Monday, August 23, 2010


Because my house is surrounded by trees and because of the sub-zero cold in winter and the high winds of summer, I live in a constant rain of sticks. They are part of the reason I weed-whack my yard instead of using a push mower. Even the small twigs jam the spindle of the blades. In the night, falling, they strike my walls or land on the roof. But they provide a steady supply of kindling for my primitive little woodstove in the garage.

When Bob and I had the pet eagle we saw how much she loved sticks. She had a shelf where she piled her sticks and she constantly carried sticks around, though she wasn’t much of an architect. Once long ago when Bob was a kid, he came over a hill on horseback near a pothole pond and saw a bonded pair of eagles playing with each other, passing sticks back and forth and flying up so they could drop them and catch them in midair. Of course, it was practice for making a nest.

My friend Paul, who knows all kinds of things, was telling me about two county fair features for kids that I’ve never heard of before. One was an actual eagle nest, ten feet across, that kids could really get into and crouch to play eaglet. The other was an actual beaver lodge which was big enough for a small kid to get inside.

Paul said: “The original idea for both of them I think was Pat Hart. She is the head of recreation here at the USFS and has been for 30 years or more. She's an amazing gal, full of great ideas, and what's best, the vision to accomplish BIG things with volunteer labor. Some of the projects she's pulled off over the years are nothing short of amazing! If it wasn't for her and her volunteer crews from all over the world, all our old trails would be gone. The whole wildlife building was her idea from the ground up. She not only designed the thing, but found grants to pay for the materials and volunteers to build all the attractions. Pat is one of those unassuming movers and shakers that never gets credit for her undertakings because she's always busy patting everyone else on the back.”

First you have to think of it, then you get others interested, and then you just do it. Paul said locating and moving these two “stick homes” was not easy but so interesting that no one felt as though it was work. The beaver dam project answered a question that Ruth Beebe Hill, author of “Hanta Yo!” asked Bob decades ago. In her book her hero escaped enemies by crawling inside a beaver lodge and she wanted to know whether that was possible. For the rest of Bob’s life he never saw a beaver lodge without wondering how a small child could get into it.

But Paul had an even more dramatic idea. In his family there are stories about him in his early years being out fishing and accidentally stepping in a beaver hole in the grass -- several feet across and often disguised -- and disappearing down the hole into water deep enough to drown a boy. That would be an even more dramatic way to elude pursuers, just vanishing.

Beavers also build long mud slides, maybe a hundred feet long, for skidding tree trunks into the ponds behind their dams, and that would also work for a sudden exit. I suspect that Indian kids and otters would have a great time on such a slide, but not beavers. They are very serious and busy. The Blackfeet never much liked to trap them but there are beavers in a lot of stories, usually helpful to some man. In one story they adopt a boy.

Pat Hart’s actual nest and lodge are an amazing idea, but I should think it would also be fun to make nests and lodges -- just give kids a big pile of sticks and see what they could do. I suppose today’s fussy city parents would worry about safety. But the kids would be soaking up the soft colors and subtle textures of real objects instead of the bright plastic extrusions they play with now. You can change a stick: bend it, break it, weave some together, but the plastic all-the-same bits are meant to be unchanging.

This is not changing the subject. I watched “All the Lovely Bones,” having heard good reviews, but I think I confused it with “The Animal Wife” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in which the ghost of a tragically killed young wife lives on top of the paleolithic Siberian house built of mastodon bones where her husband and his son, her lover, still live. It’s a beautifully written exploration of these people. “The Lovely Bones” picked up the idea of a narrator who is a dead young woman but that’s the only similarity. Everything is happening in a modern suburb where, predictably, the dad is lovable but bumbling, the mom is neurotic, and the sibs have their own lives. There’s also a nutcase grandma who begins to seem sane. The girl in this story is murdered by a madman. We never see bones, much less lovely ones. This story is not an exploration so much as it is a horror story with a theoretically compensating pretty depiction of the afterlife of this girl and other victims in a kind of limbo.

I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment, but the movie -- for me anyway -- derived much of its horror and unreality from a material world that seemed to be “natural” but was not. The colors were the chemical brights of advertising, sometimes neon, that never happen in nature. Natural images, like the silhouette of a tree, were used in a stylized greeting card way. A field of dead cornstalks becomes sinister camouflage for an underground hideout. Skies were as lurid as the story. Our Photoshopped eyes have grown used to this.

It worries me that for many kids this sort of thing seems like reality. They can’t see the subtly varied shapes and sheaths and textures of natural sticks because all they know is machine-shaped dowels, if indeed they ever touch wood. A plastic world full of petroleum-derived and pixelated tweaks cannot help but lead to a slick, empty, pre-determined world in which madmen prey on little suburban girls, who are not quite alive anyway.

I wonder whether I have enough sticks to make an eagle nest. Probably.

No comments: