By the time I head out the door for my walk, it is already well into the afternoon, and the North wind has obvious intent to chill the landscape and whatever walks upon it. I try to button my jacket but my bulky sweater makes it tight and restricting. So I hunker down and keep a quick pace.
As I pass old Sam’s house the wind let out its claws and I turn around, walking backwards, to give myself some respite from the scratching cold. When the gust passes I turn round again, and there is Sam himself, walking along the road toward me, some thirty feet away.
Sam isn’t really that old. And he’s out and about a lot—tracking, hunting, and just keeping up with the goings on of the forest. His house he built himself on the very site of the house he was born in. He is this land, if anybody is. And a man of stories, too. I am glad to see him.
“I was goin’ to walk along the river, “ he tells me, “ and look for more signs of the beavers. But my companion had to go back to his house. Would you like to go?”
“Beavers?” I am surprised, and curious as to what Sam thinks of beavers. He is a hunter after all. “Yeah, sure Sam, I’ll be glad to go.”
We diverge from my normal route along the road and cross over a private, gated bridge. Sam tells me he is the caretaker for this large parcel of forested land. The owner lives in Florida and has a small cabin at the top of the hill; he’s not here often. He describes the trees he’s already found, felled by the efficient beavers, and smiles as he talks of the beautiful patterns their teeth make on the wood. He’s looking for a piece to put on his hearth. It reminds me of a piece of wood I had once, with those teeth marks. It was a long time ago, and from a place farther South where the beavers are plentiful and will swim right by your canoe with hardly a glance your way. I tell Sam that story, and about the alligator gars there, too. I know he’ll like that part especially.
“How do folks take to beavers round here?” I ask. “Will they mind them being here?”
Sam chuckles. “Well, they can do some damage. I’ve known folks that lost an apple orchard in little more than a day. They can chew through a tree ‘bout as fast as ax.” He chuckles again. “But most folks will leave them be. It’s easier just to wrap tin round your tree trunks.”
“Last I heard, a few years ago, there was some beavers up on Clear Creek. So these are probably from the same colony. Out West, and in places where the people don’t bother them, you can see them in broad daylight. But round here, you just won’t see them. They’ll only come out at night. I came up on a muddied pool once in the daytime where they’d just been, and I sat there and waited and waited and waited, and never saw nothing else.” He turns around and smiles at me. “Done that a few times,” he laughs. “They’re real secretive.”
We are walking along a road that Sam cleared for the owner. It’s soft, narrow and gently curves through the forest, following the path of the creek. The wind is filtered by the trees, and the Sun dapples the floor. Sam tells me I can walk this road anytime I want. I am thrilled.
“This is my old stompin’ ground,” he tells me, “from when I was a little kid.” He pauses and points off to the left into the forest. “Me and my buddies had a clubhouse right back there. And just a little further up the road follows the path of an even older road—the road my Daddy used to take with the wagon and his mules to go work the corn in the bottomlands.”
We come to a deep dip in the road. “My Daddy broke his finger right here,” he tells me, laughing a little bit. “We were goin’ along in the wagon and we hit this dip and the shaft broke. The mules were takin’ off and he reached out to grab them, fell and broke his finger. Was crooked for the rest of his life.”
Though it seems insignificant, compared to his deep connections to the land, I tell him how I broke my toe out here—fifty yards downstream. Just on the other side of the creek is my land, and after the hurricane floods I came out to see what the land looked like. I was walking along, shoeless, and ran my toe against a stump barely two inches in diameter. Thought I’d just stubbed it, but the pain never let up, and I had to walk back in the sucking mud left by the floodwaters.
Sam appreciates my story, laughing as he tells me to watch out for any stumps as we walk. The road curves to the left away from the creek, and slips through open level forest. He points out a little brook that has bubbled up from the underground. And to the left there’s an old homesite, the squat chimney still standing, dressed in moss. We leave the road and go to it.
“This was my secret spot. This is where I came when I’d got a whoopin’, or ragin’ mad. There’s a little path through that brush there, and then a spring. I’d go sit there and drink that water till I’d gotten myself calmed down.”
I walk up to the chimney and run my hands along it’s front stones. There’s a groove where a mantel used to be—no doubt a rough-hewn piece of lumber, if not a log. Sam doesn’t know much about this particular homesite, but he tells me that his Grandaddy was a Mason, and there’s an old chimney up on Dover Road that he’s pretty certain was built by him. “It’s made of soapstone, real soft you know, and cut into clean pieces. I know the feller that owns it and I’m gonna ask him if he’ll let me cut a few pieces off, so I can have some rock that my Grandaddy had his hands on.”
Momentarily I feel deeply deprived of heritage, but Sam’s enthusiasm to show me the graphite mines is catching, and I find myself walking along the bottom of a hill. It’s plain when we come up on it. Even though erosion has clearly filled up most of the opening, the top of the mine is clear—a gaping black mouth maybe three feet high by five feet wide.
“Never could get my buddies to go in there,” he says, “but my Daddy told me it made a circle and came out over yonder round the other side of the hill. I sure wasn’t goin’ in there. Made me claustrophobic.”
“Even wild country boys have sense,” I laugh, “or maybe something was watching out for you.”
We return to the road and walk round the hill. The other opening of the mine is evident further down the road. We are nearing the river, and the haunting ground of the elusive beavers. We take a right off the road, and follow a trail that leads us to the river. Here Sam shows me the trees the beavers have chewed down. One is across the river, and another is on our side. It’s maybe fourteen inches in diameter, it’s top lying in the river, and we can see the beavers have been nibbling at the tender branches. Looking back at the trunk, I thought Sam had come in with his ax to finish the job, but then I run my fingers across the wood, the grooves of the beaver’s teeth were plain, like Braille. It is a mysterious thing. My fingers cannot leave the grooves. They hunger for this knowledge. Sam seems stilled, too, by the power of the beaver.
“I watched this documentary once, about beavers,” he said, his voice a little hushed. “They were tryin’ to figure out the work ethic of the beaver, you know, what made them work so hard.” He pauses for a minute, caressing their toothwork. “And they found it was the sound of water, running water. Whenever they hear the water, they go and find it, find where it’s flowin’ in their lodge, and mend it.”
We turn to go, walking back along the road, talking about mutual friends, and the more interesting, crazy folks that live around us. By the time I’ve wished him a good evening, I know I’ve been too long, and again my pace quickens. When I get home it’s time to go to friends’ for hot dogs. We load up into the van, all of us. The evening passes warmly.
It’s dark when we clamber into the van to head home. The stars are thick, and I look out my window at the great silhouette of the Blacks. My thoughts turn again to Sam and the beavers, and I am at peace. No, I wasn’t born here. But this is where I belong, this is my deepest home. And in my heart there is no running water tonight, pressing me to restlessness. There is only the soup of stars and the nestling of blankets as the children go to bed.