraging me spend time doing the things that make me happy. Thanks for telling me how you enjoyed something that I wrote. You told me I'd better save those things, you never know, somebody might publish them one day. Momma asked me to write something for your funeral, and that night after everybody went to bed, I wrote a poem for you. I gave it to the preacher man, for him to read. He handed it back to me, said he thought I should read it. After two ativans, I got up in front of all of those people and read it. The preacher didn't have anything that could've topped that. I had everyone in tears. When I had my first poem published, I wanted to call you up and tell you about it. I know you would've been proud. With everything I do, I want to make you proud.Chase will be graduating high school in a few days, and Anna will be getting married this time next year. Aubree will be a third grader and Alivia will be starting kindergarten. You would be so proud. I know you'll be there with me, through every phase of my life.

Right now, as I sit at this keyboard, tears stream down my face. I miss you like crazy, and I wish things could've been different between us. I want you to know that I love you, and that I'm OK. I think I am finally at a place in my life where I can talk about my pain. I now see that it can help people to feel that they're not alone, that it's alright to grieve, that it's alright to be broken. I write as a way to heal, and if what I write could help someone else in some way, I feel like I've succeeded.

I  know that I'll see you again some day, and there are so many things that I want to say to you. As for right now I want you to know, most of all, that I am proud to be your son.

Love,
Josh

Sunday, March 11, 2018

It's Just Old Me

When I was like six, my crazy uncle  James showed up at our house during my birthday party. There wasn't many people there, just my mom and dad, brother and sister, and maybe my grandma. When he found out what was going on, he slipped out to his Volkswagen to find a gift for me. James came back with a banana he'd wrapped with a scrap of the Sunday funnies. That gift meant a lot to me, I know that because here I sit 34 years later, relaying the story to you.

This year, on my big 4-0, my wife and kids surprised me with a fishing kayak. I was shocked that they had thought so much of me to buy a cool thing like that for my birthday -- something I could get killed in. I was so shocked and excited when they showed it to me, that it was like I was having one of those out-of-body experiences people talk about. I swear, I felt like I was floating in the air above, watching this whole thing take place.

The gift of the kayak is something I'll remember for the rest of my life, too. It's not the gift itself, but the expression of love from my family that will be what stays with me. All those years ago, my uncle James gave that banana to me, partly as a joke, but also as an honest gesture of love and kindness. Trust me, my wife and kids know how accident-prone I am, so it took a whole lot of blind love to give me something that is potentially dangerous. My kayak is sort-of shaped like a banana, so, as weird as it sounds, I have come full circle.

I remember a few years back, brooding over my past failures and worrying about the future and the direction of my life, turning 40 seemed like more of a deadline than anything. I had so many doubts about who I was and what I was doing with my life. I could feel the pressure building more and more each day.

Truthfully, I was scared. So many questions kept my mind spinning, day in, day out. Had I done enough with my life? Was I doing what I am supposed to be doing, or was I wasting my life chasing things that didn't matter in the BIG picture? I doubted myself, and I drove myself crazy trying to figure out what it was that I was missing out on. Anxiety crept into my life, along with its pathetic roommate, Depression.

For a time, I was a wreck. I couldn't eat, then I'd eat too much. I couldn't sleep, and then all I wanted to do was sleep. My head hurt, my heart hurt, and so did my soul. I was being wrung out like a dirty dish rag, over and over, all day, every day.

I found myself praying constantly, begging for some answers, for some relief. Then, I would get angry because I didn't feel any better afterwards. Why God? I kept asking. You've heard that old saying, that there are no atheists in a foxhole during combat. Live through an internal hell like I did and see who you'll cry out to. It damn sure won't be your psychiatrist.

I didn't know if I could make it any longer. Hell, I didn't know if I even wanted to. There were times when I thought it would be better to be... you know. My mind was sick, very sick. It was the worst time in my life. My milestones were days and weeks and months. I found myself looking through a calender at work one day, counting the months and days since my depression had hit me, reminding myself of how long it had been since the darkest days of my life. Every month that passed, I would do that. I was getting better slowly, and further away from the darkness, but it took a while.

Somewhere along the way, the darkness lifted and I found out that things aren't as bad as my mind made them out to be. I started setting goals for myself again. The main goal I set was to be a better husband and dad. I'm still working on that one. If it hadn't been for my wife and kids, I wouldn't have made it. I decided to live for them, not so much for me. God helped me through those rough times, and I am thankful for each day he's given me, and for a fresh start whenever I need one.

In the back of my mind, there is that worry that I could slip back into the wormhole again. It happens. But I decided two years ago that I wouldn't let fear destroy my life again.

As silly as it sounds, I also set a new goal for myself then, as a way to help chase away the dark side of my psyche. That goal was to get something, anything, published before I turned 40. I guess that this blog was part of that, but it's something that I'm publishing myself, so for some reason, I didn't feel like my goal had been achieved. I realize now how petty that was. When I received an email from the editor of an online literary nature magazine, saying that he wanted to publish my work, I cried like a damn baby. This happened four months before my 40th birthday. I never expected things to happen like that.

Funny thing about goals, they're something you work yourself to death for, and then when that goal is met, you just kinda stand there and say, OK, now what?
Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of myself for what I have been able to do with my poetry and prose; especially proud for someone who has had to teach himself the craft of writing. For a guy who never went to college, I think I'm doing quite well. But reaching my goal is not the end, nor is it the most important thing in my life. Living is.

Now, I have new goals for the next 40 years. Love my wife, my kids, and be thankful for every day I have. You know, make the most out of whatever life throws my way. I'm going to try real hard not to drown in my new kayak. And I'm going to keep writing and sharing what I think are important things in life with you.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Frozen in Time on Wildcat Creek

This morning, a thin layer of ice covers the surface of Wildcat Creek. Leaves and bits of bark are suspended in the ice, caught in time, the moment the temperature reached that point when the magic takes place, and water becomes solid. Robins and wrens skate the surface where it is thickest, finding seeds and bits of forage on this 18 degree morn.

Under the surface, life goes on, and particles or silt and dead leaves drift with the slowed current of deeper water. Somewhere buried deep in the mud there, I'm sure there are crayfish, helgramites, and stonefly larvae, waiting on the water to warm to a more tolerable degree.

Green stalks of dog-hobble are held under the surface, encased by the icy grip of frozen water along the creek bank. Oak and persimmon, and beech trees, now standing in water due to beavers work to slow the flow and flood the banks, are surrounded by ice. A red-bellied sap sucker, pecking away on a river birch, has created a dusting of bark and moss on the ice all around the tree.

Dead fall trees, lying crossways from one bank to the other, have gathered leaves and sticks around them, and now the debris is frozen around them, taking on the appearance of solid ground.

Underneath the muddy banks, spew-ice juts out, pushing the mud to the surface to reveal clusters of crystals coming up out of the ground. Small rocks are caught between the clusters, with the smaller ones being caught up and held in the grip of the frozen fingers.

On that note, as I stand here in the trees and record this in my notebook, my fingers are frozen and not working very well. I'm finding it difficult to hold my pen, and my words are beginning to look like the scrawling of a child. I rub my hands together, and cup them, blowing hot air from deep in my lungs, trying to warm them. As I do this, I am watching finches under a laurel bush, flipping through the leaf litter and broken twigs with their tiny feet. Despite the freezing temperatures, life out here on Wildcat Creek goes on like it always has, and I'm heading back inside to warm up a bit.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Another Long, Cold Night

Outside right now, it's 31 degrees, not too bad for the last day of December, but the TV weatherman says it will be much colder in the days to come. Earlier, there were coyotes in the field across the creek. It sounded like they were hot on the trail of something, and by now, the feast is probably on. Blood and guts and hot breath from animals desperate for flesh and blood and heat from calories taken from another living creature. It's something primal. This is not something that most people think about when they think about nature, but it is a vital part. The truth that nature is not always beautiful, but is also violent and dangerous, is something that we often overlook.

Survival of a species is not always pretty, but neither is the other side of things, namely disease and starvation. We all know what it is like to compete for a better job or more pay, or even for a mate in some instances, but what about competing for our own survival? What if we had to find our own food, either foraging for it, or killing something to survive? I don't mean hunting in a sense that we think of now, but the kind where we must take any opportunity to prey on a vulnerable creature, and at the same time, something that would be easy prey for us, so that our exertion of energy is minimum. Most of the time that would mean something sick or injured. Doesn't sound too appetizing, does it?

And then there's the whole surviving the elements thing. That wouldn't exactly be a day at the beach, would it? I get cold now just walking the dog. It is clear to me that I'm not as tough as I thought I was. Those days of sitting in a frozen tree all day, or fishing from a boat in the sleet and snow for striped bass took place long before I started taking blood pressure medicine. I have to wrap up now, and head back in much earlier than before. I used to make fun of my poor grandmother for wearing a sweater around in the summertime, but I'm not laughing anymore. Thankfully, cold snaps are usually short lived in this part of the country. The upstate of South Carolina has all four seasons, so you can at least tell the difference, but the winters are not nearly as harsh as they are just a few hours north.

Yesterday, I watched a squirrel climbing into his bed just before dark. The squirrel put several hours, or even days into building its nest, as do the birds. I have found both nests blown from trees in high winds, but finding something like that is rare. I think whenever this happens, the creatures learn, and when the process begins again, their past mistakes are taken into consideration as they build the new nest. What would it be like to have to build a nest to stay warm? I can hardly build a habitable birdhouse out of plywood. By the time I could construct a debris shelter suitable enough to protect my family and my self from the elements, we would probably die from exposure. The animals and birds have to be expert shelter builders, there is a much smaller margin of error for them.

For all wild creatures, food and warmth are interconnected. A poorly nourished animal will freeze to death in winter, the low caloric intake means body heat loss. Same goes for us, in that to keep our body temperature up in extreme cold, we must take in more calories than we normally would. So while building that shelter, you'd better be eating good, too. I'm thinking that if you were having to build a shelter to stay warm, you wouldn't be running to the IHOP, or any such place. It would be more like attacking that field rat you saw while dragging brush, or even that squirrel building its nest. I would really have to be starving to go for the neighbor's cat, though.

It looks like this year will end cold, and that the New Year will begin cold, as well. My hope is that the cold won't hang around for long, though. I also hope that this year will not be as brutal as this past year was for some people. Just like we learn from the animals, we know what we need to do to survive. we've seen our nests on the ground before, and it's not a good feeling. So this year, lets hunker down, build those nests good and tight and wrap those we love in warmth, no matter the season or weather. Bring someone or something out of the cold, out of the pouring rain and driving wind, and feed them. Our species depends on how much love we have.

Thank you for taking time to read my ramblings through this past year. I'll have more to come, and hopefully the content will get better as we progress. Happy New Year!!!




Tuesday, November 21, 2017

As the Last Light Fades

Standing in the swamp as the sun goes down, and darkness moves in.
Seasons change, and the balance between daylight and dark shifts, ushering in the bleakness of another winter. Hardwoods become gray skeletons-- chilling winds move their dry bones in an ancient dance, foretelling of the long, cold nights to come. Geese fly in a broken pattern over the swamp, and their calls echo in the otherwise silent darkness.