On the Back Porch, Watching the Yard

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Yesterday, an approaching cold front announced the end of the late June heatwave. The nurseryman and his assistant showed up and planted four little red oaks and two weeping willows in the slowly recovering devastation of my yard caused by a logging operation. This morning the skies blessed the arrivals: like Shakespeare’s mercy, dropping “as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” Kiki and I sat protected – if a bit soggy – on the back porch and watched the yard, she for signs of danger, I for evidence of regeneration.

A few small spruces, released from the shade of the vanished over-story, are filling out beautifully and reaching for the sky. Here and there, knee-high balsams are peeping out to see if the machinery is truly gone. A two-foot-long row of my wife’s brilliant red daylilies, the only apparent survivors of the skidder’s chained wheels, bloom like raised fists.

I exist in a state of constant apology to the remains of my patch of woods and cheer its every advance. I doubt I’ll live long enough to look up at the crowns of the sapling oaks, but have great hopes for the willows. A six-footer that I planted in a wet spot in Etna years ago is now about forty feet high and dominates its surroundings. A little red maple that I planted by one corner of this house about ten years ago (too close, my wife insisted; but I had a plan) gives timid birds a place to land and scope out the feeders before fluttering in for a treat. And — wonder of wonders! – my tamaracks, which had seemed to struggle, are this summer suddenly rambunctious.

As Kiki and I sat on the porch, I was reading, as usual, and came across an “Indian legend.” I know: We haoles frequently compose such legends out of whole cloth and try to add gravitas by ascribing them to wiser primitive cultures. But the source is less important than the content. This one suggests that when we die and approach the bridge to Paradise, we must pass a gathering of all the animals we encountered in our lifetime. They will decide whether we get to cross the bridge, or instead are forever denied access to Heaven.

I don’t know how you would face that; but even though the scenario is purest fantasy, I find it deeply unsettling. To look into all those faces gazing silently at me and to hope for forgiveness, even understanding, seems far too much to expect or ask. I encountered earthworms early in life, and they died by the hundreds, wriggling on my fishhooks. Frogs and minnows, also, I skewered and, as the saying goes, fed to the fishes, with only faint stirrings of compunction. The fish, too: My wife and I ate a lot of them early in our marriage. When we no longer needed them for meals, I began to put them back into the water. Sixty years later, my lures are feathers and my hooks are barbless, and all the fish go back. I hope they’ll throw in a kind word for me at the bridgehead.

Charles Major’s “The Bears of Blue River” had a big – and in retrospect, unfortunate – impact on me. Its protagonist, a kid much like me, shot lots of bears, each one bigger and fiercer than the last. I couldn’t wait to get hold of anything that fired projectiles at high speed – slingshot, BB gun, longbow, or rifle. The rabbits, squirrels, and deer at the bridge probably will consider it a plus that, once shot, “they didn’t go to waste.” The Rhode Island reds that as a boy I peppered with green elderberries from a BB gun to hear them squawk will no doubt enter a countervailing opinion.

My dogs will all be there: Boots, Rex, Sam, Hans, and Tucker. When I was a kid, I teased animals. I don’t know why, and don’t need to know now; I don’t do it anymore. Tucker, who was preternaturally intelligent, followed me everywhere in the woods. We came upon a cluster of ripe puffballs one day – the little ones whimsically called wolf-fart. I bent down, gripped one, and said, “Wow! Look at this.” When she sniffed, I squeezed it. The cloud of brown spores sent her into paroxysms of sneezing. When it was over, the look she gave me – hurt, embarrassed, reproachful – in memory still makes my eyes water. I think she sensed that I’d never do such a thing again.

She’ll certainly be there at the bridge. How I’ll love to see her! But will she vote to let me cross? Now that I’m aware of the legend, I think about that a lot. And now Kiki and I are going to go sit on the porch, where she’ll protect me as I silently cheer for the trees welcoming the rain.