I spent last weekend in Pittsburgh visiting family and meeting my niece’s amazing baby boy. While I was in town, I also wanted to do a little research on The Book I’ve been grappling with, but time was short.
To make the most of it, I took my bike along for the trip and rode from Homestead to Point State Park on Friday. Initially, I was going to take the kayak and paddle it, but I couldn’t tell from Google Maps whether the boat ramp in Braddock would be viable. (Turned out, it would have been, though it is in rough shape … next time.)
Total ride was about 22 miles roundtrip, and the biggest reveal was just how massive the Homestead Works must have been. I rode for a while before I was even off the original mill footprint. From there, I rode toward Pittsburgh and crossed the Hot Metal Bridge to the Eliza Furnace section of the trail, named in honor of the J&L Works that used to wow me as a child. It’s mostly sprawling office complexes now.
I spent time at the Pump House in Homestead and stood at the Homestead Labyrinth, which is at the site where the Pinkertons landed in 1892 and were met by thousands of enraged Homestead residents. I dawned on me that the next day — July 6 — is the day 127 years ago that Homestead erupted in chaos.
It was a great ride. There were baby bunnies everywhere during the Homestead stretch, though they seemed to have the sense to stay off the bike path. I also passed a group of goats who were lazily munching on the weeds between the path and the river bank.
I got a bit turned around when I hit downtown, but the folks at Golden Triangle Bikes pointed me toward the Mon Wharf route, which mercifully kept me off the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh.
When I got to the point, I spent an hour or so at the Fort Pitt Museum, checking out the exhibits. It prompted me afterward to drive by the George Washington statue in Braddock that marks the spot where Gen. Braddock was killed during the French and Indian War. Just as importantly, it’s also the location of the Whiskey Rebellion.
And while I was in Braddock, I stopped to say hi to Joe Magarac, the mill hunky folk hero. A key part of The Book is a recasting of the Magarac tale, so it was good to spend some time with Joe discussing it …
We’re settling in to Innisfree, which means we’re also meeting our neighbors. Sydney is getting particularly up close and personal since the back porch he inhabits feels like its more part of the forest than the house.
On Thursday morning, Sydney and I watched as doe walked cautiously past the porch. Syd was nervous but took his cue from me and shifted from being anxious to curious. Just then, a fawn darted past, trying to catch up with mom. Instead of screaming, which was his reaction when a squirrel got too close for comfort several weeks ago, he leaned in, trying to get a better look at the fawn.
This morning I walked in to to see Syd leaning off his cage toward the windows. Then I looked down to see a squirrel eyeballing him. I couldn’t believe Syd was so calm during the encounter. He’s feeling much more secure in his environs.
While there are no howler monkeys here, there is plenty of wildlife, much of which I’ve never encountered before. While cleaning out the area where the propane tanks are stored, I flushed out a ringed-neck snake that seemed more worm than snake. I gently nudged it off into the woods.
I also encountered a big, gnarly spider later that day. I thought it was a wolf spider at first, but after researching a bit I’m confident it was a fishing spider. Apparently, they’re water spiders, primarily, but they’re also found in forests. There venom is more like a bee sting, so I left him be only to see him again an hour later in the kitchen, where he was curled up into a ball. I thought he might be molting, but he rolled out into the middle of the kitchen so I kicked him, gently, I thought, outside where he curled up under a chair. But apparently my kick was fatal. When I checked up on him later, I found this grisly scene, with gore leaking from the dead fishing spider’s abdomen, which an opportunistic ant was feasting on.
Speaking of ants, I’ve been watching them swarm the trumpet vines as they flower. Apparently, the vines attract an aphid that leaves a residue called “honeydew,” which the ants love. They love it so much, in fact, that they protect the aphids from predator bugs.
And here are few more random photos of life at Innisfree …
While sitting on the deck with Sydney and Sunny, I noticed my neglected Kindle Fire and iPhone SE sitting screens-up on the table, reflecting the white oaks above them. So I reached over without moving the gadgets and took photos of what they were “seeing.”
I can’t think of a better way to enjoy “screen time.” The only right wing trolls on my screens were a band of red bellied woodpeckers who noisily swarm in each night like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.
I finally broke down and bought a book on tree identification, but not without some misdirection. I downloaded the Kindle version of “Identifying Trees of the East” after reading the rave reviews of it. The book merited the praise; the Kindle version did not. The book is predicated on narrowing down what type of tree you’re trying to ID by referring you from page to page until you find the specific tree you’re after. But the Kindle version isn’t paginated so the entire organizing structure of the book is blown up. After whining about it on Amazon, I returned it and ordered the print version, which is fantastic.
This morning Sunny and I went out and started trying to ID trees. Well, I was trying to ID trees. Sunny was just patrolling her property to make sure no coyotes or deer were stomping around. I also came across a great story in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch about the largest sycamore in Ohio.
Otherwise, I’ve been working to impose order on Innisfree and Dove Cottage. Yesterday, I used a self-propelled push mower to cut the grass for the first time. It took about 2 hours but wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Hardly sore at all this morning … Har.
The episode uses several versions of “China Cat Sunflower” — one from 1968, one from 1972 and the third from the Wall of Sound days in 1974 — to illustrate the impact the wall had on the Dead’s live music. The difference is astounding, even taking into account that playing and touring constantly for several years also contributed to the group’s improved sound. I knew there was genius driving this but wasn’t fully aware of how revolutionary it was for live music. It’s also sad to live in a time when bands spend more time faking their live performances than obsessing about how to deliver the ultimate sound experience to people who cough up big bucks to see their favorite musicians live.
Sadly, the care and feeding of the wall prompted its demise. It just got too expensive to cart all those speakers around the country, especially during a time of rising gas prices and shortages. The documentary focuses on the success of Owsley’s wall but doesn’t dwell as much on some of its spectacular failures. Lots of moving parts there, and I’ve read in several Grateful Dead memoirs about frustrations with the wall.
And speaking of Owsley, apparently a guy who was restoring a vintage synthesizer ending up tripping balls after touching LSD that had been stored in it for decades. Fascinating story. No indication how or why it was there, or whether it was Owsley acid. But the poor tech who was working on the synthesizer spent about 9 hours weathering the trip …
And since we’re talking about Bear, apparently he had a run-in with Rory Gallagher during a show I saw at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh in the ’70s.
I’ve watched the entire Deadwood series at least 5 times. I’ve also rewatched John from Cincinnati multiple times. And I’m still astounded by David Milch’s writing. Who else could put a chunk of dialogue like this in a character’s mouth:
“I may have fucked up my life flatter ’n hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and workin’ a payin’ fuckin’ gold claim, and not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m trespassin’, or the savage fuckin’ red man himself or any of these other limber-dick cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.”
I stopped in Deadwood last summer during a jaunt to Montana just to check it out. I was worried I was walking into a tourist trap, and to some degree, I definitely was, but it still was a worthwhile side trip. I couldn’t help but hear Milch’s versions of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane ricocheting around in my head as I visited their graves at the cemetery.
The New Yorker interview offers insights into his writing process and approach to storytelling, but what resonated most with my is his battle with Alzheimer’s. It’s heartbreaking to see this type of intellect slowly slipping away, but Milch isn’t surrendering without a fight:
While writing the screenplay for “Deadwood: The Movie,” I was in the last part of the privacy of my faculties, and that’s gone now. I was able to believe that— You know, we all make deals, I suppose, in terms of how we think about the process of our aging. It’s a series of givings away, a making peace with givings away. I had thought, as many or most people do, that I was in an earlier stage of givings away than it turns out I am. It’s kind of a relentless series of adjustments to what you can do, in particular the way you can’t think any longer. Your inability to sustain a continuity of focus. And those are accumulated deletions of ability. And you adjust—you’d better adjust, or you adjust whether you want to or not.
The interview reminded me of a marvelous New York Times story about a woman’s struggle with early onset Alzheimer’s. I used this story in a feature writing class I taught at Ohio University a few years ago, fearing the college-age students wouldn’t be able to relate to a tale about aging. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. They could relate. They have witnessed the devastation that dementia wreaks in their own families. Writer N.R. Kleinfield detailed emotions that the article subject was feeling as she realized she had dementia and things were only going to get worse. That period fascinates and terrifies me. That span where you know you’re slipping away, trying to hang on to a thread of who you were, grappling with a world that grows increasingly less familiar.
Meanwhile, the Deadwood movie launches May 31 on HBO. I’ll definitely be watching. Probably repeatedly. But as I watch, I’ll be thinking about Milch as we continues writing, working, resisting the inevitable march of Alzheimer’s.
We’re standing in front of a 4-foot mound of debris beside the railroad tracks in Newark, Ohio. Jeff Gill, our guide, tells us he caught two kids huffing here once, and during that encounter he wondered if this pile of detritus might be something more, something that once was part of the ancient Newark Earthworks.
We were walking the streets of Newark on that spring day, looking for traces of a past civilization scattered among second-hand stores, golf courses and residential neighborhoods. Sometimes, the traces were easy to see. Others, it required close observation and a dose of conjecture to spot them. As we walked, we paid especial attention to alleys, which, as Gill explained, tend to follow the natural lay of the land rather than being graded like regular roads. That allowed us to see subtle swells and uneven stretches that align, more or less, with where the walls leading into the earthworks once stood.
“These works are so complicated, that it is impossible to give anything like a comprehensible description of them,” Squire and Davis wrote.
While Ancient Monuments is flawed in many places, it’s an invaluable reference guide to the mounds scattered across middle America. Many of the sites Squier and Davis surveyed have been destroyed by “progress” in the intervening years. In fact, a key part of the Newark Earthworks, the Octagon, is now Mound Builders Country Club, a golf course that allows public access to the mounds only four times a year, and that only begrudgingly. A recent court ruling provides hope of greatly improved access, possibly even removal of the golf course and restoration of this archeological treasure.
This tour, unfortunately, is not held during a public access day, so all we can do is stand across a busy road and view the Octagon mounds from a distance. It reminds me, vaguely and strangely, of the first time I saw Templo Mayor in Mexico City decades ago. I marveled at the urban swirl around an archeological dig exposing the remains of the Mexica’s main temple in their capital city of Tenochtitlán. While urban Newark has little in common with Mexico City, it does share this pre-Colombian grandeur intertwined with the mechanics of 21st century life. It’s also a mortal reminder of how small we are in the stream of time. So much came before us. So much will (hopefully) continue after.
That trip to Mexico in 1990 was the beginning of my fascination with archeological sites, ranging from Machu Picchu to Teotihuacán to Chaco Canyon to Cahokia to Serpent Mound.
Shortly after moving to Athens, I learned Ohio is dotted with thousands of mounds, prompting me to explore Serpent Mound, Newark Earthworks and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in short order. Even the local trails at Strouds Run State Park lead me past the remnants of mounds.
While cycling in Athens, I’m constantly — sometimes painfully — reminded that brick roads tend to spread and undulate as the roadbed beneath them shifts over time. But here in Newark, Gill points out a brick alley that is more than 100 years old, each brick remaining level and true. That suggests, he says, a foundation beneath it that served as a road bed long before we arrived, the constant pressure of foot traffic compacting the soil, preparing the perfect site for this alley we’re now standing on. As he speaks, I flash to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, which sits atop a towering sandstone mesa. Walking up to the site, visitors tread a path marked by the indentations of human foot traffic dating back nearly a millennium. It’s all connected. Somehow.
As we viewed the Wright Earthworks, a site tucked next to a welding yard off Newark’s beaten path, several local residents said they had never been to this spot. It struck me how important it is that we educate ourselves about what came before us. Gill repeatedly cited newspaper accounts to bolster or diminish theories about the site. What will happen 100 years from now, when newspapers are long gone and digital archives spotty? Will the decimation of local media sever us from our past?
Even the street names in Newark give hints of ancient origins. Roads like Ridgeview, where there is no ridge in view, suggest that when it initially was plotted, there was in fact a ridge (part of the earthworks) that has since been leveled. Intimations of immortality are everywhere. One just has to pay attention — and find the right guide.
Gill, an engaging, erudite mashup of a preacher and John Lithgow, proves the perfect leader for this tour of Newark. He’s quick to say “I don’t know” when the answer is uncertain. Archeology can reveal only so much, leaving us to speculate about what the material facts add up to. He is, in fact, a man of the cloth, though not one who seems inclined to traffic in dogma. The walking tour takes the better part of a Saturday, leading us on a circle that starts and ends at the Cherry Valley Ellipse. This is the mortuary area, where the Hopewell buried their dead, and it’s also where the Shaman of Newark was unearthed in 1881. It’s believed the deceased were left on nearby hilltops until only their bones remained, which were then bundled up and brought to the Ellipse for burial.
At the end of the tour, there are more questions than answers. What does this all mean? What were the Hopewell trying to accomplish in this sprawling complex. Only part of it — the Ellipse — appears to have been funerary in purpose.
During my first visit to Newark, I was surprised to see what appeared to be moats at the earthworks. But they were inside the walls. Why the hell would they put moats inside? Perhaps these ditches weren’t for defensive purposes. Lepper suggests they might actually have been designed to contain the spirits of the dead within the circle during the rituals conducted there. Lepper also notes that later peoples continued to treat the earthworks as sacred space. He cites Allan Eckert’s The Frontiersmen, where protagonist Sam Kenton notes the Shawnee were making pilgrimages to this area long after the Hopewell were gone.
After a week at Innisfree, we’re starting to feel at home. Sydney and Sunny are settling into their routines. Sydney even managed to draw first blood on the cabin, feasting briefly on the cedar baseboard behind his cage. So I’ll spend this weekend crafting an Anti-Sydney Device to place behind his cage. Come to think of it, there hasn’t been a place we’ve lived in during the past 30 years that Sydney hasn’t defaced in some way. Innisfree is in good company.
I also removed a stack of firewood someone — presumably the real estate agent — stacked there in an attempt to stage the house. During that process I came across a magnificent snake skin. I’m assuming (hoping) that snake shed his skin out in the wood pile, not here in the house. It was a big one, based on the skin. Maybe 5 feet …
One of the recommendations author Nancy Ross Hugo makes in Seeing Trees is to name specific trees and watch them closely, over time. We tend to see trees as massive brown/green blobs. Closer inspection reveals what complex ecosystems they are. So upon arriving here at Innisfree, I started sizing up the trees on the property. There are numerous white oaks and maples, but there are two trees that caught my eye immediately.
The first is Alpha Oak, a massive beast of a tree that’s west of Dove Cottage. Based on its size, I’m betting it’s a few hundred years old, and as I stood there looking at it in awe with a friend, he noticed that high up in the branches there’s some sort of block and tackle mechanism. I’d love to how — and why — it got there.
The second is the much more diminutive Dancer, which is near Innisfree. I’m to sure yet what type of tree it is (Hugo recommends not obsessing too much about that early on — to just get out and get acquainted with the tree). But the way the tree gracefully raises its branches to stake out a sunny spot in the forest canopy is beautiful. I’m going to pick up some binoculars so I can try to make an ID on what type of tree Dancer is, but that’s not stopping me from watching it sway in the wind as I sit on the deck at Innisfree.
At our place in town, there’s Maude, a massive tulip poplar that shades Maude’s Place. Both the house and tree are named after Ruth Gordon’s role in the 1971 film Harold & Maude. It was a year or two before I really even looked at that tree. It was the incredible flowers it produces that caught my attention, and from there, I started noticing what a beautiful tree it is year-round.
During the winter, Sunny and I spent hours hiking the trails of Strouds Run State Park, where I often paused (despite Sunny’s desire to push onward) to watch leafless trees sway and creek in the winter gusts, reminding me of a wooden ship bucking the ocean, it’s timber masts straining and creaking under sail. Now that it’s spring and I’m living in the forest, I’m looking closely at trees that I used to view only in profile and realizing what incredibly complex organisms they are. I’m spending a lot of time looking up, noticing deciduous details that I’d been oblivious to previously.
I’ve dreamed of living in the woods almost as long as I can remember. As a child, I’d spend countless hours in the jumble of thorn trees, crab apples and ragweed we called “The Woods.”
A year or three ago I stumbled across a 1943 book titled “Your Cabin in the Woods,” and while Conrad Meinecke’s sweet ode to simple living struck a chord deep within me, I wasn’t foolish enough to think I could build a cabin. It takes everything I have to hang a picture.
So when a cabin and cottage on 16 acres just outside Athens came available, it definitely caught my eye. Lara and I took a look and talked. A lot. The property is eclectic. The cabin is beautiful, featuring a wood stove, a magnificent fireplace and a south-facing porch that makes it feel as if you’re sitting in the forest. But overall, it’s small, with only one loft bedroom and two baths. The cottage, which has two beds and one bath, we targeted as a potential rental, and to be honest, I was fairly dismissive of it early on. After walking through the beautiful assemblage of wood that is the cabin, the cottage felt, well, pedestrian.
In the end, we decided to purchase the property, rent the cottage and use the cabin as our home in the woods. Things became confusing quickly so we decided to name each structure. Our place in Athens, which has become Lara’s primary nest, is now known as Maude’s Place, after Hal Ashby’s quirky, iconic May-December romance movie, Harold & Maude. We’re calling the cabin Innisfree, after a W.B. Yeats poem that has spoken to me since the first time I encountered it as an undergrad more than 30 years ago. And the cottage will be known as Dove Cottage, after the place William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, called home in England’s Lake District. Several of the Romantic poet’s greatest works were created there.
The close on the property was uneventful, as such things go, but it took an odd twist as I left the bank and set off to Innisfree afterward. My Nissan Titan started rumbling strangely as I rolled down U.S. 33, and as I turned to exit onto 690 it was clear something was massively wrong. Perhaps my first, best clue was the large metal cylinder my truck spit up when it finally gave up the ghost. I was praying that wasn’t the transmission, though I had no idea what one would look like and whether it could fall off the bottom of a truck like this. The AAA driver who came to tow me in to Athens Auto Repair set me straight. That cylinder was my drive shaft. Fortunately, the guys at Athens Auto are awesome and honest. It cost only about 100 bucks to replace the U-joint and get my truck back on the road.
The past several days have been a blur of trips from Innisfree into Athens as we furnish and equip the cottage. One of the things that really attracted me to this property is its proximity to Athens and Maude’s Place. I can go from being in the woods to civilization (or as close as Athens gets to civilization) in 15 minutes. Some of the other places in the woods I was looking at were 30 or more minutes from Athens. That can become a real time suck, not to mention the cost of feeding my truck.
Lara and I spent the weekend here imposing order, and we got our first tastes of how magical this place is.
On Saturday night, we sat on the porch sipping mezcal during a drenching spring rainstorm. The forest surrounded us while Sunny the Sweet Pyrenees snoozed nearby and Sydney the Angry Cockatoo settled in to sleep in his cage beside us.
Of course, I insisted on sleeping here the first night we took possession, so Sunny and I set up a mattress on the floor and then sat outside to watch the forest slip into darkness. It wasn’t long before I saw the flickers of early fireflies and when I looked up, through the spreading limbs of white oaks that surround Innisfree, I could see the stars glimmering. through the newly emerged leaves.
Dove Cottage is really sweet. A friend came by on Friday to talk about building a deck at the entrance, and he was impressed, forcing me to reassess my view of Dove as an underachiever. At that point, my intent was to rent it as a regular monthly rental but now we’re leaning toward an Air BnB setup that focuses on a spot where families and groups can gather. The driveway that descends from the ridge onto the property Y’s, with the left fork leading to Innisfree and the right to Dove. The two buildings are invisible to each other thanks to the woods and well-thought-out site design. There are a pair of lilacs beside Dove, a grove of poplars out back, a large grassy area where a tent or two could be pitched, and a fire pit. A riot of daffodils fills the front yard. And the grassy area beside Dove yields to a tongue of forest that rolls gently down into a hollow. There’s a massive white oak back there, the largest I’ve seen on the property so far, and I think with a little trail building it can be a truly magical space.
The nits? Well, the previous owner — who had lived here since 1974 — is a diminutive man. While the design of the cabin is incredible, there are several spaces where low clearance make me feel like an ocean freighter trying to negotiate a creek. I’ve smacked my head several times already and have learned not to wear baseball caps indoors (the bill of the cap hides overhead threats). I’m sure I’ll find more negatives as I go, but as I sit here on a Monday morning gushing about Innisfree, I’m confident those negatives will be minor.
And the biggest upside? I’m writing again, something I really haven’t done since returning from Costa Rica last fall.