Lately, I’ve been trying to be more receptive to messages from the universe, in whatever form they take. Sometimes, I get divine inspiration from other people, but most often the messages I receive come from nature. So I have to work on listening.
Two nights ago I dreamed of badgers. Now, it’s true that I am doing some final edits on my Varmints manuscript, a body of work entirely devoted to rascally critters. But there are no badgers in the book. There’s a honey badger, but in my dream I saw two American Badgers, Taxidea taxus. When I woke, I decided to research the badger’s symbolism in Native American traditions.
According to one source, “The badger imparts persistence, determination and endurance. Badger also gives mental energy and fighting spirit. It would rather die than give up, so badger teaches us how to stick to a project and see it through to completion.”
When a badger appears in our life, I read, it means that it’s time to walk our own path at our own pace. I must have faith in myself and my abilities. I already have whatever tools I will need for future challenges.
It can also be a sign that it is time to come out of hiding. Given the decision to share my struggles about autoimmune issues, the badgers’ timing may have been auspicious.
Last week I saw more hawks than I
knew what to do with. I was keenly aware of their presence along the interstate as I drove to Pittsburgh twice in one week, and two appeared over my house partaking in a mating ritual while a third landed in the trees above my deck and screeched. Hawk brings a message and wants us to listen. I have been. I listened, and a badger answered.
We’ve not been to the lake much. This has been the most horrendous weather I’ve ever seen. Summer has decided not to arrive in West Virginia. My heart aches because I’m such a summer gal, and I worship the sun so deeply (from underneath my long sleeves and large umbrella tent, that is–precancerous mole). We went out this past Sunday for the day. The weather was comfortable and humid, but the water temperature hovered around 77 degrees. Unswimmable for adults. The kids were in until they turned blue, naturally.
We took a boat ride on Sunday afternoon, and headed northwest towards the marina for gas, in the direction of a heron who was perched in the middle of the lake on a floating log, a very unusual scene. As we approached the log we saw that it was not a log at all but a styrofoam buoy impaled by a dollar store solar light. Two power cords came together on the buoy and one dropped over the side and down into the depths. To our right were several more.
My parents chattered aloud about the buoys, which, as we rounded the corner, stretched off into the distance. Rows and rows of little white squares and solar lights and thick black cords anchoring them to whatever lay on the bottom. Dad wondered if it was a race course. (The horsepower limit on Piedmont is 9.9. That would be a mighty leisurely race.)
The feeling which began to rise in my belly got stronger as we found ourselves plowing towards the marina in what appeared to be a channel between two lengthy rows of these buoys. My father, ever the humorist, was in the middle of his theory on alien surveillance when I turned from my seat up front and said, “It’s fracking.”
Nobody took the bait. Nobody jumped onto my bandwagon. When we got to the marina and pulled up to the gas pump, though, the attendant confirmed it. “They’re seismic sensors,” he said. “Antero is mapping the lake bed.”
There must have been hundreds of them. The mood on the boat sunk a bit. Actually, it dropped over the side and into the depths of Piedmont. Shawn steered us down to the dam for a boat ride as the day began to cloud up, and we passed row after row of sensors, floating so quietly that they may have been October leaves. The solar lights on the buoys didn’t match, I noticed. Antero, the drilling company, didn’t even buy matching lights. They just went to Walmart and cleaned out the shelves. Some were square and some were round and scalloped. Some are the same lights I just bought at Dollar General for the edge of my new deck.
The haze of the afternoon turned the surface of the lake gray, and in so doing made the buoys harder to see until we were close to them, giving them the illusion of popping out at us, a shitty little surprise party every 50 feet or so. And for the first time in my life, movement on the lake was restricted. We had to weave around the sensors carefully to avoid hitting them. A body of water is a physical representation of freedom, in a sense. Barring the presence of oyster bars and manatees and other boaters, you can go where you like. You can make right turns and u-turns and drive in circles should the spirit move you to do so. That little patch of shore right there? That’s accessible. There are no exit ramps or stop signs. You’re floating freely; go about the universe just as you please, because it’s Sunday on the lake.
Except you can’t go where you please on Piedmont, now. For the bargain price of $95 million dollars, the Muskingum Conservancy Watershed District sold our freedom of movement to Antero Resources. More importantly, they sold the water under our pontoons for the drillers’ machinery. They sold the school of white bass my children caught for two days in May, and they sold the great blue heron who stood on one leg and watched our boat go by. They sold the new bald eagle chicks who have just established a home on the lake for the first time in living memory.
I’ve spent my adult lifetime watching environmental crises unfold “somewhere else.” And those crises hurt. They make me feel impotent. Frozen. I can do nothing to help the polar bears. I can do nothing to save the last white rhinos. No matter how strong my desire, the collapse is out of my reach, and seeing it in photographs provides just enough of a cushion so that I can close my eyes at night, and push away the images.
This bird on this buoy was not an image. It stood before my eyes, in real-time. The heron preened its feathers as though it were standing on the shoreline after a meal, moving through its routine quite naturally. One short bird-life, unchanging. But it is changing, and the bird hasn’t a clue.
I have a clue. I’m no longer staring through the some journalist’s lens, or reading the words that fell off of his fingers as he lay awake, unable to shake what he saw. This is Piedmont; this is my home. This is my crisis, for the first time in my life. There’s no screen to dim, no button to push to make this go away. And as naive as it sounds, there’s something different about a crisis on your own back door. It takes up a physical space in your body, creating a palpable ache you can touch through your skin with your fingers. It’s a hole. An empty place of sorrow.
As we motored back to the dock, only my children seemed chipper. I thought about our respective timelines. My father has known 65 years on Piedmont, and he told me it has always been the same lake. Vegetation has grown up, retaining walls and docks have taken differing forms, but Piedmont has remained herself for a lifetime. His lifetime. My mom has known the same Piedmont for 45 years, and I for 35. The lake has never changed.
My children’s bodies were clearly visible in the chilly water, which has an emerald cast most of the time. Rather than looking soupy, this is a rare, crystal green, and after our boat ride they floated and dove and laughed and came onto the dock smelling like nothing at all, no chlorine or salt or sweat. Benjamin is five, and now Piedmont has changed for him. He won’t grow up and know the same shoreline, the same fish and birds. He won’t gulp down the green water as he swims. For Ben and Andy, Piedmont will always be a lake that was.
Today’s trip to Piedmont delivered me a dose of the lake as I know it, in my mind. The snowy lake is like a carnival: it’s fun and exciting and new, but after so many trips through the freak tent I get sick of looking at the bearded lady and long for my old favorites, liquid water and soft air. When I drove up today for a moment the sky reflected on the water giving an impression of ice, and I cursed out loud at the notion that it might still be here. I learned so much from the ice, but now I want it gone. (It’s like sex education with Coach Kozdris.)
The ice is indeed gone. The woods are brown, tipped with the earliest spring red (Frost was wrong: Nature’s first green is not gold). The water rippled with wind, and a warm front arrived at the same time I did. The girls were not with me (Maya’s toenail split in half and her foot is bandaged) and before I knew it I was dragging my kayak down the driveway to the water, which has risen in the last few weeks with the rain and the closing of the spillway. It’s up to the summer level now, and Dad’s dock doesn’t look quite so wonky, but he and Shawn have a frigid date with a sledge hammer and a pair of hip waders to get the poles straightened out in April.
The lake is up! The rock is under.
The birds know it’s spring. For several years now, the lake has been a stopover for migrating loons. Nobody in my family believed my sightings until someone on the Piedmont Facebook page snapped a photo. Several loons were on the lake today. They ride low in the water and dive frequently. As I paddled along the shoreline to avoid the wicked wind, the loons kept their distance and remained in the middle of the cove, hiding in a swarm of seagulls. Seagulls are also new to the lake. I imagine they found their way here from Lake Erie, and now we have a very small resident population of gripers and squabblers. They exist in such contrast to the loons, who are downright serene and stealthy. The gulls carry on like a fraternity party, swooping and diving and uttering tenuous quivering cries, and occasionally yakking up their libations on the dock.
A murder of crows perched in a tree and uttered a bombastic and raucous chorus of chortles in my direction. The bastards were laughing at me as I paddled into the wind. They hopped along the treetops, following me. Is there nothing so bawdy as a crow? They obviously tell each other smutty jokes and compare the sizes of their cloacas.
On the shoreline near where Ben attempted to fall through the ice the other day (see the video), a pair of Canada Geese were setting up a family home. I hate those birds. Today I saw only the pair, in the midst of their nest preparations, but soon they’ll be joined by several other pairs of adults and 15 to 20 babies. And when we arrive for the weekend with our dogs the entire flotilla will come barreling into the water and swim over to our dock to pick a fight with a German Shepherd. It’s an offensive strategy that surprises me every time. They poop on our rock, too. Filthy buggars. Yes, I know. Way to be a nature writer.
Poopin’ on the shoreline
Other avian specimens included the ever-present turkey vultures, a flock of mallards, a pair of courting cardinals, and an abandoned nest I believe to be that of an eastern Towhee who regularly romances himself in the garage window. The bald eagle did not make an appearance, as s/he tends to stay in the headwaters. The largest fish I have ever seen jumped near the dock; it was a muskellunge, of which one very noble specimen hangs on the wall above Shawn’s desk. They reign as top predator in Piedmont Lake, and the Conservancy stocks the lake full of tens of thousands of muskie fingerlings each spring in an attempt to draw anglers and hold onto the state muskie record, which is always caught in Piedmont. We bass anglers feel the muskie have taken over the lake and nary a bucket-mouth bass can now be found. The muskie Shawn caught that day was an accident; we were fishing for saugeye one April day in 2004.
My paddle was a meditation. I haven’t paddled for six months, and I shared the lake with two fishing boats in the distance. Of late I struggle terribly with an unmedicated anxiety disorder and OCD—it’s not that I choose to eschew medication but that I cannot find the right one and the wheels of the medical establishment turn so slowly. The lake was a big wet Xanax today, and for the hours I spent there, I was a human being again. Winter and school have sucked away my sanity. After so many weeks of drawing from within, as we writers are wont to do, perhaps I’m the biggest loon on the lake.