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Little Rebel at White’s Island

At night the moonlight masked the hedges
On Tucker’s Hill, a private thrill to walk
From our Victorian home to White’s Island.
I’d cross the causeway, both footbridges,
Historic railroad tracks and inhale a secret air
That only I felt could fill my strange, weak lungs
Without a jerk of hyperventilation, my Ondine’s curse.

As if I’d held my breath the swift sprint to the island,
I caught the scents of saltgrass, the mudflats and lush
Odors of the Sheepscot River and damp trees, all seven
That grew in a circle, leaning like a coven of witches.
I stood by their cauldron, a natural cavity in the earth,
Brimming and brewing some magical potion that might
Transform my old soul pre-teen self into maturity.

Poems, not spells, I cast into the water. Smooth stones, not sorcery,
Slid back and forth in my hands. I traded love letters with a boy,
Who stole down to the island to smoke cloves by the stone wall;
Cracks in the mortar of the old bathhouse facilitated delivery.
Flats crackled as the tides shifted; its ebb awakened the eel grass
And all its inhabitants in the water bed.

I played a daring barefoot game along a line of rocks, jagged
And round on the less-popular side, a pebbled beach strewn
With sea glass, not always “ready” (I returned the sharp pieces)
Broken bits of brick, cast-offs from the mason station, dead crabs.

Gramma called the big slate boulder, “Leah’s rock,”
I liked to sit there dripping in my wet bathing suit,
Let my long hair dry in the sun. Salt flaked on my skin
In glistening specks; the white of the salt clung to my ankles
Invisible socks (when I wouldn’t wear my jellies).
Water marks rimmed the rock’s edge in uneven, parallel
Stripes; they measured the tides like waistlines
On a full-figured woman. At high tide, I perched
Curved-postured, as if to dive, and dipped my fins
Into cold dark green saltwater up to my shins.

Those summer nights when I snuck down to the island
In my ripped-seated jeans and tennis sneakers,
Sitting on the rock, my little rebellion.

(a work in progress)                     ~Leah TP Subscribe

imagesAs luck would have it…

hemingway-and-gelhornI’m a little excited about this serendipitous turn of events at my local library tonight. I took a box of books to donate. Since I haven’t been able to write creatively for months, I thought I better clear away some distracting clutter. This includes donating old clothes to Good Will, a 1986 Volvo to Maine Public Radio’s Car Talk program and a bunch of books to the local library.  While there, I wandered over to glance at the summer book sale that they were just beginning to sort. Genres mixed together, a real free-for-all. I was the sole patron and started to talk with the librarian as she sorted. All my recent obsessive fantasies about Hemingway and Gellhorn came out, the film, how I’d hunted down a copy of a collection of his short stories including, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which he wrote while he was in love with Martha Gellhorn, etc. She was a war correspondent and travel writer, well-known and well-respected in her heyday. While I’m gabbing away about the 10 year relationship between Hemingway and Gellhorn, I ran my fingers over the spines of various books, looking up at the librarian. She asked me something, I stopped and fingered the cover of one vintage book, a dark cover, without a book jacket or image. It did not have the title on the front. I opened the book to the dedication page:

“This book is for Martha Gellhorn.”

I picked it up (!) and turned it over in my hands. It’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Hemingway, 1940.  It is said that Martha Gellhorn inspired For Whom the Bell Tolls.  The librarian thought it was “spooky” since it was the only Hemingway book in the whole library, to her knowledge, and I happened upon it at the moment I mentioned Martha Gellhorn. I can’t tell what edition it is, if it’s a first edition, or second, but it just has the 1940 date, which is when it was first published. This sort of thing has happened to me before. I once found a 1955 first edition of Rachel Carson’s “The Edge of the Sea” at the edge of a dump in Southwest Harbor and I salvaged it. It inspired me to take some dramatic action at the time. I take these sorts of things very personally as signs or omens the way some people interpret bird droppings. There is a John Donne quote on the opposite page facing pg. 1 of Chapter 1 starting with, “No man is an island…” which is one of my favorite lines of all time. Here is the John Donne quote that appears at the start of Hemingway’s novel:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

In finding this 1940 edition, I feel like I have a new crush, an infatuation with their words, an old story…their love story, their exchange of ideas, letters, writings and the energy between Hemingway, a Cancerian man, and Gellhorn, the war journalist and writer, a Scorpio, over the ten years they were together (as lovers and during their short marriage). It’s been a while since I’ve had a crush like this. It makes me happy and I feel inspired, too. Energized. I’m on a deadline, so I am pretty focused on the newsletter right now….but this happenstance puts a little more pep in my step!  If you’ve found a rare gem of a images-1vintage book, and it’s inspired you, leave a comment.

Recently I discovered Ondine ~ a brand of pre-cooked lasagna pasta, named after the Ondine, a mythological mermaid (or group of mermaids), who dwelled along the rivers. Also spelled “Undine,” they were water spirits who showed up in European folklore. In one eerie version of the story, the Ondine had the ability to “gain a soul” by marrying a man and bearing his child. In a German version of the myth, called “the Ondine’s Curse,” the water spirit, or mermaid, casts magic on an unfaithful man so that he would stop breathing during sleep. Apparently this “curse” and mythology fed the early medical thinking on those who suffer from frequent hyperventilation. I’ve heard several variations of the diagnosis for my sudden and frequent lapses in breathing–but from now on, I am going to think of it as my Ondine’s curse. That’s a little easier to swallow than all of the other freakish-sounding medical explanations from doctors over the past 25 years. It’s my spiritual mermaid self just channeling ancient memories.

NymphsI was nine years old when I stopped breathing one day, while washing my hands in the bathroom sink. I had no way of calling to my mother for help, so I clapped my hands and banged against the counter. A sharp pinch in my lung prevented air from going out or coming in, so I couldn’t breathe in either direction. My mother called 911 and the first responders arrived, and examined me in the living room. I hadn’t been breathing for several minutes–but suddenly began to inhale and exhale tiny puffs, like sipping the steam off the top of hot cocoa. My chest burned. I gathered from the look on my brother’s face, I was turning funny colors, and freaking him out. One of the emergency responders told me I had a touch of pleurisy, an inflammation in the lining surrounding the lungs. It causes sharp intense pain in the chest (the lungs, specifically) and can be brought on by taking a deep breath, coughing, or even laughing. Over the years as I grew up, and to this day, I occasionally stop breathing. Sometimes I am engulfed with laughter with friends, or talking on the phone, and suddenly I go dead quiet. My closest friends and family know this about me, so they know to either wait it out, or my best friends will continue laughing–since frequent hyperventilation is inconvenient and embarrassing, and sometimes funny. Not in a ha-ha kind of funny, more of an obtuse Addams Family dinner way. Oh, she’s stopped breathing again. A part of me wants to think this is the basis for my constant need to speak fast and furious, and to interrupt others with enthusiastic bursts of creative thinking–because there is the likely scenario that I might stop breathing mid-sentence and lose the thought completely. This is a bit difficult to explain to people in the work place, and can sound melodramatic. When I taught writing classes in my usual exuberant and entertaining way, I sometimes clutched my chest and lost my breath. After this happened once in front of horrified students, who thought I looked young enough to be one of their classmates, I explained it away in my best impression of SNL “Coffee Talk,” and told them I was verklempt and for them to “talk amongst themselves.”

Now I find myself sipping raspberry zinger at my desk. The inside flap of the box has this description of the tea: “According to Roman legend, raspberries were originally white – but turned red when the Cretian nymph Ida scratched herself on a thorny raspberry bush.” (Celestial Seasonings) It’s too bad these descriptions don’t make it on the grocery store shelves like the hand-written recommendations of bottom-shelf wines: “Full-bodied and dishes it right back.” I think in another life, I’d like to be responsible for writing the descriptions of teas and under-sold wines. raspberries

Ondine Movie Pic“Ondine” is also a beautiful 2009 Irish romantic drama starring Colin Farrell and Alicja Bachleda. This is one of my favorite movies from recent years. It makes me want to go to Ireland really really bad. (Plus, I’m Irish.) Check it out: http://www.ondinefilm.com/

Tonight I shall experiment with tomato Ondine lasagna with roasted root vegetables, goat cheese and tomato basil sauce.

Playing Swamp Maiden by the Sheepscot. Margaret Stewart photo.

My love for the water spawned at the mouth of the Sheepscot River in midcoast Maine. But like the eels and salmon, I swam upstream and came of age in not one, but two watersheds. One, an estuary in Wiscasset Harbor, nourished by the Sheepscot, swallowed incoming tides from the Gulf of Maine. My family owned a half-acre island, White’s Island, at the center of this estuary, where I waded and swam through eel grass, sharp as steak knives turned on their edges. I wore petticoats of rockweed and floated in hot black inner tubes. The current raced beneath the first footbridge to the island threatening to take a swimmer under the trestle bridge of the railroad, where young swimmers weren’t supposed to go. The undertow was strong and there was always a risk of drowning. My paternal grandmother taught me how to save someone from drowning in that fast-moving current. She pretended to drown herself, sinking heavily to the muddy bottom. I dove down deep to rescue her. When I had done this successfully a few times, we crawled to the riverbank and she cackled with delight. Treading against that current took all my energy in frigid saltwater, even in summer. It required a combination of kicking and letting go—as I floated backward in fast-forward motion—then paddled again.

At White’s Island, 1987

Further inland, I learned to swim out deep in Little Sebago Lake. As a young girl, I swam with the eels at night and seduced them with my flashlight. My brother and I perched at the end of the dock, shining our lights down into the water, luring the eels to our beams. Their sinuous profiles cast shadows on the rippled sandy bottom like slithering heads of Medusa. Our maternal grandmother, whom we called Nana, let us swim at night. Sometimes we asked our grandfather to splash around and make the eels go away, but they came back. These American freshwater eels, which live in the ocean at the beginning and end—their silver stage of development—migrate to lakes, where they live for much of their lives. For my Strange Wetlands post about eels, see this post, in which I review James Prosek’s book, Eels–An Exploration from New Zealand to the Sargasso, the World’s Most Amazing & Mysterious Fish. 

Several towns surround this three-basin freshwater lake, including Windham, Gray and Raymond, Maine. The “Lakes Region” here refers to the Sebago Lake watershed, consisting of 360 square miles of lakes, ponds, rivers and wetlands. Streams and tributaries, like the Crooked River, flow into Sebago Lake, an inflow of 450 million gallons per day. Sebago Lake is twelve miles long and over 300 feet deep, holding 995 billion gallons of water, providing the #1 source of clean drinking water for much of southern Maine, including the city of Portland.  Sebago is the deepest lake in New England—and glacially speaking, the bottom of the 14,000-year-old lake basin is 450 feet below the lake’s surface. The Portland Water District chronicled the origins of Sebago Lake in their summer 2012 newsletter. According to geological analysis of sediment samples, Sebago Lake has been a “clean and healthy lake for the past 400 years.” It’s one of the few water bodies in the U.S. that does not require filtration. It’s also home to salmon and trout fisheries.

I live in the land of “landlocked salmon,” or so says the welcome sign on Route 302, the main road through the Lakes Region. This land is a water world. Before you start picturing a post-apocalyptic movie with pirate ships, hold your breath: this is a freshwater-focused community. The economy, culture, traditions and values lay anchor in this watershed. Recently I started coordinating a new coalition of town conservation planners and those interested in the common goal of protecting the waters of the Lakes Region with special interest on the Sebago Lake watershed. I named it the Healthy Waters Coalition well aware of the dozens of other collaborative groups throughout the country engaged in water resources protection and outreach education by the same name. With so many land trusts, conservation groups and town conservation commissions and local nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations active in southern and western Maine, and throughout the Lakes Region, I wanted a name that was authentic to the common interest and shared goals, without alienating any one type of group. It’s a grassroots effort to inform and educate citizens in the region on issues pertinent to water resources protection and management in the Sebago Lake watershed. So far there are 30 members and a general consensus of our goals and mission going ahead. I’m happy to be involved in the spirit of collaboration ~ and will be sure to bring the role of wetlands into the conversation quite often.

Working on a new essay. The assignment? What writing means to me. I still struggle with this type of assignment. Taking a stab…here are bits.

Sheepscot R. Maine Natural Heritage photo

Estuarine life, and my love of writing, spawned at the mouth of the Sheepscot River. From a young age, I participated in writing groups. Over thirty years of writing, I have grown accustomed to recognizing new and seasoned writers. New writers like to talk about writing as a process, what writing means to them and their identity as a writer—flexing and focused on it like a newly-muscled limb on a lithe and growing body. These writers flush pink at the mention of their love for the craft. Seasoned writers dive off the deep end of the writers’ group: they read or share their pieces without preamble. They cut to the chase, as if following Raymond Carver’s rule for writing: “Get in, get out, don’t linger.”

I found my voice early. Long before I learned how to write with a pen or pencil, I understood how to record and narrate. I lugged a heavy tape recorder around the house when I was little. I found a quiet room, plugged it into an outlet and pressed the chunky “play” and “record” buttons together. The blank tape hummed, an insect buzzing as the tape wound ‘round in the radio. I talked into the microphone, a bull’s eye that saw and heard my stories.

For a seasoned writer, the writing process is a solitary act, for the most part. I belong to two writers groups (one in-person, one online).  Writers foster a creative and supportive community with one another but the act itself, I’ve always observed, is best to do in private. Writing is right up there with installing obnoxious curtain hardware or eating sandwiches too big for one’s mouth, dripping with caramelized onions. There’s always the off-chance that I might have a witness, but the writing process is not performance art. That would be the most awful—and embarrassing—act to sit through. Scene: Writer is lying face-down on the living room carpet surrounded by pages, presumably doing “nothing.” Audience reads program and it says, “Revision.” Revising can look like a very bad hair day when things are going well. I like to work at my writing desk, an antique trestle table built by my great grandfather. The dented, dark mahogany wood grain is as soft as blotting paper and smooth as driftwood.

Jackson

One of my favorite authors, Shirley Jackson, is considered “a writer’s writer.” That means she appeals to writers rather than readers of other vocations. When I read Jackson, I feel like she’s sharing an inside joke with me—and I get it. I understand because we both walk the path of the writer. Sometimes this is a solitary, unpopular path; other times, we’re suddenly the popular girl at the party with the best stories. I look to Jackson’s writing as a set of teachings. Her novelette, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, for example, reads like a creepy fictionalized (and maniacal) version of my childhood, complete with children’s taunting of an eerie, imaginative narrator. It’s a brilliant plot twist.

Wading into eel grass, I trudged into tidal waters off my favorite swimming rock, where no one else but my hardy grandmother liked to swim. I came of age skimming a rocky bottom, strewn with sea glass and broken beer bottles.  I parted the itchy blades, sharp as steak knives, and numbed my skin to the frigid temperature of the river. Kicking against the current, I tread water under trestle bridges and soaked my senses with that saltwater. It seeped into me, semi-permeably. I write to channel that energy, the teachings of my spirit guides and favorite writers, and the passionate impulses of my imagination. I don’t write because I want to be a writer. I am compelled to write because there’s always material.

Thirty to forty foot swells – a scene out of the Sebastian Junger book, The Perfect Storm, was the start to my “relaxing” vacation on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. My friend, Sarah, and I boarded Speedy’s ferry, the Fantasy, our stomachs full of conch & mahi mahi and rum punch topped with fresh nutmeg, which we’d savored at the Petite Pump Restaurant after arriving on St. Thomas. Sitting atop the ferry on metal benches, I started taking pictures of the beautiful landscape: turquoise water in the harbor, a crumbling castle held up with scaffolding, houses painted in pastel pinks, corals, aqua and lime. Part-way into the two hour ferry ride, the sea got rough and waves washed over the bow of the boat, sending spray in powerful showers that smacked us across our faces, our laps, soaking our clothes in seconds. A man tied a windbreaker around his pregnant wife’s neck to cover her head so she could breathe; the rest of us held on for dear life and rode what felt like an amusement park ride gone terribly awry—and lasted over an hour. My sunglasses kept my contacts from falling out but beat a bruise across my nose. I cried hysterically in between waves while my friend choked and spit up sea water. I heard people swear and pray in the same breath, myself included. Then we arrived on Virgin Gorda and went through customs, standing awkwardly, dripping wet and shaking with nerves. The rest of our five night stay was full of thrills: we drove a jeep over a volcano dressed to the nines to go to a marina-restaurant, the sort of place where Morgan Freeman sometimes moors his sailboat; snorkeled in a choppy Savannah Bay, despite rumors of a bull shark—where my friend, Harmony, got tossed into fire coral by a rogue wave; and explored the incredible caves at the Baths with 3,000 tourists off of a cruise ship (our bad timing). Occasionally I found myself riding in the jeep wearing my dive mask with the prescription lens so I could see on the way to the bays for snorkeling. No sign of the Virgin Island tree boa or lizard that does push-ups but we saw dozens of gekos and iguanas, whose tails slashed through the undergrowth as we hiked along trails. Each night I showered outside our villa under a full moon in a swirl of warm sea breeze and magenta bougainvillea. I will have to go back to hike Gorda Peak, see the copper mine and ruins, snorkel Mount Trunk Bay, and take a boat over to Anegada, the so-called drowned island, which is a nature preserve. I’d go back in a heartbeat, with cameras packed in dry-bags.

Nixie’s Vale ~ Lakes Region, Southern Maine

When I first bought my house in Maine, I fell in love with the land around it–just a few acres beside a pond. It seemed magical to me, something out the Chronicles of Narnia, blessed by water spirits. I named my home, Nixie’s Vale. This is what I imagined of my new surroundings.

Because a beautiful Water Nixie lived near the pond, the water was pure. The streams, wells and vernal pools nearby were also part of her domain. At only the height of a grass-blade, the little Nixie would be very hard to spot. Dressed in a light gown that veiled her fishtail, she sometimes emerged from the waters and perched herself upon the stream bank in the shady glen, where she fastened wildflowers to her spaghetti reed straps atop her shoulders, or braided her long wet hair, or coaxed wood frogs and salamanders from their winter hidey-holes. Her dark green eyes matched the reeds that held up her gown and dangled down over her lithe arms. Beneath the gown, her fish tail shimmered in pale green, gray and white scales that matched the white perch, trout and bass in the lake, and her skin was freckled with orange flecks like the pumpkinseed sunfish that danced with her in the pond. Her fingertips wove rivulets of spun water in flashes that might as well have been minnow splashing in schools.

The Nixie symbolizes the soul, femininity and rescue, as well as reinvention and reorganization. She purifies water, and in doing so, has the same effect on the spirits of all beings that come into contact with the water from her pond, streams and wells.

In an old story of one particularly disobedient water nixie, the Queen of Oceans banished the nixie to live inside a single tear. The legend says that we cry salty tears because the little disobedient sea-born nixie had lived for so long inside our tears as part of her punishment, before finally being released and allowed to live in wooded glades, streams, ancient wells and small bodies of water, never again to return to the ocean.

When one refers to a “vale of tears,” we make reference to the earthly sorrows left behind after someone enters heaven. Other definitions to follow ~

Vale. -noun. A valley. The world. A valley often coursed by a stream; a dale. Farewell. To be strong or well. Low ground, marshy meadow. “Vale of years” means old age (Othello).

“Make me a cottage in the vale.” –Tennyson. (“The Palace of Art”) Furthermore, water nixies show up in this verse from the Vale of Tempe by Madison Cawein, 1911:

“It was last Midsummer Night,
In the moon’s uncertain light,
That I stood among the flowers,
And in language unlike ours
Heard them speaking of the Pixies,
Trolls and Gnomes and Water-Nixies.”

Considering how often I meet trolls in life, I suppose it’s a good thing to have some nixie back-up. In some ways, I relate to the water nixie, a lesser-known nymph, who, upon screwing up in her former life as an ocean-dwelling mermaid, retreated inland to small bodies of water: ponds, streams, wells and pools with the job of purifying her element. Like the water nixie, I have missed the ocean, the coastal estuaries and salty rivers of my youth, especially the Sheepscot River in mid-coast Maine, Somes Sound and the rocky shores of Acadia. I am an island girl at heart and my soul has always felt freest surrounded by salt water…how could I possibly live among the lakes like landlocked salmon? It’s requiring a much longer period of adjustment than I had anticipated, but it’s not without its sense of rescue and rejuvenation.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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