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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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It comes again. Every year. Every year I wonder, how does it happen, this miracle of growth, of green of flower of budding breeding migrating and the prolific swelling smells of earth coming alive into growing season. It’s iconic, awe at the miracle of cyclical rebirth. Ancient, even. Persephone, after all, had her own cult. I’ll admit that I’m not opposed to fancying myself a goddess traipsing through fields of hayseed ferns and the start of what will bloom into goldenrod in a few months. (Or to having a cult following, if I’m honest.) But the goddess of spring in long ago Greece was also the goddess of the underworld, that dark place humans have mythologized for millennia, and I do not think this is by coincidence. TS Eliot famously said that April is the cruelest month. And then there’s the violent response to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, itself a symbolic disruption of tradition. Breeding season is a surprisingly dangerous time. Tender new shoots get trampled. Birds fail to fledge and get eaten. Only thirty percent of young songbirds survive. I saw a fawn, just born!, not a foot and a half high on bowed and shaky legs, wobbling its way behind the mother as she leapt out of sight into the woods. The babe not so much leapt, but bobbled. How easily this little one could get snatched. There are bear in these woods, and they wake up hungry. Other predators, too, including the most impactful of the lot – humans. Not just as hunters or destroyers of habitat, but also as drivers of two ton vehicles that smash, squash, and ravage flesh with barely a bump registering under the tires in some cases. photo of yours truly by tc tolbert Are you ready to riot yet? I am. And I am that trampler, that driver. As aware and watchful as I am, I’ve hit and killed probably more creatures than I know. Only yesterday a woodchuck ran out so close to my car there was no option for me to avoid it (though I’ve been accused of going up on two wheels to screech around a frog or chipmunk). There was a commotion under the car but in the rear view he/she kept on across the road behind me. Was it merely a matter of him getting banged up a bit? Did he make to the other side to die? Notions of locating and waiting for wildlife rehabilitators occurred to me, then I let this one go and drove on, crying. I think he made it. I do. Through the tears that I kept wiping so I wouldn’t create another potential casualty, I couldn’t help but notice the profusion of wild phlox and rhododendron along the road, both brightly hued flowers known for attracting hummingbirds and other pollinators. It didn’t seem enough, the magenta. But I continued on. What other option is there? There is another choice, isn’t there, and that is to turn away. To avoid the... Continue reading
Posted Jul 15, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Rare glimpse It’s easy to feel like a Magoo in the woods, walking my developing foot paths to repeatedly visited spots among the veritable highways and busy intersections of animal tracks crisscrossing all around me. Of course I notice them, the tracks, but the creatures themselves have typically skidaddled. I imagine far off sets of eyes up in branches, peeking out from burrows, shining in dark dens, all trained on me as I whistle away, largely oblivious to their precise locations. I am learning, though, that their movements are legible and that I can become better versed in deciphering them. There’s a wildlife tracker I’ve been able to walk with a few times who talks about it that way, that it’s a matter of reading the story in the landscape. These stories are more prominent in winter as their trails show in the snow like pictographs on a blank page, so the season just past fell perfectly open for me to put in the “time on the ground.” In my previous post, I’d written that I was going to explore snowshoeing next. My loose idea was to ruminate on how the snow reveals desire lines. That’s the term planners use to describe foot paths that form regardless of design (think of those bare brown walkways in the green of parks that show the cut-throughs and ways that people actually travel). In the woods hikers often call them herd paths. I was thinking about my own desire as revealed by the path I tread through the landscape out my door. More than a few writers have taken this topic on of late. Robert Moor in his On Trails and Torbjørn Ekelund’s In Praise of Paths both consider how desire lines are a result of how the individual and the collective meet on the road. This idea was appealing to me, but whose trails I was meeting and overlapping with were not of human origin. My snowshoes packed and connected with paths that, from what I could tell, were deer, coyote, and would that have been mink? Or were they fisher? Are pine martens in the area? And then porcupines! That’s a yes (I think) to all of them. So my writing, like my walking, has followed this line. I quickly became obsessed with reading prints. First I was drawn in to looking at each individual mark. Counting toe pads. Seeing the imprints of nails. The gentle drag of a paw across the powder. All such intimate evidence of the actual creature left behind. I wanted to touch everything. To get as close as possible to the impressions that demonstrated an incredibly diverse taxonomy of fauna in this corner of the world. Deer, sure. Okay, voles, even turkeys. But bobcat? Out my back door? How cool is that! (Very.) (Until one attacks you.) (I’ve never been attacked.) (It could happen.) (Probably won’t.) (Right?)* Trying to identify the animal by looking only at an individual print, though, is like naming that song in... Continue reading
Posted Apr 14, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Look closely “Rifle’s done.” This from a neighbor I crossed paths with when I was out for a walk and he to shovel out his mailbox. We spoke from opposite sides of the road, occasionally pausing for the wind to die down in order to be heard. Our first big snow had fallen on the hill but “regular season” had only just ended. “Still got a few days of bow, though.” It’s the hot topic this time of year up here, whether one is gunning for meat or aiming to be missed, and I am definitively the latter. Mostly I avoid my beloved woods walks during rifle season. Hunting stands and abandoned camo tents from previous years tucked into the landscape remind a girl that come a certain Saturday in November through a certain Sunday in December heading out is no casual act. It’s unnerving to see those ladders up into platforms at a height – like a tree house, only deadly. Even walking the roads I wear my safety-orange Carhartt hat. I am, after all, moving flesh. During some of the shoulder periods that are less populated by hunters I’ve been known to slip further into the trees. Bow hunting is less a risk as an arrow’s reach is shorter than a bullet’s. Nevertheless, I whistle as I go, sharp piercing bursts with my fingers in my mouth like I’m cheering for my team. With the shorter days I’m often caught out and coming back through the woods in dusk, staving off the use of my headlamp to stretch how long I can go in natural, if fading, light. I like that time of day into night, the way the last hurrah of the sun slices the tops of the forests with gold. Apparently, that’s prime hunting time. FWEET! FWEET! Nothing to see here! Just little ole me, human, walking innocentishly home! My travels often flush the deer. I’ve seen those beauties bound up from bedding in meadows or from under sagging pine boughs on my approach. It’s always a delight. Excruciating to think of a bullet or arrow through their heart, though I might as well say right now that I do eat some meat (I haven’t always). I’m fairly certain that I could never be the one to do the deed. It probably wouldn’t be smart to count on me as gatherer or farmer, either, but fortunately every tribe needs its scribblers. A friend who walks with me in these woods (she lives down a hill, then up a patch – I can bushwhack to her house from mine) and I wear bells this time of year. Her orange vest has pockets for bullets as members of her family do hunt. She, like I am, is conflicted about it. We process this as we walk. “They have a good life up here.” Better than factory farmed animals, to be sure. We meet by our usual stump then down to a favorite pond to catch the end of... Continue reading
Posted Jan 27, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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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