The Bones of the Earth: Excerpt

Counterpoint, ISBN: 1593761392


From the Introduction

This is a book about landmarks, but of the oldest kind—sticks and stones. For millennia this is all there was: sticks and stones, dirt and trees, animals and people, the sky by day and by night. This was the world’s order by day and by night in dreams. The Lord spoke through burning bushes and rocks, though lightning and oaks. Trees and rocks and water were holy. They are commodities today and that is part of our disquiet.

Part One, Axis Mundi, is about finding the center, marking the land and time, to join the temporal and eternal, earth and heaven. Part Two, Flaneurs, is about learning to be tourists of the near-at-hand, looking close to home at changes in the land. Part Three, Rpm, is about the force that topples the old axis mundi, unsettling us and the land.

That’s it: time and change in the land. Sticks and stones and how they dance in our dreams.

“In these studies I have sought to re-name the things seen, now lost in the chaos of borrowed titles, many of them inappropriate, under which the true character lies hid,” William Carlos Williams introduced In the American Grain. I would amend the great poet: I have sought to unname “the things seen” and remind us of the things unseen.


And lastly, a dedication. These pages are for the tourist who entered the Hancock Cash market a few years ago. The market is our general store in the center of Main Street. Pat Higgins was then in the pivotal role of cashier, which is like being the mayor of Main Street. (The job requires dispensing the news of births and illnesses, giving directions to lost delivery men, holding packages for residents, running a lost-and-found, and keeping track—the general who-just-went-up-the-street news.)

“Do you have Vermont maple syrup?” the tourist asked Pat.

Pat pointed to the shelves of maple syrup made in town, and said, “We have New Hampshire maple syrup.”

“Don’t you have Vermont maple syrup?” he persisted.

“Don’t you know where you are?” Pat asked him.

That’s exactly the question. Let us be like Whitman. Starting from wherever you are now, fly and sing the song of your place. (And for God’s sake, New Hampshire is not Vermont—and the residents of both states are relieved.)

From The Flaneur of the Strip

Heading back we stop at the new Home Depot, which is built on a hill over the strip. They had to blast out tons of rocks. “They were willing to take on a horrendously expensive piece of land to develop. Huge site development costs. And that’s a big thing with all these people: site development costs,” the architect, Dan Scully, says.

Where I remember there once was a small farmhouse, we turn and enter a deep stone cut, the kind of thing you see along the Interstate. “I feel like I’m going into a tomb. Remember Mycenae where you go through the rock wall to the end of the cave?” Scully asks, referring to the beehive-shaped tombs that were cut into the limestone hills of Greece around the 14th century B.C. We’re on a private, winding parkway up the hill. “We’re going to another world here. They’re not going to let us shop at anything else here.” Up top is the brown and orange warehouse store.

“This is an Acropolis,” Scully says.

“Home Depot Acropolis,” I say trying it on.

“But the parking lot is the monument,” he says. From the lot we can see miles into the countryside. The parking lot lights must blight the night sky.

He scans the facade. “Now what right do they have—’Home Depot: New Hampshire’s Home Improvement Warehouse.’ Wait a minute: I saw one of those in Massachusetts. I saw one in Connecticut—What do you mean New Hampshire’s? The money’s going out of New Hampshire.”

“It’s like you once said about the Applebee’s sign that says: Neighborhood Grill & Bar. It’s not your neighborhood bar,” I say. “It’s not like you know the family. You come in and they look at your new baby, or go out to the curb to look at your new car. You’ve seen that family through bad times and good. You pretty much know the gossip about the family, the crazy brother and the strange aunts. Even though the food has fallen off you keep eating there because it’s the neighborhood place. That’s not what’s going on at Applebee’s. At your neighborhood bar the food stinks and you still go because you have a loyalty to the family. On the strip they could bulldoze the joint minutes after you’ve paid the bill and walked out the door and you might never notice. What was there?”

From The Otter Mates for Life

The world was a larger place when John Kulish was alive, and any day that you hiked with John in the woods was a bigger day. John was in his late 70s when I first knew him, an old woodsman who had fed his family in the Depression and after World War II, by trapping bobcat, otter, beaver, fox and mink. Long ago he had put away his traps. He knew animals in the wild as intimately as they can be known. “People say I’m a trapper. I’m not. I’m an animal psychologist. No one knows what I know,” he said—actually he declaimed. John had lost much of his hearing. Struck by lightning at age 6, he was silent until high school when he managed to stutter. He had achieved his own pronunciation. (He said “my-in” for mine.) He was struck by lightning again in the Navy. He had volunteered right after Pearl Harbor. At his induction, the Navy doctors were shocked when they looked in his ears and flushed out a forest floor’s wroth of pine, spruce, and hemlock needles, twigs, leaves and bark. “Where the hell have you been?” they asked him. He had been in the woods every possible moment he could, skipping school. He was learning to read animal sign, the stories animals leave with their tracks, scratching, traces of fur or feathers, and most importantly their droppings, which naturalists call “scat.” “I know scat like the American knows the almighty God,” he declaimed once standing around a campfire. There were about a dozen of us warming by the fire, but his voice could have carried to the last row of a large theater. He opened his stories like Homer, ready to sing of great voyages. “I think I’ve lost my eyesight studying scat,” he said. Without trying, John Kulish had a stage presence.

John led a few hikes each year for the Harris Center, the conservation foundation and nature sanctuary in our town. I went along whenever I could. They were unlike all other hikes on the Harris Center’s calendar. The book-trained naturalists moved differently in the woods; they walked as if down an aisle in the supermarket. They were looking for things—very consciously looking—for animal sign, tree species, etc., calling on their education as if they were in Paris summoning their best French. John walked as if thousands of acres surrounded each step—which it did. In the woods John was quite like a bobcat or an otter: he belonged, he strode, he smiled, he knew where he was. When anyone else led a hike, you had a good time, and learned a few things, but John used up all the daylight and covered the countryside. We could hardly keep up with this senior citizen. Into his 80s he was spry and slightly built. He said he had never seen a big, burly man who had the endurance to keep going for hours in the woods. “Grit” is what mattered. Grit had kept John going when his feet were bloody, when he had to plunge into a river in near-zero temperatures, when it was getting dark and he was hungry, wet, and miles from home.

The woods of Stoddard, New Hampshire, were his university. Or, as he often declaimed, “I spent 55 years in my university, the university without walls, Stoddard University.” He wanted to know what made a deer a deer or an otter an otter. He wanted to know how they thought and how they felt. Early in his education he had seen deer starve on a full stomach. In a hard winter, the mounting snow confines deer to their year. They run out of the fresh buds they need, five to seven pounds a day, he said. So they eat pine needles and other things that have no nourishment. When he was 14 years old he had cut open a dead deer’s stomach and found this out. As deer starve, the bone marrow goes from red to white. This knowledge set him apart from young “ecologists.” John had blood on his hands; he had his hands in the viscera of life.