|The cairn Bob built for Janine Pommy Vega in our woodlot|
When our close friend, the poet Janine Pommy Vega died at the age of 69 outside of Woodstock, New York (Willow), she had left a defined Will, and in that Will she made me the executor of her estate. She also stated that Susan and I would receive the copyright to her name. In short order, I met what was left of her immediate family: brother, nephew, and two nieces, and also some of Janine’s great extended family of friends around the world — many of them poets, singers, teachers, musicians, hustlers, working-class joes and janes, outsiders, professionals, publishers, neighbors, and mountain climbers, like Janine, who had scaled peaks from the Catskills, up into the Andes, and the mysterious reaches of Nepal. Yes, quite a woman.
I’m not ready to write extensively about Janine, that will come, but more about a stone cairn I built for her in our woodlot in Vermont. It would be ten times the size of the stone cairn we laid up for another poet friend Cid Corman — that was made at the summit to our Vermont land, a few steps into the twenty-first century when Cid died, and we made that cairn by hiking the trail up to the summit most every day and any good stone we found along the way on the trail, we picked up and added to the slowly formed cairn that would be for Cid. Think of each stone picked up as a haiku poem, which Cid was a master at writing and translating from the Japanese, and you’ll quickly get an image in your head how some stone structures can go up: line by line/stone by stone. The only odd stone away from the path we hiked on that came to the cairn was one a friend brought, round granite solid, and we set that down into the center of the cairn. The cairn’s been up there now a decade catching leaves, taking snow, slowly but ever surely disappearing like the best of stumps. That’s Cid.
Janine was different. Janine was an activist, teacher, performer, raconteur, and maybe not as easily understood for her learned discipline and hidden charms. I found a location for her cairn that took the morning sun in the woodlot at the ease of a eastern slope, around the tallest maple trees and where plenty of old stone wall had fallen away, but the stone was there, you just had to dig and find it. Over a few August days I did just that and built a cairn in, what I had hoped would be, the shape of something familiar in Nepal or Ireland, two places on earth Janine was drawn to. For a few years now we’ve watched the stone cairn season with its surroundings, take on the light, the snow, rain, leaves falling, and chipmunks and squirrels passing over and through. It may be finally her birthday coming in February when we’ll put some of her ashes there.
If you want to know about stone, when Hurricane Irene came to Vermont in late summer 2011, it left us in stone.
We were returning from northern New Hampshire the night before the hurricane and already we could see military and National Guard convoys moving south on the interstate. What is this all about? we thought. In an eerie lighting and swirling fog. The sky was already messed up, but it wasn’t raining, just spooky.
The next morning we rose early as usual, it was our wedding anniversary, and it was raining heavily and it only became heavier. We could hear the river rising, then roaring. The roaring part concerned us enough to go have a look, and that’s when we saw a river we’ve never seen in our lives. It was no longer a river, it was a water mass grown up and out of its form, speeding into the woods, rising up and over the road, gobbling the road, and rising many feet by the minute, so it could be — there was nothing that was going to stop it. It was only raining heavier. We were in rain gear following the river along the higher edges of the road, and the river was now a tidal wave. Maybe fourteen feet higher than we ever knew it. We met a neighbor we also never knew we had wandering like the young father he is asking us if the river would reach his house. It turned out I built this house decades ago and tried to assure him, not knowing anything myself, that the river wouldn’t get to where he was, huddled upstairs with a family. Rain pelting off our faces. River louder and louder, overpowering the woodland, going anywhere it damn well pleased. As humans, visitors to planet earth of land and water, we simply got to watch and wait.
The next day we all crawled out of our caves. Much of our dirt road was gone. It was obliterated the further south you went and where the river always widened and was wilder. The road wouldn’t open for months, and it took all those months to first realize what had happened and what is it that had to be done, and then all the stone started to get moved back into place; the stone that made roads. Neighbors teamed up and helped one another. Town laborers scratched their heads and tied together town-to-town to assist. We hiked down four miles from our house south into Massachusetts only to find all the road gone away, not a speck left, not even a hint. All we had was bare ledge from the mountainside the road curled around and hugged, and this is where stone would be brought back in and river banks were painstakingly rebuilt from scratch, large flat stone and cube rock after rock, days on end, and dumptrucks were the norm for weeks into months. Bringing stone. A life moved on stone.
When we eventually got north up into our Vermont village, I met up with the two oldest residents who grew up as children here, and I knew both to be practical and hardworking folks. The woman said she had never seen anything like this ever in her life, and certainly not in our village, and the old man listening, a worker, quietly agreed nodding his large head. “The river was this close to the covered bridge,” he said to me, squinting his serious eyes, as he held his two large hands up and apart eight inches. Whoever designed and whoever built the covered bridge should now be complimented for laying in maybe one more height of stone beneath the bridge. It stood standing when many other bridges in the state went away.
Oscar Weatherhead, and in fact, Hap Weatherhead — there’s two names for you. Old timers I once knew or worked with. Last names from the earth and sky. They’re disappearing on us. At the age of fifty I was also seriously called “an old timer” by another old timer, much longer in the tooth than I was. I was always drawn to the old timer, the worker, ever since the age of ten and I was working in the family lumber business. There was “Slim,” Jim Duffy, Freddy Zarek, “Big John,” Frank Lazarczyk, Max Lebech — all builders. They didn’t read much, but for my sake they would pick up this book you’re reading. They were curious, keen listeners, devoted to their life and work. They’d take off their own shirt for you to wear. Out in the gardens and farmland were both “Weatherheads,” plus Harvey Cutting, Lee Stone, Alden Bell, Don Squires, Carl Eckhart, Lester Clark, Anna Carey, Ted Enslin, Richard Levasseur, Dudley Laufman, Gerry Hausman, Jonathan Greene, Greg Joly, and Peter Wilde. Pete turned a tractor over on himself causing a terrible mishap that took his life. One winter we built the swinging footbridge over the Green River together. In the sawmills were Bing Denison, Fred Miller, and Chuck Lynde who would consider himself too young to be an old timer. With repairing old vehicles were Ronny Barton, Denny King, J.D. Whitney, and Larry Croiser. I also met the Chinese scholar and translator Bill Porter (Red Pine) who came looking for me in Vermont as what I consider a prime old ways traveler, definitely with all that grace, bark and tumble place where all old timers settle…like Eleanor vanWaveren, Alan Belville, Pete Higley, and Bill Barker, who, like me, aren’t even close to hanging up their tool belts yet.