Now You’ve Seen Ditchley

We passed Ditchley House after an evening drive around the interior of the Northern Neck Peninsula to entertain the dogs and to look at the last of the fall colors. I had already let the dogs out to run at the ferry. The Corotoman River flows softly and flat past the ferry dock at the end of the road. Beside the dock lies a small triangle of river sand, below a bluff with really nice private homes on it. We hadn’t seen too much traffic along the way, but did pass a party in a sharp bend in the road where old blue trucks were parked every which way and people converged on a small gray house with a barbecue going. We felt a little out of place, like tourists, in our big Xterra with two hounds hanging out the windows, driving slowly toward the ferry.

“Beside the dock lies a small triangle of river sand…”

The ferry had given us a destination in our rambling, and from there we wended our way homeward along small roads getting smaller, and crossed the peninsula on Goodluck Road. It was almost my last day there, and I hadn’t yet taken the detour to see the hamlet called Ditchley, at the base of a bay flanked by the two creeks. I had seen Ditchley on my walks out to Hughlett Point. The historic Ditchley mansion, up Dividing Creek from the bay, was once the home of Jessie Ball duPont, a teacher and philanthropist who helped create the Hughlett Point Audubon sanctuary, where I walked a lot during my autumn in Virginia.

The hamlet of Ditchley seen from Hughlett Point

From the sanctuary parking lot in the woods, you walk east through a short strip of lovely swampy forest, cross a grassy flat, and come to the Chesapeake Bay a couple of miles north of Hughlett Point. There’s nowhere to go if you turn left, but if you turn right, it is a different walk every day, every tide, every weather. The dogs ran, and Stellar flew, and Raven ran off, and I walked and walked barefoot in wet sand or dry. I waded in turnunder waves or tidal pools.

Most days I walked all the way to the point, savoring the sea and sky and solitude. From the very tip of Hughlett Point I could see Ditchley, so I’d always wanted to drive down Ditchley Road and check out Hughlett Point from the bay.

It was cocktail hour when we drove past the mansion’s driveway toward the bay, so we didn’t turn in then, though Auntie insisted we should do so on our return. I thought it looked more like a private drive and I said so a couple of times, but she said, “No, this is Ditchley, it is a private home but they use it for all kinds of public functions. I just want you to see it. We can drive through, theres a turnaround.”

Then she pulled another friend out of her magic hat and said, “Let’s go have cocktails with Jan.” Jan lives on Dividing Creek almost at the bay. She wasn’t home, but we walked out on the dock behind her house and watched for a few minutes as the water pinked up then greyed over, and the sky to the west lit up. The dock had a great view of Hughlett Point, our main objective, and after enjoying that we headed for home. It was dusk, and I was hoping she’d forget about Ditchley.

As we approached Ditchley driveway, a sporty red passenger car turned out of the driveway and away from us. I didn’t like the idea of turning in while they could see us. I was hoping nobody was home. “Turn in, turn in!” Rita insisted, so I made an acute right turn and drove slowly down the brick drive through a huge lawn, toward the brick mansion on the right. The driveway got narrower as it came close to the mansion, and passed directly by the foot of the front stairs. I saw with dismay that there was nowhere to turn around, that the driveway went right up to and around behind the caretaker’s cottage, across a concrete carport with a grill, bikes, a basketball hoop, and worst of all, into a pack of barking dogs. The moment I saw the dogs, I said, “Cover your ears!”

We had to follow the driveway through this very private domain, announced and bayed up by a black lab, a smaller gold dog, and a little cocker spaniel. Our dogs were snarling and snapping and barking their heads off trying to get through the windows for a good fight. It was a tense cacophony. Our car was so big, and the carport so crowded. I was so afraid I would hit one of the dogs snapping at our tires, or that someone would come yelling out of the house. We lost the yellow dog after we rounded the back of the house, but the big and little dogs pursued us another few hundred feet.

When they fell off, my dogs settled down. We had a long quiet stretch, both of us looking straight ahead, until we turned onto the road. Then Rita turned to me broke the silence by saying, with satisfied smile, “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley!”

I laughed so hard I almost lost control of the car. We laughed all the way home. We laughed through our cocktails. Six months later, we are still laughing about Ditchley, when one of us mentions it over the phone.

Auntie turned 85 yesterday. I cherish every laugh with her and every memory of our wonderful autumn together. What I treasure most about that moment, that smile, that “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley,” is that it was utterly unexpected. I should know by now to expect the unexpected from my Aunt Rita, it has always been the way she rolls. But in that moment, after the violence of the barking dogs, the awkwardness of our intrusion through a private place, the tension of our escape from Ditchley, and my ingrained sense of guilt, her sweet satisfaction was the last thing I expected.


The Case of the Missing Mousetrap

The first time the mousetrap “disappeared” from the yurt, I was quite perplexed, but chalked it up to my faulty memory. Maybe that was the trap I had to throw away because the mouse’s teeth were clamped around the trap trigger. Maybe I hadn’t put it where I thought I did. Maybe I had not actually set one? But if not, where was the sixth trap? I had three left in the package, one in the car, and one in the Mothership. I was sure I had left a trap in the yurt. 

When I couldn’t find it, I went in there every day and sniffed around, in case somehow a mouse had run off half-trapped and dragged it under something to die. I looked under everything I could see under. After a week I forgot about it. 

This morning when I went to check my traps, the first two were empty, and the mousetrap, again, has disappeared from the yurt! I double checked yesterday afternoon, peeking in the window before I left to make sure I knew where it was. Imagine my surprise this morning! It’s gone. 

I looked under everything again. I dragged out a huge cardboard box with styrofoam pellets dribbling out a corner. That was a bad sign. I knew the box had solid formed styrofoam padding, not pellets, for the industrial printer that had come in it. Save for a pile of pellets in one corner and a little fluff in a chewed cavity, and some mouse turds, nothing. I threw the cushions off the settee out into the woods, dragged it outside, and flipped it over. No hole in the bottom big enough for a mousetrap. 

What kind of critter can do that, disappear a mousetrap? Now I am beyond perplexed, I am completely flummoxed. One quarter of the yurt space is still full of boxes, bags, and trunks, empty and full. I’ve known for awhile this isn’t the best storage locker; I’ve had to clean out mouse residue before, and trapped a few. But never have I lost a mousetrap ~ two mousetraps. I am now befouled by mouse-tainted air and dust, the yurt looks like white trash from outside, and the inside must be scoured: emptied completely and scoured with bleach. 

I guess my guest will sleep in the house tonight, and I’ll send the settee to a yard sale. For now, a shower.


Living in a Landscape of Loss

Pavilion, Wyoming will become the new Chernobylgate. A Superfund Site without boundaries. The tip of the iceberg. I have no intention of living in such a landscape of loss.

Not only was Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Josh Fox evicted from a pubic hearing in the House of Representatives today, but so was ABC News, and first! On the grounds that they had not acquired prior permission to film the hearing. Land of the Free. The meeting was about the EPA’s preliminary report on water contamination from fracking, and Fox was arrested and removed from our halls of government for “not having the proper credentials.” One lawmaker requested they both be allowed to stay and said the room should be filled to capacity with Americans wanting to cover this hearing. Let’s hope some more media shows up tomorrow.

The EPA has begun trucking water to the small farming community of Pavilion, Wyoming, after concluding that its water is not safe for human consumption. John Fenton, a farmer who lives near Pavilion, and other affected residents were not allowed to attend the “public hearing” either, but the Oil and Gas Industry was well-represented. Fenton told Amy Goodman today, “We were assured over and over that these processes were safe. A lot of people around here have a pro-industry point of view… but things changed rapidly. It’s had huge impacts to our way of life… people coming and going over our property night and day, over 50% devaluation on our property, and … people with unexplainable health conditions, neurological problems, losing their sense of taste and smell, arms and legs going numb… family farming is under attack everywhere, and here we have just one more example of that deterioration of the family unit. The water that comes out of our wells is no longer usable for growing our gardens.”

Local energy company Encana, and the State of Wyoming, insisted all along that there was nothing wrong going on in Pavilion. County and State Inspectors were shown Company tests and assured residents that there was nothing wrong with their water, Fenton said, or claimed that “the water’s always been bad up here,” and even suggested that the residents had contaminated their own water.

“We’re farmers,” he said, “We’re in touch with the land, and we can tell when things change…. We knew that we hadn’t done this.”

Only after they contacted the EPA did they realize they were finally dealing with people who believed their concerns.The EPA found a definite connection between contaminated water and fracking chemicals. Finally! Theo Colborn has been arguing for years for full disclosure of all chemicals used in drilling and fracking, her anguished refrain “because if we don’t know what they are we can’t test for them!” A quiet tragedy under this veil of secrecy has been medical professionals’ compromised ability to treat emergency room victims from the Industry, because they have not known the chemical causes of grave illnesses and injuries, including burns.

At last the EPA has been able to document the connection, and now the EPA is in danger. Real danger, of being swept away by a partisan agenda manipulated by an Industry in which one executive admitted that his company was engaged in a “land-grab.” Josh Fox’s eviction on spurious grounds from a public hearing where he was exercising his First Amendment Right to report on the proceedings is a match to gasoline, as far as I’m concerned. Or, to a faucet in Pavilion, Wyoming. In addition to methane making tapwater flammable, contamination from drilling and fracking includes benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals. The EPA found 50 times the safe level of benzene in Pavilion’s water (though there is no safe level.) And Fox (Josh, not Network) reports that flammable water and high benzene concentrations are happening all over the country, even in Australia. Many states, municipalities, and other countries have legislation either passed or pending to outlaw fracking.

Meanwhile, Colorado has legislation on the table now to make it illegal for counties and towns to pass their own legislation regulating or prohibiting oil and gas development! The Industry has mounted a full-on PR campaign just as the tobacco industry did against the first revelations that smoking causes cancer. That battle was a skirmish in comparison to this one. Smokers, deluded or addicted, still had choices. The individuals, communities, watersheds, cities, vast tracts of land both populated and wild, that are being poisoned by the extractive technology of “clean natural gas” have no choice. The long term impact on groundwater is immeasurable, irreversible, unfixable, and the consequences will be paid for by the citizens who suffer, because the Industry is exempt for every applicable federal protection.

There are thousands of cases in America alone of groundwater contaminated by the chemicals used in drilling and fracking. New examples come to light every day, in local newspapers and independent studies. And it seems like nobody in the media is paying attention to the whole. Nobody but Josh Fox. And now he’s censored.

I am appalled. I am beyond terrified, and I am angry. This has been going on under my nose for a decade; suffering and healing from personal losses, I had my head in the sand. Now the Industry is knocking at my front door, ogling the wild land I moved here for. Our valley is becoming part of a global awakening. What do you think will happen in this valley, across all social spectra, if our water becomes tainted? If our children begin to get sick and die? If our own heads ache, our limbs tremor, our lungs fail? Who do these people think they are, and what do they think we will do?

I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We will arise in angry unity, we will erupt with rage, and we will be too late. We must work together now to understand the hazards that could be thrust upon us before we feel their effects ~ understanding too late to prevent is not a viable option: This is where we live. This is our home. I do not want to find myself living in a landscape of loss. But if I do, like Josh Fox, I will have documented it every step of the way.

Fighting for Home

precious water: if they drill, where will the get it? where will it go? most of the mid-level slopes on Mt. Lamborn and Land's End in the background are up for lease


I thought I had come home from Virginia to save my cat, who was diagnosed with diabetes during my three month absence. I knew I was coming home also to film Francisco, the yoga guru from Brazil whose workshops I attend faithfully twice a year and document for the Hotchkiss Yoga Tree. But now I find out that I came home not only for those two reasons, but also to save my home. To save my home land, the fruitful, gorgeous valley carved with springs, streams, irrigation ditches, and branches of the Gunnison River. Surrounded by mesas and mountains, escarpments, arroyos, and gorges, this valley is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the state, the largest concentration of drug- and hormone-free ranches in the state, and the greatest community I’ve ever encountered.

We are under the grim eyeglass of the Oil and Gas Industry. 30,000 acres surrounding and between the towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss, and Crawford are on the BLM’s slate to be leased for mining in August 2012. The three-dimensional map tour showing red outlines around the parcels turned the muttering meeting tonight into a hushed and interested crowd. Audible sighs signaled the settling in of potential dissenters to hear out the panel, which presented without bias sufficient information that nobody grumbled.

Our community rallied tonight, as the other two communities did earlier this month. Around two hundred people, from dreadlocks to cowboy hats, met together, heard one another. Made me proud to be part of them. There is so much to be done to create a three-dimensional portrait of this landscape and community, the people, the farms, ranches, trails, hunting grounds, springs, ditches, watersheds, maps upon maps overlaid to reveal the depth of our connections to this land. We are going to put together a portrait of our valley, in photographs, films, words, showing the vitality and productivity of this place, and the faces of the people who call it home.

Cocktails on the Rivah

We had had a frustrating day. The dogs woke me long before my body felt like moving, and the instant coffee I mixed to take to the park turned out not to be instant. Rita napped on the couch instead of her bed so she wouldn’t miss the delivery of an exchange, but FedEx didn’t knock and left the huge box on the porch. The steam cleaner worked pretty well on the carpet but exacerbated my sore shoulders and thumb arthritis. None of these were big deals but left us both a little cranky.

An hour before sunset I loaded us into the car for an emergency run to The Tides Inn, to cheer us up with a cocktail and snacks at the bar overlooking the Rappahannock River. On a fluke, the Inn was closed. We drove the fifteen miles to Windmill Point, hoping to reach the Tiki Bar on the beach before the sun went down. The Tiki Bar was also closed, for the season. Cheered slightly simply by driving rural roads in clear autumn light on colorful trees, shining creeks, and glimpses of the river, we strolled the bulkhead back to the car.

“Show me where you lived when Isabel flooded your house,” I asked. “Turn here,” she said at a dirt road. Then “turn here,” again, at a sandy lane marked Private Road, No Trespassing. “No!” said I, from the West, where No Trespassing means you could get shot. “It’s okay,” she said, “we’ll go see my friends Mary Jane and John. They live down at the end of this road. We’ll have a drink with them.”

She pulls these things out of her hat, like a magician. She has friends everywhere. We’d been racing the sun for a cocktail on the water for the past forty-five minutes, and now we were driving to the end of a tiny lane to pop in on her friends who live fifty feet from the shore. They weren’t home. Two Adirondack chairs sat on the dune with a table between them. “Do you want to walk out on their dock?” she asked. You bet I did. I grabbed her purse as we left the car.

Without fail, my aunt has a snakebite kit in her purse at all times. We didn’t make it past the chairs. With the sun a blazing globe sending a solid path down the river toward us, we leaned back in weathered wood comfort and pulled from her purse an airline bottle of Scotch. Splitting its contents into her empty miniature Rum bottle, we toasted cocktails on the water. She offered a tin of Altoids for hors d’oeuvres and we laughed. Pelicans and gulls circled the placid sheen of the river, quiet settled on our unsettling day, and we sat in happy silence. We spun away from the sun as it reddened, its path rippled and faded, and the deep red orb diminished to a flash between trees on the far shore.

The Colonel’s Ring

A day off, an afternoon thunderstorm, a hot cup of coffee with cinnamon and honey. For my tired body it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s been a week. As in, quite a week. Five of us ladies hiked up the Leroux Creek road to Bailey Reservoir two days ago, my first day off in awhile. I’m still stiff, but it was well worth it. The wildflowers were magnificent, and it’s still early. Ground saturated from snowmelt was carpeted with glacier lilies, in the aspens and higher. We walked across knee-deep snowdrifts just before reaching the reservoir.

The day before that, the eagle mother landed with a fistful of straw. One of the chicks pounced on it and leapt to the back of the nest. I could see him or her pulling at it, tossing straw. Then the chick turned and came at the mother with a kind of aggressive stance, as though demanding, “What the hell was that, mom? A trick?” The mother stood and looked at the chick, as though explaining, and then all three chicks began picking at the straw. Maybe there was food in it.

But you know what I think was happening? I think she was bringing nest materials. Just one more thing they have to learn how to do before they take off. This supports my theory that when she brought them deer legs, she was teaching them that they could eat road kill and carrion. I figure the parents were bringing them some of every thing they’re supposed to eat so they know, and can survive. And now it appears she’s bringing them nesting materials so they can learn that, too, before they leave. Because once they fly, they are truly on their own. I have learned so very much from watching them almost every day for the past ten weeks.

Yesterday while I sat at the boat shack, hot wind howling, waiting for boats to come in to inspect, Suzi called to tell me that two of the chicks had walked out on a limb. Then later, to say the third had finally joined them, after squawking and flapping eagerly for a few hours. Today, all three sit on a forked limb, flapping back and forth to the nest, shrieking now and then, perhaps with joy. It is just one more amazing aspect of this animal drama that the eagles found a site so perfectly formed for this exercise, a large enough open space out from the nest that the eaglets can practice flying back and forth to a limb safely. Magnificent creatures, soon they will fly into their new lives.

And soon, the Colonel will fly into his, into whatever life after death there is, or is not. He lost his mind some time ago, and now he’s lost his wedding ring. His caregiver is heartsick over it, and so am I. His team has scoured the apartment. It appears to have found its way into the garbage and out the door. He had been worrying it, taking it off and on in the night. Most nights, I’m told, they put his wedding band and his West Point class ring on the top of the dresser so he would not lose them. He has lost so much weight in his creeping decline that both rings were falling off occasionally. One night he was asking for his wedding band so he was given it, and now it is gone. In the morning, he apparently said, “I think I lost my wedding ring in the bed.” He has not asked for either ring since then.

And it’s a good thing, because as soon as I heard about the wedding ring last week, I arranged to have his class ring sent to me via registered mail. This morning, I signed for it at the post office, and now I am wearing it on my thumb. I won’t for long (or maybe I will). It’s huge, a heavy chunk of gold, with an oval ruby set into it.

I could not take the chance that it also would be lost. My father has worn this ring for almost seventy years. Never in my fifty-two years have I seen him without it on his finger next to his wedding ring. And next to his wedding ring, his 1942 class ring from West Point was his most prized possession. It is so worn from sixty-nine years on his hand that the ruby, once faceted, is smooth, the writing around the stone is illegible, his name engraved inside disappears toward the narrow part of the band, and the crests on each side of the ring are hardly recognizable.

The tradition of class rings at American schools began at the United States Military Academy in 1835. Historically, each class designs their own ring, with the USMA crest on one side of it and their class crest on the other. Each crest has as its central image an American eagle. A bald eagle.

A couple of months ago, the Colonel’s aide took his wallet away when he found him tearing up twenty dollar bills. Tearing up cash money. That struck me as profoundly symbolic of letting go of the world. Now, his no longer asking for his ring suggests that he has let go one more little bit of this life he clings to.

As the Colonel’s saga winds down, as he lets go of material things, another saga burgeons. This nestful of eagles learns to cling all the more tightly to tree limbs, to life. As the eaglets have learned from their parents, I, too, learned from mine how to get by in the world, how and who to be. I benefited from their fierce love for me when I was young and helpless, and from their letting me go when I grew up.

I have many things to remind me of my mother, rings and necklaces, paintings and pots she made. There is a little bit of her in each of them. But this ring, this ring is my father, has always been and will always be my father. The eagles worn smooth on the Colonel’s ring will always remind me of his pride in being an Army man, his tenacity and fortitude in the prime of his life. The worn smoothness itself of the ring will always call to mind the length of time he wore it, sixty-nine years, how worn smooth he himself was at ninety-two, and his final, reluctant, letting go of the world.

Someday, maybe tomorrow, the bridge will fall

A warning sign at a natural bridge in Bryce National Park tells people not to walk across it, because “Someday, maybe tomorrow, the bridge will fall.” It’s been my favorite sign for more than twenty years. The sentence, to me, is pure poetry, rich with layers and metaphor.

Armageddon is set to begin in two days, the world’s end to follow exactly five months later, to the day, to the minute perhaps. What does the minute look like, the minute that armageddon begins? Well, I have two days to think about it. Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye on the eaglets, who have begun to flap their wings and spread their feet.

Now, at rest, one eaglet has its wings folded, but outspread, instead of limp by its sides. So while not fully extended, those flight muscles in the back and shoulders are working to hold the wings open, as though you held your elbows out at shoulder level, but let your forearms dangle relaxed. Every hour they advance toward flight. Maybe they have growing pains, too, in their wings, which will soon span close to six feet. Remember when they were tiny white, oddly-angled fluffballs with trembling little nubs of wings? I figure their wings have increased about tenfold in five weeks. That’s gotta hurt. I hope they make it through Saturday.

I am also, because it’s spring and time anyway, cleaning the pantry, reorganizing all the excess foodstuffs, staple and luxury, that I cannot help but hoard. And arguing with myself about the dozen big liquor bottles that I’ve been saving in case I need to store water.

Really? Is that really why I’ve saved them? Because I don’t like to store water in plastic? But I have five two-gallon blue plastic jugs that I used for years to carry, store, and dispense my drinking water, while the water I pay for (a considerable sum monthly) has been on a federal boil order for five years. Turbidity. Sufficient sediment to allow giardia and other microbes to gain a foothold, survive, and infect my household. The new treatment plant is alleged to have cleared up that problem, but they haven’t confirmed it yet. So now I risk a mere Brita filter for the tap water. Lugging the jugs was getting old, anyway, and I needed the counter space for a small microwave. Washing a pot for every leftover was getting old, too.

I’m sure those jugs have already given me all the carcinogens they have to offer, so why not recycle the big glass bottles and use only the blue jugs for armageddon instead? Well, because I am, at heart, a hoarder. I come from a family of collectors. I have ancestral stuff from four generations, looking good but causing clutter, throughout my house, my life. So I’ll send those bottles to the recycler. But they’re pretty, and they could hold even extra, extra water if the end times come.

I don’t believe it will be Saturday. I played Y2K cautiously, with a store of dried beans and bottled water, just in case. I even bought a steam distiller that heats on top of the woodstove, so I could purify my own water if it came to hauling it from the stream.  How I thought I’d be able to cut fuel for the stove without gas for the chainsaw I don’t know.

I still want to build a greenhouse off the sunroom, so I can grow food year-round. I want to be a survivalist, but not have to. I want to have the capacity, the means and the skills, to fend for myself, but not have the need to prove it. Because though I don’t believe it will come day after tomorrow, I’m not sure it won’t. And I do believe that some day, possibly in my life time, the whole world will go up in smoke, either manmade or celestial.

When it does come, from a planetary collision or the human madness of nuclear war, from armageddon or slow extinction, I’m sure I won’t last long enough to die from drinking out of plastic, and I’d rather have a full bottle of gin than an empty one. I’ll stand on the deck with the dogs, a gin and tonic with lots of ice and extra lime, and watch the fireworks. I can think of a lot worse ways to go.

After four hours cleaning the pantry, I check back on the eaglets. The parents returned awhile ago, each with a fish, and offered the chicks small enticing bites, not the huge chunks they had graduated to recently. Now, chick one holds a fish in his or her talons, and tears at it as if it’s been feeding itself forever. Except, oh! There’s a chunk too big, too bony perhaps, and the chick hacks and coughs it up, spits it out. A few more bites, and this chick walks away. A second chick comes to work on the same fish. Learning to eat on its own, increasing its skills, its capacity to fend for itself. One step, one flap, at a time.