Living at the dead-end of an humble dirt road deep in the woods, where cell phones don’t ring and we must have satellite dishes to receive TV and Internet, every day is Thanksgiving. Gratitude for this life of peace in nature’s beauty frequently overwhelms me, and I can’t help thinking of the 23rd Psalm – especially the part about how my cup runneth over.
Take yesterday, for instance: I drove up the road three miles to David and Lena King’s Amish farm store – just a little shed by the road — to buy something for dinner. Wearing her long dress and bonnet, their daughter Mary greeted me with her “Dutchy” accent, musically asking, “What will ya be wanting tuhdaaay then?” I looked around the little room, dimly lit only by a few small windows, and spied fresh corn on the cob and onions. I knew she had farmer’s cheese, raw milk, and eggs in the ice box. All of those were very appealing, but I asked if they had any green beans and beets. Mary said her parents were picking green beans right now and she would go quickly to fetch those and pull up some beets for me. I paid $16 for a big box of fresh food and a boost for my soul.
When Robert got home from his job as a USPS clerk, it looked like rain, so we quickly took our five dogs out of their indoor/outdoor dog run for a walk down to our half-acre pond. When we moved here after selling our big house in the suburbs almost 7 years ago, there were already lots of bass, blue gill, green gill, catfish, big carp, and other creatures in the spring-fed pond. We have added about 90 large koi over the years. Some of them are over three feet long. We hold each colorful fish and give it a name as we put it in our pond. They all look very different from each other and have individual personalities. Yellow Submarine is the queen of her domain at almost four feet long, and she often spends a good deal of time orienting newcomers to her realm. Homey is quite a clown and likes to show off and leap out of the water many times whenever he sees us nearby.
I made two signs for the pond years ago: “NO FISHING! These fish are family pets, and they have names!” Those signs rotted away years ago and I didn’t replace them. People in these parts know now that we do not hunt or fish, although they cannot understand why, since our 12 acres, pond and stream would be perfect for those activities. We are surrounded by 78 acres of state gameland that lies mainly between our property and the river. We like to hike by the stream to the river and back whenever we can, and we are happy that the woodland animals seem to be realizing that they are safe on our land. Native Americans used to live in this wooded ravine, not all that long ago, and we often sense their presence in the majestic rock cliffs and among giant poplar trees. We know that we are just temporary custodians of this land. We are humbled.
Our dog-people are two black pugs, Snorky and Randy; a long-haired black fox-like puppy that a friend rescued when a speeding car threw him out in the middle of a busy city intersection – we call him Wardell, after the hero in that wonderful trailer trash movie “Sordid Lives;” a beagle who was lost in the woods, dying of hunger, and adopted us at 3am one morning years ago – we tried other names, but only “Dumb-Dumb” stuck, because he is dumber than broccoli; and then there is our white Cairn Terrier, Scrappy — aka King Crappy — because he is so smart and resourceful that he now rules the whole kingdom here at Sawmill Run. We also have 17 tropical birds, including four big talking parrots, but I’ll introduce them to you another day.
For our five dog-people, “Family Time by the Pond” is their favorite part of each day. It is full of ritual. Wardell must be released at the front door to run at top speed down to our tree house deck that we built on Buddha Hill by the pond under three towering pine trees. Randy jumps up on one particular bench to be cuddled on our way to the deck. Scrappy likes to leap into the pond and chase the koi around. They tease him, circle back and bump him in the butt! For a whole week recently, one particular big bass would come right up to the shallow edge of the pond, following Scrappy back and forth as he would pace at the water’s edge. Eventually every visit to the pond ended up in a nose-to-nose stare-down. Fascinating interspecies communication abounds here in the woods. Meanwhile, Dumb-Dumb just smiles and gazes devotedly into our eyes. He’s happy.
It started to rain while Snorky was doing her rituals – bringing me mud from the nearby bogs and puddles and rubbing it all over me to share its cooling and soothing pleasures. Then she brings sticks to place on my shoes. She puts her paws on my shoes and chews the sticks. We both find these rituals lovingly meaningful, and they enrich our relationship. It began to rain hard. Snorky was in her element. Homey leapt out of the pond for joy and for insects. Wardell cuddled on Robert’s lap as we sat in adjacent hand-made Amish wooden gliders and sighed deeply. It rained harder. Thunder shook the Earth. We murmured, “Beautiful… Wonderful!” We could have gone inside our barn art gallery, beside the stream and pond, to enjoy the thunderstorm, but since living here we have preferred to be outside, if the rain is not too cold. Summer rains are such a pleasure!
Finally, King Crappy and Randy and Dumb-Dumb, who had been playing and relaxing by the pond, told us that it was time to go in. They said, “Are you crazy? It’s raining and thundering!” so we walked back up the hill to the trailerhouse art studio where the dogs and birds live and where I work, paint and write during the day. We lived there for six years while finishing the half-done construction on our little cottage deeper in the woods – beyond the end of the dirt road – beside a majestic wall of rock. My dear old dad named our new home “The Cliffs.”
King Crappy had escaped the dog run, as he often does, and had been out running around in the woods all day. He was muddy and exhausted, but clearly exhilarated and happy. We put him in a snazzy black harness that we call his “tuxedo,” and loaded him into my 4wd SUV along with some fresh Amish corn and green beans for dinner. We drove to the barricade of boulders at the dead-end of our dirt road. I got out and unlocked the heavy logging chain that secures our 250 lb cattle gate mounted on two telephone poles, drove the SUV through, and locked the gate behind us. I remember when we used to have a garage door opener and never got wet… But there are subtler luxuries in the woods.
It was still raining as we four-wheeled down the bumpy hill, through the stream and up to our new cottage – two big 15 ft x 15 ft rooms – one a many-windowed livingroom, and the other our future kitchen, with a bed in one corner and a lacquer black baby grand piano in another. There’s a crystal chandelier in the middle of the vaulted knotty pine livingroom ceiling, between the two ceiling fans. Every knotty pine cottage in the woods needs a baby grand piano and a crystal chandelier, of course! Robert washed Scrappy in our big new half-finished shower while I fixed the corn-on-the-cob and green beans in the electric skillet and 50-cent microwave that Robert bought at a garage sale. That’s how we cook now, and mysteriously our dinners have become better! Some day we will have a proper stove and oven. If we ever have a dishwasher again, I will think I have died and gone to heaven.
After dinner in the screened porch, we sat in the livingroom listening to the rain and thunder, and watching the lightning show. Scrappy was asleep on Robert’s lap. It was so peaceful and beautiful and wonderful. I was overwhelmed by another one of those moments of thanksgiving, and said to Robert, “We are so incredibly lucky. How many people get to live like this?” Robert smiled knowingly and whispered, “Very few.” I found myself thinking of the 23rd Psalm again as the rain fell softly outside:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.