Recently published on Longreads, my essay about parenthood, camping, and how neither is an exact science:
I live in Virginia, the southeastern corner, the heart of the military-industrial complex. It’s not a very wild place, at least not in the traditional sense. What it does have is access to waterways—brackish, sweet, and salt—lots of coastline, and low-lying wetlands. It’s nice if you have a canoe or kayak (I do) though not so much for those of us bound to a car.
There are a few untrodden places close to home, semi-wild because they’re marked by an inland expanse of water which, due either to geography or downright ugliness, hasn’t been commercialized yet. These include Merchants Millpond Park, which (supposedly) denotes the northernmost reach of the American alligator, and the Great Dismal Swamp which, despite its uninviting name, is one of the largest tracts of wild land in the eastern US. Paddling through the swamp’s canals en route to lake Drummond is like slicing through coffee; the water is so full of tannic acid from the trees that sailors used to bottle it for long voyages, the tannins keeping the bacteria at bay.
I’ve just returned from a camping trip out at Drummond with the family—a single overnight by canoe, and a bit of kayaking out on the Elizabeth River near my home. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the experience of going out on the water by paddle.
The canoe and kayaks I now have, sheathed in plastic and Royalex, seem a far cry from their progenitors—boats that were once essential for the transport, hunting, and outright survival of native peoples in North America, northern Europe, and Australia. Canoes once constructed from nearly every part of the tree—wooden framework, bark skin, root lashings, and resin sealant. The simpler dugout canoes from a single tree trunk are in fact where the craft got its name, from the Carib word “kenu.”
The kayak, on the other hand, was unique to the indigenous people of the North American arctic and sub-arctic, modern day Alaska, and slices of Canada, parts still inhabited and, in some ways, locally governed by their longtime residents—the Inuit, the Yup’ik, and Aleut.
In my contemporary way, I can’t help but liken my own watercraft to those modes of transport infinitely more familiar to me and my tribe—the car. I often think of the canoe as an SUV—bulky, practical, suited to carrying passengers. By design it’s meant to get people and their stuff from point A to point B. If the 18th century were now and all those rivers and lakes in the Canadian wilderness were somehow part of the Eisenhower Interstate System, I’m pretty sure the Voyageurs would be striking in their Suburbans, fur and stocking caps trailing from the rear hatch.
The kayak, on the other hand, is more akin to a sports car, of which there are many kinds. It is (usually) a one-man job, small, fast, easy to get in and out of the water, but not terribly practical for fishing, camping, or passenger carrying. I ought to make an exception for fishing, both out of respect for the Hobie-owners among us and because of, admittedly, my own clumsy angling from the seat of my Old Town Otter. That said, you don’t often see deer hunters taking their Corvettes into the National Forest, but to each his own.
When I’m on the water, I often think of little else. It can be its own form of meditation, one which usually comes on without my having to force it or think about it. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t happen all the time, but often enough that I notice (and I don’t consciously think about it until after the fact). This is the nature of non-thinking and of paddling.
Canoeing or kayaking on open water is not without its frustrations, either. Being out there in a 16-foot canoe with its wide sides exposed to the wind and a one-man engine, I don’t often find myself lost in self-reflection. When I turn, I turn too much. When I drive it into the wind, sometimes it just doesn’t go. I once broke a cedar paddle I’d carved this way. It’s easier to be out in these conditions in the kayak, but maybe that’s just the nature of the kayak too. It’s a small, easy thing to drive and to maneuver.
I’ve thought of the times I’ve been caught out in rain storms with my son—twice now. He’s only four but he remembers each time distinctly, though most of the details he repeats are more focused on a warm blanket and a treat with his mother post-rescue than being wet and cold with his father while we (I) paddle furiously back to shore. Though framed by mishap, they’re memories I hope he’ll hold onto as he gets older, not to dissuade him from seeking his own adventure out there in the blue, green, and gray.
My own memories serve me well. There was the summer day on Lake Como with my father, paddling around in a rented Grumman which seemed to reflect the sun back at us from below. There was the day trip down the Brandywine River during summer camp, a long trip through slow water during which I discovered two things: the counselor who paddled my boat was a chain-smoker and, two, how easy it was to defecate inconspicuously while swimming in cloudy water. At camp the next year we found ourselves hugging the shoreline of an ocean inlet, putzing around on sit-on-top kayaks. The fun ended when I accidentally clocked a girl—on whom I’d had a crush—in the head with my kayak bow while she tread water.
My first big purchase after graduating from college was a kayak. It was cheap, small, red—a temptation too powerful to pass up. I saw it propped on a rack at Dick’s Sporting Goods during my lunch break and I returned just before closing later that night and bought the thing for $250. It was October and they’d been clearing them out to make room for winter gear. I had to spend another $100 or so on a paddle, spray skirt, and foam blocks and rope to be able to carry the damn thing on the roof of my car (this was all clearly an afterthought).
I spent the next several weeks, far into the cold season, finding places to launch the kayak and go paddling. At the time, I lived in southwest Virginia and had little trouble finding moving water. I took several excursions into the New and Roanoke Rivers, and a few backcountry creeks whose names I’ve long since forgotten.
While I couldn’t pinpoint it then, that kayak stoked a craving for exploration, a desire for immersion into a wilderness that largely did not exist anywhere nearby. But that was ten years ago and at times, it seems, a lifetime. Things are slower going now. I’ve spent several intervening years without setting foot in a canoe or kayak. But living here in the “Tidewater” area of Virginia, my proximity to water in motion seems to have made it inevitable.
Even now, with the lights and sirens and late night music cascading from the shoreline, I still paddle out just for the hell of it. Amidst the rumble of the tugs and the echoes of the shipyard, I am silent.
When the wind is at my back, sometimes I look to the side and perceive that, relative to the water, I’m sitting still. If I add a little distance to my perspective I usually find, in fact, that I’m moving rather quickly. Perspective can do that, and it’s usually good. But when the going is slow, when I’m driving into the wind and the waves, I can look behind and see the trailing ‘V’ of my wake spread thin and disappear, the loose ends carved by vortices which slow and weaken. Memory is subject to the same laws, I think. There are the traces of the paddle blade meeting those of the stern, the intersection of desire and reality. Look far enough behind you and all but the heaviest, clumsiest strokes are perceptible. The small ones don’t last and the big ones do until they’re all swept away in the continuous roll of the water.
Newly published in Sierra magazine, my piece about hiking the proposed path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through Virginia’s National Forest:
The old Sam Cook song trolls through my head. The surface meaning is appreciable, so avoid looking for anything deeper in the words to follow. I’ve always been more of an Otis Redding guy anyway. How’s that for a lede.
So here’s the post that I’ve owed myself (and the other two of you that might read this—hi mom) for a few months now. The irony in all of this is that I’ve actually spent more time writing, just not here. The blog has been relegated to the backseat of late. I recently completed a course through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, a sort of breakneck review of the western canon of nature writers and a workshop for our own forays in the field. It was wonderful and I’m sorry to have seen it end.
But there have been other excursions, adventures had. A few in service of a freelance piece I’m finishing up and hope to see in print soon. As with most things worth doing, creating this stuff takes time, and that’s a precious commodity these days. I’ve been out to George Washington National Forest, to the Blue Ridge, to the Shenandoah Valley. Solo and with the family. Returned to the Farm a few times. The backyard and running afield.
I’ve realized something in the midst of it all, and even in the act of writing it down it seems too obvious, too self-evident. It’s this notion that the line between nature writing—writing about nature—and writing in defense of nature isn’t always clear-cut. Depends on your definition I s’pose. But these days I often find myself questioning whether that line exists at all.
It can be an unsettling space to occupy, nonetheless, something like those huge rooms in elementary school with the linoleum tiles and the big, flimsy walls that would fold out like an accordion to split the space in two. You could play basketball on one side while lunch was served on the other, then wheel the big wall back, look around, and find yourself in one space, same floor, same hospital-teal, same thick edged murals of happy children and dancing vegetables.
The genre isn’t chocked with pure environmentalists—”greenies” as my former teacher calls them—but probably a good mix of the heady and hardy, an odd bunch, just as likely to be out in the woods with a gun or a fly rod as they are with a notebook.
I probably fall into both camps, so I’m open to my views being dismissed from either angle. I’d also like to think that, despite my master of nothing status, I might offer a unique perspective into all of this.
I never wanted to turn this site into a soapbox (otherwise I would have created a Facebook account). Most forms of social media have become too vitriolic lately, too partisan. I can’t say it’s good for anyone’s health, but a steady dose of echoes and insults results in one hell of a morning headache. The last several months have seemed especially crude, worse in hard-boiled opinion and with more fear-mongering than local news. Throw in a heart-palpitation while you’re at it.
So while I’m all worked up, here it is, a bit of the stuff I’ve got going through my veins, at a little higher than normal pressure. And I think the time has come, whether through guilt, activism, or an honest-to-god fear of the future, to talk openly about them.
Two recent issues come to mind. The first is the Dakota Access Pipeline. The second is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (where you may find me from time to time), you’re probably familiar with the first. Unless, you live in or near the central Appalachians, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of the second.
I honestly believe we’ll look back on Dakota Access, on what was accomplished out at Standing Rock, and see it as an inflection point, a change in the momentum, or the acceleration rather, of the dark forces that are re-shaping our future in the name of commerce or progress or even freedom. Even as many as of us tread here, bobbing in the wake of November’s election and wondering how the in the hell those checks and balances are supposed to perform as designed when the gap between government and corporate interests grows imperceptibly small. Things should have been getting easier for entities like Energy Transfer Partners; the skids should have been greased. And we’ve just thrown some sand in the way. Well, good for us. But it’s a big, damned machine and we’re gonna need a lot more sand.
I was continually frustrated at the lack of news coverage of DAPL. Not until the final standoff in those shortened days before Christmas did it really make national headlines, long after the temperatures out there had fallen below freezing, after the combined population of the camps exceeded 10,000. Unfortunately, the election and much of the fallout that followed, including the unceasing, inane tweets by our president-elect, kept to the top of the news cycle like a slick of oil floating on the surface of the ocean.
Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline is actually a complicated issue, one that may be difficult for non-natives (like myself) to fully grasp. What began as yet another trouncing on the sovereign rights of a people too used to getting kicked around by the powers that be became much more over time. You may assign the cause of your choice, most of them legitimate, but #noDAPL was and is far more than just another front in the ongoing environmental fight.
I ran across this article and wish it could be read by anyone with an opinion on Standing Rock, regardless of his or her stance.
For as much as we disparage the ecological implications of the Dakota Access Pipeline—and they are legion—we must not forget that the protest began as a gathering of American Indians in opposition to what they saw as another clear infringement of their rights. In the months that followed, their movement was joined by thousands, most rotating in and out as they were able. But the Dakota and Lakota people will remain on those hills long after all of the other protesters have gone home.
There have been many avenues to support the cause, however you see it; here is one that I chose. Even as the protests have all but fallen out of the news cycle, the legal battles waged as a result will be long and arduous. Hundreds of protestors were derided, arrested, and assaulted for exercising their first amendment rights. We’ve grown a lot since Selma, but we’ve still got a long way to go, it seems.
Only a few days ago, the new chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was sworn in, himself a North Dakota senator who was outspoken in his disdain for the protests. Coupled with the recent nominations for Secretary of State, Secretary of Energy, and head of the EPA, it seems we’ve found ourselves trapped in some strange paradox where facts are partisan, where hyperbole is literal, and where high-minded discourse is eclipsed by playground invective in 140-character segments.
But let me back up a bit and redirect to the second issue that I mentioned—the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In short, it’s a newly proposed natural gas pipeline slated to be built, owned, and operated by a partnership of energy companies led by Dominion Resources, and meant to connect gas reserves in West Virginia to destinations here in Virginia and North Carolina along a 600-mile route snaking through all three states. There are a lot of issues posed by this thing, and the way Dominion has gone about the planning, surveying, and multiple certificate applications seems to suggest they’re trying to do the least amount of work possible to make it happen.
Interstate pipelines are no small feat. And the process for getting them implemented is long and complicated – for a reason. Several federal and state agencies are required to provide input or sign off on the pipeline before the first tree is felled, namely the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Forest Service (if crossing National Forest land), the National Park Service (if crossing National Park land), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (if crossing major waterways), the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state Departments of Environmental Quality, Protection, or Conservation, Divisions of Natural Resources, etc.
But let’s be clear, unlike Dakota Access or even Keystone XL, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is supposed to carry compressed natural gas. Fracked gas, actually. Drillers have been extracting this hard to reach methane in earnest, even while natural gas prices have fallen so low that the gas costs more to produce than it does to sell at current market rates. It seems silly but that’s the game being played right now, and projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline are just part of the long-ball strategy.
The problem, at least with the pipeline, is the collateral damage, much of it conspicuously missing from the cost-benefit analyses and spreadsheets used to justify the need for projects like these. Even the Environmental Impact Statements issued by the FERC are woefully inadequate in fully addressing the… wait for it… impact to the environment. But I’m not talking about this in some abstract sense. Here, the threat is as real as can be imagined, and those of us living in or near the pipeline’s path need not cast our imaginations far.
The mountains through which the pipeline’s path would cut are in our backyard, as are the rivers that run between them, the streams that connect the two, unbroken swaths of core forest, a number of endangered or threatened species, karst, limestone, sinkholes. All of it in the path of a 600-mile strip of bare earth, a 75 ft wide clearcut, 125 ft wide construction corridor, and several hundred acres of cleared land and access roads.
The pipeline’s route will bisect Monongahela and George Washington National Forests as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail, for which it will need the explicit permission of both the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. The remainder of the route, all but about 21 miles of it, would then pass through privately owned land, for which Dominion will need the permission of the land-owner. If refused, the land could then be seized through eminent domain. What’s worse, at least in Virginia, the company actually enjoys the “right” to enter private property to survey long before any permits are issued to begin construction.
Let me reiterate—it’s for fracked gas. Anything that encourages the continued use of that method of extraction, in my view, should be left to the annuls of the 20th century. It has no place in the future energy policy of this country. Even here in Virginia, where Governor McAuliffe insisted that the U.S. Forest Service ban drilling in the National Forest, he continues to voice his support for the ACP which, ironically, transports gas fracked outside of Virginia’s borders to power plants here in our state and in North Carolina.
The frustration is mounting, and it’s coming from multiple angles. There are clear environmental concerns, there are land rights concerns, and there are concerns that our government agencies are failing to regulate these massive pipeline projects in light of the obvious issues.
With regard to the ACP and the MVP, it is my sincere hope that both projects and others like them will garner some national attention in the coming months and undergo the level of scrutiny that each deserves, not just by the public at large, because in a lot of ways we’re already doing that, but by the agencies that are chartered by the public to protect the resources—the land, the water, the wildlife—and the rights of private citizens. Until now, so many of them have failed to do so.
If this curdles the blood even a little, I encourage you, humble reader, to check the following links for more information. Because if there’s anything that Standing Rock has taught us, it’s that our government and the corporations it colludes with can no longer ignore a frustrated and informed populace.
I’m lying in the hammock as I write this. The rain has mostly abated but comes heavily in spurts every now and again. The wind out on the water is blowing upwards of 50 mph but here behind the house and trees it whips through in weaker gusts. I think the worst of the squall has passed but the storm surge is predicted to be two to four feet above normal levels, when it seems the entirety of the Chesapeake Bay arrives to fill the Elizabeth River basin. The water of the harbor, last I checked, was already over the seawall and halfway up the street. But it ought to be receding soon.
Despite the wind, it’s strangely peaceful under here. The hammock is at a comfortable angle, I’m dry, and am watching streams of rainwater flow off the edge of the tarp where my guy-line is tied, marking the perfect place for an open bottle if I was in need. I’ve eyed the peak of the tarp and wished that I had let the hood’s drawstring fall down underneath rather than letting it lay loosely on the topside where it’s of no use to me. I’ve eschewed the usual ridgeline cord and so that drawstring would have been a convenient place to hang something.
What I’m calling a tarp is actually a poncho – one of the heavy, army-surplus types with snaps on the sides and grommets in the corners. Having a large hole in the middle of an adapted rain shelter might at first seem like a disadvantage until you consider that it 1) offers a central tie-off point to raise the eve a few inches as I’m doing now, and 2) presents a open place for the smoke to escape from a small fire underneath, should I choose to have one. That, and it’s a poncho, so I can stay dry while I’m hiking and while I’m sleeping.
Earlier this morning, we awoke cagey and sleepy-eyed after a full night of gusting winds and the repeated clapping of an outside crape myrtle against our window. Tropical storm Hermine approached from the southwest and was upon us by late morning, its cyclic drafts pounding us from the north as the eye passed somewhere out to sea. I spent those hours leaning into the wind with a couple of my neighbors, fighting to prevent a sailboat from careening into an adjacent dock, as it dragged its 240-lb mooring along the bottom of the Elizabeth.
We leaned on the edge of the Isabella, a Norwegian-built 30 footer, all wood and pointed stern, shoving the errant sailboat away from the hull with boathooks. The owner jumped into the bowsprit to loosen the mooring line so I could quickly tie it to one of the docks pylons. After another hour spent retying lines, hanging bumpers, and inspecting loose cleats, we retired to the porch to peel off wet cloths, sip coffee, and watch the passing gale. Dried out and caffeined up, I thought it a perfect time to stress test my hammock and tarp system in the usual proving ground—my backyard.
I’ve hammock camped maybe a dozen times before in varying conditions and find that it suits me best in the warmer seasons, especially in wet weather. The setup is simple and all in all weighs roughly two-and-a-half pounds, including the hammock, tarp, straps/ropes, and guy-lines. Unlike a tent, it doesn’t require a sleeping pad, unless of course the extra insulation is needed underneath. This is the first time I’ve used the poncho/tarp like this, diagonally, a common setup among modern bushcrafters. Clipping the corners to my hammock ends was a lucky discovery given the coincidental lengths of my hammock and my tarp. I haven’t seen an example of this, but I’m sure it’s been done before.
Another, arguably more critical, concern is how to secure the hammock ends to the tree. Ongoing debates on the merit of ropes and straps, cord material, and types of knots proliferate, as seen here, here, and here. Most agree that thin rope under load can damage a tree by cutting into the bark and, sometimes, the wood underneath. Straps composed of layered webbing or weave, nylon being the most ubiquitous, are readily available, but even a single experience with nylon straps will prove to the novice just how much stretch that material has (if you wonder why, just ask a rock climber). Many times in my own experimentation I’ve found my butt dragging the ground when only minutes previous I’d been a foot-and-a-half above it.
In my search for something dependable but light, I’ve broken my share of rope, secured stuff far too thick and heavy to take backpacking, and even used a dog leash in a pinch. Having done my research about straps, I had to try out the nylon anyway; of course, it performed true to form. Kevlar seems to be a popular material, though notably more expensive. Rather than bear any additional cost, what I’ve done instead is cannibalized an old baby car seat for seat belt straps, each measuring about four feet long, two inches wide, and already looped at one end. Constructed of a tight polyester weave, the straps are purportedly capable of withstanding over 3000 lb, will not shrink, stretch, rot, mold, mildew, or melt, and are even UV inhibited—possibly over-engineered for my application but, hey, the price was right. I had a loop sewn into each free end so that each end had a loop large enough to pass rope through and … voila! – custom “tree huggers.”
The next day offered a chance to try them out while I was spending some time up on a remote patch of Virginia’s eastern shore. I’ve shown them in the photo with a simple “U” around the trunk of a foot-thick Virginia Pine which, depending on angle, load, and type of bark is liable to slipping downward. A single wraparound solved that issue (I forgot to take another photo), though I had to modify my tie-off method a bit. In the future, such things will be dependent on the thickness of the trunk, but it’s nice to know the system can accommodate either.
It was a late autumn Saturday and the football team was away. As things settled into the weekend forays of a typical college town, I set out alone on the Blue Ridge Parkway, an hour or more on that endlessly winding road into the reaches of Jefferson National Forest somewhere west of Roanoke.
I’d woken up that morning feeling unsatisfied and itching to get out of the apartment, another strange little instance where inspiration struck only as the opposite force to boredom. And I was again victim to my own last minute planning. But the weekend and fair weather were at stake, and an opportunity to get out into the mountains, companions be damned, was not to be squandered. I unfolded the plastic topo map across my bed and picked a section of the AT with a shelter – I didn’t yet own a tent – that I had passed through a year before.
It was cold, the sky cloudless, autumn blue and gray forest and green pine. I parked at one of the many pull-offs and disappeared down the tangent trail, walking below the road’s embankment, eyeing the saplings cut short to maintain the view from the road. The AT shelter was only a few miles away, mostly downhill.
I had worn my synthetic down jacket and jeans, and cheap hiking boots I would later jettison after purchasing a pair of Vasques using Christmas money from my grandfather, which was fitting as he had always extolled the virtues of quality footwear in his own unpolished way. I had’t acquired much in the way of kit then, an external frame Janson, a cooking pot from the thrift store, a cheap sleeping bag, but for single-nighters in less than extreme conditions, it was usually enough.
The trail followed an easy, downtick grade, and I quickened my pace in the failing light. I had gotten my start late in the day and wanted to reach the site early enough to prep dinner and make a fire before nightfall, the azure darkness already creeping over the hollow like a blanket.
I sat on the edge of the shelter after posing for the camera some feet away, perched on the rock pile surrounding the fire pit. It was something I had always done, selfie before the selfie. Analog camera, decent little Canon, beat to hell from sand and dirt, balanced on some rough surface and aim askew. I wanted it to paint my own portrait alongside those in my head, Jack London at a makeshift desk below the trees, Nessmuk sketched in 19th century garb, Chris McCandless leaning against that bus. I’d read Into the Wild sometime the previous spring and it had struck an identifiable chord. I bought it on a whim at the campus bookstore – the cover caught my eye – in a section where some professor had assigned it to a class, though I don’t remember who or which one.
I still had the book, earmarked and torn, stuffed down in the violet nylon next to Robert Service and a ziplock with my toothbrush, bandaids, deck of cards, and iodine tabs. I read by the firelight, the smell of Ramen still in the air. I couldn’t seem to get comfortable and the evening breeze was pushing up the valley in cold wisps. I cursed out loud and stomped out the dull glow of the remaining coals, rolled out my thin, foam sleeping pad on the floor of the shelter and lay flat with my balled sweatshirt under my head. It was marginally more comfortable, but at least I was out of the wind. The room smelled of must, as they all did, and was sparsely ornamented with epithets scratched or written into the walls about the smell, the cold, the rain, the trail.
With my LED headlamp on, I caught the iridescence of a spider’s web in the corner. He sat prone surveying the room. Like a landlord, I thought, waiting to collect rent.
I drifted back to my book and soon fell into fitful sleep.
I wanted to share a few tidbits of a weekend spent in Rockingham County. My wife and I had driven out early Saturday morning to meet up with friends and prepare for a wedding later that evening. As always, my wheels began to spin, devising ways to get out into the woods for a turn, hiking or fishing. I thought of cold water in thin streams running down from the eastern edge of the Appalachians, of getting lost somewhere in Shenandoah National Park, of breathing mountain air again.
The weather hadn’t been conducive the week prior. It had been hot, dry, and the water levels were low. The first stream I reached (the pencil-thin blue line on Google maps) was bone dry before I’d even trekked up toward the Park’s higher elevations. Not a good sign. Another half-hidden dirt road led farther into the shade of the woods and another stream, this one free flowing and cool, but no more than a few feet wide and inches deep in most places. With the tree cover, there was no room to cast. I just let out the line a bit to pull downstream and hoped for the best. I splashed around for an hour, feeling silly, eventually deciding to return to the car and head back to the Shenandoah River crossing I’d sited five or so miles back.
It was here that I would spend the rest of my time that afternoon as well as a few hours early the next morning. There’d been plenty of room to cast and several feet of depth to walk around in my new chest waders. I stepped carefully amongst the rocks, easing out from the shade of the bridge and experimenting with a half dozen flies, not really knowing what I was fishing for. By the end of it, I’d hooked a few adolescent smallmouth, a green sunfish, and, somehow, a dragonfly. Not too momentous as far as landing the Big One goes, but a satisfying day—a river day—and that was good enough for me.
Living in a somewhat urbanized environment, I find it difficult to stave off the feelings of being suffocated by too much that is manmade, stark, grey, ugly. I daydream about time spent elsewhere, in more rural and wild places. But such as things are, I’m here now and as my children guide me through the day, I find ways to discover natural wonder in the wilds already surrounding us. To borrow the phrase from Tom Brown’s Field Guide to the Forgotten Wilderness, it is easy to forget that there are things of value to learn and observe just outside of the door. We crossed the street this morning to sit and watch a cicada slowly vibrating out from its nymph skin, clinging to the brick, stretching legs and wings like unfolding origami. Where it could find no tree or stone for its ecdysis, it chose the first vertical surface nearby, the side of the house.
We walked the dogs down to the end of the street sometime after breakfast, skirting the long, low fence to the dog park as we have a hundred times previous. The smell of freshly cut grass still hung in the air, clearing the ground for a fresh sprout of mushrooms, likely to be washed away in the rain of the afternoon. I’m no mycologist, but they look to be Chlorophyllum Molybdites, commonly known as False Parasol or, more aptly, Vomiter—aptly the most frequently ingested poisonous mushroom in North America (no, I didn’t try them).
The day went by slowly and not without its sense of crossing things off the list. The sky had cleared and much of the humidity brought in by last Friday’s storms disappeared by early afternoon. The sun was out and breeze blowing and I’d strung the hammock between the corner post of a fence and one of the Lobolly Pine standing, outstretched, over the back yard. I often think of it as the ugliest of the three trees that separate my yard from my neighbor’s; the other two stand taller, their branches more like arms drawn in close to the body. The tree closest to the northern eave is crowned with a (literal) crow’s nest, its inhabitants calling out from time to time. I imagine them complaining of encroaching squirrels or mockingbirds. But the middle tree is short, curved, with irregular branches that jut far into the yard to rain needles and cones down into the lawn below. It is to this trunk that my hammock was tied, and I noticed something—two-needle clusters, each growing out in pairs, tufted along the low branches. A rare quality, an exception to the telltale three-needle cluster of the ubiquitous Loblolly. This one sapheaded tree was unique in a small but unexpected way.
Lobolly pine is actually one of the most common species of tree in the United States. In the thousands, they compose a forest. In triplet, they demarcate my property. And like any other, my meager woods provides food and shelter to crow, mockingbird, woodpecker, squirrel, and insects. It’s where I “camp,” if only for a lazy afternoon in the hammock. It’s where I collect kindling for the fire, stock for pine-needle tea, find shade from the sun, wall to the wind, and the arched spine of a root peeking from the surface of my lawn every few feet or so. The trees are different. The trees are the same. Each bears its sentence, its confinement to the world of hedgerows and stunted grass; each bears its own sense of wild.
I had my druthers and took the rare opportunity this weekend to camp and explore someplace new, take a break, try some fly fishing, be in the woods, etc, etc. I mapped out my radius of travel, an imaginary string pinned to Portsmouth and fanning out some 200 miles by land, where all viable paths run west and south. I’d been dreaming of cold mountain streams and native trout, but transit time at rush hour squashed any hopes of getting to National Forest land before dark. So after some erratic web searching and mulling over my notes from previous trips, I quickly planned an excursion into the Featherfin Wildlife Management Area for the freedom of dispersed camping (with a valid fishing, hunting license, etc.) and its inclusion of several miles of the Appomattox river, near which I could set up a central camp of sorts and hit several sections of water on foot.
The day was extremely hot and the night all but promised to be as oppressive. After a bit of trial an error and many a wary look at overgrown service roads, I found my spot not far from my pull-off, just near the river bank. I strung up the hammock, unpacked the fly rod, and set at it in the failing light. When it was too dark to see the tippet in my hands, I set the gear on the bank, poured some Ramen in the pot and helped myself to the salted broth and thin pasta. The heat was on, the stickiness, and in the dark with the slight breeze and gurgle of the river, shallow enough for only a pair of boots in most places. I hooked a few green sunfish, most with mouths no bigger than the flies they’d tried to swallow, turquoise and gold iridescent stripes narrowed just in front of the gills. They stared back at me resigned and wide-eyed.
The week prior had been especially difficult, mostly for reasons I won’t expand on here, but I’d thought that a night out on my own may have been just the thing, and in some ways it was. I tried to stop and listen, take in the night, then the day, sit beside myself and watch the river flow down along the gouged tree and tall grass, strip of sky above not quite cut by the sun’s rays. I waded up and down, never quite finding the section I was hoping for, someplace with cover in the water and none overhead. In the heat and undergrowth it felt more of a jungle-scape than hill-country river basin, but such things are what they are. I was less than thirty miles from Sailor’s Creek battlefield and of course, not far from Lee’s surrender at that fateful courthouse just over 150 years ago. I couldn’t help but think of the soldiers out, uniformed, traipsing and camping in this same Virginia heat. What might their thoughts have been, their gripes? Would they have had the time or the notion to appreciate the landscape they’d found themselves to occupy? I imagined that nearly every field and forest and river on which they’d marched, camped, died looked like the places I now seek out for my own escape, far cries from the urban sprawl and industrial rivet of Hampton Roads.
Sometime late in the morning I set out to Farmville for a coffee and a second breakfast (the stove-heated can of kidney beans lasted only so long), before shooting up to Richmond for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) rally and subsequent march on the governor’s mansion. The day heralded other events in other places, but I’ll be sure to remember Featherfin as sure as I’ll be to return.
We thought we’d practice making the traditional wilderness trip staple – bannock, which is essentially unleavened bread cooked by an open fire. The variations in recipe are legion, but we kept it pretty simple. Simplicity is good and, as this was a decidedly impulsive midday activity begun while my youngest napped upstairs, it needed accomplishment with only the ingredients on hand. I’d found an American-made, 8-inch cast-iron skillet at the thrift store the previous day with intentions on use of this very nature. A hasty seasoning earlier that morning did the trick, cleaned, greased, and ready to go. We mixed about 2 cups of flour (more was added later) with roughly 2.5 tablespoons of baking powder, a few shakes of salt, 1 cup of water, and a handful of raisins. Mixed, rolled, and patted into a ball. I quickly discovered the need to grease my hands and powder the table with flour or the dough will stick like hell. Knowing cooks refrain from grimacing – this was a freshman attempt.
While H putzed, I got the fire going and set all other accouterments, ingredients, and whatnot on the plicker table, fumbled with a tarp in anticipation of the rain, and then gave up as soon as the clouds parted and C woke from her nap. I’d had a two salmon steaks thawed and a couple handfuls of raw spinach thrown in a steel skillet with some water and olive oil. When the wood had burned down to coals, I propped the cast iron skillet with the doughball against a stick about a foot from the coal bed and watched as the hunk of bread mix slid down to the bottom of the pan. There’s no such thing as greased too well but this would never do. I’d already had a grate set aside, intended for the salmon and spinach, and set it straddling the stones in the fire ring with the skillet on top.
After five minutes I rotated the pan 180 degrees. After ten I flipped the bannock and looked with satisfaction at the crisp, cooked surface, brown and gold, steaming. The salmon steaks went straight on the grate and I shoved one more hunk of wood underneath for good measure. No flames but the coalbed was already cooling. The bannock came off after another ten, hard on the outside soft within, boiling hot but slid right off the pan without a trace. On went the spinach skillet, also on the grate. Both spinach and salmon finished at about the same time. All portioned out on plates for three, two-and-a-half more accurately. Coupled with some pine needle tea and all’s served for a lovely meal on summer’s afternoon.