No, this is not great grand daughter Astrid, nor is it the sweater that Elaine Johnson will knit for her.

            Another chair, this one is made of wood from an old gate, one that closed off the back garden but Owen and Nathaniel tore down the shed and the fence and now the gate swings open and there is nothing left to define what had once been an enclosed garden.  So I got out my Sawzall and cut off the ivy. Some of the strands were as thick as my wrist. 

            Eventually the ivy was in the green can and the gate lay in pieces.  I salvaged some two by fours, some pieces of one by eight, and cut them into the parts  of a chair.  I sanded them smooth, applied some paint and voila! I had the parts for a new chair. This one is destined for Elaine Johnson, who knits. She is an award winning knitter and she will knit a sweater for great grand daughter Astrid who is in Italy with her army sergeant mother.  When it is finished, the chair will look like new, a fair exchange for a hand-knitted sweater.  I like this process.  I have given away chairs and this time I am bartering the chair for something for a child. She will wear it in the cold Italian winter, in the squares of Venice, where Eleanor and I walked, water lapping at the catwalks that were installed in another winter.

            Elaine was part of the teacher’s union, a president of our local, and later the assistant to the state representative. She taught in a classroom next to the one I inherited at Tamalpais High School, and she and her husband have hosted “movie nights” at their house, classics like “The Man Who Would Be King.’”  It is fitting that Elaine and I exchange our labor. 

            I am pleased with what we are doing. I hope she and Bob will enjoy their chair as much as I know Astrid will enjoy that sweater.  Barter, a time-honored exchange.  My Aunt Blanche gave farm eggs to a neighbor and he, in turn, brought surplus chickens. Uncle Earl at harvest time, saw neighboring farmers show up and he was at their harvest as well. I remember those noon-time meals under the maple trees, fried chicken, potato salad, pickles.  And the men lying in the shade after eating, waiting for the mid-day heat to dissipate.There was, of course, no mention of money for their labor.  My brother Paul and I rode the old horse that pulled the bales up into the loft of the barn. It was a lifetime ago. And now Elaine and I are exchanging our labor.  

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the argument

            They stood next to the rock wall that separated the walk from the surf.  Waves battered against the wall, and the thin spray came over.  He was shouting at her.

            “You fucking cunt, you did it again,  You fucking opened your mouth and out spilled everything.”

            She stood opposite him, her back to the wall, and the spray came up onto her back.  She looked down at the concrete walkway but he continued to shout at her.

            “You’re useless,” he shouted.  Other walkers gave them a wide berth, and he stood, watching, wondering if he should step into that melee. He knew from books and film that somebody who interferes with an argument between couples often ends up with the victim, the woman, defending her attacker. He wanted to step in, tell the asshole to stop. 

            He shouted, ”Stop it!  Leave her alone!” and the man turned to face him.

            “Stay out of this, grandpa,” he shouted. “Keep your fucking nose out of this!”

 He turned back to the girl who was, at that moment crying, tears coursing down her cheeks. 

            “Leave her alone!” he shouted. 

            The young man turned again,  “You want a punch in the face, you old asshole?”

            He stepped back.  No, he didn’t want a punch in the face, He just wanted to stop the intense attack on the young woman, He thought of his own daughter, now grown up, and imagined her standing there opposite the angry young man.

            The young man grabbed her arm and started off toward the avenue.

            “Let her go!” he shouted, but nothing happened, the girl was attached to the young man and they were now part of the pedestrians waiting to cross the avenue.

‘Leave her alone!”  He shouted again.

            There was no response. The light changed and the crowd of people crossed, the young man still holding the arm of the young woman.

            They were gone and he felt helpless.  Would he hit her? Would he continue to berate her, opening up some sort of tangle that he couldn’t resolve?  How had she compromised him?  He stood in the fingers of the waves that fell against the wall, and wished that he could have done some thing to soften the young woman’s panic. That’s what it was, it was  panic, and she’s confronted with something that she knew, something that he was unable to fix,

            He watched them disappear on the opposite side of the avenue.  He thought again  of calling his daughter, asking her what should I have done. Should I have risked the punch in the face? But he knew, she would say that no, he should not have done anything. No, Dad, you shouldn’t have interfered. He remembered a John Masefield poem about growing old:


Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying; 
My dog and I are old, too old for roving. 
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying, 
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.

            You were right, Masefield. I am an old dog, no longer any teeth to threaten that young man. My growl is useless, not worth threatening anyone. It is the growl of an old dog, one that cannot chew a tough piece of gristle, cannot crack the bone,  

            He thought again of phoning his daughter, asking her what he should have done but he knew what her answer would be.  You did all you could, dad.  Men like that are assholes; they won’t respond to correction, you might have been hurt. And she wasn’t protesting. Which means that she’s been through this before. No help there.  Forget it, dad. 

            But he cannot forget it.  He cannot forget the voice, the shouted insults, as if he were disciplining a dog that had shit on the carpet. If he had a newspaper, he would have rolled it up and whacked her across the ear.  Bad girl! He would have shouted. Bad girl!

            He walked back to where they had stood.  The waves still beat against the rock wall and the spray still flew over the edge. The concrete walkway was wet. 

            Masefield was right. the fire is dying. My old dog and me ought to stay home.  

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the West Carson

There is a stretch of rhe West Carson River that wanders through a big meadow, just before Picket’s Junction, the intersection of highways 88 and 89. Named after the legendary mountain man, the Carson flows from west to east from the Sierras. If we park at the edge of the highway it’s possible to cross the downed fence and walk across the grassy plain to the river.  Bicycles regularly pass us as we rig our rods on the edge of the highway.  There is not much cover for trout on that stretch and the fish are not numerous.  Sometimes I have fished the whole stretch of water without raising a fish.  Once, just after they had planted fish on that part of the river, we caught one after another and then a young man with a clipboard showed up.  He was from Fish and Game, and he asked how we had done. We pointed out to him that planted fish don’t strike like native fish, and that it had been a good morning, but nothing spectacular.  He wrote down our catch and release, and it was the only time that there had been a surplus of fish on that lovely piece of river. 

            This summer Ethan Newby promises to take me there. It is a place where I can access the river; my legs are no longer able to navigate stream edges with rocks and ledges.  It is a reminder that I have aged, and that I spent my afternoons building chairs for the patios of friends, having my drink at dusk and watching the sun go off the mountain and wondering what it is like in the narrow canyon of Nelson Creek.

            If I go to the West Carson this year, I will cast across that water, knowing that it is unlikely that a trout will rise.  It makes no difference. I am like the dog that barks at the mailman’s truck and chases after it, knowing that it cannot catch the mailman and knowing that if he does there will be no point in what he has done.  I am that dog, the mailman has gone up the street, and he is reaching out from the window of his truck to stick the usual junk mail in a mailbox.  And I cast again, watch the fly approach a likely place, wait, wait, wait, and then retrieve it and cast again. 

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Badbury Rings

Alfred Russel Wallace spent years in the Amazon, only to have his extensive collection of bird skins and mammals and insects destroyed when his ship home was consumed by fire.  Not dissuaded, he went to the Malay Archipelago, a relatively unexplored part of the world, lived there for eight years, explored more than fourteen thousand miles of those islands, and developed, independently, a theory of evolution that rivaled that of Charles Darwin,

            He returned to Dorset where he lived in Broadstone and is buried in the Broadstone cemetery.               

            He and his family had a picnic in Badbury Rings, a stone age fortress near Wimborne, and it was a place where my wife and children joined Garry and Philippa Sayer and their children for a picnic. I remember Philippa striding around one of  those earthen rings, followed by children, like some relic of an earlier time, an attractive woman with her long skirt flowing, her hair flying, circling the earthen fort like an early inhabitant.
            I wish I had known that Wallace was buried in the Broadstone cemetery and that his collections were housed in a Dorset museum. I could have visited, if only to stand near what remained of him.  He was a remarkable man, and his description of his travels in those tropical places stands as a monument to remarkable patience and perseverance. 

            At odd times of the small hours of the morning I turn to his immense volume of his travels, marveling at the fact that he undergoes remarkable privations, while making light of them.

            With any luck my grandson Nathaniel and I will travel to the Amazon River in June, and we will see some of what Wallace saw.  I hope to catch a piranha fish and Nathaniel will, no doubt, sketch the foliage and creatures that we see. We will be one hundred and fifty years after Wallace. The Amazon has not changed that much, still flows in its immensity toward the sea.

            I will have lived in Dorset and traveled where Wallace spent time exploring the undisturbed jungle. It is a strange parallel.

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In all of my years hiking through the Sierras I have only seen three rattlesnakes.  Four, actually.  One was on Tollgate Creek, I was stepping across that small creek when I spotted it where my foot was about to land, and I changed directions in midair.  Another was on Bucks Creek.  It was among the rocks I was climbing, and Art and his dad were upstream. They would come down, sliding over this rock, so I found a stick, prodded it out and tossed it up the hillside. 

            Laurel, small at the time, went up to the big pine tree where Eleanor had attached the clothesline.  I heard the snake, snatched her up. A big rattler had holed up at the base of the tree. Eleanor, who was unfamiliar with the sound, thought it was a cicada each time she had hung out clothes.  

The fourth was one that John Peterson caught at Kamp Kidd, the year that I was the assistant director, John was the naturalist. He kept it in a crate under his bed, where it periodically; rattled when he shifted. He wanted the boys to hear it and know the warning rattle. At the end of the summer, Johnny, the camp cook, cooked it for John and me. “When I was a girl in Louisiana,’ she said, ‘we ate anything that walked or crawled.’ It did not taste like chicken.

            Rattlers are dangerous-looking, the arrowhead sharpness of the head is unmistakable, and I’m sure that in all those years of searching along streams I passed within a short distance of other snakes. but they were as interested in avoiding me as I was in avoiding them. 

            If I lived in the South I would be afraid of cottonmouths, since they don’t rattle a warning the way most rattlers do.  Although if one is surprised, there is no rattle, just the strike.

            Since it’s the remains of a shed skin, the rattle is a dry sound, a rapid noise like a pebble in a paper cup.  I kept the rattler that was near where Laurel had stood, putting it in a cage so that campers could hear it and know what the sound was like.  Where  we live in Fairfax there have been rattlesnake sightings, and once Susan Stewart called the police to report one in her driveway. The cowboy cop who came up, unholstered his gun and took several shots before he killed it. They were throughout the hills above our house, and killed rats, so killing one was not a good practice. Better to toss it where someone would not inadvertently step too near.  

            In my novel, The Lord God Bird, I used the cottonmouth as a weapon, killing a man who had stumbled on the protagonist and wanted to turn him in to the sheriff for the reward.  It was, I thought, an  appropriate death in that story.  I remembered my startled stop when I came across that snake on Bucks Creek.  It was partially hidden, and if I had climbed that boulder, it would have struck at me.   It was a good-sized snake, and when I caught it with the stick and threw it up into the bush, it disappeared when it landed.  Later, I dislocated a shoulder on that creek and Art and his dad took me into Oroville to have it re-set.  I did not tell them about the snake.

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building a chair

            Tom Wittenberg sent me a clipping; some guy who works for the NYTimes built an Adirondack chair from plans he found on the Internet. It was an OK chair, but not nearly as attractive as the ones I build. 

            I built my first chair in Eureka.  I bought a chair and brought it back to the house, disassembled it and used the parts for a pattern.  I built three chairs, reassembled the one I had bought and when we sold the house I gave a chair to Laurel and Dave, one to Geoffrey and Jill and one to Graham and Krysta. I kept one. I never wrote about the process of building them.  Now I have grown good at it, and this is how I do it:

            The first day is cutting the pieces.  I use the chop saw to cut them to length, a saber saw to cut the curves.  L use a top to my canning pot to draw the curves on the back slats, the paint can for the curve on the arms. Once they are cut, I sand the rough edges.  If the wood is salvaged, I sand the wood.  Two posts, two longitudinal two by four struts, five seat slats, five back slats, a piece for the front. If the pieces of wood are irregular (salvaged wood) I use a Skill saw to cut them to the required width.

            Day two, assembly:  I paint all the pieces, that way there is no raw wood that is susceptible to rot.  I drill holes in the 2×4 post and horizontal base, for 5/16 carriage bolts.  Once these are bolted together I screw the front piece on, then a narrow piece across the supports at the back of the seat and have a solid base.  

            Third day:  I use a support to hold up the back while I assemble the chair back, three sticks, two for legs, the third attached so that the scaffold stands at the back of the chair and is clipped to the cross piece attached to the arms with spring loaded clamps. 
            The arms are measured, a single screw is placed into each post and the arms are centered.  Now a second screw secures the arms.  The back slats are arranged, the centre slat as the tallest, and measured to make sure that the space between the arms is wide enough for the five slats. The cross piece between the arms is secured with quarter inch carriage bolts. Now I drill a hole at the base of each slat and screw them to the horizontal slat that goes across the supports.  Once this is done I drill the holes and screw the back slats into the crosspiece that goes between the arms.  Next come the seat slats and when they are in place, I tighten all the bolts and put a second coat of paint on the back, seat and arms. The chair is finished.

            What’s the lure of building a chair?  Aside from the fact that they are handsome, comfortable chairs, there is the knowledge that someone I don’t know will sit in the chair, perhaps at dusk with a drink, or in the afternoon sun and the chair with any care will outlast me. I have built chairs for my children’s houses, for friends, and there are several in my own garden. I will leave them for the new owners when we leave this house.  

            One of the chairs is a folding Adirondack chair.  I found the parts, half rotted, under Dora Wolliams’ cabin at Dillon Beach This was a chair that sat on the deck of that house looking out over the Pacific, for seventy-five years, and I brought it home, took it apart and made a pattern.  I built one of those chairs, and it sits on my back patio where I can sit in it at dusk and watch the sun go off Mt.Tamalpais, the folds of the mountain darkening as shadows fill them, imagining that I am in the mountains watching the sun go off the canyon that I have fished that day.  I continue to build Adirondack chairs. They are handsome chairs, comfortable, and a drink balances easily on the wide armrest. It is something that I do well. 

What is it about chairs? What makes them different from tables, a bookcase or boxes?  What is it that makes a Louis 14thchair worth tens of thousands of dollars?  What draws me to make a chair that will sit in someone’s back yard  or on a deck overlooking the ocean? There are chairs enough for twelve people around our dining room table. The ones at either end are more grand, have arms, why is that?  The king or the queen sits in a chair, a throne, but it is, nevertheless, a chair. Not a stool or a bench, A chair, From the 13th century English, chaere, and from the Old French, and Latin, meaning a seat or throne.

            So I build chairs, they are not carefully crafted chairs, like my father might have made, with joints fashioned into sockets or doweled, mitered, mortise and tenon joints. My chairs are simple things, painted to resist the rain, screwed and bolted together; my chairs will not show up in an auction house a hundred years from new. But my chairs are sturdily built, each part measured and fitted, each chair balanced and ready for an occupant.  

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On the floor of the shed that was torn down, there was obvious evidence of the litter of foxes that lived across the road under Mario Guarneri’s deck, where the mother gave birth to and raised her kits.  One of them had taken to wandering across the road.  He went into the shed, knocked over a can of white primer and walked in it, leaving his fox paw prints on the floor.   I saw him the next morning, just outside the door, white feet and all. He had for several nights, pulled the cushions off the patio chairs, and left his shit on the patio.  Here, he seemed to say, you’ve put a house where it used to be a wild slope.  Fuck you.  

            Now he had left his footprints indelibly on the floor of the old shed. Owen and Nathaniel have torn down the shed, and those floorboards are part of a huge heap in the driveway that will be removed tomorrow by the Junk King crew. The foxes have gone.  But it’s possible that the vixen will return to Mario’s house next year and raise a new litter.

            This is part of what happens when your house is at the edge of open space.  As they removed the shed, the boys found a tunnel dug by rats or skunks under the foundation. Deer wander the streets unafraid of cars or people, and if we were to leave the gate open, within minutes they would wreak havoc in the garden. Skunks live in the culverts under the street, and once they took up residence under our house, the stench driving us out. Raccoons tip over garbage cans, possums wander at night through the garden. Once a mountain lion was sighted on the ridge above the neighborhood and a bear wandered through the water shed one year.  Coyotes yodel and yip on the ridge at night, clearly heard in the small hours. Our neighbor’s palm tree is host to rats.  I can see them harvesting the seeds that grow in bunches among the fronds.

            I thought about saving one of those boards with the white footprint of a fox  but I decided not to, letting the moment go. That fox is an adult now living somewhere among the green that covers the hills I can see from my house. Perhaps it is a female who has adopted someone else’s deck under which it will hide and produce a litter of kits that will wander in someone else’s garden. 

            Long after I have gone, after we have sold this house, moved to some place that is smaller, anticipating our reduced life, foxes and deer will wander this neighborhood.  Raccoons will gather in little thug-like gangs, tipping over garbage cans, sorting through the refuse. Dogs will bark in the middle of the night when something strange intrudes. The coyotes will raise an eerie howl and a chorus of shrill voices that signal they have scored something to eat, perhaps a cat or dog from the neighborhood that was left, foolishly, outside in the dark.

            Like Columbus, we have landed, established ourselves, but the natives have not been subdued. They leave their footprints and the owl that hoots in the early morning reminds me that something is hunting rats on silent wings.  

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the clock is ticking

            I have finished reading Wallace Stegner’s novel, The Spectator Bird for the third or fourth time.  It still holds together and despite the fact that I recognized characters and scenes, it held my attention.  It is  novel of old age.  I am eighty-five, certainly in old age.  He writes about his character’s aches and pains and I am certain that Stegner is writing about his own aches and pains, his own descent into old age.  His character reads from a journal that he wrote years ago, and I look at these short essays. They are like Stegner’s journal, bits and pieces of my past and the past of others who are now dead.

              I am reminded of Jim in Huckleberry Finn, hanging onto the edge of the raft, waiting for the response of the white slave catchers. If their answer is the wrong one Jim will let go of the raft, drift off into the river, perhaps to survive, perhaps not.  I liken old friends who slip off the raft, hang on for a while, then slip off into the night.  Fred Lakosky never woke up.  Lou Hinze slipped into dementia and then lost his grip on the raft. Peter Monahan, a brilliant teacher and someone who brought poems to me, always had a thought about what the poet had in mind.  Now Peter has slipped off the raft, and there are fewer of us drifting toward the Gulf. 

            Mary Oliver, in her book of essays Upstream, writes: “Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again! Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish!  The clock is still ticking.” Yesterday Owen and Nathaniel arrived to tear down the old shed that I attached to the rear of the house forty years ago.  It was filled with rot, the detritus of rats, made of cast-off lumber.  Now it is a huge pile in the driveway and the two of them did the job in four hours.  Owen is twenty, Nathaniel is approaching twenty-three.  Their energy was amazing. Now the empty space waits for son Graham who will build a new deck, this time with lumber purchased from the Fairfax Lumber Company, clean knot-free boards that will surface the new deck. I stumbled around a bit, wheeled some bits of concrete out, and watched while they swung a sledge hammer and carried out whole chunks of wall and flooring. It is hard to imagine that some day they too, will be as lame as I am, hesitantly piling up waste , unable to lift heavy weights, their balance precarious. 

            The clock keeps on ticking.  

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more dogs

            Most of these essays are true, a few of them are fictional stories.  The true ones are first person, as true as I can make them, although my brother Paul may hesitate, and say that I have embroidered them. Some of them contain dogs. I like dogs, have often inserted them into my fiction. There were four dogs that lived with us in my life: Pam, a cocker spaniel that we left behind in Illinois, Watch, the dog that belonged to Aunt Edna and Uncle Howard  and was quarantined at the insistence of Major Winslett, whose daughters tormented the dog and got bitten.  Watch caught distemper at the quarantine site and died. Sasha, a schnauzer/poodle mix, lived with us for years, and following her, Quincy, a purebred schnauzer with an attitude.  

            Quincy’s registered name was Wolfgang but my son Graham changed that.  He became Quincy, a name from a Sierra town where Graham had often fished, Quincy was a miniature schnauzer who had an aggressive attitude; he went for big dogs with impunity, suffering nasty bites in return, but it didn’t daunt him, He maintained that attitude throughout his life with us, only settling into old age, his eyesight failing, his hearing dissipating, and he lashed out at anyone who approached him from the rear, unable to see or hear their threat. Eventually he only tolerated me. I was the one who groomed him, securing his jaw with a belt so he couldn’t bite me, and he dissolved into old age.  When his legs gave out and I found him dragging himself over the floor, I took him to the vet.  

            ‘He won’t be any better for letting me stitch him together with drugs. He’s at his end” he said.  “Do you want me to put him down?’

            ‘No,” I said, “this my responsibility,” and I took him out to the humane society where they would give him a shot and end his pain. It was a sad moment for me. He sat on the floor next to me until the woman came to take him and a few minutes later she came out and said, “It’s done.” I went to my truck in the parking lot and cried.   

            We outlive our dogs. I am eighty-five, and am not about to get another dog, since the dog would outlive me. So now my dogs are fictional, dogs that will not collapse on me, a dog that will last as long as the words last. They are story dogs, not real dogs, not the kind that go out into the surf time and time again to fetch a tennis ball, returning to drop the ball at my feet. 

            Other people’s dogs were important: Bella, the Strempek’s black lab that I occasionally walked on the beach, Cooper, a neighbor’s dog that I take care of when they go skiing, Lucy, one of my son’s dogs that has been a mainstay in their household, Graham’s dogs, including a husky, Yukon, that stood on top of his doghouse in the falling snow in Eureka, sniffing the wind. Graham has had a series of dogs, now has two big ones, and Geoffrey’s household has added two more. 

            I still have a photograph of our first dog, Pam, in Aunt Orca and Uncle Sam’s driveway in Illinois, days before we left for California. Pam played with us in the snow in the vacant lot next door to the house in Arlington Heights and Paul and I lay on the floor afterwards, picking the ice from between her toes while she whined. 

            Right now I am reading Dog Stories, a book with stories by Twain, Chekov, Brett Harte, Rick Bass, Doris Lessing, and others. I have written about Bella, the Strempek’s black lab, and Graham’s worthless dog, Snuffy. 

            There has been a dog in every one of my novels, often incidental. But there has been a dog.   

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the folding Adirondack chair

The Adirondack chair was first designed by Thomas Lee, a  Harvard graduate who dropped out of law school.  He was from Westport, Connecticut, and worked on the chair from 1900 to 1903.  He gave the design to a carpenter who ran a woodshop, did not take any money for it, and it was an instant hit. 

            There are now several variations of  Thomas Lee’s design.  One of them is a folding Adirondack chair.  I found the remains of one underneath Dora Williams’ cabin at Dillon Beach, brought the parts home, made a pattern and built one for myself.  Now I have made two chairs from the salvaged parts of an old deck that was torn off the rear of the house, sturdy chairs that look quite handsome.

            Graham and I fished in the Aidrondacks when he was twelve. That summer Graham, his mother and I drove the width of America, Graham and I fishing in rivers that we had marked as special places for trout fishermen.  We spent an afternoon on the Beaverkill River in the Adirondacks, Graham fishing with the new bamboo fly rod that we had bought from Arthur Taylor at a garage sale in Maine. Later, when the tip broke, Taylor fashioned a new one for Graham, commenting that he was happy that the rod was being fished with.  

            It was cold that summer morning in the Adirondacks, and the car, a Volkswagen diesel, was difficult to start. 

            We fished the Beaverkill, on a small stream in Maine with Eleanor’s great Uncle Russell, in Colorado, and in New Jersey. I have made an Adirondack chair for Graham. 

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