Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Maculate Conception of Nowella


       During a mild period around Christmas time, when a certain she-bear we will call Maybear ventured out of early  hibernation to   defecate and to dig grubs out of  rotting  logs,   she was attracted  by the  smell of blood,  tobacco, wood smoke, peanut butter, barbecue flavored potato chips, alcohol,  and unwashed clothing to a swale in deep snow.   She found there a man who had been raked off his snowmobile by an unseen barbed wire fence that had lacerated his forehead like a crown of thorns .

    Though smaller than a male  bear, the man was somewhat bear-like in other respects.  Surely as funky as an old Boar Bear … rather fat and furry-faced for a human.
  Maybear licked the blood from his face of this wounded unconscious man …. and she might well have proceeded to eat his  head and more,  but  her  healer/nurturer instinct won out over her omnivor instinct.  To which we owe this wonderful Christkmas story.
      Maybear  dragged the man into a nearby blow-down and kept him there for three days, feeding him grubs she brought back by the mouthfull.
      When the man (who was NOT me or myself, but Will remain nameless)  was able to sit up,  Maybear went to dig out a woodchuck for him to eat,  but the man was just  lively enough at that point to get to  his snowmobile,  start it up, and buzz off to the hunting cabin where he was spending the winter because his wife had kicked him out of the house. Which was O.K. because it was electrified,  had a Satalite T.V., and an extra large refrigerator.

         The  cabin was several miles off through the woods, and the story might have ended right there too …  but it was not hard for Maybear to follow the snowmobile track to that cozy cabin in the pines.

        Maybear  had generally kept away from human habitation, and didn't know doors from floors, but that night she climbed up on the wood pile and came in through the kitchen window as the man sprawled unresponding in bed. 
     Her entrance via the kitchen window, produced a lot of broken glass and a small amount of blood, but it landed Maybear on the kitchen counter, with perfect access to the kitchen cupboard, which was well stocked with canned beans, canned hash, canned soup, and canned pears in syrup.  She bit into each can and sucked out what contents could be sucked, giving the last of each can to the man, who stayed in bed, afraid for his life.
   Maybear did not know about cooking and she didn't know the refrigerator from the stove, but when the man had finished the Captain Morghans pint he had taken to bed, he was sound enough to get up and go to the refrigerator. 
    Opened, the refrigerator was a revelation to her. The man gave her beer. 
        After that she always handed the cans to the man for him to open, rather than just biting holes in them.               
           When the man was well enough to   turn on the T.V. and set to cooking, Maybear  flopped on the floor,  bewildred, entranced by the furious visions in the box and the new smells which she at first thought were coming from the  T.V.       When the man introduced her to pancakes, bacon, Sausage, and Maple Syrup she was lost to the cause of hibernation and other purely Bear behaviors, with the exception of shitting in the woods.  She would never shit in the house, nor could she understand why the man did. It became an issue between them.
        But  the two did go outside togeher, taking a couple of beers on the snowmobile, which she grew to love, despite the obvious dangers, pluss all the sound and smoke.  
       Not only did Maybear  not return to hibernation;  if fact, she didn't even sleep all the rest of that winter.  She didn't leave the cabin at all then, except, of course, to shit in the woods.  She would bang on the door with her head to go out and after defecating, she would return directly and s gently and then less gently, swing her great head to beat on the door,  until he man let her in, and back inside she stayed awake, mostly watching T.V. through the whole rest of the winter, which is a strain for a bear, and by Spring the man had grown more and more fond seeming, but for Maybear the novelty wore off, the strain wore on   and, though she was pregnant now, she left the man in cruel April. 

      Atypically for a bearMaybear gave birth  to Nowella the next Fall, although she always told Nowella she was named Nowella because she was born on Christmas. .

    But Maybear also fibbed about who Nowella's Father was.  Instead of sharing the fact that he had actually been that White MAN,  Mother Bear said that   he had been a white BEAR: a Polar Bear.
    Retelling that origin myth and answering Nowella's questions over a period of years,  Mother Bear styled a very  particular,  roguish Bear - a Bear named Rudy, a Bear with red eyes and several gold teeth, who  (she said)  had been performing  with Missy Hoolihan's Tall Animal   Revue, wearing a red vest  and balancing  on a large ball while smoking cloves in a meerschaum pipe.
 They were briefly married  and had planned to honeymoon at Pipestone National Park in Minnesota, but it never happened,  so Mother Bear said, lying about all but the  "it never happened" part.
           According to Mother Bear,  before any kind of Honeymoon trip, Rudy the Polar Bear  had left her without notice and for no stated reason, without even a note of goodbye,  and had gone  back home to the SOUTH POLE,  she claimed, compounding and confusing the lie; because, as everyone knows or else should know, Polar bears are native only to the NORTH pole; and anyway how would she know where he had gone, if he didn't say goodbye or even leave a note?

   Being a normal bear mostly (except for her mixed parentage, her farsightedness and a significant   directional disability) Nowella grew to be a usual  adolescent full of questions and ripe to wander,  so she set off to find the South Pole ,  to search at the wrong end of the world for a non existent bear who was not her father, whom, had she known who he was, she would not have wanted to find anyway.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Soap People

  Lake Bonaparte, on the north western edge of the Adirondacks, has a human history known in its basic form to every school kid in the area; but the lake has some deep secrets ... to which I may be the only living witness.
        The lake’s namesake, Joseph Bonaparte, was installed by his brother Napolean as king of Spain; but after a short and unpopular reign, was driven out by his reluctant subjects.  He got away with the crown jewels though, and with  enough gold to eventually buy a big enough swath of Adirondack wilderness to start  his own country.
   At the heart of  Bonaparte country was a lake that, sight unseen, he named “Diana” after the goddess of the hunt.  He built a residence twenty  miles away in the hamlet of Natural Bridge, which was then little more than a convenient river crossing where the Indian River plunges into the ground and runs through caverns.  The Bonaparte house was less  than a hundred yards from where I lived  until we moved down state.  it was lined with sheet iron for security, and people have speculated that it had an underground escape route to the caverns, but the foundation and the basement were still there when I was living in Natural Bridge and I can attest that there was no tunnel out of the basement and anyway, the Natural Bridge Caverns, are no place anyone would want to escape to.  
   That house was  his residence only while  he constructed a railroad spur   to the shore of the lake and built  there a grand lodge  he called The “Hermitage”, to which he bought many guests and furnishings, including a few gondolas.
   Joseph found an American mistress and had a child by her, but he never found the fertile and tillable land he would need to sustain his estate, and after a few years he abandoned the territory to the Black Flies, Mosquitoes, Horse Flies,  Deer Flies,   and the invisible  midges so small  they could just about fly right through a  silk stocking. 
    Left behind, his daughter Caroline eventually married one Zebulon Benton,    who adopted  a Napoleonic hat and kept  his hand in his shirt when photographed.    Benton somehow got a Swiss investor  to back him in a scheme to build an iron smelter – a great stone pyramid  – a mile or two down the Bonaparte  outlet. Iron ore was to be brought there for smelting  and the pig iron hauled away forty miles   by ox cart  over  roads he had to build.  He built the town for his workers too,  , and he called it “ Alpine”, despite the absence of any visible mountains. The building of the little town itself provided more work than the short period of its iron smelting ever did.    My mother remembered when some of the buildings were standing.   Now the foundation walls are spilled, the cellars only dents in the second growth forest floor, the smelter mounted  by Birch and Aspen, looking like an Aztec ruin.
 Joseph Bonaparte’s Hermitage burnt many years ago and  so did the Hermitage hotel which succeeded it;  but maybe a gondola rests intact somewhere on the bottom of the lake, or drifts in swirling currents deep off Bullock Point.
   Of ourse, after Joseph was gone,  everyone called his lake   “Lake Bonaparte,” rather than “Diana”.
  I don’t know what  Indians called the lake, but the Algonquins and  the Iroquois who drove them out were here only for their hunting seasons.
   As a ten year old, scuffling idly  with my shoe as I sat on the doorstep of our Bonaparte camp, I  turned up a flint spear point. More recently  a backhoe working  near the outlet of the lake turned up a set of bones from an ancient burial, which shows that though people may never have lived here permanently, they have been dying here for a long time. 

  Since we used to leave Lake Bonaparte when summer ended and return again when the next summer began, as a child  I never saw the lake frozen over, never walked on it, heard it groan,  or watched the ice break up and sink to the bottom in the spring. For me, it was always summer at Bonaparte.  
    Deep in the lake where the ice sinks to, there are no seasons, and
all time is a
swirling  present.

   To me the   child,  “Bonaparte” suggested  “bones apart.” , even after I was told about the fugitive  king who had tried to settle here. I often though of  my Grandfather’s friend Ernie Thomas,  one of the few people actually bon at Alpine, who, years before I was born, fell through the ice and his bones are still down there.
          In the nineteen twenties,  for five hundred dollars, my grandfather Bert Failing  brought   an island near the north shore of Bonaparte  from a logger who owned much of this part of the lake then.    We call it “Loon Island”, but naturally most everybody else calls it “Failing’s Island”.
 Loon Island was only a peninsula when the aboriginal hunter  lost his spear point there, but it was made an island by the dam Zeb Benton built at the outlet to power his sawmill. 
.     Loon Island Camp was framed mostly by Ernie Thomas and his son Harlan, with a monumental   fireplace of stones carried from the lake shore and few from Alpine foundations and from the abandoned mica mine behind Round Island. 
   The building was intended as a hunting and fishing camp Within a few years the mantel-piece had as stuffed Pheasant, a Wood Duck, and a Snowy Owl that a  farmer had shot as it perched his barn  and then brought to my great grandfathers medical office to finish dying. Covering the stove pipe hole left over the mantel for winter hunting hook-ups of a box-stove, was a six foot set of Longhorn Steer horns that my grandfather  brought back from a train trip to Texas. The battered furniture and implements from two generations of older camps  made the the place old, even when it was new.
   A pump house, a boathouse, and an ice house went up in the next few years. By 1943, when I was born, there already  were too many of us for that camp, so my grandparents built another cottage back off the bluff nearer the middle of the island; later a log sleeping cabin, a boathouse, a gazebo, and a bathhouse.
 Grandfather Failing, who practiced every profession going in Lewis County, outside of mortuary science, medicine, and mink ranching , retired at the age of fifty-two so that he could  fish. Fishing to him was not   sitting and drifting and dreaming, but a dead serious, and often  hopeless, pursuit.    
 Though most of the other lakes and ponds in the area are red and acidic from the tannic swamps, Lake Bonaparte  is essentially a big, clear spring hole, fed and enriched mostly by  springs issuing from limestone. In Joseph’s and in great grandfather Drury’s time it was Lake Trout and Whitefish water, but since then its population has changed … and  it is mostly we who have changed it.
 The lake originally had been populated by a stranded species of Char, which evolved into the lake trout now found in some northern lakes. Northern Pike, Smallmouth   Bass, Whitefish, Bullheads and Ling (only one of which I ever saw, floating dead in the middle of the lake) may have been native to the lake when the aboriginals fished here. The Lake Trout was the fish of my great grandfather, the Walleyed Pike the fish of  my grandfather. I saw my last Bonaparte  Walleye  when I was snorkeling off our island, and now it is the largemouth Bass which provides most of game fishing, though the Northern Pike are doing well living off the Rock Bass and Sunfish that   my grandfather  introduced  for the kids to catch. The state stocks the lake with trout, but the trout are dependent on the stocking program, to survive all the predatory species.
   Since World War One the old Pine Camp military reservation wilderness bordering the west shore of the lake had morphed into Fort Drum, the heart of which is the impact zone for heavy artillery practice. The impact was at times loud enough that it rattled  our windows and made the old train bell on top of the camp resonate. Then people used to complain that the artillery   kept the fish from biting.
 By the time he was eighty years old, my grandfather  was walleyed  with cataracts.  But he had learned to   walk the island by   feeling the path with his feet, and using a  flashlight  intensified by reflective paint on the the tree trunks. The lake itself, he knew by heart.
 He fished   mostly at night, hoping the fish might be active when the artillery was asleep, hoping against possibility, as if it were the ancestral Red Char that he sought.  

    One morning my brother Herb told me that  the night before, my grandfather  had hooked and brought to the boat  a Walleye as big as a log: a monster that got off because the landing net was too small.     
   For days, my grandfather was as grim and silent as if the bottom had drained out of the lake.     

    Less than a week after he had lost the grandfather Walleye, I was searching the flotsam of our beach  for baby snapping turtles disguised as rotting leaves.  I liked to take one home each fall for the aquarium, although they always escaped the aquarium and often disappeared forever in the house, except for one we found mummified under a radiator thirty years after its escape. 
   I found no turtles that day, but in the scrim of leaves, lake weed, and twig ends, was my grandfather’s briar pipe ... startling me  as if it were a part of him lying there.
  It  must have fallen out of his pocket during his struggle with the Walleye.  I picked it up and ran up onto  the island with it.
   Grandfather was sitting on his porch, still brooding over the lake. He accepted the pipe without saying anything.
   He stared at it for a moment then closed it in his hand and examined me with the pearls that were his  eyes. 
    Still, he said nothing, and I backed away; but I think it was then that he decided to share his secret. I was the one he had taught stillness, patience, and quietude.  I was the one who would inherit his fishing tackle, if not also his desperate mission.

  “Come on Davey,” he said one day after dinner.  “Get your hat and bug shirt on; it’s time you and
me do some special fishing,”
It wasn’t just fishing,
    it wasn’t really fishing at all.

    We went straight to the open lake   where we never fished because there was no shoal  or weed bed. My grandfather took his bearings on some landmarks then lowered the grapple type anchor twenty or thirty feet down while telling me to get in the middle of the boat and row in slow circles. 
  I didn’t make many circles before he  grunted and began hauling, eventually bringing aboard a rope tied to the handle of a. glass jug.    He shipped the anchor, left the jug to float on the surface, and then hauled some more, as I stared into the depths and   a   cage began to appear: a  wire cage like the ones he made for fish-traps, but this was  larger, and those  vague objects in it were not fish.   
     Amber colored bodies, human shaped, some without a few or any limbs, and some limbs without bodies,   hard and pale amber like old glycerine soap.

They were small as children or dwarf peoples, and nothing remained of hair or clothing,  victims maybe of a battle on the ice, or they might have been  systematic deep lake burials by a vanished culture that knew of the cold, whirling currents with the power to transubstantiate flesh into essential soap - currents grandfather discovered when he snagged his first gyring  while  trolling where few or none had bothered to fish before.  He had accumulated half a dozen complete bodies over the years, plus the occasional arm or leg, and a recognizable dog.
   I was fascinated, and  no more frightened or repelled than by any fossil.
   So now that I had witnessed his dubious treasure, Grandfather   opened the cage door and freed the Soap People, telling me, “Now Davey, say nothing to anyone about this.”

  We didn’t even speak to one another about the Soap People   after that.
    I frequently dreamed of them gyring in the deep of my sleep, but our silence on the subject was so complete that sometimes, especially in later years when I no longer even dreamed of them,  I wondered if it was only in my dreams that the Soap People  had existed.
   That fall my grandfather closed camp by himself after the rest of us had left.  Still tough as leather at his age, he hauled the boats out of the water and carried the outboard motors to the pump house, then he went to Florida where he and my grandmother wintered each year.
 But he may have known already of the cancer developing in his spine, and which kept him from returning the next season, or ever again.
     When I was in my early thirties and beginning to wonder about my memories, I canoed to approximately that same spot near the middle of the lake, a location he had triangulated using shore markers I didn’t know and and that probably no longer existed … and  there I rowed in slow circles for at least half an hour, grappling with the same anchor Grandfather had used, but got nothing.
 The Soap People may have dissolved in the  more acid water of these days.  Maybe  the remnants  washed up on our beach, looking like the chunks of soap   we used to bring down there to wash the dog or own hair.  Maybe we brushed the sand off a few  and set them  on the  raft  until we used them up. Some things,  we will never know.