Sunday, February 3, 2013

On Standing Tall...

It still stands there, up on the hill, one of three all planted on the same day, decades before I was born. Along the edge of the pressed sand driveway, my father dug the small grove of red pine seedlings into the ground to hold back the soil and to keep the gravel bed stable. During lean times, his mother, my grandmother, sold gravel from the pit to the city as fill for road projects, a monetary necessity that left an essentially scalped quarter acre of Ice Age ground granite on the property. Over the years that followed, some lupine moved into that space, followed by calf shredding black and red raspberry canes and wild sumac. To everyone in our extended family, this plot on the Hill was always called the Gravel Pit.

Those sorts of now ‘quaint-ish’ things, the naming of houses and of certain physically unique portions of whole properties, are becoming things of the past in many locales. People move out and away from the places they were raised. Families don’t keep homesteads anymore, but sell them off because their lives are now established elsewhere or they need to pay off accrued debts. Some simply cannot afford to keep a land legacy. It is part of the fragmentation of our era.

When I speak of The Farm, this is the house in which I grew up. In my family for 100 years, my dad, his two brothers and four sisters were raised in it. It is my mother’s house now. Besides the Gravel Pit, within the boundaries of The Farm are the Barn, the Garden, the Grapevine, the Ditch, the Hill, the Pantry, and the Porch (although Grammy always called this, the Piazza). There once was a Coop and a two-seater Outhouse. We used to also own the Swamp until the state of New Hampshire took it by eminent domain to build a highway. It looks silly in print, I know, but old neighborhoods have landmarks that don’t include drive-up windows.

That’s a bit of rural life that I miss living here in Florida where the Ocean Breeze Condominiums are not on the ocean, or even on the Gulf, and we live in a Village that is really a collection of similar houses crammed as closely together as the county code allows. The only ‘village commons’ in our development is the strip of turf struggling to support the now thirty-foot oak trees planted between the sidewalks and the street. It all probably sounded very picturesque and ‘Southernly’ on deed paper before thirsty roots started tearing up concrete driveways and water lines.

Last year when my mother was ill, I traveled back to The Farm for a few weeks. It was cold and bleak and January in New England. The house just looked old to me, old in a world weary way. The paint was peeling; the side yard was riddled with groundhog holes. The heirloom apples* were gone. Due to a freak and devastating October ice storm, many trees were snapped off at the base, root balls heaved from the ground; broken branches of white birch lay scattered everywhere. But the pines my dad planted on the Hill were still there. Red pines can live for 500 years.

Walking up the driveway, the paved part gave way to gravel that made that sharp frigid air crunching noise beneath my sneakers. (I’m a Floridian now; I don’t own boots.) The few squirrels brave enough to live in such proximity to the feral cat colony flickered tails in displeasure. Somewhere a woodpecker rat-tat-tatted for his dinner. I looked up.

 (tree photo, GHS, public domain)

The second pine on the Hill was my Sky Tree. Standing beneath its spreading branches, I remembered every hand grab, each toehold, the doubled branches that made the seat I perched upon. I rubbed off a bit of frozen pine tar from a healing gash and recalled all of the times I scrubbed my hands raw with borax grit to get off that sap. I love that tree.

I am not so good with things in high places. (Those who know me will get the pun here.) But one day, when I was around five years old, I decided to climb that tree. Going up was fairly easy because the branches grew in a certain way, like a spiral staircase. Sitting high above the ground, short legs swinging on my pitchy throne, was pure joy. I surveyed my domain. I peeped into birds’ nests. I felt the tree sway and I swayed with it. We were one living thing, waving at the clouds, singing to our gods, sending love out into the world. I was completely hidden and as silent as owl feathers when my mother called me to come to the Pantry and help Grammy shuck peas.

Evenings creep in, little girls get hungry and mothers’ voices develop certain shrill tones after thirty minutes, so it was time to scramble on back to the clapboard farmhouse where air princesses live when they aren’t riding in treetops. …But going down the pine was a bit more complicated than the going up…

the beast that stairs

There was a black metal spiral staircase in the last pre-house place that Fritz and I rented out. We thought the beast ‘wicked cool’ for about two hours, a time frame that came to an abrupt end the first time I smacked into it on the way to the bedroom. I swear the thing had a cloaking device. The steps were quite narrow and it clenched its rivets every time we hiked up to the office. It tried to murder us during at least three descents.

Yes, it is a tricky business… this going back, this uncoiling of stairs and of trees, of vows and of magics…

There are many types of vows, of course, and probably all formalized traditions or well-trod paths have their ritualized versions. I myself once belonged to a group wherein we did swear certain vows of loyalty and secrecy and yet, I did indeed leave that group in the end. The vows I swore in that instance were conditional; these were not based upon ‘perfect love and perfect trust forever’, but were to the traditions and lore and hierarchy of this certain group. Everyone goes into these things with the best of intentions but after several years, we came to a crossroads. I chose to resign, to return all physical vestiges and titles, and to exit the group. Yes, as a small-p priestess, I essentially banished myself.

That the vow of loyalty to the group was undone did not however give me free license to blab around the world of the secret workings of a benign group. My promises to the tradition may no longer include the future tense, but does not personal integrity require that I don't unravel the threads of the past magics we worked together, braided in love and hope and healing? How could I justify to my Gods the undoing of a healing, a ritual or a sacrifice simply because that group and I chose to follow different paths forward?  One does not simply unmake the past in fits and piques.

The way down, the way back, must be carefully considered and exquisitely maneuvered. For my part, there will always be something of our group magic out there that has my fingerprints all over it. It is a reality that I gladly accept because the good work that we did together was indeed, very, very good. When it comes right down to it, I respect my own magic. I know what I did and I know why I did it and I know where it went.

My altar faces the North, my ancestral homestead. That is where I learned to speak with chipmunks, count in cricket and ride on trees. Up on the Hill, red pines, their ancient songs recorded in sap, wrap their roots even deeper into the gravel and hold on.

Over the years and through the storms, the magic still stands.           


*Years and years and years ago, long before the belching saws bit into its pithy heart, Skye and I wassailed one small twig from my favorite apple tree behind the Barn. It is on my altar.


  1. Beautiful and thoughtful and provocative, Wren.

    Do let me know if you want me to go plant some apple trees there for you...

  2. Such a plan is already a niggle in my brain, Peg. ;)