Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Iron Man of Brackney

                 Hannah and I left our pond, headed north, slogged through mud, briars and deep wet meadow to reach the spring and cistern; I pulled out a few buckets of silt, and we left, veering northwest, off the property, across the road and onto Scott Van Atta's land, through young maples and old apples, the latter locked into a doomed struggle to keep some light, growing tall and spindly, then curving down over to reach open space at the edge of the meadows.

                 Scott died not long ago. He was about 80 and in generally fine health. He still rode his fancy road bike with great regularity, and in the winter he snowshoed his way up the nearby Catskills. At some time not too long ago he had a sort of fainting spell while riding, and went to the doctor, who after careful examination cleared him to ride again, as they couldn't find any specific reason to forbid it. Then he had another episode while riding and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance; he was conscious and joking with the rescue people, and gave them contact information; that night he died in his sleep and could not be resuscitated.

Spring-fed cistern that feeds the pond

                I've known him at a distance all my life; he was a childhood and lifelong close friend of my mother. He lived in a very small house on eleven acres just up the hill from my parents, who retired to the ancestral farm in Brackney, Pennsylvania about twenty years ago. He was a fairly introverted person, apparently, but did show up occasionally, and was an excellent neighbor, always willing to help my parents out. One would not call him a hermit, as such, but his house consisted of one room, a small enclosure holding a hot tub, a deck along the southwest edge of no great extent, and a modest woodshed. One might call it a shack, but it did have electricity and a wood stove, and was well-built and insulated. Hannah and I, walking his meadow, found his long gravel driveway and went down it to pay our respects.

Just as he left it.  Chainsaw, splitting tools, this winter's heat all ready.

                   On our right as we neared the house was an area devoted to splitting large rounds of wood into firewood chunks; on the left was the woodshed, about half full of neatly stacked chunks. The single object leaning against the back of the house was a high-quality bicycle pump. There was no trash, litter or clutter of any kind. There were no windows except the entire southwest wall: an expanse of glass facing the beautiful hills surrounding Quaker Lake. Under the deck behind a low door I could see, through a gap, a large gas-powered snow blower, a wheelbarrow and a lawnmower. There was nothing resembling a lawn, though; he must have mowed immediately around the house as it suited his convenience. I asked Hannah if she saw any books inside; she said no, but then said, yes, there's a stack of books apparently propping up a piece of furniture. There was a large bird feeder on the south side, with two heavy-duty cylinders, and it looked as if the metal-sheathed post was smeared with axle grease to discourage those without wings.  Behind the woodshed there are eight plastic garbage cans full of rainwater.

Patton Road

                Perhaps a decade ago my cousin and I went to visit him at home, though I can't remember the circumstances; he invited us in and we admired the view, and it seems in my memory we said very little, or perhaps it was just Scott who said almost nothing. But we were all comfortable; although the visit was a unique occurrence, the three of us are aborigines, so to speak, of these hills, and there was none of the normal underlying tension one feels with the average human gathering.

Scott's View

                So the mystery of the man himself remains. Was he, as I might idealize him, a sort of Zen master or simple Taoist sage, or, had he just come to resemble such a person through some kind of convergent evolution? The subtraction of things from a person's life can destroy the person, or teach him and change him. He had lost his marriage; his four children had all moved away, though as far as I knew they were not estranged; he did have a female companion though they didn't routinely live together; he had little money, or if he had it he did not use it on worldly goods, except his bicycle. To me he always seemed quietly cheerful and content enough not to have to speak of things general or specific. It's a much overlooked, but nevertheless high achievement: to feel no anxious pressure to chatter, to fill the silence, but rather, to inhabit the silence comfortably – to enjoy rather than fear it.

Haiku for Scott

The bicycle pump
leans against the silent shed;
split wood is stacked high

for the winter he
will not see as it returns
to his hills this year.

The great window looks
southwest and down to the lake,
now an empty stare;

no hungry birds wait
on the empty feeding post
at the meadow's edge.

We remember him
with respect and affection;
yet hardly knew him.

Ancient giants: locust and willow

Let us imagine
a phantom cyclist circling
the beautiful lake.

Scott's deck chair

In another month
the maples will conjure fire
and the last blooms fly;

The insidious Fallopia Japonica

I will walk the woods,
harvest wild apples among
squirrels and walnuts.

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He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.