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“Lingering light and mountains blue

sapphire twilight glows”

a secret shimmers in the air

on a summer breeze it blows

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Somewhere around 12,000 years ago, the retreating glaciers swelled the Israel River and filled the meadows of Jefferson with glacial melt, turning the lowlands into Lake Israel . In time, the waters receded, leaving a vast and fertile valley. Paleo Indians came and went and set their camps up along the retreating shores. Eventually, they stopped coming and the valley saw only occasional visits from the indigenous populations as they followed the seasons and the caribou.

In the eighteenth century, the land was granted, lost, and regranted. Colonel Whipple, whose house still stands in the old port of Porstmouth, nearly went bankrupt building roads in an effort to colonize his grant in the wilds of Coos County. He failed, but eventually, a small group of intrepid farmers settled into the valley.

As I ride past the old cemeteries, the old weather beaten and bleached headstones tell the story of those brave families that first made the Israel Valley their home. The names on the headstones indicate that they were largely of Scandinavian descent. The hard work required to claim the land took its toll. Few lived long, most died young. Entire families were wiped out by disease. Childhood was a perilous voyage that many did not survive. 

A world away, a young nation struggled to define itself. Port cities grew and prospered as the nation expanded its borders and settlers moved inland. For those people who broke the ground, there were two choices: live a hard life or die slowly… and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. 

Looking at the headstones, I wonder about the life and death of the persons under those blocks of granite. They left their homes in a far away land, probably because there was nothing left there for them, no land, jobs, or opportunities for a future. In that place far away, hope came by word of mouth. There were places where a man could build a life with the strength of his back and the determination of his will.

A steam assisted sailing ship carried them perilously across the ocean and landed them in a strange land. With the help of Scandinavian nationals already here, they found their way to the northern end of New Hampshire where land was free for the taking to anyone strong and stubborn enough to squeeze a living out of it.

Trees were felled by hand. Stumps and stones were wrested from the stubborn earth…Year by year, the land was cleared, tilled and sewn. Sometimes it yielded its bounty. Other times mother nature had differing plans. Through droughts, storms, blistering heat and frigid winters they persevered. The call to work was relentless. The land and the animals required constant care. There was always work to be done. Only when they put their beaten bodies down on their beds did they relax and daybreak arrived quickly. Bodies were worn out quickly and few lived to be old. Disease wiped out a large percentage of the young. The rules of life were harsh and inflexible, excuses were of no consequence. There were no safety nets. Self sufficiency was the only means of survival. It spite of the demands, the challenges and the seemingly insurmountable odds, they succeeded. Families grew, intermarried and pushed the forest further and further away. As their numbers grew, others came. Civilization followed them . Retailers,shop keepers, tradesmen school teachers followed. 

The bones lying under the headstones are beaten and broken. They once carried flesh that was strong and sinewy and very acquainted with hard work. Their skins were dark and leathery. Faces were deeply rutted and the creases were filled with the very earth that sustained them. Those long arm bones were wrapped in muscle and connected to deeply calloused hands.

Maybe those same calloused hands occasionally played the fiddle or a concertina. Maybe the hardworking wife could occasionally leave her chores and the drudgery of her daily life long enough to dance a jig or a reel with her children. Joy, a stranger to their lives, might have dropped by for a visit when the hay was in , the gardens were producing and the wood cutting was still a couple of months away.

There must have been a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Every day of every year was a series of little victories that kept them out of the jaws of disaster. Probably some failed. Most did not. They had faith in themselves and they trusted their Lord. 

Under these lichen crusted headstones beneath the canopy of ancient spruces are many stories of sadness and woe, victory and glory, love and joy, pain and suffering. If those bones could only speak.

Errol NH is near the top of the state, one of the last outposts in the northern forest.  Turn left at the intersection and you will soon arrive in Dixville Notch at the now shutterred Balsams Grand Resort.  Turn right, and you will soon enter the watershed of the Androscoggin River and the great lakes of western Maine: Aziscohos, Mooselookmeguntic, Oquassuc, Richardson and Rangely.  Beyond that lies the massive wilderness known as the Allegash.

Our friends John and Marlene have built a magic little enclave in the woods of Errol.  Nestled in a mature forest of mixed woods and bordered by a brook, their land is steeply pitched.  The tall canopy provides shade and keeps the intrusive sun away.  The stones in and around the brook are painted with a thick, rich green moss and curly ferns  sprout out of the fertile forest duff.  Underfoot, the forest floor is soft and spongy, carpeted by countless generations of leaf litter and spruce needles.  Lady slippers, trillium and trefoil dot the network of walking paths that John and Marlene have laid through their magical forest.  Over the years, they have landscaped their woodland enclave with “found art” as well as an eclectic collection of oddities.  Stones  and branches have been piled and arranged into living sculpture.   Bits of flotsam have been nailed onto trees.  At first glance, the forest appears natural, but a closer look reveals Marlene and John’s whimsical and clever re-arrangement of the forest.  Nothing looks as though it has been inposed upon the landscape.  Instead, everything appears to have grown from the ground and the forest.  From the little wooden bridge that spans the rushing brook, one looks upstream to the convergence where the brook comes together having been split by a raft of boulders and trees.  Falling in a bubbling froth from one pool to the next, the stream scours round granite stones and gnarly tree roots.  Fallen leaves circle round and round in eddy pools. The water, normally clear, is now golden and dark, loaded with the burden of all the recent rains.

As we sit in cabin warmed by the fire in the woodstove, the babbling of the swollen brook, the murmur of friendly conversation and the wineglow all conspire as I slip into dreamstate. In this magical place, the line between waking and dreamstate is fluid and movable and I easily drift off…

Hello again!  You mustn’t be very bright.  How many times have I had to rescue you and your forbears from this bathtub?  I resent you for repeatedly putting me in this position.  It would be so easy to simply run some water and flush you down the drain.  So here we are again, sharing this zen moment where I balance the value of your simple spider life against my desire to conveniently take a bath. If I could just pick you up by one of your eight legs and simply escort you to the door, you wouldn’t be so much of a problem. Unfortunately, I am repulsed by that prospect, you are obliged to resist, and your body is far to delicate to endure the ordeal. Consequently, I must put my robe back on, go find a magazine and return to the tub. You need to forcibly be “coaxed” onto the magazine so that I can extricate you from my tub without crushing your horrible little body. Then I must decide if you are to be banished from the house or merely relocated to a dark corner. I don’t object to your presence; I don’t mind sharing my home with you. However, if we are to co-exist, there are a few groundrules to which you must adhere. First of all, be discrete, stay out of sight. Weave your webs under the tub, behind the dryer, or better yet, live in the cellar. If you must occasionally wander around the house, do it at night when you won’t be seen or stepped on. I don’t mess with your flies, you should never mess with my food.
We are in a symbiotic relationship. I provide you with shelter and warmth, you kill and eat things that annoy me. I want you to eat Kelly Ayotte, but you would be poisoned in the process. Seriously, your job is to trap and eat flies, centipedes, earwigs and such. That is why I am not flushing you down the drain and going to great pains to assure that you and your progeny (you all look the same to me) will continue to prosper in my home. So, go spin your webs, kill flies and grow your family! Just keep the hell out my bathtub! One of these days I might not be so magnanimous in our dealings.

Cane in hand, he sat in his old rocker on the front porch of his home.  The  railing was just a few feet from the crumbling pavement  and the river was just a few feet beyond the pavement.  Chokecherry bushes flanked the house and the deep red, overipe berries were abundant.  Where the sun found it’s way to the earth, goldenrod grew to waist high and crowded the narrow road with a cordon of gold.  Gray storm clouds churned in the summer sky and the rising breeze cooled the high summer afternoon. Ripples scattered the reflections of the stormy sky in the tea colored water of the Androscoggin.

The old codger rocked slowly.  He looked as old and tired as the peeling paint and curling clapboards.  Aged, bent and crooked, worn  out from a lifetime of hard work,  his tattered wool pants, suspenders and straw hat seemed as much apart of him as the deep ruts that lined his face.  He stared off  unfocused, into the distant mountains, perhaps into the distant past.   In the shadow of his sagging porch roof, beneath stately ancient elms he rocked  to the sound of mourning doves  and the wind swaying the trees.   Was he remembering  the hard work,  the merciless seasons, the  cruel vagaries of nature?  Was he thinking of all the loved ones that had already buried?    Was he basking in the satisfaction  of a difficult but full life and grateful for  his extended years?  Was he talking to his creator and preparing for his own imminent departure?

The early evening sun found a break through the dark clouds.  The old man and his porch  glowed with the rich saturated hues of  sunset.  The crickets, having been quieted by the threatening storm  once again took up their chirping.  The old man’s rocker was still, the cane slipped through his gnarled fingers and clattered on the sunbleached floor boards.  As twilight darkened the skies, the old man went home.

Pittsburg, New Hampshire is in the northernmost section of New Hampshire.  It’s here that the headwaters of the Connecticut River flow into the Connecticut Lakes and begin their long descent to Long Island Sound.  Heavily forested and sparsely populated, it is cold and unwelcoming.  If you were a felon looking for a hideout, this would be a good place.  A quiet desolation pervades all aspects of the town.  It’s a hardscrabble, no frills place inhabited by people who work hard to make a living.  There are few paved driveways and no parked Audis.  Gravel, mud, log trucks and skidders  are common along the length of Rt. 3. Lawns are largely ignored, houses are in need of paint.  Austerity seamlessly yields to poverty…it’s hard to tell which is which.  This is definitely Ford country.  The family car here is likely an F-150 which has been jacked up with a lift kit.

Pittsburg is also host to a summertime population of elite sportsman; fly fishermen and kayakers.  It’s very easy to tell them from the locals.  They are fresh, healthy, bright.  They weren’t born defeated, they weren’t saddled with limits. They are in the world and Pittsburg is a pleasant outpost

For the locals living this far from the mainstream, culturally isolated, economically deprived, Pittsburg is a cage. It defines who they are and what they can ever be; loggers, farmers, or loggers, farmers…

He was a filthy little urchin. Dressed in tattered over-large hand-me-downs, he was as dirty as any unattended and neglected 7 year old could be and he had a bad black eye. I asked him how he got it, he pointed towards his family. ” Your big brother?” I asked. He pointed to his mother. I changed the subject. Later a more affluent family came in eating ice cream cones. The little urchin got extremely close  to the young boy with the cone and  his eyes never came off that ice cream . It was obvious that he didn’t enjoy treats like this very often, if ever. Earlier, he had pasted himself to one of the musicians who had a bag of kettle korn.  Clearly, he had not been taught manners, personal space or much of anything, really.
 After eating half the cone, the affluent kid said he didn’t want the rest and handed it to his father. Realizing how badly the urchin wanted the cone, the father took  it and was offering it to the drooling  urchin. When his son saw the gesture, he insisted he wanted the cone back.  The dissappointment in that little urchin’s face was heartbreaking.  The little boy with the cone took one more lick and then deposited the remaining ice cream in a garbage can. I felt bad for both those little boys and in that moment, I had a glimpse into both of their inevitable futures.
Sometimes life has a way of condensing  an entire story into a snapshot, an encyclopedia of the human condition  into a single vignette.