Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bank Swallows: Thurman, 1955

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point….

From “The Blue Swallows,” Howard Nemerov

In the mid-fifties, when I was four or five, I started visiting an old bootlegger’s hideout in the woods of Thurman with my friend Dinah, Dinny, who was a year and a century older than I was, and infinitely wiser, and whom I admired and adored.

The place belonged to her father, a surgeon who was our landlord in Schenectady. You reached it down a narrow track that opened into a long oval drive surrounding two or three acres of Arcadian white pines. The house stood at the end of the long oval, atop a bluff surrounded by a 180 degree bend in Patterson Brook. A wide screened flagstone porch supported by large pine logs gave way to a central frame structure two stories high, with one-story lean-tos built off the sides housing another bedroom, bathroom, and the kitchen.

A balcony surrounded the central hall and led to the upstairs bedrooms, which were small and rough, the bathrooms wainscoted and tiled. From the balconies you looked down on a large living room of cozy bamboo couches and chairs, coffee tables, lamps and magazine racks filled with Life, Look, National Geographic, The Conservationist, Field and Stream, and Superman comics. A bear rug covered the floor in front of the fireplace, another decorated a wall, and a moose head hung over the wide, open hearth fireplace.

The electricity came from a generator in a log shed located out of earshot at the far end of the driveway, a big Chrysler six that ran only in the evening, used enormous amounts of gas and had to be frequently coaxed into life by the caretaker, Ken Bonner, whom I knew twenty years later as an old-time fiddle player in Stony Creek. The kitchen had gas appliances, and they burned gas and kerosene lamps in the rest of the house when the generator was on the fritz, which it usually was.

A concrete ramp outside led downstairs under the kitchen into the “cool cellar,” where the family stored vegetables and beer, and which had originally been the liquor vault. In bootlegging days cars backed down the ramp, loaded up and made the quick shot to Saratoga, Albany and points south. Sometimes Dinny’s older brother Jeff trapped porcupines and raccoons there.

At first the deep woods’ sensory field disoriented me. Lying alone in my bedroom, with animals prowling sometimes audibly outside, I felt even at five or six connected to a greater if more uncertain and more thrilling reality than the one on the street and in the yards of downtown Schenectady and along the Mohawk. Waking in the night I couldn’t identify or locate the sound that came from the wind in the trees, which reminded me of the bodies and pews rustling together in church and seemed to come from everywhere. The creek roaring below after a night of rain brought a similar far-off echo of white noise, a gigantic hush that drowned out the noise going on in your head. Perhaps that was the first time I noticed the world slapping me into attention.

The place generated other patterns. The days had a morning adventure and an afternoon adventure—catching frogs, rock hopping in the creek, fishing. We played on the sawdust mountain outside the mill at the end of the driveway and came home with its rich piney smell on our bodies. Cool evenings by the fireplace, the doctor or his brother, also a doctor and a jazz clarinetist, told stories. They were not sportsmen themselves, but their colleagues nearby were, and we heard a lot about fishing, hunting and wildlife.

With Jeff we crawled through the alders to the edge of clear pools in Patterson Brook and spied on wild brookies hovering on their fins as if in midair, magnified in the water’s lens. One evening at dusk, driving home from the rodeo at 1000 Acres, we skinny-dipped like trout in Stony Creek. That was interesting and the last time the adults allowed it to happen.

The Hudson braided under the Thurman Bridge a couple of miles from camp among green islands supporting rare ice-meadow flora, the consequence of jagged bergs scouring the wide low banks each spring, which we knew nothing of at the time. Beef cattle grazed on the bigger, grassier islands downstream.

On the Thurman side a cut-bank fifty feet high ran along the river, nesting habitat for a huge colony of bank swallows, thousands swirling in the evening light for mayflies hatching off the broad shallows when we drove back to camp with ice cream cones.

After I moved to Hadley in the summer of 1969, I would cross the bridge and turn right into the maze of dirt roads that ran among the knobby mountains between there and The Glen, trying to find the camp and measure it against my memory. Usually I got lost, but more than once I made my way down an overgrown path in the woods to the broken down generator shack and bare concrete cellar hole. The ramp to the booze vault was still intact but the house a pile of ash. The chimney survived. How could such a thing have happened? Dinny’s father had lost the place in a bad real estate deal, it had changed hands and been left uncared for. It burned. The next time I found it nothing remained of the huge pines but a few redwood-sized stumps.

Much else had changed in the ten years since I had stayed there. When I heard that Dinny had died of cancer a few years ago I remembered the last time I’d seen her, when she and her father had driven into the four corners of Stony Creek on a summer afternoon in the mid-seventies at the precise moment when I happened to be crossing the street from one bar to another with a beer in my hand. The doctor had retired. Dinny was married, a nurse, employed and mainstream. They had been cruising the old roads and visiting their former haunts.

The doctor followed me to our rented farmhouse five miles from the town center at the headwaters of the creek and I made them tea. It seemed wrong to him, I could tell, that I had turned up uncertainly employed and rough in such a place, a counter-culture outcast. Dinny and I talked awkwardly about their attempt to find the cellar hole and recreate in their minds the way the place had felt back when the pines and house still stood.

But what struck her the hardest, she said, was the swallow colony, wiped out by Ddt, sand mining or some combination of both and whatever other outrage we couldn’t imagine. It was the last such profusion of animals, almost Serengeti-like, we remembered in the Adirondacks. “It’s so sad,” she said, mourning we weren’t even sure what. I know now that it was the beginning of the long sorrow, the realization that no elsewhere existed for us any more that would somehow keep alive the expressions of an earlier reality in the sounds of wind and water, and the whirr of thousands of tiny wings.

 

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In the 1970s and 80s Chris Shaw worked as a ski lift operator, the caretaker of a fishing club, a whitewater guide, an innkeeper and as editor of Adirondack Life. His stories and articles have appeared in Outside, the New England Review, the New York Times and many other publications, and he has received Bread Loaf and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. Northern Voices, his program on NCPR in the 1990s, profiled writers of the Adirondacks and northern New York, and his book, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, about paddling in the Usumacinta River watershed of Chiapas and Guatemala, appeared in 2000. The Washington Post called it "a magnificent achievement." Shaw recently retired from Middlebury College, where he taught writing and co-administered the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism. He and his wife Sue Kavanagh salve the wounds of exile by spending as many weeks a year as they can at their one-room cabin on a remote northern lake.




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