Depth and Brine

I go down to the shore in the morning

and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling in or moving out,

and I say, oh, I am miserable,

what shall—

what should I do? And the sea says

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.

                               —Mary Oliver

*       *       *       *       *       *       *

Every morning the tank room smells of bleach. Gurgling pumps circulate fresh salt water endlessly through the lobsters’s quarters. I arrive at 7:00 AM, grab the clear bins of crustaceans that I had boiled the night prior, and sit myself before the stainless-steel, double-bay sinks that sit flush against the wall. I pop the lid off each bin and overturn it, dump the carcasses and their various juices onto my (briefly) white cutting board and set to dismantling the limbs, discarding the bodies, and mounding their meat in a colander. I remain here, hunched over the sinks in the whitewashed room, for anywhere between thirty minutes and three hours. This is the beginning of every day.

The crash of the churning sea waking endlessly upon Maine’s rocky coast is a sound that never grows dull in my ears– a primal roar of depth and brine, sometimes calm, sometimes furious, always beautiful. The waters of my home town are some of the most beautiful, though they are far quieter than other wide-open shores due to Loud’s Island breaking swells before they the have chance to threaten the mooring-speckled sanctum: Round Pond Harbor holds no less wonder in its murk than any section of uncharted ocean. I have lived here, right by the ocean, for fourteen years, and even before that I lived in close enough proximity to the ocean to consider myself permanently salt-waterlogged. 

Even beneath the dark canvas of a midsummer night, the pale light offered by the moon was enough to illuminate our reason for being out at Moxie Cove Picnic Area: mackerel in abundance darted about the surface twenty feet out, each showing himself in a shimmer only when his silver side turned upwards for a moment, there and gone just as a falling star, but all together putting on a lightshow just as spectacular as any display of fireworks. A young me followed his older brothers under a waning moon just for the occasion, feeling blessed that we had such close access to the harbor from our house. My fingers wrapped around the cork grip of the light fishing rod I’d brought with me, and as soon as I situated myself shin-deep, expertly balanced on the submerged outcrop of slimy rock, I began casting. 

The salty breeze, thrown in from the mouth of the harbor, nipped at our bare skin as my brothers and I hauled in fish after fish and I noted how the green-black pattern woven on their backs was just as pretty as the elegant of their shining sides. At some point in the night the mackerel stopped biting, and shortly after that the sound of their light nipping was joined by the louder smack of something very clearly breaking the surface, and though the night was taking its claim on the world with each passing minute we knew that the school of foot-long fish had been driven into frenzy by striped bass three times their size looking for an easy meal. I dropped my rod and simply watched, eager to witness anything I could but seeing nothing more than the occasional splash of black water where a striper had breached as it launched its muscular body into its prey.

My brothers frantically tried to catch these monsters, hooking our already-caught mackerel through their spines as bait. Nothing else struck their lines that night– probably for the best, for if a striper found itself caught on the hook it surely would have snapped the flimsy rod in two– and half an hour later the Picnic Area went quiet, all traces of the slaughter washed out with the receding tide. We packed up our things and made the quarter-mile trek home.

The most common thing you’ll find inside a lobster (other than meat, of course) is the white stuff, which is what lobsters have instead of blood and that has a consistency similar to those disposable gelly face-masks meant to moisturize the skin or something, if not a bit more delicate. Females often have roe, or eggs, which are clumped and grainy and fall apart between my blue latex gloves. Then there’s the tomalley: a puke-green pasty mess that works double-time as the pancreas and the liver of the big ocean bugs and that is inexplicably not present after boiling in some of them. The intestine tube runs down between the tail and often leaves the clean-white flesh smudged slightly brown. All of this must be removed, along with all shell fragments, before the meat is rinsed, cut and then packed into sandwich bags in the exact amount of 0.25 pounds to be used for lobster rolls later in the day.

One particularly busy day at the Round Pond Harbor, I recall chatter of a shark in the water by the docks causing quite a stir among the customers: dozens of them rushed to the railing when word had reached them, and there was plenty of screaming and running to bother me and the other employees. I slipped out the back door, when I got a moment, and peeked into the shallows to see only a dogfish– a shark, yes, but a small species that doesn’t often reach sizes larger than a couple of feet, and the same species that I had caught on a hand line so many years prior. I can’t argue that it wasn’t a rare sight, for I haven’t seen another shark in Round Pond Harbor since then, but I think what left me more bewildered than the streamlined fish circling in waist-deep water, its intentions forever a mystery to me, was the genuine panic that the predator had caused; I suppose it is an evolutionary trait to fear what we do not know. Despite its fan club, the dogfish eventually glided off, past the distinct line of depth in the water where light loses its grip on the world.

We think the lobster began evolving somewhere close to four-hundred million years ago, and in doing so it has developed the tools to become a mild nuisance to me as I load them into woven rope bags to be then loaded into the boiler for 11 to 17 minutes, depending on size and thickness of shell: one small, sharp claw meant for tearing apart prey and another, larger one meant for crushing, whether the object of that crushing be a clam or a rival lobster or my poor finger, caught between the claw inevitably when I remove the rubber band that keeps the things incapacitated. Their sectioned tail functions as the most obnoxious getaway device made by mother nature, for when I hold their claws together expertly in one of my hands for debanding, a trick learned after only years of practice, the things like to curl their tails endlessly, providing just enough movement to hinder the task at hand in a desperate attempt to break free from my grip, ignorant to the fact that escape would only mean a few more seconds before their descent into the cooker.

For the record, it is a myth that lobsters scream in their pots: however many tens of thousands of lobsters I have sent into boiling water, not one has decided to speak up.

On a relatively normal day– I am not working, but find myself at the seaside anyways– I sit on one of Round Pond Harbor’s three docks: big wooden platforms designed to succumb to the will of the tides. I’ve just gone for a dip and now let my legs hang in the grainy water, watching the mid-afternoon sun ride the shimmer of the ocean’s facade. Then, not five yards in front of me, a harbor seal pokes his head from the surface and spins, slowly, until his gaze meets mine. We share a long moment of silent understanding, his eyes more solemn and wise than any I have ever seen on a human, and then, without so much as a ripple, he dips back into the murky shallows where I had moments ago been swimming myself, perhaps along with him or any other number of denizens of the Atlantic. I watch a while longer in anticipation of the seal’s return, but he is gone just as the shark, exploring a world I’ll never lay my eyes on.

 

                                           Lobster, Crab and Cucumber by William Henry Hunt

“Up until sometime in the 1800s,” says David Foster Wallace in his 2004 essay Consider the Lobster, “lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.”  It wasn’t until some snob came along and decided that they were absolutely scrumptious (the same guy who got the masses eating oysters, probably) that everyone hopped on the crustacean-train. I’d wager that if humans weren’t so dead-set on hauling in as many of the things for surf’n’turf and lobster rolls as we are that they’d surely be as plentiful on the ocean floor as sand is at the beach— and they once were, as Wallace explains in his essay. In the pilgrims’s time they were fetched by the bucketful by hand. The fact that little beasts thrive even with the genocide we lay upon them each and every year, and in an environment as brutal as the ocean at that,  is amazing in and of itself. Every time I visit Muscongus Bay Lobster, not as an employee or a customer but just as an onlooker, I see the lobsters crawling in their tanks and waiting to be turned into dinner, and feel the most curious calm; the lobster and I have developed a strange  relationship over the years, and I can’t help but feel both pity for the ones baited into four-foot steel traps and envy for those that spend their days wandering the ocean’s bottom, urged only by current and instinct, for my landlocked legs long to bring me there too.

On Leaving the Pond

My grandfather built the cabin on Biscay Pond with his own hands. When I was younger we stayed at the cabin for a week each summer and visited during the day pretty often. We fished from the canoes and the float and the boat landing and from any place we could reach by hopping along the shore. We paddled our way downstream for hours in the morning to grab breakfast at the Bristol Diner and then paddled even longer back up, fighting the current and the wind all the while. We swam until our fingers pruned, mastering our swan dives and playing king-of-the-hill on an overturned kayak. We did all these things and more with all the care of the birds and butterflies alongside us. 

When any amount of a breeze pours in over the trees that surround Biscay Pond the surface is immediately strewn with ripples and miniature swells. Thankfully this is the case only occasionally, and the rest of the time the flat-calm of the lake stretches endlessly, rounding the jut of land towards its center and continuing on and on. This serene stillness is broken only by the rising of large-mouthed bass and the all-too-many speedboaters and jet-skiers, who probably don’t realize that their big-boy toys aren’t really suitable for such a small lake. Sometimes though, without disrupting the quiet, a solemn sunbather will poke his head from the water: a turtle.

We see them all the time: a turtle will rise from the depths, sometimes right at our side in the water or sometimes a hundred feet out— you’d be surprised from how far you can spot them when the lake is at its calmest. Only when the things are really close by do you see any trace of their bodies, so most of the time it just looks like little dark bloblets emerge from the pond, remain in place for a few seconds and then disappear before emerging again twenty feet away. The painted turtles have relatively round heads the size of a golf ball or so, perhaps a little smaller, and so it’s fairly easy to distinguish them from the snappers. Snapping turtles’s heads are angular, sleek, immediately giving away their role as a predator, but are usually only slightly bigger than those of the painted turtles.

One summer during our weekly stay, my brothers and I sat out on the dock, just fishing. You may be able to imagine our surprise when the quiet of the lake was cut by the rise of a snapper, his head nearly the size of ours.

Every day, whenever we were on the water, our eyes scoured the surface for the monster snapper. It’s rugged head stood out immediately each time it came up to warm itself in the sun, and over time it became an imposing presence on the lake: seeing it, more than just above its neck, became omni-important. I don’t remember if I was the first one to see it in its entirety but the moment is snapshotted so clearly in my mind: my brothers had retreated for dinner and I remained on the dock, hoping to pull in a last-minute bass. I cast my line gracefully towards a spot near the shore where lily pads grow, their flowers already shied away from the rising moon, despite my mother’s calling me every five minutes to come in. Suddenly, movement beneath the water broke me from my focused cycle of cast–wait–jig–wait–reel in–wait–cast. From the very spot where I’d been trying to land a fish came, floating lethargically through the shallows, a hulking shell at least the size of my own torso. It’s legs moved slowly, rhythmically alternating its strokes as efficiently as any olympic swimmer, and to this day the fact that its fat, stubby limbs could push its body through water doesn’t quite make sense in my head— how it managed to catch any of its prey at such a speed is beyond me. The beast slipped between the rusted metal stands that held up the dock, soared clumsily but at the same time with grace just a couple feet below my feet, and continued following the shoreline until he was out of sight.

When a sailboat capsizes to the point where its mast is pointing straight down in the water, it is said to be turtled. Perhaps the term comes from the shape of its hull on the surface roughly resembling that of a turtle shell, but I’d like to believe it’s because of the immovable nature of the reptile. If you’ve never seen a group of turtles perched on a rock or a log, they remain so still you’d swear they were replicas until you get too close for their comfort and, in probably the only burst of speed they can manage, they plummet themselves back into the safety of the water. When a sailboat is turtled, the sail catching against the water makes it really, really hard to get right-side up again. I learned, in theory, how to un-turtle a turtled boat during my few weeks of YMCA sailing camp. There were drills during the school sessions where the boat was capsized for us to try to right; no matter how hard my arms tugged on the centerboard or how far my little body leaned backwards, I was never able to save the vessel.

Over the next few days my brothers and I caught infrequent but regular sights of the monster turtle: it seemed he liked staying at the edge of the pond where our cabin was, for where the water grew shallow and transitioned into weeds was a prime hunting ground for small fish. My oldest brother decided he wanted to try to catch the thing, and so he set up a rig akin to something you’d see in Jaws: a lobster buoy tied with hawser to a cinder block, and midway on the line a great steel hook the size of my hand, meant for a shark. When night fell he baited the setup with a medium-sized yellow perch and left it to sit under the moon, suspended in ten feet of dark, muddy water.

I moved around a little bit as a child— from Maine to New Hampshire for a few years and then back to Maine again— but it wasn’t until around my late middle school days when things began changing in my life. Following my parents’s divorce my father moved out to California; my oldest brother set out for college and the other followed soon after (both flunked out before completing their first year) and by the time it was my turn both had moved across the country. Until recently I have envisioned myself staying bound to New England for my entire life, but though I love the region so I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t be happy in the confines of the east coast: I’ve outgrown my pond.

The snapping turtle has gone close to ninety-million years with barely any change: in his environment, he is perfect. He does not, however, have the desire nor the ability to leave it.

We all woke up on the fateful morning, the last day of our stay at the cabin, and my brother took the canoe out to fetch the hooked rope: the line was taut with something heavy. Gathered around the boat landing, my dad, middle brother, mother, Chloe (our dog) and myself waited with baited breath as the catch was hauled in.

However big the thing had looked swimming beneath me, it really was absolutely monstrous once we had it on land; the thing was thirty pounds at the very least and seemed twice as big to my young self. I’d seen the reptilian features on snappers before but everything on this giant seemed exaggerated: its spines were long, its legs, the overhang of its jaw more threatening than any of the pickerel that we feared unhooking from our lines, and its dragon-esque tail slid inelegantly from the thick castle of its shell. I remember having to hold Chloe back as she tried to nip at the beast, and I was horrified at how eager it was to nip back. A primal hiss emanated from its throat as it lunged its neck forward, prompting me to not only bring the dog inside but to then lock her in the bathroom until the overgrown turtle was dealt with.

In the face of something as awe-inspiring as this beast, we were all sort of at a loss of what to do with it. In the end, and I apologize for the disappointment, we just spun the thing around, pointing its head back towards the water, and eventually he slipped back in and let his stubby swimmers carry him back into hiding.

Life does not wait for anyone or anything. I know this and have known this for quite some time, but knowing something does not make it easy to deal with. In a way I envy the snapping turtle: he is strong, he is bold, he is a king of his world and resistant to change. He carries his home on his back and so never finds himself out of place. I, though, cannot live like this: despite the brutal stress that change and the uncertainty that comes with it bears on me and many others, I crave the new and the dangerous. My future is a blank slate, an open pond, and the only way for me to cross is to hoist my sail, whether the wind is with or against me, and do my best not to turtle.

 

 

Image taken from here.

Surveying Bullcreek Stream

By Luke Bartlett

 

I grew up in Round Pond, Maine– a little fishing village nestled right up against the sea– and in a particularly out-of-the-way spot in Round Pond, where the houses are on all sides surrounded by trees and ferns and quiet, save the very rare occasion when a firetruck might have barreled down the highway half a mile away, in which case that quiet was interrupted for maybe a minute.  Behind our back yard is woods, and a hill that leads down to a stream, and a small cliff face that my childhood friends and I were once foolish enough to scale and lucky enough to leave unscathed. In front of our house, a small flow of water that could not even be called a brook but still, inexplicably, held my attention for far too many hours, days, weeks, and months.  Five minutes down the road was Moxie Cove Picnic Area which, I find now, is hard to describe as anything more than a picnic table and a trash can situated next to an estuary, but despite such I recall it fondly anyways. I lament in the fact that I can no longer feel quite the same awe among these constructs of nature that I once did, but in that day and age I was readily willing to lose myself among even the littlest patch of unexplored green.

If this was lost, let us all be lost always.

One day I found myself wandering with my friend Avery, through tall grass and thicket as we tried to forge a shortcut from his house, which rested on modest Route 32 right at the edge of Round Pond village, to mine. Such a task, especially for children of our age, turned out to be quite the endeavor. Though burdocks clung dearly to our socks and shirts and hair as if for life– and come to think of it now, that is exactly why they did so– we pressed on, and eventually found ourselves on the bank of the stream just downhill from my yard and were every bit as excited as Lewis and Clark had ever been in our cartography.

The stream, given life from a marsh some miles above, fluctuated heavily with rain and sun, and as well as being especially fast flowing that day it was unusually frothy, with a mound of dirty white foam resting on the surface of its largest pool. Avery urged me to prod the stuff with a rotten stick, and so I did, and after not ten seconds of doing so a gaping mouth of something sinister and hungry and primal sprang from the depths beneath the foam and tried to eat my prodding-stick. Shook up, the two of us backed away from the water, checked to make sure we had both seen what had happened, then bolted up the hill to share the story with my mother and anyone else that was around to listen.

Just some brook trout. (source here)

The only things we had ever seen in that particular pool (and in the river as a whole, actually) were brook trout, which we spent hours catching each and every summer when we could be bothered to put up the mosquitoes’s ceaseless assault, and some small minnows. It was almost certainly only a snapping turtle we’d encountered, or a large eel maybe, but from that day on Bullcreek Stream– a name that I think my dad called it once and that just stuck, but to which I cannot hope to confirm as truth– has held such a sense of wonder in my mind. I learned that in each pool, around each bend of the smallest river, there may very well be something unknown, something never to be encountered while lounging on the sofa watching television. From the portion of it where it enters the sea at Moxie Cove Picnic Area, where my brothers and I ventured at midnight in spring to catch smelts with our bare hands, to the murky pools where the ferocious something struck my stick, to the clear, shallow portion upstream where fallen logs bridged the width and where I used to sit on those log-bridges, feet dangling in the ever-cool flow, and read, or think, or just watch the water, each stretch is magical.

In my mind, Bullcreek Stream has always seemed to transcend reality. Each time I see a heron perched stonelike in the shallows, or the family of deer I’ve known for years emerges from the woodwork, or the beavers take down another tree to further change the flow of current, the experience feels completely new. I don’t think that I could describe to anyone, even those also attuned to the leaf-world as I am, my affection for this stream. It is not an exciting natural body; it runs slowly and half the time finds itself in absolute stasis within dirty pools, but despite this remains as beautiful in my eyes as anything that’s ever been. I am, in a way, obsessed with this stream, but regardless of the countless hours I’ve spent exploring and watching and loving the waters of its lowers regions, I have never been and I have no desire to see the source of Bullcreek Stream. I know very well the spot where it pours its last breath of fresh and mingles with the salt of Round Pond Harbor, and have spent many afternoons there at the river’s end, but for some reason I feel inclined— or perhaps obligated, even— to leave its beginning alone, hidden wherever it may be up in the thick of pine and oak.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

 

 

 

 

Featured image is not, in fact, Bullcreek Stream, but rather 
taken from Pinterest. Exact source unavailable.

From Rill or Rapids: On Mary Oliver’s “Upstream”

“Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile fact but a text that would put all its money in the hope of suggestion. Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.”

 –Mary Oliver, from “Upstream”

Part One: Headwater

Mary Oliver is the best-selling poet in the United States, so it should be no surprise that her masterful rhetoric trickles into her essays as well. In “Upstream,” an essay among her 2016 collection of the same name, Oliver works with beautiful imagery, anecdotes, parallelism, introspection, pacing, and extended metaphor to offer her audience a glimpse into her life and her connection with the natural world.  Her poetics and prose create a gentle tone that guides the reader through the pages, as simple and graceful and wondrous as a walk through the woods.

Most of “Upstream” is made up of a single anecdote spread out and laced between reflections and thoughts of hers on the world. The beginning and ending of the essay are particularly intriguing, though we’ll get to those shortly. Oliver’s diction is concise and clean throughout: she wastes little time with ten-syllable words or messy sentence structure, a strategy that lends itself to the subject matter of the text. For example, she describes her maiden voyage following the river to wherever it might have been birthed:

“I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of the ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s-breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs upon their bodies” (4).

Her language is soft and slow, though her words certainly carry something with them. The use of parallelism in this instance is all that’s needed to draw the reader in, to place them right next to Mary in her trek upstream. The scene is so direct, and there’s definitely an elegance in its simplicity: there’s nothing extraneous, nothing that produces anything other than a clear view of the riverbed and the feeling of wonder in exploring it. Her use of commas in this case is particularly effective for it paces the reader, preventing him from breezing through her words and forcing them to instead take their time. Oliver continues with this recount, pondering herself whether she should be straying so far from her parents, from the familiar, from everything that lay downstream, and lets herself become lost.

“I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home” (5).

All of Oliver’s diction is tidy and flows just like a little creek, though there are a few instances here and there, such as the above quote, where she’ll through in a sentence that stops me in my tracks. These interjections accomplish so many things at once: they give the reader a sense of the passage of time, they offer a clean transition into the next segment of the text, they aid in the development of tone (and in some situations are able to switch the tone completely) and, perhaps most importantly, they are never overdone. This strategy works so well as it is but, in my opinion, it could have been a complete disaster; if there were twice as many of these jarring sentences, the easy-reading atmosphere that Oliver created might have been totally obliterated by the overuse. Everything in writing is deliberate, and Oliver very obviously pays close attention to these details in order to sculpt her text just how its meant to be. There’s nothing tricky going on here: just immaculate use of diction that stands out among the rest and makes the reader stop for a minute, or longer, to think.

Slowly but surely, Oliver is moving throughout this essay towards something more concrete; the paragraphs in between her personal accounts seem random at first, but they eventually come together to form an almost bittersweet feeling, a second tone shadowing the childlike wonder of youth she presents through her stories.

“When the chesty, pierce-furred bear becomes sick he travels to the mountainsides and the fields, searching for certain grasses, flowers, leaves and herbs, that hold within themselves the power of healing. He eats, he grows stronger. Could you, oh clever one, do this? Do you know anything about where you live, what it offers? Have you ever said, ‘Sir Bear, teach me. I am a customer of death coming, and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the western hills to know what you know” (6).

I see this remark as the turning point in the essay; Oliver calls out the reader and creates in just a few sentences the sense that the natural world has some mystifying element to it, proposing the idea that to not make use of the land, the forest, every river and mountain and the earth as a whole is to be missing out on something essential to life. As mentioned before, this ties back to earlier sections as well as later ones— such as where she contemplates that everything in the universe is bonded forever to everything else, or when she suggests that everything from butterflies to flowers are conscious, sentient and important. This unity of diction really succeeds in bringing everything together in order for Oliver to deliver a line soon after that is vital to her essay. “Humility is the prize of the leaf-world,” she states. “Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans” (7).

Everything leading up to this point was so well paced that it allows the full weight of this bold sentence hit hard. This is definitely the point where Oliver transitions from being relatively abstract in her thought to something far more concrete and universal: she concludes with the demand to “teach the children” of the natural world, mentioning how they matter far more than people her age, and I can’t help but feel a sense of sorrow within the penultimate paragraph. “Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor” (7). The struggles of adult life, responsibilities and baggage, gets in the way of the magic of all that is green, and this seems almost mournful, but Mary Oliver is quick to mention her rejection of these notions and ends again with wonderfully worded parallelism:

“May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect” (7).

Oliver comes back to the natural world for everything and, in particular, to the stream; not only in this essay, but throughout the entire collection I see the notion of what lies “upstream” as the omnipresent metaphor. Oliver talks of losing herself in the stream as she wandered up, away from everything but also into everything else, nearing the source of what trickles down but never reaching there, and offers, a bit earlier on in the piece, when she first finds herself among the wonders of the thicket and the waterthrush, this enchanting line: “If this was lost, let us all be lost always” (5).  Extended metaphors are effective in that they help to tie everything together, and Oliver succeeds in doing so immaculately in order to create this tone of wonder and enthrallment with the leaf-world among so many of her works.  This metaphor encompasses nearly every one of Oliver’s essays, for when you follow a riverbed upwards, through the woods or through the mountains or the meadow, you truly are losing yourself in entirely different world. Mary Oliver sees this and pushes it— or nudges it, maybe— on everyone who’s willing to listen, for as she so perfectly words it, “attention is the beginning of devotion” (8).

 

“I would not talk about the wind, and the oak tree, and the leaf on the oak tree, but on their behalf.”

“I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

–Mary Oliver, from “Winter Hours”

Part Two: Spindrift

In her essay “Winter Hours,” also from the “Upstream” collection, Mary Oliver incorporates many of the same strategies as seen previously but to different effect; through parallelism, anecdotes and imagery of her little slice of the earth, and a focus on the passage of time, Oliver doesn’t create a depiction of nature but instead lets it shine through on its own.

Oliver starts right from the get-go with the wonderful image of dull winter exemplified beautifully through her use of parallelism: “In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness. Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit. The sprawling darkness of not knowing. We speak of the light of reason. I would speak here of the darkness of the world, and the light of               .” Starting like this not only paints a picture but sets a tone— gloomy? sad? melancholy?— that carries through the rest of the piece as Mary describes her winter. The blank space included after “light” is also thought-provoking, and leaves the reader to wonder what might be meant to fall in that emptiness. While all of her pieces have a certain mystery to them in the form of the ever-unexplored wild world, the one presented here seems just a smidgen eerie in contrast.

As she did in “Upstream,” Oliver laces her simplistic, elegant prose style with very short, blunt sentences that break up the essay a bit. I think that they’re especially effective in this essay– perhaps because the tone that’s been set is a little bit more somber than in “Upstream” these jarring sentences pack just a little bit more of a punch. We see this in the first line of the second paragraph: “The house is hard cold” (147). This might be different for others, but even though the language here is pretty tame these five words struck me; I can just imagine stepping into a cabin sitting aside a frozen lake, where light somehow trickles in through the boards and where the frigid air is so heavy and overbearing you’d be just as well to sleep outside in the snowbanks instead. I find myself unable to describe exactly why, but this short sentence is far more effective than any long, breathy description could hope to be, and the ability for such a seemingly basic sentence to carry such weight is very impressive and allows Oliver to transition to a new scene quickly yet somehow seamlessly.

Immediately following the mentioned sentence, Oliver includes the use of personification to further display just how crushing the particular winter was: “Winter walks up and down town, swinging his censer, but no smoke or sweetness comes from it, only the sour, metallic frankness of salt and snow” (147).  By personifying the season Oliver succeeds in getting across just how overbearing the cold can be, and I’m not sure it could have been done to this effect in any other way. It makes the following anecdote, where Mary describes her mornings, of the ebbing tide and the time with her dogs, that much more surprising, for it begs the question “who could possibly brave such a brutal winter?” And again, Oliver strikes back with a blunt sentence to top off the paragraph.

“This is the beginning of every day” (148).

Well, this sentence in particular isn’t exactly pretty. It lacks the simple eloquence of her other interjections, but it accomplishes something else: it manages time. Keeping track of time in any sort of literature is difficult, yet somehow these short bursts are enough to bridge gaps, to change subject. Perhaps their bluntness mimics the end of a conversation and so the reader feels content with skipping a few hours after the fact. I for the life of me cannot explain why these little tacked-on things work as well as they do, but they continue to do so throughout so many of Oliver’s essays.

I am realizing now that I have been rambling on and on about the simplicity of Mary Oliver’s prose, and am too realizing now that there are some instances where heavy description finds its way into her words, and these instances practically only surface during her tellings of the wild world. Take, for example, when she describes the cod that have washed up on the beach near her home: “The fish are exquisite, with torpedo-shaped bodies, dark speckles under a sea-green glaze, hard heads with a fleshy jaw appendage, large eyes (149).

There’s no doubt that she puts more effort into making flora, fauna and natural scenery pop off the page. What exactly, though, does that do? We know that Mary Oliver has a deep connection with nature as a whole, so perhaps the only reason for this is to pay homage to the beauty she sees in it by painting it in a positive light. And if you ask me, that would be a perfectly reasonable answer, but I believe it goes a little bit deeper than that. Oliver cares about nature, sees value in it, and if we recall her voice from “Upstream” it’s clear that she wants other people to care about it, to make themselves lost in the trees and the waters of the world. Even in this anecdote, which takes place smack-dab in the middle of a grim winter, there’s a burst of color and beauty washed up practically at her door— and look. Mary Oliver just got me to describe a slimy codfish as beautiful through her words, and I’m willing to bet there’s a good chunk of people who would be very quick to disagree with that notion.

I mean, I personally think it’s a pretty fish!

Not everyone finds nature appealing. I do, and Mary Oliver does, and for us the natural world will always find a way into our writing and we will always find a way to keep the green of grass, the white of snow, the caress of autumn’s breeze in our lives. Others, though, might prefer the urban life, and I assume that for those types of people Oliver’s hope of persuasion is a bit of a lost cause. But Oliver’s voice does not exist without nature; she states herself that she is a sort of interpreter for the wind and for the pines, and so the fact of the matter is that her presence shines through clear as day when she lets herself go on about what she loves: that joyous world she’s found upstream, lost and forever lost.

On Ambivalence

Fishing is a rather curious sport— or hobby, if you’d rather call it that. Most people I know who love fishing, including myself, would mention the relaxing nature of it as their favorite part. It passes the time peacefully and quietly and offers a moment of meditation. This stasis, however, is broken up by bouts of excitement when, after perhaps hours of calm, a fish finally strikes the line. Adrenaline rushes through the angler whether they’re dealing with a simple bass or a monstrous tuna, for when he feels that fateful tug on his pole he knows he’s in for at least some measure of a fight. I love the pastime for the balance it finds between animation and stasis, as well as its ability to draw me close to nature. Even just this past summer, whenever I found myself with a day off I’d be on my bike in an instant to hit up Goose Pond, and whether I hauled in a dozen bass or never got so much as a nibble at my hook, I’d always leave happy. Fishing is one of my favorite hobbies and, considering I’ve been pulling in fish my whole life, it definitely makes up a huge part of me as an individual.

On the other hand, another favorite (if not relatively new) hobby of mine is fishkeeping. Over the past few years I’ve always been scouring Craigslist for cheap fish tanks and whatnot and learning not to keep Fish A with Fish B because they’ll both eat Fish C and then try to eat each other. I pride myself in the hobby, for just like fishing in the lake, I find it therapeutic: there’s something satisfying about setting up a 10-gallon box of water filled with the miniature flora and fauna of the Amazon River, and multiple studies have shown that even just watching a fish tank reduces stress.  While the responsibilities of keeping bettas and tetras obviously doesn’t compare to raising a puppy or a kitten fish are living creatures that depend on their owners to stay alive. And so I put up with the constant barrage of ignorant questions from my roommate: Why can’t you get more than one of that fish? They’ll kill each other. You should get a goldfish. It needs a bigger tank than I have; it would be unhappy. My roommate proceeded to ask me why I cared for the happiness of the fish in my tanks while at Goose Pond I had no quarrel with dragging them in on a sharp hook.

To that question, I replied quite simply: “I actually have no idea.”

When I got to thinking about it, these two hobbies are sort of conflicting, aren’t they? One uses the family of animals for sport and causes them harm for personal enjoyment while the other aims to treat them as pets, and I’m sure very few people have a problem with either of these on their own, but now that the topic is on my mind I cannot seem to get over this disparity. I have reached an impasse; in my conscience these two pastimes cannot coexist, and so I’d like to make the decision to renounce one of them.

Which one, though? The obvious answer to the question would be to give up the one that I get less enjoyment out of, but as I mentioned above both fishing and fishkeeping serve as a sort of meditation for me, so I think I’ll have to delve in a little deeper than that. A sound place to start is with the question of morality: which of these two hobbies is more ethical? Well, any reasonable person would say that fishing for sport is worse in this regard, because fish in an tank aren’t being hauled in to be fried up for supper or, at the very least, tossed back into the lake with a hole poked in their lips. However, there are lots of particulars that go into keeping aquarium fish happy and healthy: there’s ammonia levels, nitrites, nitrates, beneficial bacteria, filtration, and a million and one more things to keep track of that would be sure to make many a pair of parents question buying a goldfish for their son— and goldfish, by the way, need about forty times as much space than the standard glass bowl that they’re left to die in oh so often.

What?” you’re probably saying. “No, a goldfish definitely fits in a bowl!” Well yeah, you’re right, but that’s stupid. You fit in your car or your bathroom, but that doesn’t exactly mean living there is a great idea. Beyond that rudimentary fact, goldfish poop a lot– like, a LOT– and poop turns into ammonia, which is toxic to fish and causes health problems, or often times just kills the poor little things.

So, perhaps fishkeeping as a whole is just a mess of a hobby and should be outlawed for the sake of every goldfish left on the shelves at pet stores, or at least require a license stating you know how to not immediately kill off your aquatic companions in all of five minutes. But I don’t do this; my fish are properly cared for and thrive in their happy little aquarium. Yeah, but they’re still trapped in a glass box! shouts an animal rights activist, scolding me for torturing the tiny prisoners. That may be true, but the glass box, furnished with rocks and live plants, is representative of their territory in the wild aside from the fact that there aren’t any predators trying to turn them into lunch. Sounds pretty good to me, but what do I know?

So, with that under the belt, then it’s clear now that angling is the less moral of the two. Up until recently I’d have argued that fish can’t feel pain, as that has been the consensus for decades, but an article from the Smithsonian released in January states the contrary.  In my eyes, that alone is enough to tip the scales, as it pretty eliminates all doubt that whenever I hook a fish, I’m hurting it. I could argue further that I only practice catch and release, but even so whenever I cast my line out there’s a chance that the fish swallows the hook and dies. I could try to convince you that the fish in my aquarium are somehow more deserving of fair treatment than fish in a pond because they are more colorful, because I’ve given each of them a silly name, or because I paid $3.99 for all 20 of them and aren’t willing to let that money go belly-up, but in the end all of those are easily dismissed. How can I be at ease advocating for the well-being of fish inside glass boxes while I have, without any remorse, caught a single sunfish, cut it up into peanut-sized bits and used those bits to catch more sunfish.

And again, I have no idea. But I am. In the same way that a friend of mine keeps fancy mice as pet and then buys live mice at the pet store to feed to her python and the same way that another friend loves Spiderman: Homecoming because it’s funny but hates Guardians of the Galaxy because it’s funny, humans have this tendency to be ambivalent without even noticing it. Strange, isn’t it, how inconsistent we can be? Even when two things conflict, we are somehow able to push past those inner quarrels without feeling any sort of disconnect. I’d love to stick around and chat this through, pinpoint whatever psychological aspect of us is the cause for such an odd case, but I’m afraid I’ve got to run; the bass stop biting after dusk, and I’m itching to land a big one tonight.

On Deceit

My ears ringing and vision blurry, it took me more than a few moments to realize that the car was upside down. Adrenaline pounded through me but even with the rush I ached all over, except for my legs— oh, fuck, I can’t feel my legs I remember thinking immediately. I shook Jesse on my left, shouted at Amy to my right that I couldn’t feel my fucking legs, but my attempts garnered nothing but silence from the full car; everyone was passed out, and I found myself alone in the dark of a quiet winter night until the police arrived on scene.

We had just been at The Rack, a cozy bar and grill at the base of the mountain, winding down over some beer after a long day of skiing (something I’d never do again, at least on my own) and by the time we decided to head home the three girls accompanying us were well past drunk, and the clock well past midnight. John and I were alright to drive, but I was tired and he offered and so we packed into the Subaru and set off down the winding road. It was a fifteen minute drive back to my place and we’d done it so many times, but none of us were expecting the moose, or the black ice that sent us into the ditch when John tried to swerve out of its way. I was the only one wearing a seatbelt. Everyone else got out with just some scratches and bruises.

Where, I wonder, am I hoping to lead you with this story? There’s a few obvious angles to take, as I see it. I could lecture about the importance of safe driving, especially during winter. I could try to influence your stance on medical marijuana, a drug that severely aided in my comfort after my legs stopped working. Or perhaps I could talk about the brutal nature of life, the cruel twist of fate that crippled the lower half of my body and how one can (or can’t) recover mentally from such. However, I think there’s one crucial bit of information that I feel obligated to share before I go any further: none of this happened to me.

Are you angry? If not, I’ve at least lost a good deal of your trust. I didn’t say none of the above was true– with a couple of details added and omitted, this tragic scenario did render my brother’s roommate Seth a paraplegic, but for the remainder of my rambling it would do us just as well if we assumed that I am completely, totally, one-hundred percent full of shit. It’s perfectly reasonable to doubt someone who you know to be a liar, and it’s equally as reasonable to close this window and do something better with your time if that’s the way you feel. However, to those that remain, consider the hypothetical situation I described above. Humans are emotional, and we are capable of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. I remember vividly when my brother first told me about Seth’s accident, and despite not having ever met the 22-year-old my eyes welled up with tears. Nobody deserves that, I thought, finding it all too easy to imagine my brother or myself in the same place and feeling an awful dread wash through my veins– and that feeling was definitely real.

Did you sympathize with me in the first two paragraphs, before I exposed myself and you started viewing me (likely) as an asshole? I’m willing to bet you did, a little bit. In personal essays such as this it becomes pretty hard to debunk a story as false, for how can you question another person’s life? Every single essay you’ve read– at least those without citations to fall back on– could have been falsified, but now I beg you to answer one last question: Why. Does. It. Matter? I lied to you, yes. Why does it matter? Whether it was true or not, my story produced a certain emotional response in you, a feeling that is certainly valid in any situation. Maybe that’s a little bit manipulative, but there’s no way of telling when a story is falsified unless we’re somehow able to gaze into someone’s past. Mukherjee, in his essay My Father’s Body, at Rest and In Motion, sparked my interest in the personal essay with the moving story of his father’s last days in this world, but for all I know he could have been just as full of shit as I am. That possibility, however slight, is still there, but it personally doesn’t change my opinion on his writing in the slightest.

One of my favorite books is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, in which he recounts his time in the Vietnam War. He tells especially gruesome stories in an attempt to show the reader what it actually felt like to be a soldier, and near the end of the book reveals to the reader that not everything he’d told had been truthful; he exaggerates, puts himself in others places, and simply makes things up throughout the text. His mindset behind the strategy was that, had he just told what actually happened it wouldn’t have produced a feeling nearly strong enough to compare to the terror of war: when in reality he and a friend may have walked past the dead body of an enemy soldier, he writes that he was the one to kill the man because that’s what it felt like to him in the moment. “I want you to feel what I felt,” O’Brien says. “I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” I loved this approach myself but, when asking others how they felt about the book, almost everyone saw O’Brien’s decision as angering and deceitful. Up until the reveal of his lying, they went on after my further prying, they were moved very much by his accounts.

No matter if a story true or false, we can learn, take in information and be emotionally impacted from it just the same. Take, for example, television, movies and novels; chances are you’ve shed a tear while watching something on a screen. You know that the characters in a script aren’t actually real, but that doesn’t stop emotions from breaking through because we like to feel them. That’s different you might say, and while I’ll disagree all day long I suppose there’s just different types of people in the world. There’s no real way to be certain, in a personal essay, when someone is fibbing though, and so while reading them I encourage you to take everything with a grain of salt. Or maybe dodge them all together, stick to more formally written essays that rely on facts and quotations, for they are as trustworthy as can be.

Hold up, though, that’s not the case at all! I’d argue, in fact, that traditional “academic” essays are far more deceitful in nature than any personal essay you’ll ever read. It’s far too easy to bend information to your will, omit counterarguments and nit-pick with data and quotes to aid any stance. It’s not uncommon for the very same statistic in scholarly, persuasive essays to be used to argue two opposing points of view; as someone with a background in English as well as mathematics and statistics, I know first hand just how easy it is to manipulate data for whatever purpose it’s meant to serve. As a hypothetical, an experiment tracking the use of tobacco could be described as just one percent of the U.S. population or as three million people in the U.S. Both numbers mean exactly the same thing, but the former definitely seems a lot less significant than the latter and hence would be used in a different argument. This is only one strategy used by sneaks to deliver the message that they want you to hear by essentially blocking out all except what they want you to pay attention to. I am not bashing this form in the slightest, for how would one construct an argument without drawing attention to the points of interest? I’ll only offer one piece of advice: be skeptical. Facts aren’t always what they seem, and raw data is too easily altered to blindly believe every quotation and chart your eyes settle on. Emotion, on the other hand, is what it is; whether Mukherjee’s account was true or not, I sympathized and took away something from it. It’s much more comfortable, for me, to be persuaded by a feeling than by numbers. An emotion is mine, and no matter if sparked by fact or fiction, it’s me that decides to feel the way I feel.