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Cassandra Cleghorn
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[Note: This is a reposting of my blog originally posted on July 8th, which I then accidentally deleted. CJC] Every July, I head back into the classroom to teach in a one-month immersion program for incoming first-year students. The teaching is great, but I want to use this week of blogging to write my way out of the classroom, protecting a bit of writing time. By writing time, I mean hiking time. And by hiking, I mean energetic stomping around in the woods. I'm a novice. My outfit is a mishmash of hand-me-downs and sale items: ankle-high black Boggs; black Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain Gators, caked in mud, that reach to my knees; thin black silk long underwear for tick protection; secondhand LL Bean shorts (hiding awkward holes in the crotch of the long underwear); blue tee-shirt from Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe; green baseball hat from the Teatro del Lago in Frutillar, Chile. I wear my brands into the woods, advertising to no creature that cares. I start out early, take my dogs, avoiding the trail heads with even one parked car. As I make my way up the first ascent, strands of cobweb graze my face and arms, evidence that I'm the first human setting out on the trail. Orientation: I live in the southwestern-most corner of Vermont. Our short dirt road abuts the lower edge of the Green Mountain National Forest. Just before stepping in the woods, you can see Mt. Greylock (at 3491' the tallest point in Massachusetts) to the south. Our west-facing deck addresses the Taconic Range, which marks a piece of the border between New York and Massachusetts or Vermont. In stick season, we can see 180 degrees of the crest -- from South Williamstown, Massachusetts to North Petersburg, New York. Even in summer, through dense foliage, I can trace the long, curving line where crest meets sky. I keep this crest line in sight. The road I drive to and from school parallels the range. From the car, I count the ridges and hollows: Halifax Hollow, Lincoln Hollow, Ellis Mine Hollow, Frost Hollow. As I cross the border to Massachusetts, I know the Snow Hole is due west about three miles, up a couple thousand feet. (More on the Snow Hole in a couple of days.) From my office window I see the same range. By writing, I also mean thinking -- and unthinking. I always have my journal with me, but I rarely take it out of the knapsack. Brian Teare writes about "en plein aire poetics," writing as he hikes: "phrases taken down without stopping interleave with more fully realized passages written during a pause in the walk, the interplay of fragments and full stanzas a kind of mapping." I adore this essay. When I reread Teare's method, I fantasize about doing the same. But then I’m in the woods, and it's all I can do to rid my mind of my head, lowering myself into my lungs, letting quads... Continue reading
Posted Jul 13, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
A few days ago (Hiking Notes #2/July 9), I told the story of surviving the swamp lettuce. Today, I'm going back to the trail where I picked the toxic salad: the Frost Trail, which runs two miles along the north shore of Lake Paran in North Bennington, Vermont, to the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury, where Robert Frost lived from 1920 to 1928. I had seen a note on the trail map about a grove of red pines that Frost himself had planted almost exactly 100 years ago. I wanted to see those trees. So today I'm writing about what I seem to need as I toggle between my wooden desk and the woods. I'm thinking about trees as lifeforms whose biology blurs the distinction between the living and the dead. About shade, and shades. The Frost trail veers northwest away from Lake Paran, crossing streams, moving through mostly deciduous woods. Eventually you cross over stones that mark the edge of Frost's property line, through wetlands where you can find watercress in the spring -- as well as the dreaded "water lettuce," which I have warned you not to eat. As you reenter the woods, you can start looking for the red pine grove. If you're like me on the first visit, you won't know what you're watching for. It was late spring, one of the season's first warm afternoons. How big was the grove? Would I be able to distinguish it from the rest of the woods, which had evergreen patches? The nearer I got to the Stone House Museum (now about .5 mile away), the more I expected a commemorative plaque. The clear air was suddenly softened and clouded by a clean scent as undeniable as a bullhorn. My nose made me ready to see -- not the sign I had been watching for, but the trees themselves. Sure enough, the smooth grey barks of the leafy trees I had been moving through had disappeared. In their place stood more pines than I could count -- 80' to 100' tall, their heavily notched bark the color of charred earthenware. Once I was inside the red pine grove, I wondered how I thought I could miss it. Later, I read through Frost's journals and letters for the details: After moving to Shaftsbury, Frost purchased several hundred seedlings cheaply from the state, when agencies all over the country were stimulating reforestation to check erosion. Red pine is a fast-growing, low maintenance species that favors acidic, sterile, sandy soil. Similar stands exist throughout the midwest and northeast (in Canada, west to Manitoba; and in the U.S., south to Pennsylvania). In Vermont alone, red pines contribute 12 million cubic feet of wood to the state's forests. Frost planted the trees in 1921 with his son, Carol, who was 19 at the time. I picture them working together for days that spring, carting the burlap balls down to the chosen site, discussing the arrangement, digging hundreds of holes with sharp... Continue reading
Posted Jul 12, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday's hike, along the same route I hiked four months ago, was another story entirely. Trees in full leaf, 75 degrees, and my mind full of mother. I didn't recognize her presence right away. A couple of miles in, I noticed an uncommon number of sticks resembling bones: knobby joints, hollowed out as though scooped of marrow, dry, almost weightless. As I stared at the bone in my hand, I realized that I had been thinking about my mom for at least the past half hour. I had been thinking about how my turn to hiking was like her avid walking. If she hadn't died so early -- we're coming up on the fourth anniversary of her passing -- I could have brought her up to this ridge with me. She would have declined, of course. She was a walker, not a hiker. She would have invited me instead to drop by after the hike to tell her about it, over iced tea and Bananagrams. So then I knew that I had brought her with me after all. And I wondered if I had brought her because I had thought to bring poetry with me this time as well -- literally, in my backpack: Dan Beachy-Quick's slim book, (gentlessness), stuffed in the narrow pocket designed for a Camelbak hydration bladder. I read to the dogs when we stopped to rest. Here's a line for you, I said. "But still, there sodden sits the half-rot root / Thought digs deeper down to that ideal pain / To drink (as a dog drinks from fen to slake / Its hunting thirst)." They panted in neutral assent. The sonnet goes on, "The poet fills his mouth with names he cannot / Speak, but murmurs to himself that secret / The flies murmur within the flowers they haunt -- / There is none, there is none (and the cloud / Of gnats agrees): aster, musk-rose, flood." I spit my black cherry pits into the density of wild blueberry bushes around us. I kept coming back to another set of lines, a tangled mantra for the rest of the hike: "I found myself / out where I was hiding away / in the grass I was hiding away / from the grass in myself." I want to say that Dan's poems had readied me for my mother's visit, but maybe it's the other way around. "How break the spell? say, / I'm weary. Say, / the blade's edge grew dull. / Say, the sound I am // listening to is too small. / How is it I can speak / all these words with my mouth / pressed against the ground? // I have spent a life in the field / turning it over to learn / how to turn myself over and lie / in the field face down." So there we all were on the crest, spells and grasses and dogs and blackberry blossoms and ghosts. Back went the book into the pack.... Continue reading
Posted Jul 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Here's the third in my series of Hiking Notes -- thinking about what happens to my writing mind when I take to the trail. The Snow Hole, a popular hiker's destination in the Berkshires, located almost exactly at the intersection of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont, is located atop and within the Taconic crest, which I've been writing about for the past two days. I heard about the Snow Hole as soon as I moved to the Berkshires. Accounts were vague: there's a crevasse up in the mountains where it stays cold enough to keep snow frozen even through the summer. Like the natural marble bridge in North Adams, the Snow Hole has been a tourist sight for over 200 years. At both places you can see carved graffiti from the 19th century. Part geographical oddity, part kitsch. During the years I had small kids, such an outing was impossible. Then, my kids got older and developed interests other than hiking. Then, I forgot. The Snow Hole popped back on my radar when I started hiking a few years ago. Last spring, I looked at the map of trails I had yet to hike, and singled out this one. Since then, I've gone twice. With breaks, plus some steep meandering on logging road off-shoots, it took me 3 hours. Some trail guides describe the hike as easy to moderate, but yesterday, after the 7-mile there-and-back, I was spent. I said I've hiked to the Snow Hole two times. But I've only seen it once. Today, I'm writing about what I saw when I didn't see the Snow Hole, the first time around. Tomorrow, I'll write about what I saw when I did see it. And about how both the seeing and the not seeing fire the impulses that give rise to writing -- to poetry, especially. The first hike to the Snow Hole was a radiant experience. It was mid-March, cold and crystal-clear, not yet even early spring. There was snow along the trail, but not enough for snowshoes. Microspikes were all I needed. After the initial, steep ascent, we gained the ridge where the trail begins to level out. The guidebook says "undulating hills," but that description softens the fairly constant burn in lungs, glutes and tendons. While I was aware of my pace, pulse and breath, the dogs bounded through the woods -- two German shepherd puppies, the one about six months old, the other, almost two. At top speed, they made enormous loops and figure 8's, crossing the trail to tag me as they careened by. Part gazelle, the younger one pronked, catching as much air as she covered ground. The older one, almost 90 lbs, followed her as best he could, crashing through the brush and hurtling the fallen trees he couldn't squeeze under. Nonhumans and human, we moved forward, loosely together, but at wildly different paces, over and along opposing planes and axes. The trail is densely wooded along the ridge. But in March, which... Continue reading
Posted Jul 10, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
If you haven't read Day #1, take a glance back -- it will orient you as to my purpose and place. Short version of my blogs this week: writing and hiking. In the next few days, I'm thinking my way into what happens to my mind when I body myself into the trees and stay there for a while. Yesterday I said I was a novice. Our mountains in the Berkshires reach only a few thousand feet, hills by the standard of my poet-hiker friends in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Washington. I'm a day hiker, a piker, no heavy backpack. I return, day after day, to the same map of trails in a ten- or fifteen-mile radius. I stay close to home. In yesterday's blog, I mentioned the wild azalea that smells as sweet and strong as night-blooming jasmine, and the grosbeak's ornate song, as if I knew what I was talking about. I should come clean. The few things I know about the place I live have come to me by accident, or through spastic Googling. I happened to learn about the azalea the day after my hike, over dinner at a wedding. I was seated next to my colleague, Joan Edwards, a botanist who works on fast-moving plants and biomimicry. Her most recent research is on what she calls a "neighborhood" model of pollination, whereby flowers from the same species will have different visitors at different sites. Her cameras record an image every three seconds. I excitedly reported that the honeysuckle was in full bloom all along the Taconic crest. It smells like heaven up there, I said. Wonderful! she said. But that's not honeysuckle. It's wild azalea, a native species. I shut up and listened to Joan. So now I know that. I only know about the grosbeak's song because I went to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website,, and clicked on the link. I only know it's the Rose-breasted grosbeak because David Sibley's Guide to Birds is open on the dining room table. Distinguishing between the Rose-headed and Black-headed can be tricky. Remember that "Rose-breasted can be extensively buffy on underpants." Late in Specimen Days Whitman defends his ignorance of the names of the birds whose birdsong he hears: "Many I cannot name; but I do not very particularly seek information. (You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things, and of the sentiment of feather’d, wooded, river, or marine Nature generally. I repeat it—don’t want to know too exactly, or the reasons why. My own notes have been written off-hand in the latitude of middle New Jersey. Though they describe what I saw—what appear’d to me—I dare say the expert ornithologist, botanist or entomologist will detect more than one slip in them.)" This is malarky, of course. Specimen Days is nothing if not a sustained ode to specifying. Whitman knows... Continue reading
Posted Jul 8, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Jul 6, 2019