Abutments: an Encounter in the Northern Michigan Woods
16 January 2011
Photograph by Loren Bliss copyright 2011 (click on image to see it full-frame).
I BEGAN KEEPING a journal in my 16th summer a few months before I got my first newspaper job, and despite the multiple discouragements of dyslexia, I have done so ever since. Though nearly all these annual collections of notes and letters and poetry fragments and other such personal memorabilia were destroyed by arson in 1983, the dynamic of memorization and recall that is a central part of writing enables me to remember enough of a given event – what happened and how I felt about it – to be reasonably comfortable applying the first-person form to anything that happened in my life from mid-1956 onward.
But my pre-journal years are notably different: though thanks to my father's encouraging gifts of cameras I was already committed to a lifetime of photography, I remained a boy who had yet to discover the advantage of inked or typewritten paper mnemonics, a reality underscored by the present-day fact that while my pre-journal memories remain vivid, the emotional anesthesia that is both the curse and blessing of nonverbal time has given them a curiously once-removed quality akin to that of film footage or old sepia-toned photographs, of events in which I was an observer rather than a participant or – if reincarnation is more than just a comforting fiction – perhaps of memories from other lifetimes.
Clearly this is why whenever I try to write of my boyhood years before the decisive moment I committed myself also to a lifetime of writing, it seems gravely dishonest to do so in anything other than the third person, presumably a recognition that these circumstances demand the I (and eye) of the autobiographical present be replaced by the visually reportorial he and him – an expression of necessity and therefore not of some Norman Mailer affectation.
There is also the fact that until my emotional and intellectual vocabularies had expended to something approaching maturity – another milestone I associate with journal-keeping and its origin in my decision to study and practice accurate description – there was much that happened during my pre-journal years I frankly found impossible to verbalize until years later; I lacked both the words and the vital sense of metaphorical relationships – for example the clear image of Nature as a womanliness so huge and powerful and yes seductive that even now I can find no adequate synonyms for her timeless magnificence in any language beyond the visual arts or the haunting virtuosity of music. It is especially evident in tribal woodwinds, their summons like fire-blue Clyfford Still brush-strokes against an umber cadence of drums; the heartbeat of a forest; some clear and troutly river that yet murmurs in the Mother Tongue -- all the reflections and emanations of pure wildness and wilderness so beloved of Celtic or First Nations peoples.
The following describes an event I as a boy never dared reveal, one of those pre-journal episodes I can only relate in the third person, a true story I could not write until I was a 70-year-old cripple and no longer gave a damn if people thought me a liar or crazy or both.
Bear in mind too that children of my generation yet enjoyed a freedom that in the United States of today has become not only unthinkable but has in many jurisdictions been suppressed as a felony perpetrated by criminally neglectful parents.
THE BOY WALKED in conifer-dappled sunlight along a road so old and unused it was scarcely more than an underbrush-obscured trace through the forest. He had long wondered where the road might lead and what he might find along the way, and now today he followed its hide-and-seek ruts of pale yellow sand westward from the charred remnants of a mysteriously destroyed bridge that in the late 19th Century had briefly sought to span the South Branch of Michigan's Au Sable River.
Local elders called the former bridge-site “The Abutments” and – curiously, the boy thought – spoke of it with the same subtle implied-capitals proper-noun reticence he observed in adult conversations about graveyards and funerals or disasters, a fact the boy had noted immediately. After the boy had seen the reality of the place, the name had perplexed him even more, the quiet weight of its syllables clearly unexplained by what was there: the bridge could never have been anything but a crude structure built of hand-hewn logs, and that scarcely a single lane wide. It had twice briefly spanned a watercourse no more than 30 yards across even at maximum flood. Now, decades later, its telltale relics were merely two pairs of fire-blackened pilings, one pair on each side of the river in the shallows just beyond its banks, each piling a tight cluster of three or four maybe 12-inch diameter logs bound together by wraps of iron cable that had long ago oxidized into bands of dull brown coagulation now barely discernible from the underlying charcoal, each bank's pair matched like gateposts perhaps 10 feet apart.
There was mystery here also, another quality the boy sensed about the place: the fact The Abutments was where his maternal grandfather dug pale-gray clay from the otherwise mostly brightly pebbled riverbed for the boy's aunt to use in her ceramic sculptures. Hence -- or so the boy assumed (because he correctly recognized his mother's older sister as his sole defender amongst maternal kin otherwise poisoned to unrelenting hatefulness by the toxins of dysfunction and divorce) – such a place, if only by its association with the sanctuary of his aunt's studio, should therefore have emanated the same comforting sense of home with which the rest of the river unfailingly welcomed him, its murmur like the gentle voices of women conversing fondly in some immediately adjacent room, voices that sometimes even seemed to call one's name – an eerie but somehow comforting quality the river guides and their adult-fisherman clients would acknowledge only after several whiskeys and about which the boy thus knew to keep silent. But uniquely the clear water that coursed past The Abutments offered no such comfort; it gurgled ominously, and though the bottom beyond its clay-bed shallows and ruined pilings plunged quickly to the come-fish-me depths of big-trout habitat, the boy could not comfortably cast into it or even look long into its cold green shadows without involuntarily shuddering, as if someone had drowned there or something deadly dangerous lurked just out of sight within its strong currents
As a result everything about The Abutments aroused his curiosity, and he repeatedly questioned his elders about what had happened there until finally his persistence pried out of his maternal grandmother a reluctant, obviously pared-to-the-bones story about bridge-builders twice thwarted by fire that struck at night and did so inexplicably, without apparent cause or motive, so that after the second blaze had dropped the second span of timbers into the river and for the second time left only monoliths of charred pilings, the builders surrendered to whatever pyromaniacal namelessness seemed to rule there and abandoned not just the bridge but the entire road-building project, never mind it had been hailed as the shortest, easiest-to-complete route from Luzerne to Grayling and back.
Again in that oddly wordless childhood mode of reasoning, the boy soon concluded the reality that echoed in his elders' voices was neither explained by his grandmother's story nor by the fact a place so seemingly innocuous – at least until you peered into its deeper waters – would bear a name so subtly ominous.
Denied all other sources, the boy's curiosity took the sort of quantum-leap that would someday preface his investigative journalism: he began wondering what the road itself might tell him – and now today he intended to find out.
YOU GOT TO the Abutments by a seldom-traveled and severely potholed two-rut road that followed the river maybe a half mile along its west bank downstream from the self-consciously rustic cabins of the sprawling George Mason Estate and ended in the sandy expanse of a turnaround that sloped gently to the water's edge, an obvious if curiously underutilized launching-site for canoes and the AuSable's uniquely long and flat-bottomed riverboats.
Here a Norway pine, the oblong vertical scales of its bark the color of red rust, had sprung from the middle of the intended Luzerne-to-Grayling roadway maybe a dozen yards beyond where the west end of the bridge had been. The tree had since grown to a towering height, as if it were adding its own exclamation point of obstruction to the message of the fires.
On the river's east bank the old road had long ago vanished, conquered by an unlikely jungle of marsh grass that grew chest-high beneath a grove of white-trunked paper-birch, but here on the west side of the river the way had been preserved well into the 20th Century, probably by hunters using it to access the deep woods beyond. What was now a turnaround had until sometime in the '40s been a riverside junction on the upstream side of the big pine, a 90-degree L-shaped intersection that ended the north-south road from the Mason Estate by connecting it to the remnant of the Luzerne-Grayling road that continued westward toward Grayling to whatever point the roadbuilders had reached when the project was terminated by the fires that twice destroyed their bridge. But this passage too had finally been by closed by winter windfalls that for some unknown reason no one had troubled themselves to clear away and now it was dwindling to just another of the innumerable forgotten tracks that thread northern Lower Michigan's ruggedly mature second-growth forest: scrubby jack pine and its less frequent but far more stately cousins, white pine, blue spruce, other Norway pines like the one that seemed to stand sentry here where the boy began his quest.
It was 1952, near the end of that fondly remembered era when the electric lines and telephone wires went no closer to the South Branch country below Chase Bridge than Grayling, the Crawford County seat a dozen crow-miles further west. Though the entire region had been clearcut to a biblical barren during the 1860s – raped for profit and then burned to inquisitorial ash by the Great Michigan Fire of 1871 – in '52 its distance from modern utilities had preserved its wildness and fostered the ecological healing that made it also a place of healing for humans. It was middle August, hot and nearly without wind; the sky that pure summer-and-early-autumn back-country blue you never see much below 44 degrees North latitude; the few clouds white and billowy as raw cotton; the late morning air pungent with sweet fern, loud with birdsong.
The boy's every step flushed huge coveys of those big brown Midwest grasshoppers that always make you think of butterflies as they fly away on purple-black wings edged in yellow or orange. Small for his age, the boy nevertheless had already learned from his father how to move with the watchfulness of a seasoned hunter, the quiet economy of the boy's stride and his obvious comfort in woodland solitude a rebuttal of both their urban origins, his receptivity to his father's teachings probably bolstered by the fraction of First Nations blood inherited from his maternal ancestors, genes that colored his hair black as coal and gave his darkly greenish brown eyes their vaguely Asiatic shape. He was dressed in khaki work clothes and a floppy-brim khaki field hat of the type the Army had issued at the beginning of World War II; he wore a razor-sharp six-inch-blade hunting knife in a brown leather sheath belted on his right hip and carried a .22 rim fire bolt-action Remington rifle, its six-round clip charged with high-velocity hollow-points, the weapon loaded and locked safe and slung by an oiled leather sling diagonally across his back; the area was infamous both for its small but notably deadly Massassauga rattlers, its packs of feral dogs and its occasional rabid animals, but his distinguished-rifleman father had already taught him to shoot so well he feared nothing in his environment, and he was supremely confident of his ability to perceive any incipient risk in time to defend himself against it, especially now in the state of ultra-observant mindfulness his father had taught him during jaunts in the woods and the marksmanship training begun shortly after the boy's fourth birthday. It was an elemental version of paying attention later proven professionally invaluable, eyes focused on nothing yet somehow also on everything, scanning his surroundings seeing whatever might thrust itself into his consciousness: perhaps a snake on which he might otherwise have stepped; perhaps a quick subtle whisk of tail revealing the presence of another mammal whether belligerent or benign; perhaps a discarded tool or the rusted relics of a logging camp from the 19th Century; perhaps a clear-water spring otherwise hidden beneath sweet fern and bracken, its tiny brook expanding to a swamp, a pond, even a new place to fish; perhaps another vanishing passage through the woods; perhaps more of the so-called "Indian Mounds" he sensed might explain the mysteries suggested by the twice-burned bridge and this fading remnant of road.
Songbird morning gave way to cicada afternoon; a vast chorus of insects droned in Gaian harmony; a Yellowhammer drilled a hollow snag for beetles. The day basked in post-Lughnasadh summer fulfillment, at ease with itself.
The road curved slightly upward along a low knoll, dipped toward a shallow basin – now bone dry but every spring a vernal pond – a space shadowed to momentary cool by a dense grove of spruce; the boy welcomed the quick respite from the heat, paused for just a moment to relish it, then walked on.
When he re-entered the dappled sunlight on the far side of the stand of spruce he remembered that time in Florida when he was six years old and he had wandered away from his playmates and followed a white-sand causeway road deep into the perpetual shade of a cypress swamp; a year earlier his mother had tried to kill him and his father had saved his life and a few weeks after the violent aftermath of frantic adults and sirens and cops his father and his new and obviously loving stepmother had promised him his birthmother was safely locked away forever and that she would never be able to hurt him and that he would never have to see her again. Because it was easier to try to make sense of it when he was alone, he began spending as much time in solitude as the relatively unlimited childhood freedom of that era would allow, but at last in the cypress swamp that afternoon he sensed he was going too far and he stopped walking and looked out over the suddenly ominous expanse of dark water on both sides of the road: the cypress knees reminded him of the swollen ankles of a beggar he had seen on a street corner in downtown Jacksonville and the Spanish moss looked like witch hair on Hallowe'en and off in the distance something big enough to eat him announced its presence with a swirl of disturbing ripples and suddenly he was a little frightened. But he did not run; somehow he already knew better. He merely turned back and walked in the direction from which he had come and when he walked out into the hot sun and then beneath the towering shade of a huge tulip poplar growing to his left just outside the swamp a leaf spiraled downward from the tree and touched his forehead and it felt like a kiss, exactly the kind of kiss he had seen other mothers bestow on their own children, and all at once he sensed he was being embraced not by a woman but by something female he could not describe: a sense of womanliness itself, womanliness big as nature that had just kissed him as if to tell him not only that she would be his mother from now on but that unlike his birthmother she would never betray him.
Remembering those moments in Florida momentarily brought to mind his present circumstances. A divorce court had voided the no-contact promise; the boy was in Michigan because of a judge's bad-luck mandate he summer with his birthmother until he turned 18; he was in the good-luck South Branch region of the Au Sable River wilderness -- which he would realize in old age was the one and only place in the dry-land world he had ever truly felt spiritually at home -- only because that was where his maternal grandparents, upon whom his birthmother would be dependent until their deaths, kept "the cottage," the vacation home they built on the five remaining acres of the much more vast acreage the state of Michigan had in 1866 awarded to his maternal grandmother's father, Henry Heber Woodruff, a Civil War hero and later a state circuit judge.
But now the boy's fleeting and not entirely welcome contemplation of his decidedly mixed fortune was abruptly ended by the raucous jeering of a squadron of blue jays somewhere off to his left in the middle distance. Vaguely startling, it instantly refocused his mind on his quest; he wondered what might have disturbed the jays and remembered a fight he had witnessed between jays and a nest-raiding red squirrel who had climbed the branch-bare lower trunk of a blue spruce that grew halfway between the cottage's screened front porch and the river; the squirrel was searching for eggs to suck; the jays had flown at the squirrel before it reached their nest amongst the tree's dense branches and fiercely pecked at its head until bright droplets of blood appeared on its russet-colored fur and it abruptly turned and fled down the tree.
But the boy quickly dismissed the jays' warning as having no significance to himself, and so he continued westward, his boot-heels lifting tiny puffs of dust from the sandy spots where the abandoned ruts were not yet overgrown.
Cicadas buzzed and rasped; a woodland aviary of small birds twittered.
A new bird warbled -- its voice clear and cool as a minor-keyed flute-solo backed a chorus of woodland ambience -- a seven-note melody so indescribably exquisite the boy gasped at its beauty.
It was birdsong the boy had never heard before – a startling but delightful surprise to one who was sure he had already learned every bird and bird call in that forest – and now the call was repeated, again and again, each note drawn out with the same slow poignant sensuality, every note pure as cleanest clearest water, a spirit-caress more powerful than anything his flesh had ever known or imagined.
The boy stopped amidst the dwindling road, gained a few inches of height by stepping atop the weed-grown hump that divided its two faded ruts, searched the surrounding trees, expected to see birds even fractionally as lovely as their song, its compelling suddenness suggesting a mental choreography of something he could not quite remember, perhaps – because already he had begun to understand the associations of sound and color and geometry – a recollection of his aunt at work on one of her paintings while her own daughter practiced the flute, an ephemeral construct of twilight blue and lunar-white he could see in his mind but not verbalize; perhaps though not his Aunt Alecia and his cousin Pamela at all; perhaps (though how could that be?) some phantom echo of memories far older.
He envisioned feathers of green and gold; the size of the song suggested birds at least as big as ravens.
Perhaps someone's parrots had escaped their cage.
He watched, waited; he knew songbirds typically flitted from limb to limb. Surely one of these wondrous birds would soon move and the boy would spot them all by the motion of one. But jackpine and blue spruce remained birdless. There was nothing save the song – its notes so unfathomably lovely each was its own microcosm of ecstasy.
No, the boy thought, this couldn't be – birdsong so intense and yes getting closer, louder – but no birds anywhere to be seen.
Perhaps it was another human with a flute like that on which he had heard his cousin sometimes practice modal scales curiously similar to the obviously avian melody that now seemed to surrounded him. Perhaps it was somebody with a flute hiding and playing a joke or trying to frighten him.
He thought of tramps, of grubby men said to prey on children.
The boy unslung the Remington, thumb positioned to release its safety, trigger finger resting in readiness on the edge of its blued steel trigger guard: “I'm armed,” he warned; “I'll shoot.”
Yet even as he spoke he sensed the Remington was somehow irrelevant and he reslung it as he realized the forest had absorbed his shout as completely as if he had whispered into a blanket or yelled into a down pillow and he had a fleeting sense of being trapped in one of those awful dreams in which your life depends on your ability to scream but you cannot make your vocal cords produce even a tiny squeak. Yet the boy knew he was not dreaming; he knew it was 1952 on an August mid-afternoon and he was here in the Au Sable country, the only place on earth that felt like it actually welcomed him, and he was wide awake and all the lesser birds and now even all the insects had fallen dead silent yet these birds of the strange indescribably lovely song seemed to be circling directly above him and now yes around him at no more than arm's length yet there were no birds to be seen anywhere and now the color of the day was changing, the air becoming somehow iridescent, darkening to a kind of greenish stormlight though out beyond where he stood on the abandoned road, the sky remained impossibly cloudless and the sun was bright as ever but something inside that darkening air that same arms-length from his face and eerily also of the air itself was...
Such terror as the boy had never known or imagined engulfed him from head to foot. He became terror personified, terror the verb, terror his entire internal universe.
He turned and fled. He ran east toward the river. He ran harder and faster than he had ever run, probably harder and faster than he would ever run again even under maximum duress. He leapt windfalls, dodged saplings, his lungs painfully craving air, his heart seemingly loud as thunder. He ran until he could no longer hear the strange birds and the forest was again alive with bugsong and casual twittering and there was just the very late August afternoon and the abandoned road and its grasshoppers and the hot westering sun and the air tangy with the cinnamon citrus scent of sweet fern and in the bracken off to his right a whitetail doe with two spotted fawns standing motionless as if amused by his retreat and now finally the Norway pine on guard by the river.
He shrugged out of the Remington's sling and sat himself down at the big Norway pine's suddenly protective base and laid the rifle across his legs and pulled off the hat that had been discarded in 1946 by another maternal aunt's Army Air Corps husband and mopped his sweaty face with the hat's coarse cotton floppiness and leaned back against the tree's rough bark until he finally stopped panting and caught his breath.
The boy was surprised to discover the sun was nearly setting; somehow his hike along the abandoned road and his frantic retreat to the place of The Abutments had taken much more time than he realized.
He stood; he unlatched the Remington's safety and lifted its bolt handle so the rifle could not possibly fire and leaned the rifle against the tree, grounding its butt securely enough in the sand it could not slip sideways. Then he strode down to the river and knelt on the damp sand between the western bank's abutments and dowsed his face with double handfuls of the river's icy water. Even now nearly 70 years after the final fire had destroyed the second bridge the close proximity of the charred logs smelled subtly of wet charcoal.
The current gurgled as if in warning. The boy stood again and dried his hands on his pantlegs and fetched the Remington and restored it to locked-safety readiness and slung it diagonally across his back and picked up the sweat-darkened hat and put it on his head and began walking the river road quickly upstream toward his grandparents' vacation home.
Later that night while he could still remember the melody he whistled it for his grandmother, asking if she knew what species of bird it might be.
“No,” she said, focusing on the boy with a lingering glance so acutely searching it seemed to him she looked not at him but more deeply into him than anyone had ever looked, and for an instant he glimpsed in the robin's-egg blue of her eyes a vastly older and more purely wild female spirit somehow close kin to the powerful womanliness he had sensed in the kiss of that falling poplar-leaf in Florida.
“No,” the boy's grandmother repeated; “there's no bird alive in these woods sings like that.”
TWO DECADES LATER, in the what would become one of the most memorable moments of the 24 years of evenings, weekends and vacations I worked on my own time to document what I still regard as the 20th Century's biggest unreported story – the beginning of anti-patriarchal global revolution implicit in the old Counterculture's eerily spontaneous resurrection of the breathtakingly ancient ethos of the Great Goddess – I happened in my research to read of a phenomenon described in pre-Christian Celtic myth as "the Birds of Rhiannon": goddess-sent messengers feathered green and gold, avian couriers dispatched by Rhiannon herself either as a dire warning or as a summons that is fated and therefore cannot be refused, their song said to be the most hauntingly exquisite music in the universe.
Until that reading I had never so much as imagined a connection between my odd late-boyhood encounter in the Michigan woods and my growing certainty the pagan-liturgy-resurrecting folk renaissance of the later 1950s was the beginning of an event far greater than itself; I assumed the compulsion that since my 19th year and my second quarter at the University of Tennessee had nagged me to pursue the story wherever it might lead was merely journalistic intuition on overdrive. But having learned of the Birds of Rhiannon, I could only begin to wonder if my efforts were far less self-assigned than I imagined them to be.
Most of the time I am outspokenly, even caustically agnostic, and I am profoundly skeptical of all so-called spiritual or religious experience including my own, but in that instant of reading I was smitten by a gooseflesh chill so powerfully indicative I knew what I had encountered in those Michigan woods was not only poetic truth but also the animating truth of the misused phrase “stopped me cold,” and I remembered the odd piercing look my grandmother had given me when I whistled for her the song of those ineffable birds of strange, her eyes with their almost surreptitious flash of recognition an involuntary reflex that by 1972 I had learned is a telling characteristic of women who are in touch with the goddess-symbol even if they cannot (or dare not) speak her name – women who, had my "Glimpses of a Pale Dancer" not been destroyed by arson just as it seemed on the brink of mainstream publication, might themselves have said of it what my late friend Helen Farias said to me after reading its earliest draft in the spring of 1971: “you have given me the words to describe what I have always known to be true but never had the vocabulary to express, and I cannot thank you enough.”
Eventually Helen would express her gratitude in the best way possible: in 1987, returned stateside with her intellectual prowess confirmed by a Master of Fine Arts degree from the prestigious University of London, she founded the quarterly Beltane Papers and its monthly supplement Octava, journals of feminist spirituality that steadily gained credibility and circulation until metastasized breast cancer -- eerily the fatal plague of so many feminist activists -- killed her on the autumnal equinox of 1994. Within a year or two the publications she had served with such scholarly diligence as editor and publisher were taken over and finally shrunken to fatal irrelevance by people who sought to reduce our species' original and longest-worshiped deity to scarcely more than the patroness of a New Age self-improvement cult exclusively for women.
Now in my 70s, I recognize Helen's praise as among the finest, most important accolades of my life.
No matter “Dancer” was burned to cinders, undoubtedly because the government and its owners regard any real threat to patriarchy as dangerously subversive; no matter the spare-time, 24-year reportorial investigation that was to have been my one bridge to prosperity and the crowning glory of my journalism career died in flames with its irreplaceable research notes and its forever lost photography and all the rest of my life's work, text and pictures alike. No matter the fire was ignited at literally at the same instant a well-known Manhattan book-editor1 was assuring me she could mother "Dancer" to mainstream publication, insisting it would be one of the 20th Century's most influential volumes; no matter but for the fire I would have scooped the world on this the first visible wave of our species' survive-or-die revolution against patriarchal ecogenocide -- our first obvious mustering against the Apocalypse the patriarchs and their direct descendants the Capitalists are intentionally inflicting on us all. No matter the fire's indescribable pain of loss and defeat remains the branding-iron on my psyche and the knife-blade in my heart it has always been and ever shall be; the odyssey that now in retrospect seems the irresistible mandate of that long ago August afternoon in the Au Sable River country yet prevails as my own solitary quest, its beginning a priceless gift I failed to recognize until 18 years after the fact, now in the brutally honest retrospection of terminal old age an almost-sacramental confirmation that endures even amidst the ashes and inescapable poverty of my post-fire existence. No matter there will never be for me any professional laurels or material gain from it; in the emotional, spiritual, purely aesthetic sense it remains as compelling as ever, precisely as Robert Graves foretells in a poem entitled "To Juan at the Winter Solstice":
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.2
1The late Cicely Nichols, one of the primary facilitators of Sisterhood is Powerful (Vintage Books edition: 1970), acknowledged on the unnumbered copyright page as "a sister in struggle" to whom the anthology's editor Robin Morgan is "especially grateful.")
2Graves, Robert; The Poems of Robert Graves, Doubleday Anchor Books, New York: 1958 (pgs. 200-201)
LB/May 2010-January 2011;
(with additional minor editing to improve accessibility, 2018-2019 and 2022)
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