Late October Camping in the Sawtooths by Gary Snyder
Sunlight climbs the snowpeak glowing pale red Cold sinks into the gorge shadows merge. Building a fire of pine twigs at the foot of a cliff, Drinking hot tea from a tin cup in the chill air— Pull on sweater and roll a smoke. a leaf beyond fire Sparkles with nightfall frost.
I keep telling you, I’m not a feminist. I grew up an only child on a ranch, so I drove tractors, learned to ride. When the truck wouldn’t start, I went to town for parts. The man behind the counter told me I couldn’t rebuild a carburetor. I could: every carburetor on the place. That’s necessity, not feminism. I learned to do the books after my husband left me and the debts and the children. I shoveled snow and pitched hay when the hired man didn’t come to work. I learned how to pull a calf when the vet was too busy. As I thought, the cow did most of it herself; they’ve been birthing alone for ten thousand years. Does that make them feminists? It’s not that I don’t like men; I love them—when I can. But I’ve stopped counting on them to change my flats or open my doors. That’s not feminism; that’s just good sense.
You always hear about it— a waitress serves a man two eggs over easy and she says to the cashier, That is the man I’m going to marry, and she does. Or a man spies a woman at a baseball game; she is blond and wearing a blue headband, and, being a man, he doesn’t say this or even think it, but his heart is a homing bird winging to her perch, and next thing you know they’re building birdhouses in the garage. How do they know, these auspicious lovers? They are like passengers on a yellow bus painted with the dreams of innumerable lifetimes, a packet of sepia postcards in their pocket. And who’s to say they haven’t traveled backward for centuries through borderless lands, only to arrive at this roadside attraction where Chance meets Necessity and says, What time do you get off?
When I am an old, old woman I may very well be living all alone like many another before me and I rather look forward to the day when I shall have a tumbledown house on a hill top and behave just as I wish to. No more need to be proud— at the tag end of life one is at last allowed to be answerable to no one. Then I shall wear a shapeless felt hat clapped on over my white hair, sneakers with holes for the toes, and a ragged dress. My house shall be always in a deep-drifted mess, my overgrown garden a jungle. I shall keep a crew of cats and dogs, with perhaps a goat or two for my agate-eyed familiars. And what delight I shall take in the vagaries of day and night, in the wind in the branches, in the rain on the roof! I shall toss like an old leaf, weather-mad, without reproof. I’ll wake when I please, and when I please I shall doze; whatever I think, I shall say; and I suppose that with such a habit of speech I’ll be let well alone to mumble plain truth like an old dog with a bare bone.
They lived without electricity. Their water came from a hand pump at the base of the windmill. A Nebraska farm, 1935. She said, you can’t miss what you never had. Drugstore goldfish in the water tank turned into giant orange and white carp, Koi prized in another country, another class. Her father threw them out into the prairie claiming they’d poison the cattle. Rattlesnakes, a way of life, careful checking before eggs were gathered from the darkness of nesting boxes. Everywhere, heat. Gone with the Wind in 1939. She was fourteen. During the war, she looked like one of the Andrews Sisters. First child at twenty, last at thirty-nine. All survived save one, gone at thirty. The death of her daughter turned her hair white. Eighty-four and she’s lived alone for longer than she was married, her husband a man with a wild imagination but a weak mind. He was born the year the Titanic sank. That should have told me something. Now, central air for the worst of the heat. In her lifetime: organ transplants, space flight, television, artificial hearts. On still nights she sleeps with just a sheet, the window open wide, summer’s heat hard and dry.
It’s what she does and what her mother did. It’s what I’d do if I were anything like her mother’s mother—or if the times demanded that I work in my garden, planting rows of beans and carrots, weeding the pickles and potatoes, picking worms off the cabbages.
Today she's canning tomatoes, which means there are baskets of red Jubilees waiting on the porch and she’s been in the cellar looking for jars. There’s a box of lids and a heap of gold rings on the counter. She gets the spices out; she revs the engine of the old stove.
Now I declare her Master of Preserves! I say that if there were degrees in canning she would be summa cum laude—God knows she’s spent as many hours at the sink peeling the skins off hot tomatoes as I have bent over a difficult text. I see her at the window, filling up the jar, packing a glass suitcase for the winter.
So strange to hear that song again tonight Traveling on business in a rented car Miles from anywhere I’ve been before. And now a tune I haven’t heard for years Probably not since it last left the charts Back in L.A. in 1969. I can’t believe I know the words by heart And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.
Every lovesick summer has its song, And this one I pretended to despise, But if I was alone when it came on, I turned it up full-blast to sing along — A primal scream in croaky baritone, The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred. No wonder I spent so much time alone Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.
Some nights I drove down to the beach to park And walk along the railings of the pier. The water down below was cold and dark, The waves monotonous against the shore. The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea, The flickering lights reflected from the city — A perfect setting for a boy like me, The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.
I thought by now I’d left those nights behind, Lost like the girls that I could never get, Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird. But one old song, a stretch of empty road, Can open up a door and let them fall Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf, Tightening my throat for no reason at all, Bringing on tears shed only for myself.
This is farming country. The neighbors will believe you are crazy if you take a walk just to think and be alone. So carry a shotgun and walk the fence line. Pretend you are hunting and your walking will not arouse suspicion. But don’t forget to load the shotgun. They will know if your gun is empty. Stop occasionally. Cock your head and listen to the doves you never see. Part the tall weeds with your hand and inspect the ground. Sniff the air as a hunter would. (That wonderful smell of sweet clover is a bonus.) Soon you will forget the gun in your hands, but remember, someone may be watching. If you hear beating wings and see the bronze flash of something flying up, you will have to shoot it.
I miss my stepmother. What a thing to say, but it’s true. The prince is so boring: four hours to dress and then the cheering throngs. Again. The page who holds the door is cute enough to eat. Where is he once Mr. Charming kisses my forehead goodnight?
Every morning I gaze out a casement window at the hunters, dark men with blood on their boots who joke and mount, their black trousers straining, rough beards, calloused hands, selfish, abrupt…
Oh, dear diary—I am lost in ever after: those insufferable birds, someone in every room with a lute, the queen calling me to look at another painting of her son, this time holding the transparent slipper I wish I’d never seen.