a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
It started with the ocean, the damp coldness of the air as the boat plowed through the waves, the briny salt that pervaded everything. The Salish Sea weathered the wood from burnished chestnut to a rough, dull gray and coated the inorganic surfaces with a dusty grime. The Skip Jack pulled up at the floating dock whose four sections were lacquered in blue-gray all-weather paint on top and crusted in blue-black mussels below. The mussels were spangled with constellations of barnacles and wore waving scarves of seaweed. Small fish darted in and out of the ropey green tendrils.
The sensation of the sea was accentuated by the way the dock sections strained against and away from each other, riding the swells. On particularly choppy days the docks squeaked as they pulled apart and reverberated with a low rumble as they slammed together. Only a rubber tire prevented the hinges from breaking, the wood from splintering.
The climb from the floats to the main dock varied with the tide: sometimes a small slope, other times steep enough to force one to use the metal ribbing on the gangplank as one would the rungs of a ladder. The wooden pilings of the main dock were coated in a thick black tar, the dock planks speckled with lichens and bird droppings. Oft as not a Great Blue Heron surveyed the harbor from the end of the pier and oily black cormorants sunned themselves on the dozen buoys surrounding the docks, reaching out their wings like onyx dragons.
The structure itself was magnificent, beautifully engineered with elegant lines – long, straight pilings and an intricate lattice railing – jutting out into the cold, indifferent sea. As one walked its length the world transitioned from cool marine air to the warm, nutty scent of solid ground. In the winter the distinction was imperceptible as the aroma of the land was trapped within the green plants and tamped down by the rains. But in the summer, the smell of terra firma was sweet and heady with the rich perfume of dry grass and sun-ripened blackberries.
The walk up the hill from dock to house was pleasant if one was clad in shoes. Most of the trek consisted of a rolling field of mown grass, the troughs of which were populated by swaths of spiny weeds that sported no distinct colors nor blooms. Dogs and children alike learned to stay on the peaks of the rolling waves of ground.
At the top of the field sat Green Pastures, its borders demarcated by a four-bar fence of split cedar planks, weathered gray like the wood of the Skip Jack and furred with lichens of minty white, rusty yellow, and sage green. Every gate into the pastures was fastened with two locking mechanisms – a bolt or a hook and eye in addition to a chain – that kept contained generations of horses. A bright stripe of electric wire that ringed the interior of the fences vouched for the intelligence of the recent equine residents. For human convenience a tall stile climbed the fence near the patio of the main house, while a narrow slot through two fence posts served near the small house.
The property lived up to its name. The three houses, gardens, pond, and sport court were encompassed by pastures. The north lot was sown with purple lupine and Shasta daisies, but the others were left as grass, maintained by the grazing of the horses and by the grandkids instructed to pull up noxious Tansey Ragwort. Douglas fir, the remnants of the forest that was razed to create the fields and expansive views, studded the property, towering over the smaller trees planted in the years since the initial logging. The gardens were ordered close to the houses and became wilder and greener ranging away from the buildings. Near the stone and plank walls were pastel hollyhocks, Jacob’s-coat-of-many-color roses, dancing fuchsia, creeping vinca, lavender, pansies, snapdragons, and lilies. Further away were vine-leaf maples, azalea, snowberry, sword fern, Oregon grape, salal, and foxglove. The place teemed with life. Even the gravel drives were mossy. The pond bore a lush carpet of duck-weed and a wreath of yellow irises. Crocuses and daffodils waved from the grass roof of a bedroom wing.
There was a harmony to the place: sea and land, winter and summer, life and death. It had a memory of its own. There were the deep grooves etched into the wood around each wrought-iron door lever where countless dogs had pawed, seeking solace on cold winter nights. The intricate paintings on the exteriors of the Dutch doors were sun-faded such that, when opened, each panel was ringed by a brilliantly colored border. The old, hardcover bound books lining every available shelf bore the names of generations of Blacks who had graced the halls of the houses. The books contributed to the sacred smell of the rooms: old paper and cedar wood, candle wax and flame. Not the overpowering smell of an ordinary fire, but the electric, metallic purity of a well-tended hearth. Good clean flame.
The hearthstone would have dominated any other room, but in the great hall it sat contentedly in the southwest corner. Its bulk was mirrored by a big built-in bed in the southeast corner, a bed large enough for seven cousins to recline in comfortably as holiday evenings drew to their conclusion. Between these corners stretched a long pillow-lined bench below an enormous plate glass window framed with geraniums. Above the main window was a smaller one, at the peak of the ceiling, whose hexagonal shape lent a church-like quality to the space. The north end of the room consisted of a wide stage-like entry opening on three doorways and an ornate spiral staircase. The floating steps spiraled up to a balcony with a balustrade of curling wooden dragons that overlooked the hall. From that vantage one was on level with the enormous rough-hewn beams that spanned the room and had a grand view of long dining tables, cushioned couches and benches, painted armoires, bearskin rugs, ornate candelabras, and a gilded grand piano. The great hall always felt warm. It was an old, dark room of heavy carved wood and wrought iron, all of which were used and abused, tattooed with the marks of life lived.
There was a seldom-closed set of sliding doors in the northeast corner of the room that each had six panes of glass. These twelve transparent canvases were painted for the twelve months of the year: pastoral scenes of gentlemen on horseback, dancing maidens, and grazing animals, all interspersed with leafy green fronds. People had etched their names in the leaves of the branches of their birth-month, but the scarcity of names suggested the practice had not become tradition. The doors opened on the summer dining room, a magnificent greenhouse with flagstone floors of colorful granite. Semicircles were cut in the floor along the low brick and river-stone wall that served as the base of the greenhouse walls and were planted with geraniums and begonias. An old grapevine that had taken root generations before twisted out of the semicircle cut in the southeast corner of the greenhouse. It was thick as a man’s arm and, in the summer, covered the entire ceiling of the room with plate-sized leaves, shading the diners from the sun. Its curling vines dangled green bunches of concord grapes that, when ripe, dripped sweet Muscat juices onto the table. It was not uncommon to find small green chorus frogs hiding among the fruit and leaves of the plants or nestled in the sky blue molding and trim of the windows.
A swinging door in the northwest corner of the greenhouse led into the kitchen, a large two-tiered room of honeyed sorrel wood and floral filigreed cabinets. Seafoam painted bead-board held blooming vases and demitasses glossed with dragons of lapis lazuli and goldenrod. A half dozen doors led to and from the room, creating unexpected nooks and corners. One was occupied by a white porcelain wood stove, eight feet tall. Another boasted a sage green pantry whose wall was grooved and curved such that it protruded from the corner like the base of some Acropolis column. It held fruit preserves, cocoa nibs, wedding china, and a set of chiseled crystal goblets that bent sunlight into rainbows.
Burgundy trimmed windows over the sink opened upon the south end of the small house and a tall stand of Douglas firs. Two of the straight trunks supported a wide plank swing while another held a horse-shaped tire swing for the more intrepid swingers. Down the pasture toward the docks a whirly, flakey-barked London Plane tree supported two more swings, one of which was responsible for several broken bones. Next to this tree ran a length of ten-foot tall square-hole wire overlaid on a sturdy three bar fence of newly replaced boards. This barrier guarded the orchard not only from the horses, but from the swarms of mule-deer that roamed the island.
The orchard was one of several heart-centers of Green Pastures, a place for play, work, and contemplation. The oldest tree, a sprawling King apple, supported a treehouse. The roofed pavilion and open balcony were constructed of fluted boards and painted window shutters in addition to twisting driftwood and frayed ropes salvaged from the beaches after winter storms, a mixture of materials reflecting the balance of practical and grandiose that pervaded the property.
Most of the orchard was composed of old heritage apple trees, at least when one considered sheer biomass. The newer trees were still short and slim, bearing only several dozen fruits each season. The larger ones bore hundreds. There was the King, a crisp, smooth, easy eating apple; the Gravenstein, a soft, almost mealy fruit whose flavor was unsurpassable; the Snow whose white flesh would stain pink when bitten as the tint of the dark red peel was dragged into the pure interior. By the gate stood a large Bartlett pear whose low branches were the cause of many a sore head. Its fruit was rock hard and wore a dry, brown skin most of the summer, but would ripen at the cue of some unknown mover to a smooth yellow luster. The delicate nuance of its flavor was made all the sweeter by the weeks of dry anticipation. Two tall Italian Prunes stood in the low end of the orchard, their lower boughs shaded by an overgrown box hedge. They had long, bright leaves that looked vaguely out of place, too tropical next to the dark green thicket of the hedge. While the apples and pears were bright and stood out on the branches, burgeoning towards the sunlight, the prunes hid under their tropical cover. Until they were picked and polished to reveal a shiny purple skin, the little prunes appeared dusty and unassuming, easy to pass up in favor of a bright red apple. But their harvest was the most cherished.
The entire family was recruited to pick the palm-sized stone fruits. Many were used to make a stringy plum stew, eaten warm over vanilla ice cream. Others were baked into plum cakes or piled in deep platters, candy bowls for the gods. Usually the bowls were emptied quickly, but should some surplus go uneaten they would be salvaged to make more plum sauce and frozen for use in the winter.
The largest harvest of apples came in the fall when Green Pastures became host to a great Cider Party from which no visitors were turned away. Spry young men would climb to the tops of the trees and shake each limb, raining fruit on the grass and tarps below. Once the shaking stopped the crowd would surge in to throw the bounty in crates. Full boxes went to wheelbarrows or were poured into the trunks of vans to be transported to the production area and heaped in piles of green, scarlet, butter yellow, and purple-red.
The seasonal harvests of the trees inspired flurries of activity, but their real beauty was their trunks and their roots, that intransigent superstructure and those deep ties to the land. They stood, silver and gnarled, and grew more twisted and deformed with each passing year. In places, small branches had been lopped off and replaced with glinting silver dog tags. The older tags were near grown over, but one could make out the name Sugar Pig. The whole place was a graveyard, homage to the past. Near-extinct apple breeds wrapped their roots around the corpses of so many who came before, took the nutrients, loved them, turned them into bright red and yellow and purple celebrations of life. There were dogs buried there, a prized cat, and a small cavalry of horses. An archeologist of some distant future might think it the tomb of a great ruler, a king buried with his menagerie.
The animals’ deaths had been varied. Some were peaceful: King, Sampoo, Boonie-naw, and Tino. Some were ill-timed like Sugar Pig, struck down by a car. Some died defending the property. Tank swam out after a raccoon, a filthy invader in the night, and was drowned by the vermin’s compatriot. The dog’s swimming strength was no match for the weight of a plum-fattened raccoon as it grasped Tank’s long ruff with dexterous thumbs. The family was bereaved when they found that driftwood in the morning, a large brown shape lying among the seaweeds and fishing bobbers washed to the high tide line. Tank wasn’t the only one to battle raccoons. While defending the fruit trees Gus was bit on the nose. The small wound was left to heal and within days the Leonberger was paralyzed. It took months of rehabilitation before he could walk again: his body was placed on an old World War I stretcher with holes cut in the canvas for his legs and the stretcher was placed in the pond so that Gus’ nurses could support his massive weight. They spent hours in the pond, the dog and his people, working to get his legs moving again.
In life the dogs had had their days as well. Bosco, a black-masked Leonberger mutt with uncanny intelligence, proved to be a better mouser than the cats. In the course of an hour he systematically eradicated nine red-bellied Douglas squirrels that had made a nest in the bookcase wall near the piano. The little black squirrels had evaded cat claws and caretaker traps alike for nigh onto a week before Bosco was let into the house. He killed them one by one with a flash of movement and the same short soundtrack. It consisted of a tinkling of piano keys, a scrabbling of eight clawed feet on the hardwood floors, a crunch of bone, and a great silence. Bosco ended the tune with his own soft applause, paws padding outside to where he laid each small body at his master’s feet.
Most of the dogs’ targets had been more formidable than the squirrels. They had attacked coyotes and raccoons with unrelenting fervor. Sometimes the hounds from Topsfield, the old McEwan house, or other neighboring properties would overstep their bounds and meet the dogs of Green Pastures as foes. They would raise their hackles, flag their tails, and sneer their lips to show the tips of ivory canines. If neither party backed down, the beasts would surge together in a great snarling tangle, a seething mass of glossy coats and rolling eyes, two sets of flashing white teeth that snapped at slender legs and bit hard into great ruffs of fur.
They were tough stock, these dogs of the south end of the island, but seemed to have had some respect for their fellow canines. They only picked fights when their opponents were well matched, which gave people enough time to pull them off each other before the damage was irreparable. This justice did not extend to creatures of other species. The dogs showed no mercy for the weak. Does and seals were routinely harried while small fawns and pups would be brought down if the dogs caught their scent. These small bodies weren’t granted Elysium in the orchard. They joined ranks of weasel-killed chickens, a half dozen Greylag geese, and scores of raccoons with holes in their skulls that were buried unceremoniously in shallow graves, unmarked and forgotten in the dusty dirt-pen adjacent to the orchard.
If graveyards had headstones, then the orchard had head-trees and the big King took center stage. On its trunk was a cast mold of Ian, the only human honored in the grove. The plaque was of a dark metal or stone, chipped and blued with age, and bore his handsome profile in raised relief. He was frozen in time, a teenager for perpetuity. The tree had begun to grow around the top of the circular plaque, oozing up the side where the rusted nail held the disc closest to the trunk.
His death was quick they said, like Sugar Pig’s. He probably didn’t feel it, didn’t even know it happened. Or maybe they just imagine it that way, an easier narrative to swallow than a truth of agonized suffering. It was a block of snow that felled him, or a cornice from on high, a spear-like icicle, a small avalanche. No one asked for clarification. Repetition, like chaffing, opened the old wounds, the ones that never healed properly. The superficially insignificant ones, like Gus’ scratch. The ones that can be brushed aside with, “I’m fine.” The ones which, left untended, fester and spread. The ones that paralyze.
Most of those who loved Ian lost the details of the incident. Some were never privileged with the particulars and resorted to conjecture and gossip. They reached out for some explanation, some reason the death could have been right and found nothing to grasp, no beacon of clarity, nothing but froth in a sea of speculation.
His memory persisted in a few photos permitted in alcoves of the big house and in snatches of awkwardly shared stories. There was a large image of Ian and his siblings exploring Blakely Rock, a small escarpment jutting out of the water a quarter mile from the dock. The rock shrank and grew with the moon, revealing a long, white-shell beach that was on full display in the photo. The four children were windswept and young. It was impossible to distinguish personality or demeanor from the snapshot. It revealed nothing of his character to one who had never known him.
He was an enigma. His father never mentioned his name and shied from conversations that did. The word was taboo and none of his nephews were christened with the name. His mother would only speak about him with her trusted confidants, wistful, distant stories of a bygone era. His siblings remembered the trials and tribulations of an older brother, small, distinct moments. There was the time he threw Fraser down the metal laundry shoot with a string of firecrackers, amorphous references to his bullying of Ani, and his idolization by Kayla, but there was no depth to these accounts. He was vital: the one set to inherit the property and the one who eagerly seized this inheritance, the eldest son and the leader of the band of children, yet his creators and followers failed to keep his memory alive, failed to remind the world of who he was. His memory was locked within them, private exhibitions of the boy, stored away like fine china.
The siblings did not deign to share with each other, not at first. They were young and followed their father’s wishes, if not his actions. In this place of so many memories, Ian’s was the one not nurtured. It would have pulled the family together, a united front of love, and instead served to divide each to his own brooding corner of the world. Ian’s essence fell to the cold granite floor of the conservatory like so much cut crystal, and made no sound when it shattered. Each of his kin took their shard of the cup, their own sliver of ice. They took it to their jewelry box or hid it in their sock drawer. They took it and polished it, held it to the light and looked at its every facet. They took it and imagined a whole from a piece. They took it and melted it down to something new. They took it and kept the edges sharp, holding it tightly at night to feel the hot press of his memory, afraid that loosening their grip would let him slip away forever. By the time they did share with each other, Ian had become a different person to each. Five disparate flavors and shades, a grafted mess of a tree, its true trunk indistinguishable.
But there were roots. There were still roots. Weaving their small tendrils around the photos, the stories, the inscriptions in the books. The roots fed all five of the branches. They promised crisp, sun-kissed fruit, new memories for the family to fill their hands with so they may drop their broken glass. They could wrap around the shards and pull them under. They could weave the pieces together and reform the cup. They could let the shards go, let them roll down the pasture to the shore, let them be pummeled by the waves, churned and dullened – a host of beach glass scattered in the briny salt of the indifferent sea.