Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Homesteader Hell

How one man’s casual cabin-building adventure on a swampy, rocky 50-acre woodlot in Prospect, Maine, turned into a blood-curdling affirmation of mortality.

Ahh yes, finally back in my woodland woodsman’s paradise. Living in harmony with nature, only a tarp overhead, separated from the forest by only the sheerest of mosquito nets, the simplest of cots. Yes, now that I’ve had a couple days to settle nerves in town, in a hotel room- snug but somewhat disturbed by the incessant staccato death-rattle apnea that is my father sleeping, I am finally ready to test out my brand new cot for a true night’s rest. The visit was nice, family is family, but the woods are calling. Ok, let’s tidy up in here to make room for this thing.

Excellent. With some deft maneuvering, clever repackaging of stinking clothes, and the temporary piling of my enormous military sleeping bag in one corner, I unfold my brand-spanking cot (result of relatively un-protested goading by my father) and slip in the four springy steel legs on either side, just like stringing a bow. Lovingly, I gently adjust the straps (2) to retain my sleeping pads (2) and make sure he therm-a-rest^tm is sufficiently inflated (but not too much). I am treating myself to all the posh amenities. Damn, this thing really is comfy! Wow. My life is a success. After a brief wrestle I finally pin the billowing black sleeping sack into place, and put the final flourishes on my little abode: tuck this here, slide those under the cot, adjust this strap, get this in arms reach, adjust the ballast securing the border of the mozzie netting (everything from sticks to sandals, batteries, carabiners, dry bags)…yes, yes, very nice.

I am seated, entirely at ease, thinking about my mild hunger, whether or not I should eat some more, and what a pleasant night’s sleep I have in store for myself. I am tickled pink OH DEAR GOD WHAT IN HE HELL IS THAT SOUND?

I hear what I can only assume is the world’s saddest pack of dogs experiencing ‘roid-rage at the full moon. It is probably a werewolf. Or six. I feel for my four-inch diving knife. It is pointy, black, and very sturdy. I fondle and caress it, memorizing its new, convenient location in the side-pocket of the cot. The howls, obscenely, unbelievably, redouble in effort. Sphincters I did not know I had tighten within. My stomach becomes a pit of venom, and I fear there is a viper in there.

I have heard Coyote before. I have slept in the desert, in the mountains, near their mourning. I found them my brethren, the only other soulful creatures in desolate miles, the nearest life miles from any town. I have pondered their tracks by my tent on cold dewy morns. But even though I am a hop-skip-and-jump from the trucks heard passing on the highway, only a few yards from my motorcycle or a hearty wind-sprint away from the neighbor’s, this is not that, and I think I might die. SCREAMING BANSHEES! I rush outside, mosquitoes be damned, and find my hatchet. One part razor and one part meat tenderizer on a 17 inch shaft of steel , I seize the Nylon handle as if it is a helicopter, and I am dangling one-handed 500 feet over the waters surrounding the (insert tragic WWII ship-shark incident here).

AOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOO! The hounds of hell are unleashed. Ok, I can handle this. As I have done with scary forest noises in the past, I try to reassure myself with the thought that I was already kind-of ambivalent about being alive anyhow. That is why I am up here all alone, with my two-foot tall stack of books, and a couple of notepads. The howling changes locations, which is at first disconcerting but as I sense a greater distance I feel some relief. I begin to ponder how absolutely incredibly fast this rushing pack of horror has covered great distance over tough terrain. The hair rises on the back of my neck, but the noises taper off and become sort-of beautiful before disappearing. I figure we will be transitioning from desperate panting to full breaths any minute now, and in six or seven hours I will be able to lie down and contemplate the meaning of sleep.

OH NO. No, no, not right. The screams of the damned are now ricocheting across the trees of nearby forest, and as my heart-rate crests 200 BPM I pass beyond techno levels of fear into an unheard of zone of pounding terror. The all-singing nerves of my being and the gallons of norepinepherine seeping into my brain make it clear: on a biological level, I very much want to keep living.

I bolt upright, and clumsily fumble for more flashlights, trying to peer periodically through the milky, cloudy, can-only-see-four-feet in-front-of-me netting. I am about as coordinated as a puppy after six shots of espresso. Something runs through the forest, not too close, but not too far away. FIRE. Fire, I will make fire. BIG FIRE. I think of wolf movies and Jack London. I envision bonfires and funeral pyres. Big over-arching, crackling, inextinguishable, sparking, popping fire. I keep fumbling, still clumsy with fear, for a lighter. I cannot find a goddamn lighter. I know I have packed like 17 fucking BICs and three days ago I went through and carefully noted the location of at least six of them but rightnow Iamreallyfuckingscared notfeelingsuperwoodsmanly andmybrainismadeofadrenaline FIREFIREFIRE…

It is the happiest I have ever been to see a light-blue BIC. In my life. Oh my god. It is a religious experience, to gingerly handle this idol, this conjuring cylinder. I thumb the action and hear the reassuring hiss, see the spark, the glow of life rocket forth magically- and the hiss stops. The light dies. The lighter is impotent. I try again, no hiss. Push the button. No hiss. None at all. TRY againandagainandagain, shaking the thing like hell. OUT OF FUEL? OHNO. But I look MORE CLOSELY (more closely) and see (aha!) it is plugged with lint. I am happy I lost my nail clippers along with the other 16 lighters as I gingerly fish out a massive ball of lint with my pinky. The lint alone, if set on fire, should keep ravenous mutant wolves at bay at least 15 seconds. The lighter is lit, and I am mesmerized with love. Whoosh, rasp, fssht. I pocket it and pat tenderly, like it is a brownie wrapped in a napkin, or perhaps a tiny beloved baby kangaroo. I take up the hatchet again, having not even realized I’d momentarily relieved my white-knuckle grasp, and head the few feet toward the campfire.

I tear dead branches from nearby trees, pile scraps of cardboard, birch bark, dried pine bark, into a big heap. Flammable debris fills the well-used, burned-out basin of my fire ring, and I set it ablaze. I scramble hither and dither taking up sticks, logs, chunks of wood, more dead branches still hung from trees. It all goes into the pile, quickly at first, but as the fire grows enough to blow its own breeze through nearby trees, I slow down, become more cautious, design a fire that will burn for hours. Of course, without a proper woodpile, and without sitting by to add a log every hour, by midnight the fire will be out. Even though I am pretty sure it isn’t true, I convince myself the noise I’m making now, coupled with the recent presence of fire and still-warm embers, will keep the night terrors at bay. I sit down heavily, sigh. The crackle and soaring cinders, the steady flickering halo, is beautiful like a tender, warm massage.

Things are running around in the nearby forest. The trees are making animal-like noises overhead. I can’t tell if it’s just from the hot updraft of the campfire. Noises, from every direction. The whole fucking forest is coming to life, like I just lit a fire under its ass. Great.

I hear what I am pretty sure is squirrels running around. They are vocal, sound frisky, and they are moving at a bracing clip somewhat toward me from out by the clear-cut. I think of that true-story where a squirrel makes an attempt on a motorcyclist’s life and then assaults a pair of police officers. It seems less funny, now. I ponder my own troubling experiences with squirrels; that one time they clawed through the solid aluminum birdfeeder, their little razor teeth, their nimble little legs.

Some sort of small bird is cooing. I pile on another two logs and retreat to the shelter. I find a chunk of pine and wrist-snap the hatchet into it, burying the tip of the head. This new ornamental/functional paperweight gets a privileged right-hand position right next to the cot, handle facing for a quick grab. Good. I lay down partially and allow myself to begin to hope.
BAD. The cooing bird sounds to be replicating, and either a pair of frogs or a jumping mouse joins the million mosquitoes to test the integrity of my netting. I know from experience, frogs are more haphazard, the mice are quick, and jump high, and they never test the same place twice. Like Velociraptors. But tiny, and kind of cute. And still totally something that will keep me awake all night.

Oh well, I think to myself, as another coyote howls from a nearby hill. I ponder the electric fox-resistant fences from Rachel Carson Wildlife Preserve and decide the gaps are too big to resist jumping mice but it would probably be nice to have for coyotes and cyborg death demons from outer space (I am still pretty certain both are lurking somewhere in these coastal woods of Maine).

I think of the scene from Jurassic Park, where the Australian game warden shouts “SHOOT HER!!!” and ponder the cold, hard integrity of the granite fort Knox, just down the road, reassuring myself that if I survive and have any life left tomorrow, I will sneak down and see if I can camp in one of the powder storerooms with the heavy oak doors. Is there radon in century-old underground strongholds? Since when am I a hypochondriac? I'm living alone in the woods, climbing trees and playing with sharp things and heavy machinery, for chrissake. I'm beginning to lose it...

I am exhausted, and even though I slap at the jumping mouse and bellow in frustration, I think it takes the gestures for some kind of game. It hops friskily against the mesh as I bat out with less and less enthusiasm, eventually resigning myself to saying “Boo!” and shaking the cot or even just resentful stares.

Finally the mouse either tires and goes to sleep or moves on to torture some other homesteader, because eventually I am only left with the flutter and chitter of small birds. No, wait, that’s not birds anymore, there’s just more mice now. Oh well, I’m tired and it’s kind of soothing. Just no more attacking the netting, and no more eating my toilet paper, OK guys? Coo away.

The fire is only embers now, it pops sporadically, dying. I feel pretty secure about my own life, and grope back for the hatchet. Good. Te mice raise their tiny voices to a miniature frenzy, and flirt madly through the brush, leaving me with only sounds of gravity in the slowly decaying and growing forest, the background noise of the constant flux of renewal. Sigh. Mice will be mice. Please, though, mystery creatures (logically, I know you are probably just coyotes)- no more death cries, a least for tonight, -kay?

A lone owl hoots me blissfully asleep. Till next time.

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