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Cara Benson
Cara Benson is a writer who lives in upstate New York on ancestral Mohican land.
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“There is a rhetoric to walking.” - Michel de Certeau Most everyone I know right now is alternating between sheer terror over politics (I’ll leave it at that) and a desperate search for respite in order to manage the panic. Same here. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who’s read any of my previous Dispatches that I take to walking when trouble is afoot (sorry). It gets me out of my interior, both my four walls and my mind, and into the body and the outer world. As I am physically capable, which I try not to take for granted, I can just go. I don’t need to have a thing sorted out but eventually how to get home. Of course walking is ripe for metaphor, that time-honored mechanism for making sense of the world, especially if one is writing about it. As I am walking to interrupt myself, to disrupt the mind’s search, seize, categorize, repeat, I will leave it to the reader’s imagination to make of this string of sentences what she will. In fact, I’m in a mood to write a series of digressions and left turns, similar, at times, to how I walk (this grove, that path, over a hill, why not). Again, so long as I make it back. I’ll start off with a confession: I trespass. Beyond being of European descent in the US, what I mean here is that I sheepishly tiptoe past POSTED signs all the time. In my defense, I’m not traipsing across someone’s back yard. There are thousands of wooded acres around me that host no dwellings. I do not hunt, rip it up on ATVs, nor leave detritus behind (these are often the concerns) – quite the opposite. I typically pick up any litter I come across (Mylar balloons know no borders) or pull dead branches from squashing new growth. I am very careful where I tread so as not to tear moss, for example, from a rock. Not to create mud, to cause erosion. I pay close attention when I am walking through what I will call raw woods, when I am not traveling a previous path that has shown over time that the forest will be just fine with this trail boring through it. Whether on private or public terrain, I am acutely pained to tramp down green, to step on an unsuspecting red eft, to leave a trace. Sometimes it’s just easier to walk a road. One of the draws for moving up on the hill where I live was that even the paved routes stretching out in the vicinity of my home hold a boundary with much wildness. This area is one of NY State’s largest contiguous forests. Seasonal waterfalls, rampant wildflowers, long stretches of wooded land or meadows fill as much of the lengths along these roads as do homes, though those are here and I am curious about them, too. As I wander roadside, these walks can lend themselves to notions of... Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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“Land is life – or, at least, land is necessary for life.” Patrick Wolfe “Whose woods these are I think I know” begins the canonized Robert Frost poem about stopping on a horse one evening “to watch [the landowner’s] woods fill up with snow.” Though the first stanza is concerned with this probable owner and whether he would catch the speaker of the poem stopping on his land, Frost’s primary aim in the poem, it seems, is to render a stolen moment of contemplation on the darkest day of the year, before traveling the long road home and ultimately the long road of his life to death, the forever sleep. As someone who walks in woods often, nearly daily since COVID and moving up on a hill, this opening comes to me not infrequently. It’s one of the many lines I chirp out as I go, a refrain as I make music with my feet as well. Others include: bah bah bah bah bah bah bah You say it’s your birthday! Or, from The Sound of Music of my youth: Oh Mother Superior I could never get lost in these hills! And, also, because I take me with me: Paranoia paranoia everybody’s coming to get me. Just say you never met me. I’m not sick, but I’m not…. Well, you get the picture. Songs, catch phrases, bits of conversation – usually unbidden – burble up from the well of my experience, which is some small part of a collective experience, a version, if skewed and biased, of communal mixed tapes. The Frost line, I’ve noticed, usually comes out as Whose woods are these – an interrogative, the maybe more expected version than how it was constructed for the poem. Of course Frost is being a poet in arranging his line for rhythm and surprise. In conversation we might say, “I think I know whose woods these are.” Instead, he opens with what sets us up for an expectation of the question. “Whose woods” feels as if it will be asking, rather than asserting. Though he then undermines the assertion (he thinks he knows, not he’s certain he knows), there is a claim embedded in the line. He is sure that there is a singular owner, even if he’s not entirely sure he knows which. The woods where I now live are the original homelands of the Mohican (Muhheconneok) people. Their villages and great council fire were down closer to the river, the land in the hills for seasonal hunting, fishing, and gathering, and it is certain they were here for millennia prior to Henry Hudson sailing up “the river that flows both ways” in 1609. Their territory extended on both sides of the river and from as far north as Lake Champlain all the way south to close to the mouth of the river at Manhattan island. One account has it that their numbers had been 25,000, with 4,000 warriors, at their peak. We know that this changed – dramatically... Continue reading
Posted Aug 5, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Barry, This is lovely! Cara
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There is a pond at the heart of the woods down multiple hills, over more ridges than I care to count, from the church where I now live. When I think of it, the pond, from here at my home, I can feel its stillness, though of course it isn’t still, at all. Water, and certainly this backcountry collection of it, is in constant flux. What is it, then, that these pools become known as calming presences? I’ll drop the word womb here, also bodily percentages, where we come from and what we’re made of, but I’ve got other places to go in this post, so I’ll let them wash over us as I move on to how the pond ripples and drains through marsh grasses into runoff streams feeding the downslopes, all the while holding a relatively (isn’t everything) level surface. Enter geese. There’s a pair of them I’ve come to find regularly at the pond. Surely they’d been there before, Canadian geese are what birdwatchers would call “common” in North America, but I remember the first time I became acutely aware of these particular two. The afternoon was glumly overcast, and though I’ve hiked in all manner of weather, winter being a favorite, this day my mood matched the gray and I might well have preferred working out at the gym if that had been an option. (My YMCA closed the same day New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had his last workout at the gym, some 65 days ago and counting.) My house could sport an exercise class, but getting out every day is imperative, especially because I can, both physically and also safely in regard to virus-required social distancing, so I do. I layered up for the walk, stuffed my feet into boots, and sighed as I stepped out the door. It’s not immediately an easy path to get to the pond through the woods at the edge of the land surrounding the church; I have to walk through pricker bushes and pick my way carefully along and over a portion of the seemingly millions of miles of lichen-encrusted stone walls that crawl the landscape in the Northeast US. The stones wobble underfoot, and remnants of barbed wire fencing lie in wait in the crevices. It’s a tricky start when I head this direction, but it’s the most direct route to the good stuff, so it’s my most frequently used entry. Up and over and then crossing back again, mindful with each step not to trip nor trod the season’s burgeoning wildflowers, I made my way down to the first of many old lumbering roads, or just plain long ago abandoned dirt roads for early automobile travel, having first been horse routes. Before that, this was Mohican territory, but that deserves its own post (which is to come). This day, as I’ve said, I wasn’t in the best of spirits, so my attention was pulled inward, the way a tree encloses itself around a wound,... Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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May 17, 2020