Valley Views & Varmints: Tiny Lights

Please visit Weelunk to read my latest in the Valley Views & Varmints series.

This week: Whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, they need a little help to flourish. Please give it a read to find out what you can do for them.

I SUP

There’s nothing like a weekend away at Piedmont Lake to really clear the head and calm the soul.

I got the weekend away, but it wasn’t so much clearing and calming as it was chaos and calamity. I don’t know why minor accidents follow my family around everywhere, but in three days Ben spilled six drinks, Nugget broke a glass and tore a screen, Maya pooped on four different neighbors’ lawns, and Shawn popped Ben’s favorite raft with a nail.

Still, it’s good to be out there. A few hours feels like a few days when the sound of traffic and sirens and television are quelled.

Ah, the glorious silence of nature.

In addition, I finally got to play with my birthday gift: the paddle board I’ve been wanting for years but have always been too cheap to buy. We’ve enjoyed our kayaks for years, but stand-up-paddling is an entirely different kind of fun. The kind that promises both exercise and humiliation.

It’s been a chilly May. Consequently, the water temperature hovered somewhere around 75. Great if you’re a bass; not so much if you’re a swimmer. It didn’t bother Andy at all. The boy is impervious to cold. Ben, however, spent most of his weekend wet and blue-lipped, shivering yet refusing to get out of the water until I forced him into a hot shower.

Everybody got a chance to paddleboard, though.

I’m proud to say I’m the only one who didn’t fall off. And while that may have more to do with the new prescription sunglasses I was wearing, I like to think it’s just because I’ve got the balance of a Flying Wallenda.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much skill to go around.

 

I’d Rather Be in the Woods

Writers consider their words carefully. Endlessly. To the point of madness. When we write, we think. When we revise, we obsess. We delete and replace and delete again. The words must be exact. They must flow. They must be premeditated and thoughtful and absolutely perfect.

That’s writing. When I speak, however, the process isn’t quite so deliberate. Sometimes the things that pop out of my mouth in conversation are really asinine. Like when I plan to respond with either “neat” or “cool” but end up busting out a hearty, “Nool!” Or when a relative stranger asks where my kids are and I reply that they’re duct taped in a closet at home. Not everyone appreciates that sort of comment, I’ve discovered. But just as often, the things that pop out of my mouth are a surprise to me because they’re not just Laura-chatter; they’re statements that reflect my true feelings.

There’s nothing so perfect as a hemlock tree.

Twice this week I’ve heard myself telling someone that I’d rather be in the woods than around people. The first time, I was sitting with a friend who was asking me if I would be attending a social event this weekend. I grumbled a bit, said yes, and then quipped, “I never go to social events. I’d rather be in the woods.”

Two days later, I had a similar conversation with a different friend. “I don’t like to come out of the woods,” I said, in reference to socializing. “I prefer trees to people.”

On a side note, this week I finally earned my Kooky Hermit Badge from the Girl Scouts of America. It’s one of the hardest badges to earn because it requires an intense effort to be both antisocial and muddy at all times. Nailed it!

It’s true. I’d rather be in the woods than celebrating or drinking or visiting or eating. Now, it’s also true that when I eat lunch with friends, I enjoy it very much.  And I suppose I would rather go to Punta Cana with my husband than a tulip poplar. (Well, actually that really depends on if he’s going to do that thing where he packs three minutes before we leave for the airport and then forgets pants. I wrote about it once.)

But generally, I stand by my statements. I do prefer the trees, the mountains. And it’s not that I don’t love and care for the friends I see at a formal social event. It’s just too overwhelming, too overstimulating, and there are never any squirrels or moss or caterpillars in attendance. (Have you ever talked to moss? It is so polite. Never interrupts.) I have to wear high heels rather than hiking shoes and carry a purse rather than a fishing pole or walking stick. I have to check my quippiness at the door, and I can’t utter things like, “Hey, this looks like coyote poop,” or “I’m going to go take a leak in that ravine.” That’s what I’d say out in nature. At a formal event, it sounds a little suspect.

Of course, I always survive encounters of the social variety, and it’s never as stuffy as I imagine it will be, especially if I confine my bladder evacuations to the ladies’ room. Still, I’ll take any chance to disappear into the forest.

Yesterday, I had to take our new car back to the dealership in Morgantown for a repair. The prospect of a day in the repair shop infuriated me until I remembered Mo-town’s proximity to Coopers Rock State Park. I got downright giddy at the thought of sneaking up to the mountains in a rental car, and I did just that. Although the main road to the famous overlook was closed for the winter, I found a separate trail that led down into the canyon along a mountain stream through an eastern hardwood forest, past patches of hemlock and enormous boulders dripping with moss and icicles. I was the only person on the trail – the only person in the woods, even – and it was fricking glorious. And yes, I did pee in a ravine.

In the spring, the trails become streams.

I found myself so full of joy, grinning like an idiot. The forest is where I go when I’m in need of spiritual comfort. That’s where I connect with spirit, where I find the divine. It’s the only place I connect with the divine, in fact. But on a more basic level, I’m just a happy nut in those mountains. I didn’t even say much to myself as I hiked, except when I approached boulders that looked like they might house a bear and her cubs, and then I made sure to recite loud, dirty limericks and have heated political discussions with Pete, my walking stick. You don’t want to surprise a bear (and it’s also important to remember that tragic man from Nantucket).

Scott Run

My emotions ran so purely joyful for those three hours that I conducted an experiment. Out loud, I said things to myself that normally embed in my brain and make me miserable. I said, “You’re a hack,” and, “Nobody is ever going to publish that book.” I said, “Your writerly income is pitiful, chicken arms.”

Nada. Nothing. Didn’t bother me in the slightest. The insults bounced right off. At home, I’d have felt awful hearing those things. Out there, I laughed at my chicken arms. Not a drop of negativity could penetrate. That’s the power of nature, of the forest.

And let’s be honest: as a species, trees are way better than people. Aside from their intrinsic usefulness and value to the environment, trees are just plain decent folk. Has a red spruce ever criticized your parenting skills? Has a quaking aspen ever raised an eyebrow and asked why you weren’t in church on Sunday? Has a sugar maple ever called you a slut?

Has the forest ever done anything other than listen patiently to your troubles, block the view of your drunken neighbor in his underwear, provide branches to burn on a campfire and a lovely whistling sound on a windy day? Okay, maybe that one sycamore branch that fell on your tool shed was a bit of a douchebag. But I’m telling you, trees are better than people. I’d rather be with the trees. A tree is the ultimate introvert. Even in a group, they stand sort of awkwardly, straight up, exactly like me at a party before I have a cocktail. Sometimes, like me after a cocktail, they swing their arms a little too wide and whack somebody in the face.

(The palm tree’s an extrovert, though. Look how it stands all saucy and angled, leaning to the left or to the right, they way women pose sometimes. Hi, I’m a palm tree! Check out my coconuts! I’m just going to grow here at an angle with my besties in a cluster and wave my fronds all around and make clacking noises.)

Farewell, Pete the Walking Stick. You were my friend.

Yesterday, I eventually had to come out of the woods. After a solid, 6-mile solo hike, I was damn tired. (See What’s Wrong With You?–Part One, a tale of fatigue.) But I felt fortified against the world for another day or two. I hate coming down out of the mountains into a world of shopping plazas and office parks. Thankfully, the high lasts for a while, long enough to remind me that the world of humans isn’t always as bad as I imagine.

And I’m going to try to work on the blurting thing.

Spirit Animals – The Badger

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.

Then again, perhaps I just needed an earworm.

Hiker, Be Healed

This blog has been sitting in the pipe for two weeks, so it’s outdated already. But since you’re here….

Winter has come early to West Virginia, and with the arrival of the bitter weather comes the end of hiking season for me. Oh sure, I could drag my sorry self out into the woods in the frigid cold; sometimes I do. However, I’m finding myself more and more affected by the chill. A companion to my Sjogren’s Syndrome is Raynaud’s Phenomenon, characterized by hands and feet that turn white when exposed to cold. It’s exceedingly painful, and when I run them under warm water to revive them, the sensation is agony. My feet freeze in my ski boots now, and gloves are an absolute necessity, even when taking out the trash. Thus, hiking in the winter isn’t just a matter of donning a hat or an extra layer; it’s a matter of keeping my extremities from suffering actual vascular damage, and I haven’t really figured out how to combat that particular foe, yet.

The extreme cold appeared early this year. It’s only December. We still have oak leaves clinging desperately to the grove in the backyard, and so it looks more like fall than winter, but the ice has crept across the surface of the fish pond, and the flurries have been flying for two days now. I’m sorry to say that my hiking routine suffers with the falling mercury.

Just moss. Lovely, soothing moss.

My Nature Writing class a few years ago was immensely valuable because it forced me outside, and in so doing I made a discovery about myself: I need the forest. 

I know that’s the most obvious thing in the entire world. But it wasn’t to me. 

My father has known this very thing about himself for 70 years. He, too, needs the forest. He disappears into it every weekend with the dogs. As a child, I always went along. The forest was a part of my life. Saturdays and Sundays were for dog-hikes. Hundreds of hikes. Hundreds of hours over the years, one walk at a time. He never really had to ask me if I was coming along; it was understood that I would. Looking back, I’m not sure I ever asked myself if I wanted to go. I just went, as if by default. Saturday, Sunday, woods.

Birch bark is the best bark.

Of course, I took it for granted, as you do as a youngster. And it wasn’t until I was surrounded by ocean and concrete in St. Petersburg, Florida, that I began to realize the emotional and spiritual value of the forest. For the first time in my life I couldn’t just disappear into the trees. Certainly, there are parks in St. Pete, places with sandy paths through scrubland and cypress where you can spot an endangered Gopher Tortoise if you’re lucky. But the wild? The deep forest? It was a world away, tucked inland, and most unfriendly to hikers. Florida isn’t a land where you hike around. Rather, it’s a collection of snake and skeeter, and this is probably why Florida hasn’t lost all of its wilderness entirely. It’s inhospitable. You can’t really live in Florida’s forests.

You’d think a woman who wants to be a nature writer would have realized the healing power of the woods long before her 36th year, but that’s exactly how long it took me. Of course I knew I liked being there. Of course I had fun. And of course that unmistakable hemlock and spruce smell–the very scent of West Virginia itself–worked its way into my heart before my 10th birthday. But before my thirties I didn’t really carry burdens heavy enough to warrant true healing. I hadn’t yet met the enemy that is anxiety, the demon of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They’re both big and heavy, and while a little white pill goes a long way, it doesn’t take me to the finish line.

I keep Xanax in my purse, just in case things suddenly feel out of control. I’m not ashamed of it, but I certainly wish I were instead one of those people who walks around with Cheez-Its in her handbag. I also wish I were a person who sits in the passenger seat of the car and thinks, “Wow, there is absolutely no chance of being crushed under the wheel of an Ocean Spray truck today.” But I’m not. In fact, on most days, I’m quite certain something is going to crush, smash, or flatten me.

Enter the woods.

No, seriously. Get off your ass and literally enter the woods. Go. Need a kick in the pants? Read about how nature affects mood. How it affects the pulmonary system. The kids‘ brains. Read and read and read, or just take my word for it and get your boots on.


Because when I enter the woods frantically scanning for an oncoming delivery of cranberry juice (sometimes those guys just pop out of the forsythia bushes, you know), I come out feeling so much better. Science will back me up on this one, over and over again. It will also assure you that a walk in the woods will boost your creativity and help you get un-stuck in your stupid brain.

A few weeks ago we had a quick warm spell before the temps plunged, and I took that opportunity to disappear into the forest to burn off some anxiety. I’ve been struggling with big-picture things like my unfinished book and my nonexistent writing career, as well as smaller tidbits like a moody 10-year-old and the fact that the cat won’t stop trying to fornicate with my heated throw.

I didn’t have time to travel to distant lands, but I did make it to the Serpentine Trail at Oglebay Park. It’s a recently re-discovered trail made suitable for woodsy types who have to be back at school by 5 to pick up their rugrats from kung fu class. Ironically, you have to park in the lot of a loud tourist trap: a series of buildings draped in Christmas lights and adorned with speakers blaring Bing and Elvis and anyone who ever stepped up to the mic to get their holiday rum-pum-pum-pum on. 


Perhaps because I could still hear the traffic on Rt. 88 as I descended into the woods, I felt the need to leave the trail almost immediately. The choice was to either walk on the path and feel a moderate level of natureyness, or to bushwhack my way through the tangle of brush, fall down the hill, and land in a muddy gulch. I chose to land in a gulch, and though it didn’t shut out the noise of traffic, it made me feel pretty good. And just a little wilder. (Because there’s nothing so badass as a 37-year-old woman in a pink Columbia jacket who grabs life by the nads and leaves the trail in a city park for a whopping six minutes.)

Hey, it helped.

Despite the tameness of the afternoon’s adventure–I tried to spice up the rawness of the experience by fording a few streams and leaping out at a startled runner a la Ursus americans, but he didn’t see the humor in it at all–the forest did what I had asked. Like a mossy green Xanax, the smell of the earth and the hemlock stand I found at the bottom of the trail worked its way through my sinuses and into the pit of my stomach. And despite the fact that I was underdressed for the temperature, I stayed well past the moment when the sun dove beneath the hillside. I stayed until I was calm again, until the live wires in my brain fizzled and died, snuffed out by the fern grove and the soggy peat.

Did you know soggy peat does that? It actually snuffs out anxiety. 

I felt so much better, in fact, that when I re-emerged from the woods, I had completely forgotten about the consumer paradise that awaited me in the parking lot. One moment I was swinging on a monkey vine (far less embarrassing if you do it in private) and the next I was enduring a cruel rebirth. I popped out of the deciduous forest and landed in a fog of exhaust. Seven tour buses were lined up beside the tourist trap, and elderly visitors stood about the lot and on the grass vaping and stuffing fudge and ice cream into their gobs. I could no longer hear the chirp of the pileated woodpecker I’d seen, and I smelled carbon monoxide rather than earthy peat. Brilliant red and green lights flashed around a manger scene, and Bing sang about that genetically-mutated flying caribou we all seem so obsessed with. As I stood and surveyed the scene, I felt both saddened that these old smokers had come from afar only to miss the best part of the park, and relieved for the same reason.

I’ve learned to go to the forest when I’m overwhelmed, when I’m feeling too much. That’s often, of late. I haven’t always been impressed with the eastern hardwood forest–in the winter it’s so dreary–but it’s easy to dismiss the value of nature if you don’t realize it’s capabilities. How human of me to brush it off until I learned what it could do for me. How sad. Nevertheless, I am reborn a believer. 

Sometimes I think the world offers little outside of the forest. Go, and be in it. 

Just keep your distance. Sometimes I have to pee out there.




Riprap

Note to readers: I wrote this blog on Monday, the day before the election, but didn’t finish editing it until Friday. I won’t be addressing the election because this is a nature blog, a sacred place.

When I began this blog, I did so for a class called Nature Writing that I took my second semester of graduate school. I loved that class because one of the requirements was to keep this nature blog. We had to choose a spot in nature and visit it every other week. What we wrote about was up to us. Naturally, I chose Piedmont Lake, though everyone else was a lot smarter, choosing a spot close to home. I had to drive an hour each way. Totally worth it though. That’s how Piedmont Peace, The Blog was born. And though I didn’t know exactly what revelations would come to me as I visited the lake by myself, over and over again, in the winter months, I was pleasantly surprised to have more than enough to write and think about every time I went. And it made me wish I’d been blogging for decades rather than weeks because I’d have a Piedmont book written by now. No place in my life is more deserving.

November weenie roast on Fall Chore Day.

I was at the lake, the cabin, yesterday for the annual fall cleanup day. As a child I hated fall chore day. It signaled the finish line for fun. While an adult with a boat can entertain herself via fall fishing well into October (and thanks to climate change, now November), a kid loses at least 50% of his interest as soon as the water becomes too cold for swimming. Fall cleanup day means putting the porch furniture in the house, blowing the leaves out of the gutters and off the roof, hiding beadspreads from mice in Rubbermain containers, and winterizeing the dock. That means Dad has to put on his hip waders and enter the 60-degree water (and this is a warm year) to take the float off the end. The rest of the dock is supported and will sit quietly above the sand when the conservancy lets down the lake, but the float has to find its way to the shoreline for the winter.

The dock moves out.

This year, though, the dock ritual incorporated much more detailed efforts. Some months ago, Dad received a letter from the Muskingum Conservancy Watershed District (henceforth MCWD or “the bastards”) telling him that he and every other resident of Goodrich Road had to have their docks out of the water by the end of December. Completely out, at our own expense and effort. The reason? MCWD has aerially visualized shoreline erosion in the vicinity of our docks. That means somebody went up in a plane and saw muddy water flowing out from our cove, most specifically from our dock and a few other docks. The letter went on to say that the Conservancy will be riprapping the shoreline in January to combat this problem.

Riprap at the dam

You’ve seen riprap. It’s a wall of rock piled upon the shoreline to stabilize and prevent erosion. I’ve seen it in the ocean as well as in fresh water. I’ve seen it on riverbanks. It prevents erosion from both wave action (of which there is very little in Piedmont due to the 9.9 horsepower limit) and runoff. It’s not a new concept. Robert E. Lee was assigned to an island riprapping project when he was in the Army Corps of Engineers. The poet and nature writer Gary Snyder spent time in his younger days as a trail crew member in the Sierra Nevada riprapping mountain trails for horse travel; in 1965 he published a book of poetry called Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems.

November on the lake

The titular poem, Riprap:


Lay down these words


Before your mind like rocks.


             placed solid, by hands   


In choice of place, set


Before the body of the mind


             in space and time:


Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall


             riprap of things:


Cobble of milky way,


             straying planets,


These poems, people,


             lost ponies with


Dragging saddles —


             and rocky sure-foot trails.   


The worlds like an endless   


             four-dimensional


Game of Go.


             ants and pebbles


In the thin loam, each rock a word   


             a creek-washed stone


Granite: ingrained


             with torment of fire and weight   


Crystal and sediment linked hot


             all change, in thoughts,   


As well as things.

Snyder’s riprap comes together, rock by rock, word by word, to form a beautiful trail of language leading us to a higher state. When we read it we actually ooze metaphor out of our pores: poetry is a riprap of words, carefully constructed for maximum strength and impact.

But the reaction to the MCWD’s decision to riprap our shoreline wasn’t poetic in my family at all; it was a real shit show. In fact, the whole of Goodrich Road rose up in angry protest. First of all, people just plain hate to be ordered around. Life at Piedmont Lake is good, but life at Piedmont Lake is also tremendously frustrating because the residents don’t own the land. You can’t cut down a tree without permission. Houses may be olive green or dark brown or gray, only. When you get a letter ordering you to paint the concrete blocks of your foundation, you do it. When you build a deck and forget to ask permission first, you pay a fine. Swimmers may not swim past the end of their docks, nor may they jump off their boats or rocks. We all do it anyway (because screw MCWD), but there have been times when the ranger has busted us and ordered us to behave ourselves. You can enjoy yourself at an MCWD lake, but actual fun isn’t encouraged. We go out of our way to project the appearance of compliance while at the same time doing all kinds of rotten things like diving off the boat at the dam and paddling an unlicensed kayak. And sometimes I’ve had to pay for it. But eff the Conservancy.

This time, though, we don’t have a choice. On January 1, the riprapping begins.

The shoreline in mid-spring.

Let me take a moment to describe our shoreline. The Eastern deciduous forest gives way to a gentle slope of grass about 15 feet wide. My father has encouraged small trees to take hold along the embankment, offering gentle privacy from passing fishermen and dappled shade in the heat of the day. Canada geese rest on the grass in the morning sun and, in May and June, cattails emerge and yellow water iris spring from the water’s edge, drawing bees and butterflies. The lake’s gentle waves lap the faces of small boulders, some overgrown with tree roots where thin water snakes make their summer homes. A rock sits just offshore, waiting to teach little children to jump and swim, a perch where I once counted dragonflies and dangled my toes in the lake, where my sons now practice their circus leaps. Leafy water plants begin to grow in the shallows as the water warms, and minnows and shiners dart to safety whenever a largemouth bass passes by. The mother bass spawn in the shade of the forest, endlessly guarding their nests until the fry hatch and move to the weed beds in the shadow of the saplings on the shore. In deeper water, bluegill and sunfish hide under the dock, guarding their own nests in the sub-aquatic vegetation, and even further out, saugeye lurk near the bottom and patrol the edge of the underwater forest.

In two months those bulldozers are going to roll up and maul the ever-loving shit out of our shoreline. Viva la riprap!

The MCWD agreed to send an engineer to a Goodrich Road meeting of the minds, and to his credit, he came prepared and he came in peace. I did not attend, but Dad did, and he reported back that this young professional truly listened to the concerns of the residents. In fact, he took a fair amount of abuse from an angry group of old men. He explained that the erosion had become a problem, but he took to heart the concerns of the dock owners. Someone had already riprapped his own shoreline with natural-looking boulders many years ago, and this engineer conceded that it was as good a job as any engineer could do. He agreed not to riprap that man’s shoreline. Moreover, he went back to the Conservancy and presented the Goodrich Road residents’ cases so successfully that MCWD decided not to riprap the entire shoreline of the cove. The new plan involves riprapping only some areas. Alas, our shoreline is the one in greatest need of reinforcement, due in part to a neighbor who ripped all of his trees out of the embankment several years ago in order to improve his view. One can hardly blame him for wanting a nice view, but the consequences have been direct and severe.

Yellow Iris and the jump rock

Bring in the bulldozers. If only I had had the forethought to dig up those water iris when I could still
find their bulbs, I could have overwintered them in my fish pond and replanted them in the spring.

But the shoreline won’t be the same in the spring–where would I plant them? It’ll be a massive wall of rocks, and any vegetation that had grown in the mud or in the water will have been crushed by the machinery. Forget for a moment the fact that we had to take apart the dock yesterday so Dad could walk it through the water and anchor it on a nearby shoreline where it can sit, undisturbed, for the winter. Forget for a moment that when we reassemble the dock it will have to be rebuilt to go up and over the riprap. Forget for a moment that no adult, dog, or child will be able to access the water without breaking a leg or an ankle. I don’t love those components of this process, but I can live with them. We can use ladders. The dogs will find a way.

My biggest concerns revolve around the riparian zone. What is going to happen to the shoreline habitat? The sub- and emergent-aquatic vegetation? The animals like turtles who may be trapped as they try to enter the water?

That’s a real question that’s milling around in my head. I don’t know the answer. What will happen? Thus far I’ve written this piece with a rather dour tone, haven’t I? Research into other states’ DNR pages indicates that riprap isn’t going to be the end of the world. If done properly, it will stop the erosion and still provide fish habitat. If erosion due to runoff is reduced, so too will be pollutants carried in that runoff, thereby reducing algae blooms. Additionally, riprap may protect wetlands by preventing floating vegetation from being stripped away.

Still, I don’t look forward to the riprapping.

Enter the marital disagreement. My husband, the fisherman, is whoop-whooping the incoming riprap with boundless enthusiasm.

“You know how many fish we catch at the dam,” he always reminds me. “Have you not read about the smallmouth and largemouth populations that gather around a rock wall?” I have read about them, and he’s right. Craw love a rock wall. Where there are craw, there will be smallies. Where there are cracks and holes, fish will hide and spawn. This project has the potential to create bountiful fishing opportunities if they do it right. Algae grows on rocks. Small fish eat algae. Big fish eat small fish. Bigger fish patrol the shoreline.

Bass magazines back this up. Anglers never pass up a good stretch of riprap.

If they do it right.

Thus, the family remains a hung jury. My father mourns the swift death of his shoreline, of his trees, and of the way it’s been for 40-some years. Shawn is eager to reap the benefits of a bouldered habitat. And I find myself torn, both hoping for the best and expecting the worst. It’s difficult to find ourselves “in the way” of a judgment that’s already been passed. Might we have been able to bring in more natural rocks? To plant shrubbery and more trees? I think I’d have more faith in the engineers were they not working for the organization that sold its soul to Antero, the frackers, for $95 million dollars.

Passing our dock around the neighbor’s.

“We’re doing this for you for free,” they told the residents at the Goodrich Road meeting. You don’t have to pay a dime. We’re fixing things for you.”

Fixing. I’m suspicious of that word when it comes to environmental engineering.

I know that in this world we have to trust some people and suspect others. But only hindsight reveals how we did with our gut feeling, if we chose wisely or poorly. I find myself fighting the urge to cling to the way it’s always been, to rebel against riprap simply because it’s a change. Change is not a bad thing, usually. Nature herself is not static. But riprap isn’t nature. Show me a time when man tinkered with nature that ended with a result better than one nature could have achieved itself.

Then again, the whole lake is manmade, the fish dumped in out of the backs of trucks, the water levels raised and lowered by a set of steel doors. Perhaps this entire experiment is just one wild adventure in commerce. As of the posting of this blog, I remain doubtfully hopeful.


The future, for now, looks rocky.

*Roy Blount Jr., Robert E. Lee

Varmints

The word varmint has become an integral part of my lexicon in the last 15 months. Aside from the words calamity and Ben, I may have used varmint as a hashtag more than any other. It peppers my conversation now, and I have to admit that I like it a lot. I think my life is richer for the presence of the word varmint. Thus, Varmints, The Thesis was born in my second year of my MFA program.

Because who doesn’t want to read about animals?

Dogs and cats are the obvious choice for animal stories, and the bookstore has the titles to prove it. Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul. Simon’s Cat Gets Neutered. 101 Tales of Noble Pets Guaranteed to Make You Sob Like a 20-Year-Old Who’s Just Been Dumped by Wren, the Grimy Hipster Guy Who Makes Organic Soap Out of Sheep Snot. These are just a few of the titles you can find in the “schmaltzy dogs” section.

Schmaltzy dogs dominate the animal storytelling industry. Show me a movie about a dog that doesn’t end one of two ways: a) with Rufus getting hit by a car or taking a bullet for little Bobby and dying with quiet dignity while his humans wail, or b) with the final scene revealing that Rufus actually survived the shooting/road rash and, as the crescendo builds, he limps over the rise in the dusty driveway and drags his ever-loyal hindquarters down the lane to the waiting arms of Billy. Er, Bobby. Whatever I called him. That’s the MO for dog stories.

But if we pull back a bit, we can see how much room there is for a whole complement of animal stories that don’t revolve around young Bobby’s flat cat. We cross paths with animals every day, as soon as we leave the house. And, for most of us, those animals are urban critters like squirrels, crows, and deer.

Varmints.

That time Mama Rat brought out her babies and
then I poisoned them all.

The word has a distinctly negative connotation. The very definition of varmint is “a troublesome animal.” People dedicate time on weekends for varmint hunting. You can walk into Cabelas right here in Wheeling and buy a varmint rifle. Go to YouTube and check it out, if you have the stomach. I normally do not, but when I was doing varmint research for my thesis, I found a British varmint hunter with a channel on which he posts videos of his nocturnal rat hunts at the family dairy. I don’t begrudge him a rat hunt. God knows I’ve had my share of trouble with rats, and poison is a far worse idea because it works its way out into the food web, into hawks and owls and such. In the video, he scopes them and shoots them. The only part of the video that truly disturbed me was when he said he pops them right in the brain so they don’t suffer. Then, he zooms in on a dying rat who is clearly having a grand mal seizure, and he says, “See? He’s not in any pain.” And the rat thrashes. But, it’s a rat. And the death of a rat is far more complicated–ethically–than Old Yeller’s.

Skippy, the groundhog who lives under the porch.

That’s why I like varmints. They really stir up complicated thoughts about morals and ethics. And, more importantly, the varmints pull the curtain back on a very interesting phenomenon and a very sad one: as we see to it that our megafauna disappear, these adaptable little critters fill the empty void. Megafauna have highly specific needs. The mountain lion, for example. The wolf. These are predators who used to populate Appalachia, and they were responsible for controlling deer populations. But, as humans always do, we came in and tinkered with the lion and wolf populations (translation: we killed them all). Now the deer run rampant and eat my hosta every night and my garden looks like shit.

But what we’re really doing is making room for the varmints. And though we’ve waged war on
varmints in the same manner that we waged war on the apex predators, the varmints reproduce quickly and adapt easily. Ever have a raccoon problem? I do. I caught two little jerks in my fish pond this summer at 6am. I went out into the dark to feed the cat and there they were, red-handed in my pond, reaching for my fish. They’d unscrewed the lids on my koi food and dumped it all into the water, and they’d thrown the cans into the neighbors’ yard. My father came over when he heard the commotion and told me to call Critter Control, to get those two varmints out of there.

I declined to do so. First of all, my dad thought that the critter guy would just release them in a happy forest where they could go on to lead a life of raccoonly fulfillment. Not so. I know from past experience that the law dictates a trapped raccoon must be destroyed. But let’s say for the sake of the discussion that I was okay with that. After all, raccoons aren’t in short supply. Nobody is going to miss two trouble-makers. What’s the harm in making them disappear before they eat my big, beautiful koi?

Busted in the fish pond.

There’s no harm, outside of my own moral compass. But I’d be flushing my money down the toilet. What did I learn in a year of research for Varmints: The Thesis? I learned that there is always another raccoon. Always. Another. An endless supply of little masked bears waiting in the wings. The raccoon you saw this morning isn’t necessarily the raccoon you saw yesterday morning. The trash raccoon may be a different fellow from the pond raccoon. So yes, I can call the critter guy and have him trap and destroy my pond offenders. Another raccoon will arrive shortly, taking up the mantle of his koi-snatching, trash-digging relatives.

This is why varmints are so successful. There are always more of them. Moreover, varmints are endlessly adaptable. In this article from Lousisiana Sportsman, the author reports on the state’s feral hog problem. The gist of the article is that feral hogs have surpassed white-tailed deer in terms of what hunters bag, and that the hog has lots of hoglets (er, piglets) and most of them survive. They’ll eat anything.

Now, granted, feral hogs are a different category of animal from deer and raccoons and possums. Hogs were introduced to North America back in DeSoto’s day, while raccoons have been here for ages. Raccoons are a native species. But the point is that varmints adapt, and do so quickly. That’s precisely why they become varmints. They’re just fine with whatever changes we make. The big beautiful animals can’t hack life with the humans, but the critters we love to hate thrive right under the porch. Grilling out tonight? Guess who’s licking the drippings after you go to bed? Erecting a little storage barn down by the tomato garden? Way to provide a solid roof over their heads down in their hidey holes. Varmints. You can’t piss ’em off. You can’t drive ’em away.

Research from the 1960’s.

I envision a future, sometimes, that’s pretty bleak. But it’s not one too far out of the realm of possibility. Imagine us in fifty years. We’ve triggered the collapse of the oceans. We’ve deforested the shit out of our own country, to say nothing of the Amazon. Water quality sucks. Obviously the black bears aren’t doing so well. The Yellowstone wolf project was a huge failure–we shot them all when they tried to eat our sheep. Now look at the coyote population. It’s exploded. We have coyotes coming out of our asses. We try to shoot them; they just keep coming.

Because they’re varmints, and they’re thriving. And on so many different levels, you’ve got to respect raccoons and varmints in general. They’re adaptable. They’re successful. They’re bound and determined to make a life in a place that seems harsh and unfriendly. They’re up for meeting a challenge even if it claims their lives. And they’re driven to take advantage of every situation. that. In calm moments when you’ve finished picking up the scattered trash and pulled the severed frog’s head from the pond waterfall, consider how well these creatures reflect human beings.

It’s is interesting, isn’t it? When humans take advantage of every situation, we’re bold. Explorers, meeting our manifest destiny. By God, we conquered that wilderness and made a life for ourselves in the great unknown. Sure it was risky, and many of us died. But we made ourselves fit.

Slappy, our resident fox squirrel.

Now consider a varmint doing the same thing: the rat who moves into the basement because he and his buddies can survive the winter. The groundhog who lives under the porch next to the dryer exhaust. The possum who eats the leftovers in the dog bowl on the deck. The raccoon who snacks on my big, beautiful Japanese koi. It’s not manifest destiny. It’s a series of offenses punishable by death. And yet, like the Europeans who marched across this country and decided that they belonged, the varmints like it here. It’s slightly risky living but the rewards are glorious.

A.B.C. Whipple wrote about Canada geese in his book, Critters, noting that many geese have eschewed migration for a cushier life overwintering in city parks. It’s easier than flying south, the geese have decided. The Canada goose is the only species we know of that has actually overridden its evolutionary urge to migrate. Stop and think about that. Think about migration. Some animals migrate knowing they’ll die at the end of their journey, knowing that the trip will be hazardous and exhausting. Monarch butterflies take four generations to complete a full cycle of migration. But the Canada goose has decided within the last hundred years not to migrate. Boom, just like that. How cushy must life be among the humans for a species to make such a mind-boggling change, to override evolution itself?

Sweet Pea, the deer I stupidly hand-feed.

I want to say it’s not easy being a varmint, that they take a huge risk in affiliating themselves with humans, in living on the fringe of our society. But it’s not really true, is it? First of all, they don’t live on the fringe. Let us not pretend they aren’t under our feet at all times, or under the porch, or watching us from beneath the yew bushes. More importantly, we’ve all but invited them in. Our existence is too easy to ignore. The rewards vastly outweigh the risks of hanging around with the human crowd. Sure, once in a while you end up in a trap, bound for an unsettling fate. Occasionally, you get popped in the brain by a trigger-happy Brit with a night-scope. Once in a while, the Roberts’ German shepherd roughs you up in front of your buddies, leaving you to limp home beaten and bedraggled. It’s doesn’t matter. You’ll be back. And if you aren’t, your kin are waiting in the wings to take your place a thousand times over. You’ve adapted. You’ve become a part of the landscape, the ecosystem. These humans aren’t going anywhere, and neither are you.
Homo sapien

Varmints, you’re golden.

West Virginia Incoming

I won’t be writing about the devastating floods happening in West Virginia here. That sort of post calls for a heavy heart and an earnest hand, and as of this time I am not yet able to write what I’d like to with either. 

We’re getting ready to take a little family trip. I hesitate to say “vacation” because we’ll only be gone for three days and because I make a distinction between trips and vacations. When I was young our family went out of town in two ways: we either flew to the beach in Florida or the Caribbean and set up camp in a condo to which we would return every few hours in between lazy beach excursions (the vacation), or we would bounce from hotel to hotel, landing in a different spot each night after a day of driving and sight-seeing and hiking (the trip). The vacation is relaxing, laid-back, and low key. Beach, pool, sail, snorkel, dinner, bed. The trip, however, is fast-paced, heavily-scheduled. Grand Canyon, mule ride, river raft, boat excursion, waterfall hike. It’s the difference between flip flops and hiking books. We took both vacations and trips, and I’ve always put our family outings into one category or the other.
Tucker County: Blackwater Falls

Shawn has taken the week of July 4th off, and we’ve got two separate excursions planned. First, we’ll bop on out to Piedmont Lake for 3 days of relaxation. We’d planned an entire week out there originally, but then I got this bee in my bonnet about taking the kids to Pendleton and Tucker Counties. As a West Virginian, it’s important to me to show them the beauty and wonder of their state, and though I’ve wanted to do so for quite some time now, only recently have they become portable. Until Ben reached age 5, longer car trips consisted of multiple bathroom breaks and endless whining and backseat fisticuffs. Now…well, nothing has changed at all, actually, except that they’ve both learned how much fun it is to pee in a bottle. And I can turn around and tell them to shut their yaps instead of having to provide them with a toy or a movie or something, instead of having to be all nice and motherly because my kids are too little and innocent to be barked at. 

“Ben’s kicking me!”
“Andy’s being a jerk!”
“Hey! Shut up back there.”

You can totally say that when they’re older.
Plus, they’re now old enough to understand empty threats. “I will turn the car around!” “I will make you sit by that rock until you’ve learned your lesson!” “So help me, we will rake the lawn when we get to the resort!”

Pendleton County: Seneca Rocks

Pendleton County is by far my favorite spot in the Mountain State. It even edges out Canaan Valley in the “awesome” category. The geology is amazing: it’s part of the ridge-and-valley geologic province of the Appalachians, characterized by long, even ridges that parallel long, even valleys. From the air the topography looks like corduroy. The other half of West Virginia, the more northwesterly half, is the Appalachian Plateau province and is actually a high, eroded plain rather than mountains. So when I take them to Pendleton County, they’re going to get their first real glimpse of West Virginia mountains, geologically speaking. 

I don’t know if they’ll appreciate what they’re seeing. We have plans to take them to the top of Spruce Knob, the highest mountain in West Virginia. We have plans to see Smoke Hole and/or Seneca Caverns and to ride the Cass Railroad. I desperately want to take them to the Seneca Rocks swimming hole, which, for my money, is the most beautiful swimming hole in the state. (And also possibly the coldest.) 

Seneca Rocks swimming hole.
Shawn asked that I not upload the photo of
him swimming in his underwear.

When I am in the heart of my home state, I feel overwhelmed by its beauty and stupefied by how old it is. There is such comfort here. I admit that, pound for pound and peak for peak, the Rocky Mountains are far more impressive and one look at the Grand Tetons will shut your mouth for days. I would live in the high Rockies if I could; they’re unmatched in this country for stunning-ness.

But I don’t live in the high Rockies; I live here. And when I’m in the ridges and valleys, I feel more at peace than I ever have anywhere else in the world. While the high mountains of the west stir awe and excitement and leave me with stunted speech, the view from Dolly Sods calms me and gives me the feeling that I am of this place, this state, and I know that nowhere on earth will give me such a strong sense of belonging. 

The word “content” doesn’t get its due credit, because it doesn’t feel like it means all that much, when in reality, content is perhaps the one emotion that we should strive to maintain in the long-term. Happy is too difficult; happy is too hard to chase, and too elusive when we catch it. Content should be the goal, the feeling that carries us through our years.
Content.

Content is the view my kids will see next week. And I wonder if any of it will mean anything to them. I’m an adult approaching 40 now, and I write about West Virginia as if it has always been in this deep place in my heart. But really, that feeling grows over the years, out of decades of experiences. Ben is 6; the view will be neat for him for about 30 seconds and then he’ll tire of the place we are and ask to be moved onto the next site of adventure. I wonder how many years and how many views it takes for a person to fall in love. At what point, if I have done my job as a West Virginia mother correctly, will my children realize that they are infatuated with this place? When does that notion take hold? In hindsight, I assume I’ve always loved it here, but this is absolutely not the case. Many summers my father tried to organize a “West Virginia Vacation,” and David and I always shot him down in favor of a trip to Yellowstone or Zion National Park or Grand Cayman. We could never get excited about a tour of our state. I was a teenager then, and though I had been to Canaan, for example, many, many times, I desired a sexier vacation and taller, craggier mountains.

I think, perhaps, it was my time away from West Virginia that made me love her. Florida is a different world, and when I left West Virginia I didn’t look back. How could anywhere compete with blue ocean water and dolphins leaping and the fronds of a palm tree that make a melodic clacking sound in the breeze? I fell in love with Florida. She became my home, and I identified as a Floridian.

But the thing about Florida is that it’s a scrub-land. The green you see in Florida is largely introduced. Palm trees aren’t Floridian; palmettos are. And palmettos aren’t tall and breezy; they’re short and scrubby. In fact, everything in Florida is scrubby. Have you ever looked at the leaves? They’re hard and pointy; the natural landscape is brown and spiky. There’s no carpet of grass, and the only grass that grows is a foreign species that’s sharp on the feet and prickly on the ass. And all of this is just fine, because it’s Florida. That’s how the state is supposed to be: scrubland and swamp. (I will touch on my feelings re: the wetlands another day.)
After four years in Florida, the shine wore off, as it invariably does with any new situation, and in particular with any vacation-destination-turned-home. The landscape and the novelty of a place—especially one to which a person feels they have escaped, as college-bound kids often do—no longer stands out as notable. Yes, there are blue waves and happy dolphins out there, but they do not negate the fact that it takes 45 minutes to drive 7 miles. 

On one particular day, I woke up alone in my apartment and decided that I needed some furniture. My grandparents, two hours to the south, had graciously given me their kitchen table and chairs, and all I had to do was drive from St. Petersburg down to Fort Myers and pick it all up from storage. I’d been putting off the trip—a 4-hour venture, all told—but on that particular day I had no friends to play with and nothing scheduled. And so I jumped into my car in pajamas, having not bothered to brush my teeth, even, and drove two hours south, put the furniture into my car, turned around, and drove two hours north, home. It was a weird trip, spontaneous and random and in hindsight I dearly wish I had stopped for an overnight to see my grandparents, but of course I couldn’t yet imagine a time when they wouldn’t walk on this earth with me, and I just blew in and blew out of Fort Myers without bothering to even hug them.
(Fight the tangent, blogger. Fight it hard.)
The road to Dolly Sods

The story of the trip lands in this blog because, on this day, though the sun was shining as it always does in Florida, I felt deeply homesick. Not for my family (sorry, guys) or my house or my old life, but for West Virginia herself. I missed the green, and I missed the topography. I wished, as I drove along, to see anything but flat, anything that might give a hint of a rise in the land, any sort of grade whatsoever. My car, in those days, had a cassette player, and I put my tape of John Denver in it and played “Country Roads” over and over and over, for four hours. Play, rewind, play, rewind. Tear up. Play. The interstate was so straight that I took off my shoes and drove with my bare feet (I was 20, after all, and 20-year-olds are invincible idiots) and tried to picture not the long blade of cement interstate stretching out in front of me, unbending, but rather a two-lane ribbon of road darting in and out of the trees, winding its way through the morning. And I tried to feel the soft brush of West Virginia grass against my skin. At times I looked out the window and ran my hand over imaginary hills, trying to feel the feathery foliage of deciduous trees and picturing the way the treetop canopy waved in the wind, many trees moving in concert like the Gulf rollers at the beach. 

That was what I missed: soft green mountains. It may have been one of the loneliest days of my life, and without a doubt, the most homesick I’ve ever been. And though, at that time, I had great plans to build a life in Florida and pursue my love of estuarine wetlands, I think an unconscious part of me decided then that I couldn’t stay in the scrubland too long.

So how is it, exactly, that we fall in love with place? With any place? We aren’t born loving where we land. In fact, many people fly the coop as soon as the door is opened. Most of my high school graduating class has done so, gone to New York, D.C., or California or more local cities like Columbus and Cleveland. And yet, their departure doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t in love with West Virginia. It means only that they’ve chosen to make a life elsewhere. A beautiful mountain does not a successful life make. A hemlock forest does not content everyone. Nor did it always content me. I can well recall a time in my life when the mountains were a fun day outing, but they hadn’t yet grown into the marrow of my bones. And no matter how many times I re-read the words I’ve written here, I can’t pinpoint a year or an age when I sat up and said, “I love West Virginia with all of my heart.” But it grew, as time passed and in my time in the south, until one day—that day in the car—it was simply there, present, as a palpable ache. If it was born of a childhood in the mountains or if it was realized in hindsight, I cannot say. But, now that I feel it, it can’t be ignored, and I cannot imagine a time when I will not be in love with this place, no matter where I live.

The North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac

When I feel frustrated with West Virginia (and I do, often) I try to remember that day in the car, and the moments of irritation I had in Fort Myers traffic when I reached my destination. I cursed the throngs of people around me, all going somewhere on hot pavement in one big crowd. I think about how frantically I scanned a map to find a forest in Florida—a forest that I didn’t have to bathe in Deet and traverse a boardwalk to see. I recall craving the smell of hemlock trees with the wild desperation of a junkie and instead breathing in only salt and tar.

It’s not easy for me to live here. Bodies that suffer auto-immune disorders don’t like cold rain; minds that become seasonally affected need more sun than West Virginia can offer. But in exchange, I can touch the green. I can smell the pine and hear the cold, rushing water. It’s a trade-off, and on some days I would choose Florida. At least, until I see the ridges-and-valleys. And then I’m quite sure where I should be.