A memoir of a beekeeper and a trapper explores the fragile relationship between humanity and the natural world, taking readers deep into the heart of the Finger Lakes Region of New York.
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Susan Brind Morrow is a classicist, linguist, and translator of ancient Egyptian folklore and mythology as well as contemporary Arabic poetry. She is the author of The Names of Things. She lives in Chatham, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1 The Wood Duck
Last night i dreamt I saw Bob Kime. I knew we were saying goodbye. I held him tight. Then he took off his jacket and gave it to me. It was a hunting jacket, soft and old, sort of bruised, I thought, and very dear. And then he was gone.
I always thought of Bob as my own particular friend, but at the funeral home on Friday people were lined up down the block, people I didn’t know.We waited in line for an hour and a half just to get into the room to approach the open casket where his body lay. Shawn was standing beside the casket, having very much his father’s face.
Had I seen the picture in the back? he said. A photograph tacked on a board among dozens of others of Bob with his dogs, with Shawn, with snow geese on the ground at their feet and with them one of me and Bob in our bee suits in his old red pickup twenty years ago.
Last Sunday I almost called him up to ask about a hive. But then I thought, Bob will think this is pathetic,my calling like this, as though nothing has changed after all these years. If only I had called him. For on Monday he shot himself.
Like the many times I have gone out to watch the moon rise, only to ﬁnd it has risen, huge and gold and silent in a place where I have failed to look, I had missed the point, and the point was aimed deep into my own life, into the golden territory of the familiar.
At the funeral on Saturday morning Terry was there, sitting in the back row a few feet from where I stood. At ﬁrst I didn’t see him.
Terry is in his sixties now. His black hair is white. But there were the huge sloping shoulders, the same large head, the gold outline of the glasses he has worn these last ten years as he turned to laugh with the person beside him, some stranger on edge, as we all were, in the dim yellow light of the crowded room, Bob’s soft proﬁle, like something set in stone, occasionally visible through the rows of people shifting like rows of corn in the wind. When everyone rose to leave after the service was over I leaned forward and slipped my ﬁngers into Terry’s large rough hand. Well, Suzy,” he said, all your buddies are gone now.”
When I was growing up we thought Terry was a Cherokee Indian. It turned out that he was simply from California, and even though he had a crew cut and was something of a math whiz, and was also, it occurred to me only later, all the while a scientist and a chemistry professor at Cornell, he was our only real experience of the sixties, of an unconventional person. For a large man, who could easily have been threatening, he had an atmosphere of total ease, of kindness, and I had taken refuge in the safety of his presence for maybe thirty years.
Later Lan and I drove down East Lake Road where the Kime ﬁelds lay in soft shining squares of pale green oats and darker soy and golden wheat, patched like a lovely quilt in a rolling sweep down toward the dark blue line of Seneca Lake. The Kime barns and dwarf apple trees and farmhouse large and white and square, the way the farmhouses are there, with a square windowed cupola on top where one can sit and see out over the ﬁelds stood by the road lined with maple trees, as they have stood from the earliest days of my life.
Beside the bluestone marker just beyond a gravestone carved in the shape of a dog, a curious antique a dirt road leads down to Anne and Terry’s cottage on a bluff above the lake, the burnt-out shell of an old log cabin of dark wood, polished now and screened, so that it recedes within a line of tall white pines and is almost invisible.
Anne has cancer, and has taken on a kind of translucence after these last months of illness, as though her ﬁne blond hair were re- ﬁned to silver.Her blue-green eyes had a radiance that surprised us as we walked in and saw her, for the ﬁrst time in maybe a year.
We sat and watched the sun go down across the lake below through the broken black outlines of the trees. The faint ﬂicker of a rainbow formed for an instant in the low sky to the north, as though it were the rim of something suddenly visible, a shining fragment of the rim of a halo. The last light fell in a wave of gold that swept quickly around the room, settling for amoment on each of us in turn.
We sat quietly talking in the dark, in what seemed like a box of deep blue light, as we had in summers past, so that the evening had about it a sense of timelessness.
I reminded Terry of how once he said that everything operates on the level of four basic elements, their combining and breaking down, and that we are all just some spectacular sideshow,” as though all the desperate suffering of life were simply an elaboration of this basiic principle.
What is it that makes a human being?” he had said. What deﬁnes being human? Falling in love. And what is that? Seeing something oordinary as . . .numinous.”He thought amomentttt. Seeing. The intensity of that focus, that concentration of energy, would be the heating up in which some signiﬁcant transformation could take place.” Last Monday night a friend of mine called to say that she had heard a scream, a terrifying, almost human sound, and outside found a newborn fawn, still wet fromits mother, and all around it black vultures in the trees.
Bob talked a lot of people out of trees,”Terry said, remembering how I ﬁrst went to him, just wanting to be around that kind of man, a hunter, the year my brother died, but nobody was there for him.”
When we were children, barely able to walk, my parents would take us out into the middle of Seneca Lake and toss us off the side of their boat into the deep green water. Although we could ﬂoat in our life jackets, and there was the electric touch of the water itself, the lake seemed dense and bottomless heavy matter, like a skin not easily shaken free. We had an instinctive dread of what could drift up through that heavy medium from below the immense primordial sturgeon, like pale ghosts, plated in hard ridges of leathery gray.
The lake was something that we knew by heart, through our bodily senses as they themselves were formed.
In those days there were only simple cottages in the bays, little clapboard houses of one story, painted blue or white or gray. The narrow water-worn docks of splintery wood stretched out into the water on thin pipes rarely more than a hundred feet.
The ﬁelds behind them glittered with the multiplicity of summer life, speckled red beetles on the milkweed leaves, the fragrance of the milkweed unbearably sweet, its gummy milk bleeding into our hands, the seed pods, their skin like pale knobby velvet, pulled back to reveal a tight silver-white pattern of satin-rimmed scales. The seeds formed the body of a tiny ﬁsh a ﬁsh made of silk you could pull to pieces and ﬂoat away.
When we ﬁrst came to the cottage it was full of old things: a kind of old pine green and teal blue tinged with gray, lined plates of pale blue glass, heavy stoneware, a ﬁeldstone ﬁreplace, and, before it, a bearskin rug smelling of bacon grease, and after we were there, mounted ﬁsh on the walls the walleye I had caught in Algonquin Park that was patterned green and gold, with its tall reptilian dorsal ﬁn (how often we would get the spines of ﬁsh ﬁns stuck in our ﬁngers in those days, and soak them out with Epsom salts).
My parents bought the place with all its contents, and there were a lot of old books, Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost the story of a girl who put herself through school collecting rare moths in the swamps of Mackinaw and The Keeper of the Bees, about aWorldWar I veteran dying in a war hospital, who got up and staggered away, and found a garden on the sea ﬁlled with ﬂowers in every shade of blue, a garden ﬁlled with skeps and bees.
World War I and, after the terrible shock of that war, the solace in the eternal presence of nature, were pervasive elements in the atmosphere of the place. My mother was formed by the aftermath of that war, and the books in the cottage were embedded with a sense of the time, like the musty smell embedded in their pages.
There was one green book, The Bird Study Book, with a golden moon pressed in relief on its cover, and ﬂying across the golden moon a dark ﬂock of geese. Years later the cover remained like a seal impression in my mind, although I had forgotten the book itself. One day in New York I called the astronomy department at Columbia University and said, Can you see geese ﬂying across the full moon?” Their reply, after I was put on hold for a minute, was Yes. When there are geese ﬂying across the full moon.”
My brother David became a duck hunter in his early teens. We used to go out in the boat so he could practice sighting the birds in ﬂight at a distance around the lake when the migrations came through in the fall. We were used to seeing ﬂocks of ducks settled on the icy water near the crumbling old stone pier as our father drove us to school in the morning down Hamilton Street. They had a mottled quality that almost shone in the crisp clear air. Some were beautifully patched with white bufﬂeheads and goldeneyes among the canvasbacks and redheads.
One Christmas Eve David appeared on the porch in the dark in the moss green hunting jacket my mother had made for him by hand, with a brace of canvasbacks over his shoulder. My mother would later say, How I remember his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat!” David, thin and blond as he was then, having recently come back as an eagle scout from Philmont, which made him even more of an outdoorsman always up at 4:00. There he stood with the glovesoft white breasts of the ducks, their burgundy, oddly shaped heads spilling down the front of his jacket.How cold it was, the ﬁlm of shining dark ice on the walk, the hard snow sparkling white beneath the trees, and my mother saying, Well, you can pluck them outside!”
But David and I went down to the basement and spread out newspapers on the ﬂoor. I remember the sense of the gathered tension of the feathers as they ripped out from the skin with a soft puckering sound, the feathers coming loose in my hands, the soft inner down full of mites. Redheads, bufﬂeheads, canvasbacks the meat gamy and tough, tasting of ﬁsh, full of shot, the shot falling loose on the plate as you cut the dark-stained meat. The circular burn around the shot burned into the ﬂesh remained, although we cooked the birds in wine for a long time.
When we were children David and I used to catch things just to look at them, and sometimes kill them to see what was inside.
One summer we found a mudpuppy under the dock, purple and splotched, with gills that blossomed out like the purple buds of a Judas tree, and perfectly ﬁngered hands.We buried it on the shore and later dug it up to see its beautifully articulated thin white bones.
My father was a lawyer, and we lived in town. But somehow for us as children our great experiences had to do with being outside. I have a photograph of David and me standing in the Canada woods David in a soft blue cloth jacket with a white blond crew cut, me in faded corduroy lined with plaid.We are tiny beneath the tall trees amid the masses of green ferns. I am holding a magnifying glass toward the ground, and looking up. Thus is a life spun together through layers of sense impressions, the light speckling through the trees, the smell of dead leaves and damp earth. For me the elusive thing of value has ever been the golden light of kerosene lamps, walls of thin blond wood, tarpaper tacked over a table, some smell of damp, and just beyond the rich outlying darkness.
When David died in 1981 I was studying Greek in New York. I still have taped above my desk a fragment from Ibycus:
Tou men petaloisin ep’ akrotatois Izanoisi poikilai aiolodeiroi Panelopes lathiporphurides te kai Alkuoves tanusipteroi
In these lines of early Greek poetry key words are mysteries, because the author made them up. And they were never used again. All one can do is break them down into their component parts, and then guess what the composite might mean. It reminded me of oolitic stone: in the words, as in the thing described, the beauty lay in the ﬂaws themselves, the irregularities the speckling, the splotching, the mixing up.
There was aiolodeiroi throats that shone with their dappling of color with aiolos implying a moving brightness, a glittering, a speckling, as in aiola nux, the starry sky.
The fragment went something like this: Among the highest leaves they sat The mottled ducks, with throats That almost shone; And halcyons that secretly grow red with wings outstretched.
One could only think, reading this, of the American wood duck with its shining splotches of color, its white speckled throat, its silverblue wings like the panes in cathedral windows. I don’t know if there is another duck that lives in trees. The wood duck was a rare bird when I was growing up. Its populations had been decimated by the nineteenth-century fashion industry. I had never seen one, only in pictures in books.
The hardest word was lathiporphurides with porphyry, a word that means brightness itself, an emphatic doubling of the word for living brightness pur, ﬁre, the moving brightness of burning red, or the heaving of the sea with its glittering changing light. Here attached to lathi, meaning in stealth.” The Greek dictionary made a leap into the violence implicit in the color red, and translated the word feeds in the dark.”
I can’t remember the day I met Bob Kime, he came into my life so quietly, and was so utterly familiar.
My father and I would sometimes stop by his house near the lake on Sunday afternoons when some of his friends were over shooting clay pigeons. The men would be standing in a line, with great seriousness of purpose, aiming and shooting down the little clay discs as they were ﬂung into the air out of the machine with a rapid clicking noise.
I was never much of a shot, but when I was growing up it was considered important to know how to handle a gun. I had been target shooting from the age of eight. As a teenager I had my own Remington, and later even a pistol permit. There was a great deal of pleasure in sighting the discs as they fell rapidly through the sky, pulling the trigger, and seeing them shatter into pieces.
Bob would be standing in the line all the while, casually joking as we all were. When one of us missed, he would stop midsentence, raise his shotgun to his shoulder with a certain ease, and pick off the disc before it hit the ground.
He was an ordinary man of medium build, with dark hair and dark eyebrows. But he had a kind of antique face: soft features, eyes set a little wide apart, the kind of face one might imagine an American farmer having had a century or two ago and indeed his family had been farming the land on the east side of Seneca Lake for a long time.
But most characteristic of him (so that one might not notice other things I can’t remember what he wore) was a kind of brightness.
He had, one might have said, a beautiful radiance: he was a man who saw things, who saw things and understood them.
One October evening after we were friends he took me out to the Junius swamps.We stood in waist-high waders in the cold murky water amid the water-rotted trees, some still standing, with the faint pink hands of remnant leaves ﬂoating on frail elongated stems up to the surface, some gnawed down by beaver into ﬂaking points like palisades.
The sky was silver blue w...
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