A long time ago, on our road to town, there was a small cabin made of hand hewn oak logs at the edge of a tree covered hill. It overlooked a meadow just at the place where the ground got too steep to plow. For as long as I can remember, we could see it across Lawrence Rauch’s fields when we went to church and school. It had been a home at one time, but by then the windows had fallen out and light shone through the roof. There was nothing inside of it, only some rotting firewood stacked in a lean-to by the chimney. Some years later, after I had been to college for a while, I bought it for $25 and spent a summer moving it to my father’s woods at the east end of McCarrahan Lake. I lived in that woods for that time and slept on the ground in the little clearing where I reassembled the logs. I had a job in town but in my spare time I worked on the cabin. I took the logs apart and put them back together on their new place, I added a chimney and windows and a new roof. Sometimes friends helped but mostly I worked by myself.
It was the first time I lived directly on the ground for any length of time. I found it a perfect fit, the consummation of the promise I had earned sitting my father’s John Deere up and down those fields next to that woods and lake. (The blue wings and the wood ducks, deer tracks on the new plowing in the morning, and the slow drag of the snapping turtle.) Finally I could go into the woods and stay the night. I remember lying there with the dark shapes of the oaks against the sky, the northern star, Polaris, lined up with the edge of Ursa Major, the Plough, the Big Dipper, the Drinking Gourd. (Follow the drinking gourd.) It seemed so normal, not the way the sky was, or the trees standing there in the dark, but the intimacy of it. I went to town to work and to see my friends, but I lived in the woods. I had no roof and no floor, nothing between me and the ground. Smells and sounds in the night became promises delivered. Most of my associates and even many of my friends didn’t know I stayed out there all that time. (“A person can’t just live in the woods.”) When the shingles were on the cabin and the feeling of winter started to come around, I went to town. I went someplace else. That was the year I quit going to St. John’s and went to Kodiak in the spring, the year I got drafted. But that’s not what I’m talking about right now, not directly. That summer in the woods at that cabin was part of a discovery for me, a way to live that I preferred to what would follow in a house with all of the things that came with keeping one.
Both my mind and body remember places. When I simply let the thoughts come, they follow me or ask me, when will you come back and stand in the water, sleep on the ground? The last time I was there I found myself working underneath a piece of machinery, lying on my back in the grass I felt their stems and roots pulling on me to stay.
Land does interact with us. The way to figure out the big woods is to get inside of it, walk in it out of sight of the road. It is important to climb trees, sleep on leaves, stand still and disappear in the plum thicket, or wade the creek in the dark. Once I climbed into the limbs of a giant oak on the edge of a field and found, while looking at its lightning scar, that I had an idea about the way it felt when it was struck and the deepness of its roots and the spread of them at the edge of the field where the plow had scraped and cut so many times. It did not feel like my idea and if this is real then you could say the thing about the land interacting is true. And it is true, or on the edge of being so, or true in some yet to be understood way. One November morning I woke because I dreamed there was new ice on the lake but when I got there it wasn’t ice but more than a hundred swans resting on their way south.
I believe this even if it does not stand to reason. I know this place stayed inside of me and it helps me find my new places. Now I am in the Chugach and a chick-a-dee flits among the branches in front of me. I hear a raven clucking and my footsteps in the dry leaves as I follow and began to learn again those same things I discovered when I lived in my father’s woods that summer when I moved Lawrence’s cabin to the lake.