Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Leaving it to the Beavers

For several years in the early seventies, I lived in an old beaver lodge, a few miles
upstream from the Cornell campus on the flat middle reach of Cascadilla Creek.
Like the other beaver lodges I've taken over, that one was in the new meadow above the breached dam of a pond the beavers abandoned because they had consumed most the aspen within reach. Deserted beaver ponds provide not just the shell of a usable shelter, but several acres of unfiltered sunlight, flowing water close by, and - on the exposed bottom of the former pond - ten or twelve years deposit of sweet top-soil which supported Butterfly Weed, Fireweed, Joe Pye , Golden Rod, and half a dozen other field flowers that grew well over my head. The place was loud with bees and bird song.
I loved to grub in the dirt or just lie around naked on the lodge or in the grass on a spring day, and because of the swampy surroundings,I never saw another human being there....only the planes coming in low right over my head to land at the Tompkins County Airport about five miles off.

When living in beaver lodges I have always had to deal occasionally with snakes, skunks, or coons that moved in when I was out for a while, or even when I was there. On the whole, snakes and skunks were the least obnoxious room mates, and I occasionally shared with them, but the coons were generally too rowdy and most likely to get into my food supply or to try and face me down at the door.
No beavers ever tried to move back in but I always had to keep an eye on the old dam, because adolescent beavers ousted from overcrowded lodges up or down stream will periodically wander through looking for new opportunities, and young beavers can hardly resist the temptation to dam up any water that flows, regardless of whether they are going to stay around. A working dam would put my entrance door underwater and drown anything I have planted. But I always managed to stay on top of that problem.

I foraged for clams and crayfish in the creek and I banked the soil around the lodge to plant carrots and potatoes, acorn squash that wandered out over the meadow, and runner beans that climbed up and over the lodge.
And I planted a dozen or so pot plants every year. They grew big as Christmas trees. Though it was a low potency, seedy product by today's standards, a few people on campus paid me for it, and it was my first venture into the cash economy, making me only a few hundred dollars each season, but all I needed, to support my way of life.

I was very popular with my customers.....such as a certain invertebrate biologist who said it helped him "get small,"for his research, and then there were some in that psychodrama circle Davey introduced me to, who claimed my pot helped them to get into other people's heads.
I guess I don't need pot to get small, and, as for getting into someone else's head, I can hardly imagine any place I would less like to be. What it did for me, the one time I tried it, was at first nothing at all, until I went out to take a shit and, in the process became absolutely convinced that I was trapped in time, which not so much a cage as a kind of circle.
This was not just a seems- like, metaphorical kind of experience. I was terrified.
Maybe it gave me a better understanding of time, but maybe I am still cycling shit back there.

I felt pretty safe in that swamp from any kind of bust or ripoff.....as well as from bears like the one that dragged me out of my lodge up at Fort Drum and are pretty rare around here. And the Cascadilla soil was much sweeter and richer than the acid duff of the Adirondack pine woods.
The most obvious danger to all my crops there was the deer that loved the swamp and meadow lands as much as I did. In the Spring, there was always a doe with a fawn or two that hung out close by, so I cut brambles and stuck them around my lodge and the deer didn't bother the crops much.

I can go without heating my living quarters alright, but cooking makes it possible for me to eat a lot of stuff I could otherwise never digest, and most people couldn't eat any way. So I had made a stove from two, one- gallon bean cans, with smaller cans stacked for a pipe leading up through a smoke hole and protruding just a few inches above the lodge, so as not to be conspicuous.
A carefully tended fire of only a handful of pencil sized sticks, or two or three fat devotional candles in the stove gave enough heat to keep a half gallon of water at a simmer, so the soup was always on. Those were some of the best days of my life.

As popular as I was in a few intersecting campus circles, no one wanted to pay for stuff too green to smoke, so I had to cure it myself.
In a beaver lodge, where the walls are three feet thick, the ceiling is pretty low, and I couldn't hang the whole pants in there, so I stripped them and hung the greenery in net onion bags from the ceiling of the lodge. The heat of the stove with a single candle in it provided enough draft so that the pot would be ready to go in a week or two, depending on the weather.

I had pulled an old, three speed girls bike out of a little gorge in Cayuga Heights where it had apparently been used to joy ride a sloping falls there. Sometimes I used it to get in and out of town, sometimes without my leg extensions, which was just plain hard, sometimes with them, which was harder, but very effective. Other times I would hitch hike, or sometimes just bound along the road on my prosthetics. If I was in no hurry, and especially if I was carrying pot, I would avoid the roadside and go along the river bottom.

One late September day in 1974 or thereabouts, I was returning on the bike with some rice and candles and as soon as got off my bike, I noticed a lot of crows wheeling over the swamp, flying crazy, like they do, tumbling on breezes before a storm, cawing up a storm all by themselves, six vultures wheeling higher over them.....and as I hurried on and got closer, a lot of song birds carrying on as if it were just after a July rain.... and then the sweet smell of that smoke, so sickening to me in that circumstance, that I turned around before I got half way in from the road,.....knowing very well what had happened....that my stove had caught the works on fire.
The wetlands kept the fire from spreading to the the woods, but I never went back. I spent that winter in Ithaca.

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