Sufficient Ablution

          My bathroom is a small aquarium set sail. That’s how it feels. Since I live in an attic, some of the ceiling space is squared off in interesting ways, lower at points which are dangerous to tall people. This being so, I’ve tacked good-size swathes of cloth here and there. In the bathroom such cloth acts as a banner above a tiny rectangular window. The light which comes in is reflected through artificial ivy looped in clover shape. From there it bounces off the cloth’s flowing design of rainbow-hued fish. This random school swims in cotton waters of indigo, a match for the mat over the shower curtains. Of these liners, one is solid black, and the other solid burgundy. They are ribbon-gathered at the center to spread out like a fan.
          On the walls are a variety of things corresponding to the sea theme: a photo of Provincetown captured from the bay; a tiny mermaid pin doing a dance with a shell-looking glass in her hands; an angel fish done in junior high ceramics, its glass now covered with iridescent metallic glaze. Lining the floor is another arrangement: fake elephant ears popping out of a tall jade bottle; an old, clear glass jug which one might find in a sunken ship; a trapezoidal half-gallon tank of greenery with a china sign in the middle which says, “gone fishing;” and a circular basket of white wicker filled with strands of Christmas holly. In the center rests a porcelain cherub, little fist to his chin looking out between the berries and leaves.
          Directly under the sink, wedged next to the toilet, stands an old, shin-high, tree root. 
          From what long-ago tree did this fragment cast off, only to found by me in the basement of this building where I now live? What impetuous current carried it in on a flood of excited air and up three flights? What secrets line its rugged grooves, its knots and hollows? A vanished kingdom of sea monkeys? A weathered time capsule blasted away by salt spray and sand?
          Of course I have no idea. It is an object to simply marvel at and let one’s fingers trace its strong textures. It also stands as an indoor replica for so many of the trees I pass walking to work, the trees that are like prayers for each season, especially in spring when hopeful moss reappears. This keeping of the tree root is not exactly great Feng Shui since that philosophy teaches dried-out, old things are stagnant and stymieing. Still, that is not something I sense about this tree root or about wood in general. Wood conducts, has resonance. The cortex of its trunk rings wells with ages of stories to tell.
          One of the first things I did here before putting rugs down or bringing in any furniture, was to get lots of Murphy’s oil soap and some shellac to buff up the floors: blonde oak in the rooms and up the stairs mahogany dark with equally sepia-toned cherry paneling. With that mixture of lemon and pine, it was like stirring spirits to a sheen—a homage for every fingertip and footfall which passed this way. Cleaning, too, is an inbred family trait: my mom and both grandmothers thought nothing of getting out the Spic ‘n Span to wash walls and ceilings. A good thing, this, when one’s ancestry is that of chain-smoking tobacco puffers.
          What better way to reward one’s self afterwards than with the ritual of a long hot bath? (Unfortunately, where I live now the tub’s not big enough for two, yet I have good memories of other such claw-footed gondolas afloat with lotus candles.) Indeed, daily ablutions, at least a good, cold clean dipping of the face, as if with rain water or dew are essential to clearing the head, refreshing the gaze. I know certain diva-types would go so far as to entertain company from the bath, but mostly I think it’s a vital place to regain one’s center in absolute privacy. 
          What else could Rodin’s “Thinker” so easily be sitting on?
          Give him lotion for anointing. Give him some steam. Give him world enough and time to lay down his arms and his worries. Perhaps one’s spirit has a right to such rites, and that brief space of guiltless hedonism will lead to a larger scope of altruism. Dear Presidents, Prime Ministers and those who advise you, consider your citizens, your peasants and soldiers, how many of them remain without basic, clean-running water while your glasses are guaranteed microbe-free? 

Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he's been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the health insurance.

Stephen Mead.jpg

Lucky Duck

          We are not far down the trail on our daily walk in the forest preserve. We walk for the exercise, sure, but mainly just to be there, feeling the out of doors. Most of the time, we don’t carry binoculars, trading off the occasional birding treat for the freedom from encumbrance. We are seeking nothing in particular, but alert to anything.
          Today, a young man is coming toward us, walking his bike. He is not clad like a serious cyclist, and his bike is nondescript. As we get closer, we see that a duckling, or a gosling maybe, is walking behind him. When the man stops, the duck stops. He tells us the place where they met, which we figure at nearly a mile and a half back. He couldn’t see any other waterfowl nearby, he says, and he didn’t want to pick the duckling up. So he started walking his bike, and the duck followed. He is heading for the preserve office, hoping to find someone who can help. It’s slow going for these two, and there’s still a quarter mile to go.
          As the three of us talk, the duckling settles in to rest. The man is both tender and matter of fact, addressing his charge. Yeah, I know. You’re tired. We wish him—both of them—luck, and they head back onto the trail. As soon as the man starts walking, the duckling is up and waddling along after him. I have never seen anything like this. What, the duckling just imprinted on this man, almost instantly? You’re my mom now! I know, I know, anthropomorphizing. Still, I’m going to call it trust. And I’ll add: the duckling was fortunate in the human it found to latch on to.
          We get back to our walk, and on our return, we recognize our bicyclist friend coming toward us, this time riding the bike. He slows down only enough to tell us that a ranger is coming in a truck behind him, with the duckling. The two men will try to find the right spot to return the orphan. Thank you, I say. Thank you for saving him. He swings back on his bike, calling You’re welcome! Have a nice day, as he rides off. Soon the pickup truck approaches. The ranger waves. I want to stop him and say we know about the duckling, want to wish them well. (Really, I want to hop in and ride along.) But we only wave back.
          Later, I wish I’d at least asked, was it a duckling or gosling? And much later, I am still marveling: the incredibly cute and fuzzy chick following a guy pushing a bike, as though nothing could be more natural.

After a career in technical writing, Sherry Stratton has focused on the subjects closest to her heart. Her work appears in City Creatures Blog of the Center for Humans and Nature, Songs of Ourselves: America’s Interior Landscape (2015), Punctuate, Portage, Snowy Egret, and elsewhere. Sherry is copy editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal and editor of DuPage Sierran.

Photo Credit: Angela Just

Photo Credit: Angela Just

Between a Rock and a Soft Place

for Lehman “Dar” Dowdy, 1938–2011

After a Maine coast epiphany on my first real vacation in far too long, I returned home to northwestern Pennsylvania determined to mend my workaholic ways. I needed to open more space and time in my life for a long list of satisfactions great and small and for my son, Oren, who had lately ascended to a new level in his blossoming abilities. It was time for our shared adventures to become more complex and vigorous. I wanted to encourage Oren to wander in both the library and the forest and unite those two realms with imagination, intellect, and hiking boots by engaging in a quest.
I had recently read a locally published book about Cornplanter, the chief who had guided the Seneca Nation of Indians through the tumult of white settlement and the American Revolution. Though aspects of the book were of doubtful veracity, its story of Cornplanter’s Cave was corroborated by several other sources. The legend is that as a young man, Cornplanter tracked a wounded deer to its final refuge in the mouth of a cave. When he explored the cave, he found a long, narrow passageway leading to a large room with a pool of water harboring blind fish. On the walls of the chamber were pictographs left by the Erie Indians who had been displaced from what became Seneca territory long ago in a war so brutal that its collective guilt left permanent scars on the tribal psyche. For the rest of his life, Cornplanter went to the cave to meditate when faced with difficult decisions. A claimed rediscovery of the cave in the 1940s was almost certainly false, but in the 1880s a white man wrote about finding and entering the cave and didn’t appear to have regarded his discovery as extraordinary—it was simply part of the story of his time in the Alleghenies. With regard to the cave, he had neither axe nor ego to grind. His account gave the most geographically explicit description of the cave’s location, but it was still pretty vague. One can’t rule out the possibility that his description of the location was deliberately misleading.

Tracy Ridge, in the heart of ancient Seneca territory, became the starting point for a spring and summer of long wandering hikes in search of that Holy Grail. A well-known hiking trail traversed the area, and we mostly stayed away from it on the assumption that anything to be found in the immediate vicinity of the trail would have been found by others long ago.
As longtime lovers of the sandstone conglomerate rock formations of the Allegheny Plateau (despite the occasional presence of rattlesnakes), my son and I were well aware of the shapes indicated on topographical maps that signaled the likely presence of outcroppings and hence caves. But we also kept our agendas open to impulsive roaming, hunches, unrelated distractions, and the possibility that the cave might be found in an unexpected place.
Purpose, history, and mystery provided the incentive to Oren’s young mind that the need for the forest’s quiet beauty provided for my middle-aged recovering workaholic mind. I had no objective expectation of finding the cave and thought that, even if it really did exist, its entrance may have been naturally or deliberately obliterated long ago. Still, our quest was more than merely a fatherly ruse—Cornplanter’s cave had just enough of a faint aura of real possibility to add a note of shared excitement to our meandering hikes.
As the summer passed and our half-purposeful and half-random searches filled the map, we paused to consider the blank spaces. Though most people seem to prefer the organized, synthetic cues of trails to the seeming chaos of wild forest, human senses snag on features both subtle and obvious and steer wandering in particular ways even without trails. When people wander, they tend to wander the same ways. The feet of a large enough number of roaming people would likely create trails even without practical or recreational destinations. I realized that if we wanted to find something unseen by generations of wanderers, we had to get methodical in resisting the natural drift of our attention. Cornplanter himself didn’t find the cave in territory known intimately by his people for generations by following known routes or by wandering. He found the cave when the practical necessity of tracking disengaged him from normal pathways of trails, experience, and attention.
When we studied our topographical maps and penciled in rough remembrances of our hikes, we discovered that we had misidentified a small creek, and as a result, one of several blank spots in the pattern of our search was in the area I thought most likely to be the site of the cave. Our hikes had flowed around the most promising possibility as water flows around a rock in a stream. It was elusive—finding it required conscious resistance to the subliminal promptings of the land. We had to use and trust the map.
The area of open, grassy forest scattered with kitchen appliance-sized boulders had special resonance. It was a place of ease and comfort. The first time we traversed the area we saw nothing notable beyond the pastoral gentleness of its beauty. But being freshly attuned to the way our search was subliminally steered by features on the peripheries of attention, I realized that we were probably still flowing around the rock in the stream. When we returned, I had a feeling—a deer hunter’s intuition that has brought me far more meat than luck can logically claim. We sat a while and then searched as if for the lost blood trail of a wounded deer.
We paused often as we walked a meandering spiral out from the center of the area. A great slab of rock, a polygon eighteen inches thick, eight feet tall, and eight feet wide, stood, strikingly visible yet inexplicably difficult to notice, plumb vertical on gently sloping ground. It seemed self-evidently not a natural formation. This was an admittedly non-expert impression, but every natural scenario I could conjure was neatly sliced in half by Occam’s Razor.
Our sense of questing, of searching evaporated as we sat next to the rock. We felt as though we had found whatever was to be found. When we began our quest, we had agreed that if we discovered the cave, we would tell no one, unless we found someone trustworthy from the Seneca Nation. We felt the same way about the monolith. It seemed sacred. I took a close, trusted friend there to confirm our impressions, which he did.
I returned to the monolith several times over the following few years, with and without Oren. Every time I went there, I had to find it by resisting the subliminal promptings of the landscape to enter its area and then by searching as if trying to pick up the lost blood trail of a wounded deer. I have a very good sense of direction—all my life I’ve been able to feel the cardinal directions as naturally as right and left. I can feel the shape of the land beneath my feet and use that knowledge to navigate. In years of bushwhack wandering in the Alleghenies, my compass remained in the little emergency kit stowed in the bottom of my daypack. I had never before experienced such difficulty in finding my way back to a known place.
I felt a palpable sacredness much like what I had felt in a handful of other special forest places, but here it was sharper, less diffuse because it had a perceptible epicenter—the monolith. Though I’m wary of new age naiveté and pretense, I don’t know what to call it but energy. I realize these impressions are gigantically subjective.

Oren and I shared a longstanding reverence for Native American culture and were keenly aware that we were walking in Cornplanter’s home territory. I can’t argue that we weren’t predisposed to feeling a special spiritual charge in such a place and circumstance, but I carry a deeply ingrained skepticism along with my openness to mystery. Mystery embraced without rigorous skepticism too easily devolves into superstition.
All my life, I have experienced places of concentrated sacredness where pausing quietly is akin to prayer and I know many others who feel it too. When I bring them to my places or they bring me to theirs, we nearly always agree. Such agreement hardly constitutes scientific or even journalistic objectivity, but I don’t cling to this experience as something to be analyzed, defended, disputed, or even clearly defined. I hold it lightly in grateful acceptance. I have no need to make a belief of it.
The monolith stayed with me. It seemed important. Though the finding of it seemed freighted with unknown purpose that I couldn’t explain, I was comfortable living with its mystery. I entrusted the way and time to tell of what we had found to fate.

A strange and difficult decade passed. A weird and unholy alliance of corporate industry and the United States Forest Service set upon the Allegheny Plateau like a starving dog and chewed it ragged. I retired from nearly thirty years in state government. Places of present love and ancestral rootedness were ravaged into gridworks of oil and gas wells, access roads, tank farms, and brine ponds. I dabbled in activism as much to quell the angry monkey wrench urges that erupted in my heart as for any real hope of successful resistance. On the local environmental front, the steady convergence of political realism and cynicism was a ghastly replay of the early seventies protest movement. I needed something more true and satisfying than the weary token efforts of meetings, letters, and handing out leaflets. So did my friend, Cathy Pedler, a dedicated fulltime environmental activist; for her, that other something was volunteering at the Faithkeepers School on the Seneca Nation of Indians reservation. Cathy and her husband, Dave, were both archeologists, and through their fieldwork they had become friends with Dar and Sandy Dowdy who had founded the charter school to ensure that the Seneca language, culture, and spirituality would continue to be passed on to new generations. Cathy invited me to come to the school and meet Dar, Sandy, and the kids, and I became part of the program without engaging in anything that a career bureaucrat like me would have called a decision-making process. Dar and Sandy were very articulate, but they were also very much at ease with shared understanding communicated by nuances of intonation and body language. Dar spoke of that understanding as speaking from the heart, rather than the mind.
Cathy’s and my job was to teach a group of children ranging from mid-grade school to mid-teens to be at ease in the woods, to reconnect them to wild land as a place of beauty, comfort, and abundance. I scouted out some nearby areas and found two small creek valleys that had everything we needed: a variety of vegetation ranging from meadow to mature second growth forest, game trails, animal tracks, edible plants, wildflowers, and topography amenable to basic lessons in navigation. The Faithkeepers School woods outing became a weekly event.
Dar’s physical activities were limited by congestive heart failure, so he didn’t join us on the outings (Sandy nearly always did), but most days he was hanging out on the school’s front porch or on the grounds when we returned from the woods. Our conversations began and rambled in ways that would look idle to nonnative Americans. But from vague beginnings, stories flowed in both directions. Dar told me that the preservation and revival of Seneca culture at this point in history was in keeping with the teaching and prophecies of Handsome Lake, the great Seneca/Iroquois spiritual leader (1735 – 1815) and half brother of Cornplanter. Handsome Lake had prophesied the tragic and ruthless theft of the Seneca’s homeland to build the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River.
The bulk of Handsome Lake’s teachings have been transmitted orally. As a matter of intuitive courtesy, I only asked direct questions about the Longhouse Religion to clarify something that had been volunteered. I left it up to Dar to decide what was appropriate to tell the white-guy volunteer. In retrospect, I have sometimes thought that I may have been too shy in that respect, but it seemed appropriate to err on the side of gentleness and trust.
Dar told me that the fiftieth anniversary of the building of the Kinzua Dam and the removal of the Senecas from their land would be the beginning of a new cycle of Handsome Lake’s prophecies. Certain ceremonies were to be performed in preparation. A messenger would come to them to tell where the ceremonies should be held. Dar told me much more, both directly and by implication, but that is a Seneca story to tell, not mine.
One day, when Dar thanked me for what I was doing with the children, I replied that it was truly my pleasure and told him how I missed the times I had spent in the woods with my son when he was growing up and about our quest for the Holy Grail of Cornplanter’s Cave. Dar said, “We’re not so interested in Cornplanter. Cornplanter was mean—he had to be—that’s not the spirit we want to teach here. It was Handsome Lake who brought us wisdom and peace.”
A couple weeks later, Dar told me that when the Seneca’s were forcibly removed from their land, they asked for a delay so the elder women could complete a cycle of teaching the younger one’s about medicinal plants. The delay wasn’t granted and a great deal of knowledge was lost in the subsequent disruption. I told Dar that when I was a child some Seneca people used to set up a stand on Liberty Street in downtown Warren on Saturday mornings. My mother bought sassafras root bark from them, and I was very fond of the strong dark tea she made from it. Dar said, “That was my mother—she sold herbs there. I used to help her out.” We both smiled at the notion that we had probably met long ago.
Dar said, “Where is that rock you told me about?”
I described the location as clearly as I could.
“That’s interesting.”
Not long after that, the Allegheny Defense Project held a gathering not far from the beginning of my hiking route to the monolith so, while attending the gathering, I hiked (alone) to the rock and shot a roll of 35mm film of it from every angle. At the gathering, when Cathy said she would be seeing Dar and Sandy the next day, I handed her the roll of film and said, “Give this to Dar.” When the film was processed, the photographs all showed lights seeming to dance in the air around the rock. I assumed this was some sort of anomaly in the processing, but Dar believed that the lights had meaning. He had seen this kind of thing before.
After my next outing with the kids from the school, Dar and I had another rambling conversation. He told me about seeing an eagle the previous week and that he felt the eagle was telling him something; it was a messenger. Then he said, “Would you be willing to talk to some folks about that rock?”
“Sure—as long as it’s not the Forest Service.”
Dar laughed and said, “No, it won’t be the Forest Service, just some Seneca people. We’ll set something up.”
Sandy e-mailed me a few days later with a meeting time. I was expecting a few old friends of Dar’s, but the conference room’s circle of chairs was filled. I told the whole story of searching for the cave, finding the rock, my intuitions about it, and my reluctance to reveal its location to anyone but the Seneca people. There was talk about a similar stone found in the vicinity of Oil City, eighty miles south and a group of much smaller ones on the portion of the original land grant that remained above water, but the conversation mostly flowed around the topic like creek water around a stone. Dar asked if I would take Sandy and some others from the school to see the monolith and I said, “Of course.” I would have done that as a matter of friendship, but I had been drawn into a realization that this was something important at such a gentle and natural pace that my giving involved no sense of obligation and caused no debt.
I made three more trips. The first was with Sandy and a group of teachers and students from the school, the second with a few teenage students and two people from the Seneca Nation Conservation Department, who recorded the exact location of the site on their GPS and marked a boat landing site at the nearest access via the Allegheny Reservoir. The third was with Dave and Cathy, whose archeological expertise confirmed my impression that the monolith was indeed an artifact and not merely a geological anomaly.
I felt an unexpected sense of relief, as though a great but invisible burden had been lifted from my shoulders. When I told Dar this, he smiled and said, “Yeah, you had to carry that message a long time.”
Meanwhile, Dar’s congestive heart failure had been following its inevitable course and an oxygen tank became his constant companion. The Seneca Nation Conservation Department outfitted a wheelchair with extensions so it could be carried by a strong foursome and modified a boat to accommodate the wheelchair. Dar was partly floated, partly carried, and partly wheeled to the monolith, where ceremonies were conducted.
Shortly after that, I received a package in the mail from an old friend and avid birder. In the package were several large feathers. One was labeled “brown pelican”—she knew of my fondness for pelicans—and another was labeled “bald eagle.” She told me she had sent the eagle feather because it felt borrowed—it didn’t truly belong to her. Being given an eagle feather by a fellow Buddhist was the most flattering felony I have ever indulged, but it didn’t feel like it belonged to me either. I decided I should give it to Dar, but my perennial busyness (writing, painting, wandering, and some medical issues of my own) stretched days into weeks. Then Cathy called to tell me that Dar had passed away.
I took the eagle feather to the monolith. The witch hazel growing next to the rock was adorned with small bundles of tobacco from the Seneca ceremonies, and I fastened the eagle feather there with a deerskin lace. Once again, though in a smaller way, I felt unburdened.
I don’t know what it all means. Perhaps the lesson herein for me is about doing the right thing without the assurance of knowing the real meaning. Believing in that possibility requires great faith in the fundamental goodness of the world—a faith not easily given. We all need a little help. I was both delivering and receiving a message. Perhaps that’s our perpetual condition, or perhaps it should be.
The Seneca Nation flag Dar gave me hangs in Oren’s apartment.

Reg Darling lives in Arlington, Vermont. When he isn’t writing or painting, he wanders in the woods. His essays have appeared in The Chaos Journal, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Remembered Arts Journal, River Teeth Journal, Sky Island Journal, Tiferet Journal, Timberline Review, Whitefish Review, and others.

Photo Credit: Jude Dippold

Photo Credit: Jude Dippold