Featured in Colorado Review
Natural ForcesFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Summer 2014
Heading west out of Kalispell, US-2 passes a Smith’s grocery store, some mom and pop casinos, and billboards in the yards of half-built homes before the land opens into wide fields. They are spring flooded: fence posts planted in water, horses and cattle relegated to the far swath of pasture that rides the flank of the hills. In May, the odd northern marriage of late evening light and unthawed air evokes a tenor of the wild. We are far from New England, with its seaboard cities and settled pockets of fertile land. This remote cattle country spans the northern rim of the homeland. Montana was one of the last regions to be populated by settlers, and today the state hangs on to this spirit of the frontier, remaining one of the least populated among the lower forty-eight. Just north of these pastures, the Whitefish Mountains climb from the valley floor and build steadily into the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies. You can feel this range of snowcapped shoulders and granite fins hulking somewhere above you, glaciers cascading and calving, grizzlies roaming the vast tundra and boreal forests, curtains of clouds parting atop peaks to let down the light.
We are driving to a four-thousand-acre cattle ranch that houses wayward young men. My younger brother, Sam, is one of them. He has spent the last month working the Twelve Steps, working the land, and after our visit—a three-day program for family members—he’ll venture into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on snowshoes and spend another month learning how to survive. The idea is to soften the men—boys, almost; Sam is twenty-one—through hard work. The idea is that physical labor opens the mind to digging inward. They strip logs and build buck and pole fences. They admit powerlessness. They make searching and fearless moral inventories of themselves. They surrender to the scale and harshness of western land.
Mom and Dad sit in the front of our rental car, my older brother, Silas, and I in the back, our twenty-nine and thirty-one years flying out the window in deference to this old formation of childhood. I could be ten years old, slung low in the backseat of the little Hyundai, and the uncertainty of the coming visit opens wider the conduit for childhood grievances: vying over control of the radio, Silas chewing his bagel too loudly. Still, here we are: family loyalty contained in a metal frame moving west, exigency calling us back together. I feel, as I have before, the closeness spawned by shared grief, shared hope.
This isn’t our first family program. For most of a decade Silas, now four years clean, was in and out of treatment. A vast majority of recovering addicts relapse within the first few years, and while Silas never again picked up the bottle, his addictions instead shifted faces: alcohol to narcotics to gambling to pornography. Each reconfiguration of dopamine and endorphins brought us to a new treatment center in a new city—Tucson and Minneapolis and Hattiesburg and Prescott. The theory behind family programs is that by participating in treatment, parents and siblings, spouses and children, can aid an addict’s recovery, cut the chances by a sliver that an addict will relapse after he returns to the outer world. When we visited Silas for the first time ten years earlier—when addiction in the family still felt like a fresh wound—I had learned about enabling and condoning, the ways that families organize around an addict’s behavior, unintentionally clearing a path for the dysfunction to persist. The classes and lectures focused more on ourselves than on the addictions of our loved ones, and I saw, immediately, my own complicity: the ways I’d justified Silas’s drinking, the excuses I’d made for him, and the ways I’d blamed myself—the contorted logic I’d drummed up: that somehow the ease with which I found success in the world was grounds for his demise. It took just that first visit to see that a broken family gathering around a broken loved one—sometimes in defeat, sometimes to say only: “I will no longer help you”—holds its own heartache, its own mysterious beauty. But my personal understanding of the Alcoholics Anonymous doctrine—what I would come to recognize as my own relationship to the tenets of the Twelve Steps—would unveil itself only in its own unhurried time.
In the forest, once we’ve crossed the flooded fields, Mom turns to Dad and says, “We looked at land up here, remember?” Springtime, and deep snow still occupies the space between pines, giving the forest the cleaned-out feeling when undergrowth has been slashed away, when brambles and scrub do not impede entry to the woods or movement between trees. Back home in the northeast, tender stalks of asparagus have already pushed their heads through the thawed ground. Cow manure has been tilled into the garden soil. Farmer’s markets and May Day festivities are in full swing. Up here, though, along the 48th parallel, there are just four months of warmish weather each year. “We were going to be ranchers,” Mom continues—a practical assumption, given that she grew up on a Colorado cattle ranch. Instead my parents moved to a small plot of land in Vermont where they could raise chickens and turn a garden. They became teachers and eventually pursued graduate degrees in social work. With hindsight, the isolated life of a rancher in northern Montana seems almost ludicrous; my parents would have been on a political and religious island the size of their property; my brothers and I would have commuted an hour to school.
“We really didn’t know much of anything, did we?” Mom asks.
“Nope,” Dad says. “We were vegetarians and wanted to raise beef.”
AA’s First Step is to admit you are powerless over your addiction. The Second Step is to come to believe that a Power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity. The Third Step is to turn your will and your life over to the care of God, as you understand Him. For many recovering addicts, this is Jesus or another religious figure; for many more, this step requires defining for oneself something previously un-worded. With AA now pushing its eightieth birthday, the organization has loosened its interpretations. AA maintains that a “Higher Power” does not have to mean God—that it can manifest as anything larger than oneself. Nevertheless, the language of the Big Book and the daily prayers recited at meetings are steeped in religious of jargon, and for the first several years of Silas’s AA involvement, I held onto a healthy skepticism. Why should a young man who had been raised an atheist (agnostic, at best) suddenly submit himself to the notion of God? This Higher Power that would deliver him to sobriety felt far too convenient. Why, amid struggle, should Silas trade in self-guidance for a hierarchical order to the universe? Why must God—rather than my brother’s own soul, spirit, mind—lead him to salvation?
Our parents raised us without religion. This was not a conscious decision or a deliberate cultivation of atheism. We simply didn’t go to church on Sunday mornings. Weekends for my parents were filled with tending to the backlog of chores and driving us to soccer games and ski races and friends’ houses. We spent more time pitching chunks of oak into codified woodpiles than contemplating God’s existence.
But I would not say that I was raised without a spiritual compass.
Mom and Dad were among a generation of Americans who paddled against the current of modernization, choosing dirt roads, chickens, canning. In many ways, they were carrying out the Jeffersonian credo two hundred years late: the decentralization of cities and parceling out of property, each citizen working a square of a patchwork quilt. The back-to-the-landers of the 1970s were the second generation of a movement born at the turn of the century, when artisans and farmers were displaced by blooming mechanization—choosing to live off the land was a means of preserving the skills and knowledge marginalized by the onslaught of monopolies. The land also provided economic stability and personal autonomy in a prevailing cycle of boom and bust.
The wave of back-to-the-landers in the seventies built itself on the same philosophical underpinnings of self-reliance. The resurgence also coincided with the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. There was a growing concern that the exploitation of earth’s resources to satiate an overcrowded planet was bullheaded and unsustainable. Over the course of a decade, hundreds of thousands of city dwellers—by some estimates upward of a million—left the urban economy in order to homestead a rural tract, in order to make conscious choices about subsistence, energy use, work. This act of moving to rural landholdings, in a time when the nation was losing a family farm every half hour, challenged the American assumption that more is better, that earning more money and owning more material goods leads to a happier life. Wendell Berry, a prolific author on agriculture and spirituality, writes in The Unsettling of America in the late seventies that Jefferson’s vision of democratic land distribution is “still full of promise. It is potent with healing and with health. It has the power to turn each person away from the big-time promising and planning of the government, to confront in himself, in the immediacy of his own circumstances and whereabouts, the question of what methods and ways are best.”
Indeed, this way of life was considered by many to be a spiritual practice. Jefferson himself went so far as to say that farming not only wards against corruption and idleness, but is also our means of preserving the sacred. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God,” he wrote in 1781. “It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”
I doubt that my parents considered their settling in the southern Vermont countryside to be a sacred act. Even if they felt twinges of sanctification, calling it such would have certainly felt too presumptuous. My parents believed in working outside and raising kids in clean air and garden dirt and pond water. And they thirsted for pastoral obligation. They wanted the physical demands of something beyond themselves calling them from bed each morning to feed animals and light stoves.
More practically, they were looking for an escape. My parents met in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, on the western edge of the state’s Western Slope, where Mom was raised and where most of her family still lives. Though they both held college degrees, they were youthfully noncommittal to the idea of careers. Dad worked as a ski patroller and Mom waited tables. Between ski seasons, Dad taught himself to hang glide by jumping off twelve-thousand-foot mountain passes. He and my uncle Tots, sporting handlebar mustaches and hair past their ears, started a hang gliding school called Get High Inc. Mom, who thought hang gliding was reckless and had never taken flight herself, worked at the school as an instructor, teaching the clientele the first steps to flying: hang gliding behind a speedboat. Wearing water skis and bobbing in the reservoir beneath the kite’s massive wings, the students listened to Mom yell out directions from the boat piloted by Dad or Tots: “Hold onto the crossbar!” “More bend in your knees!” “We’re gonna gas it now—you’ll come up onto your skis first—ready?” Moving across the water, the wind caught the canvas wings and swept the student skyward.
It seemed inevitable that my parents would settle in this valley where my mom’s family was so rooted. She grew up on a cattle ranch that was owned by her father and uncle, seven kids in one family, eight in the other, in two ranch houses atop a mesa. On horseback, the kids helped drive the cattle between summer and winter pastures, thirty miles on a road that is now a four-lane highway. They knew how to rope cattle, saddle horses, raise 4-h sheep. They were rough-and-tumble kids who also had grandparents who lived in a Denver mansion. When they turned fourteen, they were sent away to boarding school. Yet as idyllic as this life sounds, there was darkness at the heart of it. Five o’clock was a threshold crossed each day: their mother—my grandmother, Nana—poured her first scotch and water and gave the kids ginger ale in Dixie cups. Her face changed when she’d been drinking: one painted lip snarled back, exposing a glimmer of tooth, her powdered cheek distorted. Among the kids, her drunkenness was coded simply as “The toothache is back.” Liquor in her blood displaced her warm generosity and allowed for a pervasive hostility to emerge—a kind of venom toward her kids, her husband, the world, and most centrally, herself.
In the first years that my parents were together, my mom’s family came apart at the seams. Nana had been on and off the wagon so many times that no one could keep track anymore. There were rumors of my grandfather having an affair. Divorce papers had been signed and filed, waiting for approval. For years, Mom and her siblings had done what they could to curtail the drinking: threats and promises, disposing of bottles, researching AA, rallying behind their mother when she had spells of sobriety, and forgiveness when she woke up in the morning ashamed. None of it worked.
It was in the thick of this futility that my parents decided to strike out on their own; they moved east, putting down new roots far from the ranch. And it was only then—after her daughter’s flight, her family’s acceptance of a lost mother—that Nana checked herself into Hazelden, one of the country’s earliest twelve-step programs. Mom was the sole family member to attend the family program. She remembers her assumption that she was there to learn about her mother’s alcoholism, to offer her support. On the first day of their weeklong visit, the family members were told this, instead: “You’re not here for your loved one. You’re here to learn about yourself.”
By the time Sam went to the Montana treatment center, his use had stretched far beyond the normal binge drinking of college students. One cold Colorado night, cops found him staggering down a snowy road barefoot. Another night, he woke up in jail after passing out in the living room of a stranger whose house he’d evidently broken into. (“Will you accept a collect call from inmate Sam Cochran?” a recording crackled when I answered my phone the next morning.) As a ranch hand, he scrawled out checks to himself from his boss’s checkbook, his boss being one of Dad’s oldest friends. After Nana’s memorial service, when friends and family gathered at her home for a reception, he stole beers from the fridge. He flunked out of school. He stopped calling back.
AA talks about a predisposition to addiction, how some people are chemically built to self-medicate, to compensate for a dopamine deficiency. In addition to his particular composition of chemicals, I suspect one reason Sam was driven to use so excessively—why his daily pot use raged into hard drugs—was that at eighteen, he’d sat on the bank of West Virginia’s Gauley River in his kayak gear, watching his friend Ned drown. Sam and his companions had already tried wading into the turbulent current where Ned was stuck underwater in his flipped boat. They’d tried accessing him by kayak, by raft, by swimmer, by rope. But the boat remained pinned upside down, the nose wedged between two rocks, Ned unable to extricate himself from the plastic hull, held by the force of so much water moving, by unequivocal natural law, downriver. All efforts failed, and finally a message to the Army Corps of Engineers was relayed, first by boat and then by radio: Close the gates at the dam, cut the flow.
And so they sat on the bank and waited for the river to drain. I imagine Sam watching the water shrink from full flow to a slow snake of current. And despite this expedited geological process, I imagine a sedated sense of time, a dreamlike incongruity sealing the world in some counterfeit version of itself. The sun sparkling hot in the full blue sky. Ned’s body swaying just beneath the surface, the twinkle of his life jacket and helmet catching the light. Each quarter inch of the Gauley’s banks emerging until the gutter of the riverbed was in plain sight, exposing the darkest and oldest rocks, then the slick, gray mud that lingered below the lowest water line.
My brother doesn’t talk about Ned often, but I’ve seen him split open three times over it. The first was a year and a half after Ned’s death. We were both living in the Roaring Fork Valley. Sam was attending the community college ten miles from the ranch where Mom grew up and just down the road from the school where I was teaching. I was driving him back to the dorm after dinner at our aunt’s house. It was a dark February night, just before Sam’s nineteenth birthday. Our aunt had baked him a chocolate cake.
We were both tired and there wasn’t much conversation until Sam broke the still air between us. “Ned’s birthday is five days after mine.” He didn’t say more, just bent over his legs. I put my hand on his heaving back and did my best to keep the tires to the pavement in the impossible world. We were on the road where our mother had driven cattle on horseback, our headlights carving a path down the valley that held so much of our family’s joy and grief.
The second time was two years later, during the intervention that sent Sam on his way to treatment in Montana. The shock of seven friends and family members showing up at his door cut through his dogged denial that all was not well. He cried for two hours straight while we begged him to accept help. He spoke of Ned often. How unresolved it all was in his heart. How he still couldn’t believe that Ned was paddling next to him one moment, swept beneath the surface the next.
The third time is in Montana, on the first day of the family program, when Sam tells us about the waterfall near the ranch. We are between counseling sessions, and the five of us sit at one of the picnic tables in front of the one-room cabins where Sam and the others sleep in bunk beds—where they learn tolerance, accountability, the intimacy required for sharing a snow cave, for maintaining relationships. We spent the morning with ten other families, hearing their stories and getting a crash course in the Twelve Steps—steps we are all too familiar with. We haven’t seen much of Sam yet, but he’s added weight to his bony frame; he looks us in the eye; he smiles more; his clothes are washed. When we arrived, he’d given us tight-armed hugs and held on.
It is sunny, and stubborn snow patches endure only in the deepest pockets of shade—the northern side of the cabins, the northern base of the ponderosa and lodgepole pines. Still, a persistent breeze keeps most of the other families in the classroom or milling about the dining hall, refueling on watery coffee. “You guys gotta hike up to the falls,” Sam says. He sits on the edge of the picnic table, his hunched shoulders a remnant of adolescence. We huddle around him, arms crossed over chests or hands stuffed in pockets, hungry for the connection that has been tattered by years of use and worry. Then, unprovoked, he adds, “When I’m at the waterfall, I feel Ned close by. I don’t know about God, but that is my Higher Power.”
When Nana started treatment back in 1972, Mom suspected that the AA credo might prove problematic to her mother’s recovery. Mom and her siblings had been raised celebrating Christian holidays, but these were about social convention rather than religion, and my grandmother certainly never went to church or spoke of God or prayer. Mom was twenty, and she and Dad had just started a seasonal job crewing a sailboat from Rochester to Annapolis, navigating down the Erie Canal, the Hudson River, and the snaking inland waterways in between. It was November, a gray, hardened month on the East Coast, and even colder on the water. But they had each other—not married just yet, but sure of their lives together. From the sailboat, Mom wrote a letter to Nana describing what God meant to her. She wrote about love, wrote that God resides in the invisible threads binding family. She hoped to give her mother permission to believe something she’d never believed before. Something close to the sacred.
For my mom and her siblings, the uninhabited land surrounding the ranch was a means of alleviation, of escape. Their father took them into the mountains, hiking and horseback riding; their mother to the North Pasture for picnics—a dry and cattle-filled land that became a favorite camping destination. In the summers, they took to the river, rowing surplus military rafts down stretches of whitewater long before the sport became commercial. When the house was filled with booze and fighting, Mom and her siblings had the solitude of the mesa. They knew the reprieve of seeing the first flash of sun crest the mountains, had felt the satisfaction of long days spent outdoors, their boots caked in manure, their pants and gloves stiff with red dirt.
Nana, too, paddled down rivers and rode horses deep into the mountains. Amidst her heaviest drinking, she helped found Colorado’s Outward Bound School, which sent young people into the wilderness for month-long expeditions. Even when she herself was lost, Nana recognized the value in placing yourself firmly on a map, finding where your feet meet the ground on a flimsy paper smothered with thin brown lines that mean mountains, valleys, creeks—among which you must pick your way home.
Many years after Silas first went to treatment, when my initial reaction to the language of the Big Book had softened, he told me that of all the people he’d met in AA, it was those who were raised in religiously dogmatic households who had the most difficulty with the Twelve Steps. It was nearly impossible for them to let go of what God meant to their church and discover a more personal sense of the word. I wish I had asked Nana what Higher Power meant to her, but I never thought to be curious about it until after she was gone. I know Nana felt powerless over her addiction. She had lost her husband, her home. She had given away her own mothering to a woman who’d cared for the kids since they were born. I suspect that it was in the space left by such loss that Hazelden took hold—the collective shame and fear somehow helping her to find fertile soil in which to replant herself. If she were with me now, I would ask how Colorado’s mountains and rivers stirred through her while at Hazelden. I would ask about the idea of submission, and how—as Step Three necessitates—she came to turn her will and life over to the care of God.
My grandparents’ impending divorce never materialized. After Hazelden, Nana’s new commitment to sobriety opened the door for reconciliation, and she eventually moved back to the ranch. For thirty-five more years she and my grandfather would sleep side by side, “the toothache” unimaginable to her grandchildren. I remember the sound of ice clinking in the glass of cranberry juice Nana sipped each night, the smudge of her pale lipstick on the rim, her matching pink nails steady moons on the glass as the raucous family pinwheeled around her.
My parents still live on the acreage they bought back in the seventies, and I expect they will die there. Southern Vermont is a different world from the open sky and jagged peaks of Colorado. In summer, the leaves of the hardwoods choke the space above roads, hem in the fields, fill the forest with endlessly overlapping green shapes and shadows. Leaning into the light, the oaks and maples threaten the clearing where the house sits. In winter, you can see through the bare trees to the dark outline of ridges beyond. Always, you are cupped by the topography.
If you get lost in the woods beyond the house, you are likely to walk in circles for an hour or two before finding a road or neighbor. Some of the property lines are marked by broken-down stonewalls. Some have old postings nailed to trees. Most are known only by word of mouth. For hundreds of years, the land has been recognizable to its inhabitants by its hills and hummocks, by its streams, by the islands of bedrock that emerge from the earth.
Mom and Dad settled into their land in 1975 with the intention to live as much as possible by their own means. Their days became defined by what the land demanded each season: cutting firewood, tapping maples, planting, weeding, feeding, harvesting, canning. Growing up, my brothers and I accepted the sometimes harsh realities with eager curiosity. Yellow chicks under the heat lamp metamorphosed into meat hens with coarse, white feathers streaked brown with mud and chicken shit. The birds ate more and moved less, and each September my parents carried them from the coop, two birds per hand, upside down and flapping. The grass around the chopping block was cut back, and after the ax swung down, the birds frolicked headless into the tall field and disappeared. From our roost in a nearby tree, Silas and I shrieked and laughed (it would be years before I’d make the connection between the chicks I so loved and the meat on my plate). We watched Mom retrieve the fallen bodies and plop them down in giant pails of hot water. Soaking would make the plucking easier, feathers pulling from the warm skin in handfuls, sticking to Mom’s fingers and the paper bags she stuffed them in, the heavy scent of wet feathers in the air.
By the time Sam came along, my parents had relinquished some of their self-reliance. I went to the slaughterhouse with Dad once. We loaded our hens into the back of the pickup, the bed covered with a sheet of plywood. We drove forty-five minutes across the Connecticut River and into New Hampshire. The business was run by a father-daughter duo, and we watched from the tailgate as the daughter—in her thirties—reached in with a long, hooked pole. The birds rallied together in the back corner, silent until one was snagged around the ankle and a squawk echoed out. When the hook was thrust in the final time, I wished for the bird, with its clipped wings and fattened breast, to escape. Behind us, a peeling red barn housed the equipment. I wondered what the technique was and imagined the woman’s apron dirty, her own father working beside her, cutting and plucking. A few years later, my parents started buying free-range chicken wrapped in plastic from the local food co-op and I became a vegetarian.
The ratio between what my parents produced from the land and what they bought from the co-op fluctuated over the years, their desire to be self-sufficient displaced by the demands of raising kids. They shed their idealism a bit, too. When a lead scare required them to replace old sugaring buckets and taps, they stopped sugaring altogether; it was not a conscious decision, they’ve said, but rather a willingness to put energy elsewhere. Jobs that were at first supplemental later became their vehicle for intellectual cultivation: they both went back to school and started new careers in their thirties and forties.
Still, even in their busiest years, they prodded the soil in the ways necessary to produce vegetables, berries, animals, wood. And they maintained the network of trails—miles of them—that web out beyond the clearing. In their sixties now, they are still avid cross-country skiers. They walk in the woods nearly every day. Though the trails loop through many properties, my parents have been the lone keepers—clipping back branches, tamping down the earth with thousands of steps taken by the same four feet. Their tracks serve as an extension of how they know the land, and how the land has come to know them, reacting as it will to cleared forest ground, to the ribbon of light above a trail.
My thinking about the intersection of people and the environment has long been unforgiving. Assigned to write a paper in high school about my “world view,” I argued that the globe would be better off if humans went extinct; that there is hope in the death of our species; that at face value, the injustice of our plundering isn’t worth the ephemeral pleasures of our existence; that we can’t pretend to be making a difference by living deep in the woods.
When I consider how my parents have chosen to live and how I was raised, I recognize what some would call political futility. I concede that back-to-the-landers have found solutions that are more personal than global. Yet, even if our lifestyle has done little to assuage environmental concerns, there is a quality to our relationship with the land that makes it impossible for me to turn my back on the legacy of Jefferson and Thoreau, on the spiritual philosophy of Wendell Berry. There is something sacred that churns in me when I see, however fleetingly, that the topography of Vermont and Colorado has shaped my own contours of self, my own understanding of where I fall in the order of things. In the face of our worrisome march forward as a species, when I am alone on a dry mountain trail and hear the scrub oak shift, there is a moment when I believe it is not a grouse or a twitch of wind, but a cougar. And for a shuddering second, I feel the lightness of my raw vitality. I am flesh and scent in a world governed by instinct.
For my parents, the land continues to call their attention. They must light the stove before the pipes freeze, walk through the forest looking for dead hardwood that has not yet rotted, pick the last of the basil and tomatoes before the frost. Like Sam stripping logs in Montana or lighting a fire in a snowstorm, they are made aware of the dire miracle of their survival. A great danger of modern society, Berry believes, is the tendency to see ourselves as separate from wilderness, the wild an entity to be managed and controlled. The threat, Berry writes, “lies in the willingness to ignore an essential paradox: the natural forces that so threaten us are the same forces that preserve and renew us.” We are losing the ability to experience ourselves as humble.
In the thick of the depression that preceded Silas’s addictions, Dad transplanted hundreds of day lilies: bright unruly patches of orange around the garden, under the clothesline, encircling the pond, lining the driveway. That same year, Dad stayed home with my heart-sunk brother on Thanksgiving while Mom and Sam and I went to a friend’s house. Somehow Dad urged Silas out of bed, urged him out the door, and they walked the trails in the woods. When they reached the spot where the trails split, in the northeast corner of our land, my brother lay down.
Everything about him moved more slowly then: his feet certainly, but also his eyes as they shifted focus, his jaw as he chewed his food. Even his skin—though I know this can’t be—seemed thicker and slower, encasing a spirit that was far removed from the world. That day, his metabolism slowed like the animals in the forest around him, conserving strength, pulling to the center in preparation for the coming winter. I know the ground under him: hard and damp, wet leaves cemented against the cold November earth. He lay down on the trail my parents had cleared for two decades. He said he thought he could die. For an hour, Dad stood by, keeping quiet company. It was drizzling, near freezing temperatures, with patches of snow left from an early storm. Dad could see a crescent of bare skin between Silas’s jacket and pants, and felt, I imagine, the heartbreaking futility of parenthood, of being merely human. Eventually, something moved my brother to rise, and they made their way home.
I believe Berry is saying that to accept the fragility of our lives is to know the sacred. Living off the land, that fragility is clear before us: the ephemeral spirit of a crop, that thin edge between abundance and scarcity. How close we are, always, to losing our beating hearts, our breathing lungs. How perilous life is, how inexplicable, how magic.
I have worried about my brothers. Worried in the darkest moments that they would die at the hands of addiction or depression. There were nights in our teen years when Silas arrived home later than expected. Twenty minutes meant he had surely driven off the curve of our winding Vermont road, let his hands stop controlling the wheel. The first and only time I have prayed to any God was born of this fear. Through the floorboards of my bedroom, I could hear my parents talking to Silas in the living room. This was a nightly affair: my brother lying on the couch, my parents positioned like sentries on either side of him, trying to find an answer. He was sixteen and already had attended three high schools. The last, a boarding school for boys with dyslexia, had ended in nightmare.
It happened after midnight, the dorm faculty long asleep. And Silas had been asleep, too—nametags ironed by Mom into the corners of his twin sheets, his bristly mop of curls covering the pillow. His own light snores muffled the sound of the boys entering, kept him from startling awake. For teenagers, they were unnaturally quiet, the act perfectly choreographed: hairspray can wielded, cloud sprayed, match lit. They’d fled by the time Silas woke and realized he was not dreaming. Alone, he batted at his curls, the acrid scent of burnt hair settling upon every worn surface in that dank room.
The futility of these late-night talks felt intolerable. There was no way to keep Silas safe. I lay on my back, above the murmurs of hopeless love. In the skylight, I stared through my own reflection to the wide belly of night sky that I could not see but knew was there, stars piercing through the black, constellations wrapping around us: Please, God. Please make him okay. Please, please, please, please, please.
At the end of last summer, I went home for a week. My visits are a dreamy existence of garden food, naked dips in the pond, walks in the woods. The raspberry yield was greater than ever, and Mom was canning again: jam, tomato sauce, beans, pesto. The jars rattled in the canning pot as Mom read aloud from Putting Food By, talking herself through botulism prevention: measuring and sterilizing and sealing.
The second day home, I went for a run on the trail my parents call the North Pond Loop. The dogs were with me, continually checking back at my heels and then charging off again, circling wide through the field, dunking into the pools that form in the bends of the stream, lusting after the scent of deer. A few miles in, the trail curved along the edge of a clearing, where twelve or fifteen years before, the trees had been cut back to dig for gravel. The opening in the forest was now an angry web of wild raspberry bushes—evidence that Mom and Dad hadn’t been up here recently with their saw and clippers. The thorns grabbed at my bare legs as I ran through. I timed my strides to land on the clearest patches of trail, but the barbs caught my skin just the same.
I was hit with the hard gust of truth that the trails patterned across the land by thirty-five years of their footsteps would eventually fade back into the woods’ floor. One day I would return here to find these raspberry canes grown up taller than myself. I would slash out at their creeping arms in wide, wild strokes, taming what my parents no longer could. In their tangled mass, the plants would block the trail in a seemingly haphazard effort, but really I knew their lean would be calculated. They’d move toward the light as my parents’ attention dimmed.
I thought about Dad paddling the pond raft to shore each fall. I thought about Mom planting bulbs of garlic in October, tilling lime into the soil in April. I imagined them one day reminding us to do the same. Get the raft in before the ice forms. Use the wood in the left side of the shed first. Don’t bother splitting the ash—it burns too fast. Fear that I hadn’t learned enough clenched at my throat. That I couldn’t survive on my own. There were levers on the tractor I’d never used. I didn’t know how to test the pH of the soil. I still struggled to tell one hardwood from another when they were leafless in the winter.
I was past the raspberries and back into the pines and hemlocks. The ground was thick with generations of fallen needles, giving more cushion to the hard earth, forgiving my footfall. And in those quiet shadows, I remembered that my parents’ own learning was not passed down, but gathered from the land. Indeed, much of what they had taught my brothers and me had been absorbed rather than imposed. There had been few instructions. Instead, they had given us the opportunity to defer to forces greater than ourselves. I remember standing by as Dad swung an ax toward a round of sugar maple, his right hand sliding down to meet his left, following the arc. “Now you try,” he said. “Keep your toes back. Let gravity do the work.”
On the third and final day of the family program, Sam sends us on a hike to the waterfall. He can’t join us—there are strict rules against leaving the group—but he’s been talking about the falls since we arrived, talking about Ned. Walking there, the land is hummocky and sloped, but not steep, and then from nowhere the forest floor splits open into a cavernous yawn and the creek gains impossible speed as it approaches the lip and shoots out over vertical slabs of granite, two hundred feet down. It is a place that reminds you of a forgotten truth about yourself: how quickly things can change, how a misstep can lead to a fall, how thinly veiled our souls remain.
Originally from Vermont and Colorado, Liza Cochran now lives in Boston, where she teaches creative writing. She is the recipient of a graduate fiction award from Emerson College and a residency grant from the Vermont Studio Center. She returns to Colorado each summer to teach at the Rocky Mountain School.
Image by Philip Werner