The Waterfall Project: Roaring Brook Falls

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“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Dear S,

You chose this trail with confidence on a day I felt uneasy.

Roaring Brook Falls was on a list we found online while waiting to see the chiropractor. This hike was just the two of us, on the Thursday that was actually your first day of summer vacation. The trail head is in a residential neighborhood, and the hike appeared to be short, based on the very vintage looking map a few feet from the spot where we parked our car.IMG_2274

I felt weird that morning because I had had one of those incredibly vivid dreams that happen right before you wake up. The dream was about your dad, and in it he needed help, and in it, you were grown and he was a child. I wrote the details down in a note on my phone; they seem incoherent right now, and the specifics will stay locked away until I can think them through.

We ate a small lunch in the car before we started our hike. You finished quickly and ran out to read the sign and decipher the map, while I ate celery sticks and Baby Bell cheese. (This is Day Four of my sugar free/ gluten free cleanse. I am a bit grumpy and I miss bread, ice cream, and doughnuts.)

We walked over a concrete bridge that cut across a pond (a reservoir, maybe?) and took pictures of the calm water. We looped around an abandoned tennis court- the vines creeping through the net and the weeds sprouting up from the cracks in the pavement seem like a too-perfect metaphor for leaving the residential and entering the woods.

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~~~
Rebecca Solnit has an incredible collection of essays called As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art and I read a bunch of them at the beginning of the summer. The first essay in the collection, “The Bomb: Lise Meitner’s Walking Shoes,” opens with the line, “A sentence, or a story, is a kind of path,” and that feels like an epigraph for this waterfall project.* Solnit goes on to write about Thoreau’s famous talk-then-essay “Walking,” which describes Nature as a holy place, and walking as a way of “being somewhere, but not necessarily getting anywhere,” because walking is great for thinking. She points out that there is shift, though, in Thoreau’s words. In his praise of wilderness and celebration of the West, he is, contrarily, also applauding man’s technological progress, which, of course, is synonymous with destruction. “I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progresses from east to west.” And here we are, you and I, walking through the forests of New England, not praising advances, but, in some ways, escaping the modern. Except that we aren’t. You play games on a handheld Nintendo while I drive our car to these trails. We have cameras and an iPhone in our pockets. And I am writing here, on a blog, from my laptop.

I feel a little like I am searching for Emerson’s transcendental moment, that old transparent eyeball that absorbs rather than reflects. I want to hike these trails and be fully with you, in the woods, exploring. And yet, as we’re walking I wonder- is it possible to absorb without reflection? It seems to me that Emerson must have reflected on all that he took in from nature in order to write his book. Perhaps then, like Thoreau, this waterfall project, or rather the writing about this waterfall project, is a looking back while moving forward. So far, we have been climbing up to look down.

~~~
Our red dot trail took a sharp right turn and the hill was right there, daunting, maybe taunting. We stopped a lot. I worried for a moment that we didn’t have enough water. There were more than a few times that we asked each other whether we should go back or keep climbing. I was grateful I stuffed extra cheese in my front pocket and jammed the bug spray in my back pocket.IMG_2285
There was a rest area marked on the map. A spot near a tree where the grass has been flattened and where you can hear more than see the falls. We rested there for a bit and left our walking sticks leaned against a big rock. It almost looks like it could be the end of the trail, but I knew that it wasn’t and we went on. And then we found it. It was dark and quiet, the falls tumbled cold and soft onto some flat rocks. We took pictures. You seemed anxious. You said you were ready to go home.IMG_2296

~~~
There are spots peppering the trail that whisper of youth. A massive stone fireplace near the base of the trail filled with charred logs, larger stumps in a half-circle in front, a few crushed cans of light beer on the ground. A narrow path that drops dramatically down to the water, where we heard the echoes of people laughing and splashing. And at the top of the path, where the falls begin to spill, a burnt-out circle, more ashes, a pair of underwear stuffed beneath a rock, a bottle cap.

When I was twenty-one I went cross-country with your dad. We had two-months worth of supplies crammed into the backseat of a Pontiac Sunfire, an atlas, and National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks. Your dad rode shotgun and I drove. We hiked The Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion in Utah, The Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the Redwoods in California. We were very young, perhaps reckless, and searching. There are pictures in a box in the attic and someday I will show them to you.

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The hike back down was harder than the hike up. I taught you to walk sideways, so your feet and the trail are perpendicular. You held onto my elbow for stability, white knuckled, and I guided you as best I could down the dry dust and skidding pebbles. It was both exhilarating and scary, I think.

Once we skidded back down to the tree line and righted our feet, you relaxed. The trees were dropping seeds so furiously that it sounded like it was raining. The noise was distracting, or maybe it was attracting, because at that moment we were solely and acutely aware of nature. That’s when I noticed that our trail ran parallel to an overgrown gulch. A scar on the land created, maybe, by a glacier or running water that no longer flows. It was a deep cavern filled with tall grass and tangled weeds- evidence that something massive and perhaps destructive, had shaped the land.

When we got home we ate strawberries in the hammock. I asked you what you thought about our hike, worried that the tricky terrain might have deterred you from wanting to try any more trails. You swung your arm over the side, absent-mindedly plucking at the bits of grass that grow under there, and said, “It was kinda tough, but the reward was beautiful.”

 

*Solnit, Rebecca. “The Bomb: Lise Meitner’s Walking Shoes.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 2003. Print.

The Waterfall Project: Southford Falls

 Southford Falls Pond

Dear S,

I assumed that somehow the Board of Ed’s website updated its calendar automatically whenever there was a snow day. When I checked it sometime in March, June 8th was marked with a star, so I told your stepdad that June 8th was your last day of school. Then he took two vacation days, June 8th and June 9th, with the idea that we would celebrate your completion of third grade and enjoy the first day of summer vacation together.

There’s a special reason he took those days, a reason that stretches beyond the simple fun of vacation days. Two years ago, after you’d completed first grade, you woke up in the morning, in our bed, because that’s where you slept, and sat up, confused as you watched M button up his shirt. I’m sure the sheets had left lines on your face, and I would bet that your hair stood on end. I know that your eyes brimmed with tears when you asked him, in your soft, little boy voice, “Why are you leaving? Today is the first day of summer vacation.”

The same thing happened the next year.

Your disappointment each time was palpable. It is hard to understand that the world does not follow the same calendar as elementary school. This was harder to understand because, at the time, I was in grad school and also on summer vacation. Of course the concept of him leaving every sunny day of the three-month stretch of summer was completely nonsensical to you.

And so, this year, he took those days off to surprise you. But this year I screwed up the dates. Your last day of school was actually June 14th.

We kept you home on that Friday anyway. And we kept our plan a secret from you. This year, on the morning of what was not actually the first day of summer break, you came into our room, bleary- eyed, hair on end, confused, and stood at the foot of our bed, because you sleep in your own room now, and with a slightly bewildered squeak asked us why we were still sleeping. “Is it…Saturday?”

***

Lunches were packed before noon. We stopped at Target before hitting the road, looking for sunscreen and a disposable camera. We found the sunscreen easily and had to ask someone where to find the camera. The guy behind the counter in the electronics department laughed. Disposable cameras are pretty much extinct. In fact, film photography in general is vintage, I think. But I wanted you to try it. I wanted you to capture these hikes in a way that will give you something concrete to look back on. I wanted you to learn about seeing something and capturing it through a lens and then having to wait to see how (or if) it comes out the way you’d hoped. I needed these images to be familiar, to be real, not on a phone, buried in data, stacked with intentions to print them but no real drive to do so. And I wanted you to have something that will remind you that when you were nine we had adventures and they were fun or challenging or beautiful or boring.

They only had an underwater camera and it was twenty bucks but we bought it anyway.

***

Southford Falls is about forty minutes from the mall where we bought the camera and I had recently found the Nintendo DS that had been misplaced in a bag of stuff that got shuffled back and forth between our house and your dad’s. You quickly reacquainted yourself with Pokemon as we drove inland to hike our first waterfall. Your stillness back there, in the back of our rustly old Jeep, your concentration, the way the tip of your tongue pokes out at the corner of your mouth, I know I should have been aggrieved by your penchant for technology, that I should’ve insisted that if we are going back to nature, you should unplug. But this time I don’t. You are beautiful.

***

My siblings and I weren’t allowed to have junk food very often when we were kids, and we certainly didn’t eat in restaurants. There were occasional trips through a drive-thru, clamoring kids anxious for the toys and cookies in our boxed Happy Meals, but any time we ate take out it was a very special treat.

Maybe I’m making this up, then. But I don’t think I am. After we pulled into the parking lot at Southford Falls, as you and M and I hopped out of the car and looked around at the pond and the field and the paths where I have been so many times before, where you have been twice before, where M has never been, I remembered KFC. Not the restaurant, but the time my dad brought the three of us kids (before Auntie Teesa was born) to this same place with a red and white striped bucket of fried chicken and a vat of mashed potatoes and a container of the too-peppery gravy that he loved. I think we sat on a blanket next to the picnic table, even though I remember that the picnic table was empty. I’m sure we stuck our feet in the cool pool of water on top of the rocky ledge where the first waterfall crashes and wiped our greasy chicken hands on our shorts.

*** 

Southford Falls is, in many ways, a collection of varying environments. There is a long pond filled with lily pads, where dragon flies hover and old men fish, which flows under a walking bridge before torpedoing over the rocky ledges of the falls. There is a meadow next to the pond that sort of swoops up the hill and ends abruptly at a line of dark and scrawny pines. That’s where the pavilion and restrooms are, in the clearing, away from the thickets of forest. The trail near the meadow, which runs next to the placid pond, leads directly to the watch tower.

We didn’t take that trail. We followed the water and then veered left up the hill. We made it to the watch tower, but it was harder than it would have been had we taken the traditional path. When you read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” someday, remember that it is often misinterpreted. No matter which path you choose, you will think you’ve made a choice that has made all the difference. But the thing is, if you had chosen the other way, you would look back and say the same thing. Read the middle of the poem carefully- you’ll understand that the paths are the same and it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

***

The trail we took led us through the red-painted covered bridge. You snapped pictures of the graffiti etched and scraped into the wooden rails. The place where we veered left to find the tower was steep and lined with the gnarly branches of pink-blossomed mountain laurels. You lead the way and we stopped a few times, sweaty and thirsty, and I was waiting for you to quit. You didn’t.

We hunted for walking sticks in the dappled light of a flatter area that lead to the hill that lead to our destination. We found a tall one for M, one with a knob at the top for me, a shorter one without bark for you. Three bears in the woods, just right.

*** 

You were shocked and proud and awed when we reached the tower. I had forgotten how steep the steps are. On the floor, written in permanent marker, was this missive:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman

It is a slightly misquoted line of a Ginsberg poem entitled “A Supermarket in California.” I love this poem, though I didn’t recognize it right away that day. I will leave it here for you:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?

  (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when

Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat

disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

 

When we left the tower you had an idea. To leave our walking sticks at the bottom of the stairs in case another group of hikers wanted to borrow them. You arranged the three of them into a star on a concrete slab. sticks of three

Art.

Nature.

Motherhood.

The Waterfall Project

Southford Falls

The idea to write about these adventures was probably rolling around in my head when I first mentioned the idea of hiking waterfall trails to S earlier this spring. However, writing about our adventures in this space didn’t occur to me until last week, after we picked up his first set of photographs from the camera shop down the street.

S and I are on a mission to find and hike as many waterfall trails as we can this summer. He is nine. Nine, I am learning, is magical. Last weekend we talked about books for an hour while he got ready for bed. He tells us jokes that are for-real funny. He has grown wonderfully independent. And yet, he still grabs my hand instinctively when we cross the street, and he still looks to me when he needs reassurance or a hug. He also still thinks I’m cool. I want to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

I will have to backtrack my posts, because we’ve done two hikes already. The first one was at a park near where I grew up, a place I’ve hiked countless times and is filled with memories. M had taken the day off, so all three of us went, and the weather was incredible. Before we left we bought S one of those disposable film cameras. He took a whole roll of pictures and we dropped them off the next day. A week later we walked downtown and picked up the developed photos and took them with us to the café across the street so we could flip through them.

Twenty-five out of twenty-seven are blurry, most likely because he moved before the camera’s shutter was done closing its cheap, disposable eye. He was bummed- disheartened that his photos weren’t accurate representations of his memories, disappointed that his art didn’t align with his vision. We talked about ways he might hone his new craft, and we bought another camera so he can try again. I promised to find a photo album so he can catalog his photos and see how his skills improve.

Art. Nature. Motherhood.

I have decided to write about these trips so I can capture and consider all of the ways these three vital parts of my life intersect. I intend to write after each hike, so that perhaps my art can represent my vision.

I have decided to write about these trips in this space so that I will hold myself accountable for archiving our adventures, and so that S can have a written record of this summer, too.

And I have realized that by writing about these trips, I have found the way for me to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

“Let a body finally venture out of its shelter, expose itself in meaning beneath a veil of words. WORD FLESH. From one to the other, eternally, fragmented visions, metaphors of the invisible.” Julia Kristeva