The week after my mother’s memorial service, I found myself standing on the top of the first mountain I ever climbed, at 3, with her, my three brothers, and my father. Mom told me once that she had sort of pushed me up the short, steep path. I even remember how she asked me to stand by a small pine tree for a photo. The tree is still there. It pushes out of the rock ledge at the woods edge, back from the view over lake and mountains. And oh, was I grumpy. She later said how I used to complain, during family mountain climbs, “I hate this. I’m only doing this to get to the top.”
To her credit, she didn’t wave that at me much after I was climbing mountains all the time and telling anyone who would listen that the experience has nothing to do with the summit. Ha!
Mom didn’t do much hiking—let’s be clear. This one little mountain was her thing. She climbed two others with us that I know of. I’m pretty sure she and her sisters complained when their father drove up Pike’s Peak. She didn’t mention how it looked, just how scared they all were.
The coming months will unfold so that I can understand where Mom’s complete soul remains in mine. Now I can see the complete mother—and no longer have to think about the problems she had in old age, and the fact that she was unhappy as her freedom to move around freely evaporated with her strength. All that is over now. Now I’m standing in my little green pants by that gnarly pine that could keep going despite the rock on which it had rooted. Now I am trying to cool my flushed cheeks again beneath the same tree, and I can hear her voice asking me to look toward the camera.
We climbed two mountains in the Pliny Range of New Hampshire today. On the ridge, spring’s arrival was creeping upward toward winter’s exit. Low on the ridge, wildflowers reached away from the path. The red trillium is the most beautiful and amazing of them all. It grows out of a rhizome, and the leaves aren’t true leaves (the true leaves apparently live underground). It puts out a single bloom. A world that can produce something so stunning in a scrubby woods in the North Country—with no humans tending them in greenhouses, no cultivation, no planning—is a world I want to know. I will not reveal where I saw this flower. It’s too amazing.
Hello everybody. Yesterday I graduated from Arizona State University with my master’s degree in history. The program gave me so much. View my final Capstone portfolio here.
Here I sit in Phoenix, looking out on a steady rain falling on the cacti. Soon I return to my usually-rainy homeland of Connecticut. Wherever you are, let the landscape inspire new writing, new ideas, and ways that you can make those ideas unfold.
I am working this month on my series for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team on sewage overflows in Bridgeport. Tomorrow I’ll be on the water with a group of concerned citizens learning how to take samples near an outflow pipe in their neighborhood. More on this project as it progresses.
I waved away gnats, an instinct I haven’t practiced since last October. I stepped over dried mud and looked at the sticks that would offer forth raspberries in a few months.
Cataclysm has visited my life with the death of my mother last week from an unexpected, major stroke. For years I hoped that she would slip from this world without pain. I just didn’t expect it to happen that way. And yet—this is what answered prayers look like.
Living things die. People must die. Animals and plants must spring up, ripen, and then decline. The first thing a living creature or plant offers? Optimism.
Bushy Hill Lake knows more about the past than we might think. Once upon a time, it trickled as a stream at the bottom of this valley. Such changes offer a writer stories and symbols. (Pioneer Village end of the lake, mid-January 2019.)
Biologist Tom Tyning scrambles up a ledge in Massachusetts, looking for rattlesnakes he will study in his lab and then return to the wild. The snakes are rare because poachers steal them and sell them illegally. (Photo by Christine Woodside)
From Appalachia Winter/Spring 2019, published originally by the mountaineering and conservation journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is not cute. Poachers and scared people have nearly wiped them off the New England landscape in the last century or two. A few hundred years ago New England’s only venomous snake thrived. Streets, hills, and valleys are named after them. In my hometown of Deep River, Connecticut, Rattling Valley Road rambles down past outcroppings of ledge rock where, long ago, rattlesnakes lay on the cliffs. Back then you watched where you put your feet. Now cars ramble down that valley looking for a back way. A few dozen miles north of here, Rattlesnake Mountain houses television and cell antennae. Another Rattlesnake Mountain, free of snakes, overlooks Squam Lake in central New Hampshire; no snakes there, either. Rattlesnakes are so rare that biologists who study them won’t reveal the last few spots where they live lest they encourage poachers who usually know where they are, anyway.
For some years now, I’ve been on the trail of an underground rattlesnake poaching operation in New England. Snakes sell for hundreds of dollars on the internet, although harvesting and selling them in the Northeast is illegal. I set out to visit where they do thrive so that I could understand what drives small-time criminals to collect them in sacks and what fascinates those people who would buy a wild snake and keep it in a cage. And so I followed the only people who could legally show me: snake biologists.
Tom Tyning, a rattlesnake biologist from Berkshire Community College, panted as he trudged slowly up the steep side of a traprock ridge somewhere in southern Massachusetts—location to remain secret.
Tying has spent his life following snakes. As a kid he caught and kept snakes as if called by God. He told me that if he hadn’t picked the scientist route, he could have grown up to be a snake hunter—except that in the Northeast if you collect rattlesnakes without a scientist’s permit, you’re a poacher. Poachers have worked long careers with limited penalties. The most notorious of them was the late Rudy Komarek, who poached and killed 9,000 rattlesnakes in three states over 30 years. Komarek singlehandedly caused what researchers have called “the shocking demise” of rattlesnakes in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. Tyning told me that after authorities caught and imprisoned Komarek, he remained unrepentant. From prison, as a protest, he mailed other illegal snake catchers maps marked in detail with places the rattlesnakes lived. Apparently it’s easy to help poachers from jail.
Komarek did the damage of several people. Today the secret Rudys are still at it. Tyning said, “There are always people getting arrested at airports who get caught with snakes in their pockets, tied to their legs. It’s become a really weird international ring of poaching. And it’s a huge smuggling operation. After birds and even before monkeys, reptiles, especially snakes, and turtles and lizards are among the biggest entities in international smuggling. They’re fascinating; they’re beautiful. I understand all that stuff.”
I had promised I would not say where I now trudged behind Tyning up a steep hill. The sun shone, which was vital to our quest. Sun brings out the snakes. As he panted up the ridge, Tyning joked that he was getting too old to chase his research subject. He was slightly overweight but very strong, and he pushed energetically toward the cliff where he knew a community of timber rattlesnakes lived. I would help him collect a few for his research. We were using all the same techniques poachers use. First, we would hike right to where he knew they would be basking. Then he would reach out with his snake tongs just as a snake went by. He would grab them with his snake tongs and drop them into a bag I would hold open. The bag looked like a pillowcase.
Late spring’s vegetal soil filled my nostrils. I heard a raspy hiss. A creature looking more like a black snake glided from under a rock. “Why does it look so dark?” I asked. Tyning said that sometimes their tan and black patterns seem to recede under grayish tones. “It’s about to shed its skin,” he told me. “Are you ready? I’m going to grab it, and you’re going to hold open the bag just when I tell you.”
“I’m ready,” I said, as if saying so would make it true. I had come out here out of respect and awe for an endangered reptile that could kill me with its bite. If it felt threatened, it could sink its fangs into my hovering arm. My skin would swell up and eventually turn black as the venom kills tissue so that it might be more easily digested were the snake to later make a meal of me. That would never happen. Snakes eat mice and other small rodents. They only bite humans if we threaten them. Which of course we were doing right then. Still, humans almost never die of rattlesnake bites, and antivenom available at nearby hospitals would reverse any bite’s damage quickly. I thought of none of that as I stood with the pillowcase, but Tyning’s calm demeanor washed over me.
“The fear of snakes,” a Minnesota snake information site explains, “is a learned behavior, which has been exacerbated by such things as myths and media misrepresentation.”
I would not fail Tyning; I would help him without causing new problems.
Road noise could not drown out the molting snake’s loud hissing. Tying leaned in, ready to strike with his grabber. I leaned in. He expertly affixed the two sides of the grabber around the snake. The rattling got louder.
The snake didn’t like what it knew was coming. It rattled and rattled; I felt rattled. Tyning reached out with his grabber—and the thing wouldn’t shut down. It was stuck open. The snake slid down and away and underneath another rock. That had never happened to this biologist in his entire career, and I was a witness. Something about the escape told me more than if we’d gotten the snake. I’d gotten very close and could see the beautiful shingles of its skin.
Dennis Quinn, an independent herpetologist, wore tan cargo pants and a green striped polo shirt. He might have been out for a ramble in the woods. Except he looked pretty odd. He was carrying a long snake grabber and he asked if I would take one side of a large plastic cooler. He joked that he dressed like a poacher—and that they tend to use the same collecting tactics. Quinn’s job that day was collecting snakes for a study of fungal disease. In a lab, scientists would take blood samples and make observations.
We trudged up and around a set of rock outcroppings covered by young tree growth. They were in there. We peered down. He gently poked a pole under the rock, just to rustle them up a bit. They slithered out like a slow, downhill seep. I stood by, thinking I ought to apologize. One short one I peered at from a crouch, watching his eyes, which looked like vertical slits. “Sorry, guy,” I murmured. Quinn turned to me, reassuringly, and said, “I’ll return these in a few days. Your job now is to open the cooler when I say.”
He grabbed first one, then another, then another snake with his tool and quickly placed them into giant pillowcases. These are the tools of the poacher. He said, without irony, that he guessed scientists gathering snakes for lab studies could easily become snake hunters if they didn’t have their work. The hissing went on and on as I held open the green plastic lid.
A few days later, as he promised, Quinn returned alone with the cooler and set his research subjects free. I imagined them sighing (or the serpentine equivalent of sighing) and making fast time back to their big ledge rock. I felt awe by now. I cared. Many people do care about rattlesnakes now. Connecticut’s wildlife biologist Jenny Dickson told me later that the days of hysteria and fear have passed. “The public is more understanding,” she said. “You’re going to get the occasional intentional killing of the snakes. But they’re probably going to think twice before they pick up the shovel and just randomly whack something.”
A few years ago I thought I might see what else I could learn about the poacher Rudy Komarek, so I sent an email to the office that had secretly investigated his crimes in New York State:
“Dear office of environmental crime,” my letter started awkwardly. “I am working on a story about rattlesnakes and their incredibly low numbers due to poaching. I would like to interview someone who can talk about the problem of poaching timber rattlesnakes and who was involved with Operation Shell Shock a few years ago. Please let me hear from you.”
I did not hear from them. I will venture a guess why. The battle goes on. Any publicity might expose the last of the dens. I know well that reticence to tell a writer about endangered snakes. Poaching continues by quiet, strong criminals wearing hiking shoes and carrying pillowcases. They know where the snakes live, and they sneak in, take them, sell them illegally, and go back for more.
Stealthy small-time poaching in southern New England and New York State threatens a species that has retreated in the parade of civilization. This tragedy continues silently. People have crushed their land and them, losing important predators of rodents and disease-carrying ticks. If I got my wish, and it were no longer rarer than a lightning strike to see one, I could then fear them, and even hate them. To save the timber rattlesnake, we must preserve or recreate the conditions that led to our fear and hate. And we must learn not to act upon that fear.
I’m working on:
— a project for my master’s degree from Arizona State University about farming in southern New Jersey in a place most people didn’t know exists.
— a story about plastic pieces in food, water, and marine animals.
— an investigation into untreated sewage outflows on the coast of Connecticut.
— a book of wilderness essays.
— running more in the woods.
— building fires every night.
— loving my neighbor.
— appreciating the day-to-day instead of worrying ahead.
— not shopping this holiday season.
Saturday afternoon my husband and I walked by the town landing in Deep River, Connecticut. High tide had encountered more rain. Two rowboats normally overturned and chained to driftwood on a small beach now bobbed like lost flotsam. Sloshy waves lapped at a bench by the boat ramp. A wrack line of debris curved several feet up the asphalt. What essays should I be writing? What books should I be reading? What housework beckons? What conversations should I initiate? Water’s power creeps up into all of it.
A few days ago, our car mechanic died in his sleep. A few days before that, a great Appalachian Trail pathbuilder and leader died of late-diagnosed cancer. A man in our church died of cancer only a few days after he’d finished editing his essay about the priest who’d been killed in World War I. Life is so temporary.
There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.
ROBERT WILSON LYND, The Blue Lion and Other Essays
Here in Flint, Michigan, where the public water supply’s lead levels created a huge public-health crisis a few years ago, I walk along the Flint River and marvel at what birds can teach us. Every day they do what they need to do to feed themselves and their offspring. They go where they need to go. I’m not suggesting a direct connection between lead levels in municipal water and birds in the river here. I’m merely saying that birds never become sidetracked with the wrong goals or values. They just want to live. How much that can teach me, every day.
Quotation source: http://www.notable-quotes.com/b/birds_quotes.html#BWeKGyk2mxoZyYD5.99
Tutoring. It’s a part of my world right now as I finish my master’s degree in history. I tutor graduate students at Arizona State University in writing. I enter an online world for 10 hours a week, helping social workers and nurse practitioners and criminal justice students and English students and etc. write more clearly. I help them with grammar. With organization. With theme. I help them feel a little less frantic. Today I’m working on a final paper for my course in historical methods. I am remembering my own advice. It will be OK. And this nice award from the Graduate Writing Center arrived in my inbox. Hooray.
The path emerges.
Rock by rock, I laid this path many years ago, using field stone, hunks of an old backyard fireplace, slate pieces rejected by a builder, and even broken pieces of concrete I found at the property line underneath vines. The path lacked a central organizing theme other than I like rock paths. I needed more and larger rocks, but I was impatient, so I made do. Impatience has guided most of my house projects, and I’m hoping to change. The grass year by year crept over the edges of the stones. By this year, you could not see the walkway at all. It had surrendered.
My shovel, my dog, and I spend an hour out there each day. This picture shows my progress after excavation last week. Since I took that I have dug the path twice as wide and begun placing flat rocks a neighbor gave us. I had almost forgotten those rocks lay in piles by the old outdoor fireplace. I’m lugging one each day across the back yard to the path. I drag the biggest ones inside a tarp, foot by foot. Who needs vacations when one has graduate school and a path to rebuild? One stone, then another, then another.
Some years ago, my daughter, Annie, told us about a little boy selling brownies at the annual fife-and-drum parade in our town. His mother went into a store, leaving him in charge. Some girls came by and handed him 5 cents. He gave them their brownie and 25 cents in change.
I laughed so hard hearing this story that my eyes leaked and my voice squeaked as I acted out the scene for my family: “Come and get it! A great deal! A brownie plus 20 cents, only a nickel!” I bent over, slapping my knees, crying and laughing to the point where the girls and my husband looked perplexed.
One week later, we became vendors at the fife-and-drum-parade with a rented ice-cream cart. We didn’t sell enough to turn a profit. We might as well have been that little boy, blithely expending more than he took in while working for several hours. We took in $296.60 in ice-cream sales. But the freezer rental cost $192.30 and the ice-cream itself about $200. So we lost about $95 and we had a freezerful of ice-cream which we would serve our friends for the rest of the year. The brownie-selling boy handed out his losses directly. We took ours home. I say “we,” but I conceived and directed the ice-cream vending project. My husband and two daughters reluctantly helped. The ice-cream we took home would have brought in a few hundred dollars more, if customers had bought it. If we’d sold it all, we could have turned a profit of a few hundred.
At the time, I didn’t see the lesson in the little boy, except I did write this story down a few days after the loss. I told myself that standing with the ice-cream cart was a better way to spend our day at the parade than just holding our ears as the cannons went off. I told myself that working had put us in touch with the community in a way that just watching the parade did not.
But if someone had charged me $95 to give my family some community, I would have thought it was too expensive. I would have thought it as absurd as selling a brownie for a nickel and giving the customer 25 cents’ change. Finally, a few months later, I sold a story about our unprofitable ice-cream vending project to the Hartford Courant, earning $350, thus netting $260 on the ice-cream venture.
Moral: Stick with what you know how to do. If you know how to write, write. If you know how to sell food to parade-goers, do that.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed this cottage, and many other houses, in Fairfield, Connecticut. Courtesy of the Fairfield Fire Department.
A day after Hurricane Sandy hit, Nancy Arnold waded down her basement stairs and saw five feet of storm surge partially submerging her furnace and hot water heater.
After the water eventually retreated, and the local fire department pumped out the rest, Arnold had another worry: mold. A husband and wife who had done painting for the Arnolds showed up and offered to wash the home’s lower level with bleach.
“Where would I have been without that,” Arnold wondered this summer, “because they knew about the mold, and they Cloroxed the whole basement. If there’s another storm, I don’t know if they’re up to do that again.”
Arnold has lived in her house near the end of Whitfield Street in Guilford since 1962. She and her family evacuated to a local community center for six hours during the worst of Sandy’s tempest. Evacuations have become commonplace in her neighborhood, she said. A year prior, during Hurricane Irene, the family also packed their bags and spent the night at the center. After the Sandy cleanup, Arnold hired a contractor to install a new furnace that hangs from the ceiling, about 5 feet above the floor. “That’s as high as they could make it,” she said. “If it needs to be higher than that, Guilford’s in trouble.
But the way the world is today, who’s to say, you know, what could happen?” For the past several decades, Arnold has watched the tide creep deeper into the marshes that ripple outside her living-room window. Guilford’s coastal neighborhoods, like most of the shoreline, saw the future arrive with Hurricane Irene in 2011. In a century, climate change and a rising sea level on Connecticut’s coast have brought more frequent and devastating flooding during storms.
The flooding destroys property, something people hear about immediately. But it also harms people’s health. After flooding, mold quickly multiplies into fuzzy blobs on walls and furniture. When people try to clean up, they breathe in airborne microbes that can trigger breathing problems, skin rashes and infections, mucous membrane illnesses, and problems in internal organs, according to fungal scientist Eckardt Johanning and his colleagues, writing in an article in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.
Health researchers say that residents should view floods as hazardous to their health and doctors need to beef up their training to recognize flood-related illnesses. Mold itself can make people sick, but mold also signals the presence of other bacteria and disease, said Paula Schenck, director of the Center for Indoor Environments and Health at UConn Health. She said doctors “can advise their patients to have the appropriate protective gear on hand before the flood, and then avoid exposures that would cause illness, so I’m sort of on a disease-prevention soapbox here.”
“If you live in an environment that is likely to see severe wet weather, it’s good for your doctor to consider if you might have health concerns from exposures after a storm, or from being in a chronically wet environment, when you go in for your yearly exam,” Schenck said. This little-discussed public health threat—exposure to mold—is rising slowly into the public consciousness. Nuisance flooding has increased on the United States coasts, and it will increase dramatically after 2050, or about the time that today’s babies will be young adults.
People who live near water now live more and more in water. Adam Whelchel, director of science for the Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, has worked on coastal resilience planning with dozens of municipalities. “There’s a whole lot of emotional stress that goes along with living along the coast,” he said. Around New England, most coastal areas have been inundated several inches over the past century. Bridgeport’s sea level has risen nearly 1 foot, and New London’s slightly less, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) calculations.
The yearly increase is almost 3 millimeters. In March, the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation at the University of Connecticut released a report predicting increases of another 20 inches by 2050. Major areas of the coast will flood regularly in the future. High-tide flooding along the nation’s coastline has increased 300 percent to 900 percent in the last half-century. NOAA’s map of projected high-tide flooding can be zoomed to street-level detail for any town in Connecticut. A perusal of the state shows that inundation by floods will cover large swaths of Guilford south of I-95, and large areas of Madison, Bridgeport, Middletown, Old Saybrook, Haddam, Hartford and Stamford in the future. Buildings in the floodwaters’ path will be prone to mold and all that mold signifies.
All molds are part of the kingdom of fungi. Scientists haven’t yet identified most fungi that exist—90 percent or so, said De-Wei Li, a research mycologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Valley Laboratory in Windsor. Scientists who study fungi spend much of their time simply identifying species. The hundreds of molds scientists have identified in this part of the world can trigger allergies like asthma and skin reactions, and some of them contain mycotoxins or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their spores. Mycotoxins and VOCs can cause serious diseases or reactions when ingested, when they come in contact with skin, or when someone breathes them in. The microscopic spores penetrate deep into the lungs.
A month after Sandy hit in the Northeast, scientists collected samples of mold from houses in Brielle and Manasquan, New Jersey. They found 36 types of mold, including six that killed flies in the lab. Molds found included Aspergillus niger, which the CDC reports can cause lung infections and allergic reactions; Aspergilloma (fungus ball); and the most common found in damp or water-damaged structures, Penicillium chrysogenum.
The presence of mold also indicates a whole soup of biological materials, including bacteria. If someone sees mold growing inside, they are witnessing a risk to respiratory health, Schenck said. She added that flood waters can be dangerously contaminated. Certain medical conditions make one vulnerable to airborne mold.
“Many materials—wallboard, fabrics themselves (clothes, curtains) and those that trap dust (carpet) are a grand meal for mold,” Schenck has written. “Even some well-constructed buildings that haven’t had moisture concerns in the past become wet from wind-driven rain and flood waters in severe storms.”
Schenck wants people to know that any time they see mold, they should consider it an indicator that “moisture is available for biological growth.” The wetter it is, the greater the chances of severe respiratory illnesses. An increase in floods will cause wood and drywall and other building materials to become saturated more often, causing an increase in people’s exposure to airborne mold spores, since that is how they reproduce.
This means that people whose immune systems have been weakened by disease are more vulnerable to health effects from mold. The most urgent advice about a flooded living space is to get out until the standing water has subsided. “Once it’s flooded, don’t go wading unprotected in that environment,” Schenck said.
My mother Gloria, 35-ish years ago, at around the time I sent the four-page typed letter.
A few weeks ago my three brothers, sister, and I needed to pack up some objects and papers from our past. We didn’t have much time, so our minds jolted into hyper-focus. Who would keep what? My grandfather’s diaries emerged out of a box of check registers and old bills; photos flew into boxes organized with labels like “Riverside” (for the street where we’d grown up) or “Pre-1950.” Then, I pulled from a pile of papers a four-page typed letter I’d sent to my mother when I was 23 years old and working as a journalist in a big city.
Our whirlwind organizing task is done. Now I pull out the letter. The words I read came from a stranger. I have forgotten half of the people in here. I can not believe how much time I spent back then at parties and events whose hosts I was meeting for the first time. My life was one big exploration of personalities.
I see reading my typed stream-of-consciousness that some people I had met tried to be kind and that I didn’t always notice. I can briefly inhabit those lonely, unhappy months in this letter. At the time, I was volunteering at a radio station. I loved that work, and I met so many people through the station that I had stopped trying to keep track of them all. After a folk concert one night (I wrote Mom) one radio buddy’s girlfriend drove me home. She listened gravely as I chattered about my tiring year at a small newspaper with almost no time off. As I climbed out of the car, she peered out at me and said, earnestly, “I hope you have a better fall.” Until that moment, I had not realized how much I had been complaining. Her kindness stopped me flat. I wrote Mom that I “secretly wished” the girl a good fall, too. But I apparently said nothing of it. “You should have answered her! You should have become friends with her!” my older self wants to scold my younger self.
My mother must have been somewhat horrified, too. But she did keep the letter tucked deep into one of her many baskets. She kept all of our letters, and programs, and scrawled little notes saying we were going to see a friend. So I know she had no special love of this letter. But she must have smiled when I told her I’d cooked her best spaghetti sauce: “Tonight I cooked your spaghetti recipe for my semi-gourmet friends,” I told Mom, “and they loved it so much that J—– wants the recipe and D– had seconds of a pasta dish, which he says he never does.”
And then came the inevitable sentences about money. “Please don’t worry about my financial situation or how I choose to handle it. If I need your help, for train fare or anything else, believe me, I’ll ask. The nice thing is knowing you’re willing to help, not that you feel you must. … I want to do as much as I can for myself. It means a lot to me.”
She knew it meant a lot to me, because she had cheered me on about living on my own. She had told me I could do that thing that she had not yet had a chance to try.
On Saturday I gathered around writer Laura Waterman’s log-house table in Vermont with the good people of the Waterman Fund Essay Contest Committee. We reviewed a few dozen narrative pieces by new writers about wild places and their importance. We have a winner, and a runner-up! The winning piece will appear in the winter/spring issue of Appalachia journal. Meanwhile, the summer/fall issue is about to come out. Subscribe now. Appalachia is a print journal published twice a year. We publish excerpts in places like here and here.