The House at Poo Corner
You know you have been out in the woods too long when you grow emotionally attached to a pile of poo. The one of which I had gown so fond two weeks ago is nothing now but — as they say in bagel parlance — a schmeer, and I am aggrieved.
OK, that might be going a little far, but it was one of the first things I noticed on my first walk here, and I have marked its presence and surprising staying power each day since. It was a good specimen, berry-studded, an even diameter chord with blunt ends. Probably raccoon, according to my scat field guide, but I wasn’t going to rule out the possibility of bear, even though the size was wrong. You can’t be too careful.
I am situated in a cabin by a river at the dead end of a road in the North Woods of Maine. There is no running water or electricity here. I am writing these words on my laptop by kerosene lamp. I do have a propane stove and fridge and a chem toilet — big luxuries. The camp is a loaner from a friend who lives just up the road — 212 paces, to be exact. There, I can shower, use the Wi-Fi and recharge my devices. Every time I go up there, I lug water back by the gallon. I am forever lugging water. I am a mighty pioneer woman, albeit armed with a computer and cell phone.
I am here for a writing retreat. This is my second such retreat in two years. The first was at my friend Joyce’s mother’s condominium in Bethel, where I spent two weeks in May of 2011. The condo did have running water and electricity, but no Internet. It also had a giant massage chair that I was at first scared of and gave a wide berth, but by the end of my two weeks had given a name: Ken.
There, I would rise around 6 or 6:30, walk for an hour, come back and write for a half hour, eat breakfast, write for three or four hours, eat lunch, write for two or three hours, maybe take a short walk, and then drink beer and read until dinner. I was working on a desktop, so to check my e-mail, I had to go to town and use the computer at a Wi-Fi café, which I did only a couple times. Believe it or not, the world did not tip off its axis while I wasn’t checking on it.
The drill is pretty much the same here. Rise, walk, write, eat, write, eat, write, walk, drink, eat, sleep. Walking is a key component of the formula. It’s when I get most of my work done. Because there are numerous roots and ruts on the road I walk, I keep my head down a lot. When my friend and I walk here, our heads are always thrown back, scanning the treetops and skies for birds. But on my walks, I am looking inward. I am not as attuned to my surroundings as when I stroll. When I look, I am looking for things not to trip over or step in. Like scat.
And when you’re in the woods, there’s no shortage. Blueberry season is coming to an end, but I still see plenty of plugs and chords of poo colored the inky blue of Veronica Lodge’s (from the Archie comics) hair. There is a minefield of green goose turds at the top of the hill — three dozen or more Canada geese descended shortly after my arrival — that quickly turn the color of ash, like a burnt-out fireworks coil.
The only poop I see on my daily morning walks in Portland (aside from the swirling slurry at the water treatment plant) is canine. I see it smooshed on the trail, mounded in the grass, slung in baggies into the brush. In the woods, scat tells a story: who’s been by, who’s eating what (or who), what’s in season. In Portland, the only story it tells is how much of a specimen the dogs’ owners are.
On my woods walks, there’s not just poo to look out for. There’s also carnage. The other day, I saw evidence of some sort of amphibian genocide. I counted at least half a dozen teeny frog corpses, each no larger than a thumbnail, a couple serving as the breakfast buffet for some orange slugs. It appears that the slug mounts the carcass and then slurps out the frog’s innards like a kid with a malted. What’s left looks like the chalk outline of a frog, only made of gummy stuff — at least, that’s what I saw from my moving vantage point. I did not tarry to look closer.
Then there was the mole, keeled over next to a partially eaten mushroom. (Honestly, didn’t your mama teach you anything?) He looked peaceful lying there, one little paw extended, fingers splayed as though he were just about to take on a Chopin mazurka. His coat was so sleek and shiny, I almost wanted to give it a pat. (This is sign number two that you have been in the woods too long.) The next day, he was still there, but his splayed fingers had curled like a sleeping child’s. On the third day, he was gone. Oh, I convinced myself. He’d just been napping, after all. Well, that’s a happy ending, isn’t it?
But when you’re living low to the ground as I have for nearly two weeks, you have to be realistic about mortality. Nature is no place for sissies. There are both tormentors and tormented, saviors and slayers. I speak from my involvement with the insect community. In the woods, you are always on high insect alert. You know how in your civilian life, when you think you feel something crawling on you, it’s usually a thread or a hair? In the woods, if it feels like something is crawling or alighting on you, it is. Anything that bites must be executed. There are days on the road when the mosquitoes are so thick that if I stop they cover me, causing me to slap at myself like a baseball coach elaborately signaling “bunt.” Deer flies buzz and swarm my head. (Sign three: When was the last time I washed my hair?) Death to them all.
And while I might take 15 minutes to trap, scoop and airlift some creepy-crawly from my living space, I can also derive great pleasure from taunting the mosquitoes that prance on the window screen by my writing desk. I press my forearm against the screen for them to sniff, then pull away at the last second before the bite. If this is how you are spending your days, it’s probably a good idea to go check your Facebook page and remind yourself that just two months prior you were in Paris, dining on some of the same fauna you’re encountering here — only drowned in garlic butter.
The last time I went on retreat, it was with the intent of writing a memoir about my mother’s decline and death, and what it was like dealing with her things once she was gone. What resulted was a pile of pages I did not use, but I had the framework for my one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, which I premiered in Portland that fall. I had intended to do just one performance, but the show took on a life of its own. I spent much of 2012 touring it around the state, and it won the Maine Literary Award for Best Drama last May. The show is currently on hiatus, but I believe it still has a life and legs — not unlike a creepy crawly thing — and wants to keep moving.
The pages I produced and put aside two years ago have been barking at me. It was difficult to make progress with all that barking in my office, so I have come to the woods.
The greatest thing a writer can be given is the gift of space and time. I have not squandered that gift. When I leave here, I will leave with a pile of stinky, steaming pages, a tangible mound I can sniff, poke, kick and examine.
That’s when the real work will begin.
Elizabeth Peavey sends out a giant thanks to MPR and TWP for use of the camp, for the shelter and solitude, and for the sound of the martini shaker up the road when I needed it most.