The Landing

I’ve been thinking about trash.

I was watching TV the other night, the news was on. The screen filled with the image of a beach, in some faraway place where other people live, completely blanketed with garbage—almost entirely plastic. All of it had washed up overnight, a regular occurrence there.

I pick up plastic trash on our beach up north, mostly small bits and pieces, every day I’m there. But I can’t imagine coming down in the morning to a tsunami of garbage.

A few days later, I read an article on a recent study of drinking water (and beer) that found microplastics in nearly all of the samples, taken not only from the Great Lakes region but from around the world.

I started thinking about words.

Specifically, the phrase “throw away.”

Away (adjective or adverb) means, according to the Cambridge Dictionary: “somewhere else, or to or in a different place.” But then there’s Merriam Webster definition #4: “out of existence, to an end (echoes dying away).”

Words carry images, and images shape how we live.

Plastic is no echo.

It occurs to me that for every object I’ve ever discarded there is a “to” that is the terminus of “from.” A real place, that point; even if I don’t picture it. And when I “throw” there is an arc (which after all is a segment of a circle), a trajectory, tying me to the other end. The place the ball landed.

The Earth is big, its surface, an estimated 196.9 million square miles. But each of us shares it with another seven and a half billion people. Not to mention other living beings beyond number.

To, from, toss, pitch. Presence, absence, distance.

Obscurity, euphemism.

Clarity.

I no longer believe that my trash is ever really “thrown away.”

Nancy Squires
August 2018

 

 

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Things I’ve Seen in the Woods

Deer. Many more downstate than up north. In the suburbs they’re crowded, hemmed in by “development.” What developed exactly? A CVS every mile or so, an Olive Garden next to a Chili’s next to the barbecue chain and a Panera across the parking lot, between Target and the Dollar Store. Endless, ceaseless traffic, long lines of cars nearly 24/7, belching fumes. The Trump administration is busy rolling back exhaust standards. That’s development for you.

At the cottage, I once saw porcupines—two of them, back in the woods on an autumn walk. That was years ago, at least thirty. The friend who was with me then is dead now. I remember she was afraid the porcupines would throw their quills at us, like in cartoons. That made me laugh. Porcupines used to come up our driveway overnight and nibble on our cars. I think they liked the salt. They chewed the plastic on my sister’s front bumper once; another time, the fuel line under my parents’ Suburban. Come to think of it, this hasn’t happened in close to thirty years, either. Now there are more houses, more cars on our road, and last fall when I walked back in the woods not far from where we saw the porcupines someone had set up a hunting blind, overlooking the old trail.

Also up north, there are birch trees. If I follow the logging trail and cross the swamp in dryer months (in spring I would need wellingtons, which I keep thinking I should get) the land begins to rise. Past a massive maple just before the woods break to open field they open up a little and there are good-sized birch trees there, a scattered grove of them. Once when I was there the strips of snow-white bark hanging from their trunks lifted like flags in the breeze. White birches are among the most beautiful sights in northern woods. I’ve seen them in photos of Siberia. Who says we’re not all connected? The universe is one.

Flowers. Orchids: ladyslippers, and a tiny purple one, I don’t know its name. And in spring, trillium. One year we went to Jordan River Pathway to hike, and the open woods not yet leafed out, sunny and bright, were blanketed with white blooms. A landscape that so affected me that two days later when we went back downstate I was still seeing beauty everywhere I looked.

I’ve met the past in the woods. Walks from long ago, the companionship of people I won’t ever see again. Somehow in the woods it doesn’t feel so hard. I crouch in the path to study a piece of bark, I focus my camera on something (or don’t), I listen to the wind stir the treetops high above me. I don’t feel so sad, or even lonely. I know I’m not alone.

Once we saw an owl, sitting on a branch, just beyond Little Beaver Lake, in the Upper Peninsula. We were on our way back to the parking area at the conclusion of our backpacking trip. The owl took wing as we came up the trail. Sally saw it first, perched; I caught a glimpse as it flew.

In all that quiet—no other people around—we were not alone.

Early in the morning at the cottage sometimes even with the windows closed (single pane, and no insulation) I hear birds. In summer, a loon calling. Its voice floats across the water, an enigmatic sound, carrying the mystery of other lives I can’t possibly know—and yet I am touched by them.

That was the purpose of the cottage all along: to be moved by the life around you and know you are never alone. While still you breathe this air and lay your head down on this green Earth, you are not alone.

Nancy Squires April 2018

Interview with Brilliant Books

My interview and those of fellow contributors to the April edition of Dunes Review is at the link below. Many thanks to Brilliant Books of Traverse City, MI for interviewing us, and for hosting the release party, coming up on April 22!

https://www.brilliant-books.net/dunes-review-interview-series-volume-221

Saved

Darlene’s cat—

The one with the ragged ear, damaged by frostbite, and the snaggletooth. I remember him. He’s a plump tabby, and he rubs and rubs his cheek against my hand every time I come visit. Such a contented, friendly cat, and such a happy ending. Here he is (with some friends) on Darlene’s bed, snoozing, getting up to greet us and be petted, while outside the snow is thick on the ground and even with the sun out the temps are in single digits. No more frostbite for him. He rubs his head on my hand again, and I feel that hard little tooth that sneaks out from under his upper lip.

I could not devote my life to rescuing animals as Darlene has. But I feel joy for this old guy, and the cat who got left when his owner went to prison and survived for two weeks on toilet water, and the kitten rescued from a cold attic whose heart condition the vet thought would kill him but two years later he’s going strong. And the new kid, a shy young tuxedo cat who is still hiding, tucked away in the bathroom cupboard. She had a big gash on her head when she arrived—someone hit her with a garden tool or something, trying to chase her away from the bird feeder, where she was eating seed. (And probably trying to catch birds, I imagine. But hey cats have to eat too…)

I got no pill for stupid, Darlene says, of the guy who contacted her again about kittens. She took in the first litter he called her about, and told him he needed to trap the mother cat and get her spayed. She even got a trap for him, was ready to arrange it all (she has contacts) but he couldn’t be bothered to put the food in the trap. So this time she told him she couldn’t help him, he needed to get a trap from the shelter. “Got no pill for stupid”—I chuckle, but I’m glad she put her foot down. We can only do what we can do, and Darlene does more—way more—than her share.

Meanwhile the new tuxedo cat, who won’t come to me but tolerates Darlene pulling her out from her bed under the sink, is safe, and warm. In time, I think, she may make some friends here. Or she may be like Ivan, the big white male cat who has his bed in the other bathroom. He’s a loner. But also sheltered and warm and well fed, as is everyone in this big menagerie, this rescue mission. The term fits perfectly: because Darlene definitely has made this her mission in life (I don’t get vacations, but I have purpose, she tells me) and these creatures have definitely been rescued. They seem to know it, too.

That’s what I think, stealing a last peek at the round tabby with the ruffled ear before I leave.

They know they have been saved.

Bookcase

I’ve been thinking a lot about the bookcase at the cottage.

There’s just one, it stands beside the north door. Made of pine; I think a carpenter friend of my maternal grandparents built it.

Like most everything at the cottage, it’s something of a repository for the past. A few of our old games are stacked on the bottom shelf: Parcheesi, Chinese checkers, Yahtzee. There’s an old scrapbook that my parents used to have visitors sign.

My two favorite Golden books are on the bookcase: Smoky the Bear (which came with a Jr. Forest Ranger’s badge, I still have it) and Bobby the Dog, the whimsical tale of a dog in France who eats croissants and crashes his bicycle. (Not to worry—he recovers nicely, sitting in bed, playing dominoes with his friends Tabitha the cat and Charcoal the mouse.)

We have a lot of field guides. What cottage worthy of the title would be without them? They’re a mix of old and new, now. A wildflower guide, in which my mom penciled notations next to the flowers they located and my dad photographed. One of my old favorites, Michigan Trees Worth Knowing. First printing: 1948, it says in the new-ish copy my dad gave me one year. (I think the one at the cottage is ’52). Every now and then I make a new find, like the newspaper clipping Dad tucked into a guide: a conservation officer’s account of sighting a sturgeon some fourteen feet long and three feet across, off Seul Choix Point in Lake Michigan in the 1940s.

There remain a lot of memories on the bookcase. But lately I’ve been thinking of books long-gone, the titles that were there as far back as I can remember. Some of them probably got tossed even before the Great Mouse Invasion of 1990-something, when we had to throw out quite a few.

There were mysteries, of course—my mom’s Agatha Christies. They all migrated down-state and I gave away what she still had—a grocery bag full—when she died. It’s good to have a detective story to read while you’re on vacation—but those aren’t the books I’ve had my mind on, either.

This is what I’ve been remembering:

Kon-Tiki, the book Thor Heyerdahl wrote about drifting across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft. A copy of Born Free, with the cover falling off. I used to flip through the black and white photos in the middle, of the Adamsons and Elsa the lioness, in Kenya. We had the sequels, Living Free and Forever Free, too.

The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau. My dad was a big fan and had several of Cousteau’s books. I remember looking at those photos, too. Explorations of the world’s oceans—at the cottage, they were shelved beside an inland sea.

And Rachel Carson: Paperback copies of both Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us were on our bookshelf. I was way too young to be able to read them. But I knew, vaguely, what Silent Spring was about.

And I knew the book was there.

I learned recently that in the past few years political extremists, in their effort to discredit and destroy all things environmental, have been particularly vicious to Rachel Carson’s legacy. They’ve claimed, falsely, that her campaign against DDT was directly responsible for the deaths of millions from malaria. In actual fact, her predictions about DDT and malaria have come to pass: Malaria-carrying mosquitoes have become resistant to DDT over time, in places where the chemical remained in use. I find it worse than sad—obscene, really—that anyone would compare Rachel Carson to Hitler (as one commentator did).

How do we get so far from truth?

Thinking about The Silent World, I read a little about Jacques Cousteau. He didn’t start out as much of an environmentalist. He was a spear fisherman, and an ingenious inventor. (He, along with some others, developed the first SCUBA system.) But as time went on, he became more and more a champion of conservation. I came across this Cousteau quote: “People protect what they love.”

So simple: Love.

We don’t get there by accident.

One morning last fall at the cottage I walked outside as the sun was coming up. I’d heard gunshots (a pretty common occurrence, in recent years) and wanted to know where they were coming from. I went down the steps to the beach and walked up on the bank, coffee mug in hand. And then I looked up—and saw a bald eagle soaring over me, its white head glowing pink in the sunrise.

Chances are, without Rachel Carson, there would be no eagles to see.

Thinking on those old paperbacks at the cottage, the ones I used to look at but could not yet read—I realize that growing up, I took for granted the ideas those books stood for. How beautiful and awe-inspiring is the world around us, what incomparable excitement to explore it. The responsibility we have, to be good stewards, and to be conscious that we are just one tiny strand in the web of life on this planet.

I don’t take any of that for granted, anymore.

I’m planning to recreate the old cottage bookshelf. I’m going to pick up a few of the old titles I remember, and add some new ones. Come to think of it, I’ve already started—I bought a 50th anniversary copy of Silent Spring a few years ago. I only read a couple of chapters—I found it quite technical, and after all, I do know more or less how it concludes.

But even if I never do read the whole thing, it still does me good, just to know it’s there.