bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two Seasons in Paradise with Joe Hollis

by Jesika Feather

Joe moves with the light gait of a man who’s spent his life wrangling brief footing from loose stones. He has a slight frame, glasses, and a cloud of gray hair that puffs out beneath his signature black beanie. His hand movements depict a lifetime spent pressing roots into soil, extracting seeds from their husks, and subtly shifting this leaf or that stalk to investigate peculiarities.

Joe’s name is generally spoken concurrently with that of his life-project: Mountain Gardens. Mountain Gardens is a wonderland, a four-acre paradise, and an archetype of the existence we self-proclaimed revolutionaries strive for. The property lies at the base of Mount Mitchell, just outside of Burnsville, North Carolina. Joe bought the land raw in 1972 and has spent the last 40 years nourishing the soil, erecting artistic infrastructure, and influencing hundreds of apprentices.

My husband and I interned at Mountain Gardens for two seasons (2004 - 2005). I was attracted to the internship because I wanted to live simply and to gain more practical skills. Because I was taking a break from teaching, I anticipated some mindless, emotionless, nature-based busywork. I imagined (pre-arrival) that weeding might be the ideal task for me. I fantasized about the black and white finality of a job well done: a bed of lettuce or a row of Echinacea starkly contrasted against the uninterrupted, dark, richness of cleared soil. It was exactly the sort of unquestionable triumph that my mind had begun to crave; like coloring inside the lines, or two plus two equals four.

But Joe’s style of gardening is not cut and dry. It’s an intuitive science; a 50/50 blend of intellect and instinct (sort of like teaching). At Mountain Gardens the line between “weed” and “not-a-weed” is a vast gray area. There are very few, if any, plants that Joe actually eradicates from his garden. Though he may ask you to weed the Agrimony from the Angelica he will, later, suggest that you collect its leaves from the odd, sporadic patches where its presence is acceptable. Agrimony (also called Soldier’s Herb) is commonly used in a poultice due to its ability to slow and stop bleeding. Until you become familiar with the ever transforming appearance of each plant and its varied healing or nutritional properties, weeding is one of the more daunting assignments at Mountain Gardens.

Joe doesn’t grow or process any individual plant in mass. He is dedicated to variety and he specializes in Chinese as well as Native medicinal plants. On his four acres Joe has developed a veining, flowering, photosynthesizing Materia Medica… a living library of plant medicine.

Each year Joe harvests seed from the hardiest specimens within his horticultural throng. He scrupulously organizes his yield into film canisters that are labeled and dated. These canisters are arranged ‘A’ to ‘Z’ in snug-fitting holes drilled into shelves that line his custom-built 6’x4’ seed cabinet. As new seeds come in, the outdated leftovers are hodgepodged into a single envelope. In the springtime this geriatric seed medley is scattered throughout the garden (another incentive to pour over those plant identification flashcards)

After my reluctant realization that this internship would actually require me to learn things and make decisions, it seemed natural to invest two years into this apprenticeship. We wanted to reap the full benefits of Joe’s teachings. Joe was a refreshing anomaly for both of us. We could have spent decades learning solely from his lifestyle.

Joe maintains a lenient attitude about… pretty much everything. He eats meat which, to many intern’s chagrin, is not always hormone free or organic. It would not even be unprecedented to discover… ghasp… the tell-tale foil wrapper of a fast food hamburger in his truck.

Even as Joe approaches his 70th birthday, he doesn’t strive for more amenities, comforts, or conveniences. He plods simply and doggedly into his 40th year as proprietor of Mountain Gardens, influencing his interns with the same, humble, lead-by-example teaching style. He presents himself as a problem-solving equal, never flaunting his mastery of the avant garde techniques that have become his daily routines.

Joe is a catalyst of the Permaculture movement, from before the term ‘Permaculture’ was coined. However, due to his unpretentious, almost Taoist nature, his writings and gardening practices have mostly provided flashes of insight and inspirational whispers in the ears of more prominent writers and activists.

One of Joe’s initial hurdles in 1972, before any of the infrastructure or gardening could ensue, was to pry innumerable stones from his virgin mountain property. Mountain Gardens crawls up the base of Mt. Mitchell at, quite literally, a 45 degree slant. In accordance with Joe’s use-what’s-readily-available philosophy, he incorporated nearly every one of these stones in the winding retaining walls that embrace each of his garden beds. His rock walls extend about two and a half feet high, supporting garden plots that roll approximately three and half feet back before butting into the subsequent terrace.

Joe doesn’t use mortar, though on occasion I’ve watched him press soil and the roots of rambling plants into weak segments, allowing maturing root systems to cinch the stones together. Because these forty-year-old walls are in a perpetual state of deterioration and re-construction, no intern resides long at Mountain Gardens without an extensive tutorial in the art of rock wall formation.

Mountain Gardens Pavilion
Each structure on Joe’s property is assembled with a similar piece-by-piece, meticulous regard for beauty, sound construction, and amalgamation with the natural environment. In 1984 Joe, with help from friends, hand cut every shingle for the roof of the pavilion: a spacious community structure that incorporates an extensive library and herb shop and whose roof extends further to provide coverage for a large, communal outdoor kitchen. Upon completion of the pavilion, the leftover shingles were used to cover the roof and exterior walls of an exceptionally quaint outhouse.

Even for those accustomed to “alternative spaces,” an initial glance at the pavilion will probably result in the universal first impression: “is this for real?” This space was not created to look like a wizard’s lair, but for all intents and purposes, it actually is one.

Upon scanning the table where Joe prepares Chinese tonic prescriptions for the patients of a local acupuncturist, you will notice the coffee mug containing a few pens, an herb-dusted spoon, and several dried gecko heads on wooden skewers. Like everything else in his mystical apothecary, these disconcerting leftovers are not for show. Many ancient Chinese recipes do indeed call for há jiè (dried gecko): just one reason why most of his tea consumers prefer their tea un-translated.

With the exception of the slow winter months, Joe rarely leaves Mountain Gardens. Dancing is one of the only activities, besides sustainable wildcrafting, that lures him from his property. Nearly two weeks into my internship, as I watched Joe crouched on his haunches - tending a fire, a strange familiarity in his utilitarian grace snagged a two-year-old memory to the forefront.

Long before I’d ever heard of Joe or Mountain Gardens I was at a music venue in Asheville. Though the musicians were giving us their wholehearted-all, the audience was utterly unenthused. The band made animated comments into the microphone and intensified its musical fervor. Still… the audience remained unmoved.

The lively man with gray hair was immediately conspicuous. Aside from tipping the age demographic by a good forty five years, he was clearly unaffected by the surrounding apathy. He danced with abandon. Soon enough, the band gave up on our stodgy crowd and began playing just for him.

I watched as the musicians and their nimble enthusiast transported themselves to cloud-nine. They channeled a full-on shamanic boogie while the rest of us, we humdrum leftovers, remained to fend for ourselves.

As an intern I looked forward to every drum circle, full-moon party, or spontaneous shin-dig that evoked Joe’s crazy imp jive. There were plenty of these opportunities because Joe is a virtuoso at whoopin’-it-up in the woods.

Over the years, Mountain Gardens has inspired the construction of many inventive party enhancements including a wood fired hot tub, a cob pizza oven, and a large deck that bounces under the force of ecstatic dancing.

The revelries generally commence as the hot tub achieves a reasonable temperature. As the night progresses the fire is stoked with increased zeal until only the most hard-core or the most inebriated can dip more than a toe in the celebratory broth. Joe waits until the very end, until everyone else has gone home, passed out, or sustains a healthy intimidation of the smoking hot tub. He is known for his assertion, “I don’t get naked for anything under 108.”

Perhaps it’s this propensity for scalding water that perks Joe’s vitality. Or maybe it’s his proclivity for bushwhacking up sharp inclines on regular wildcrafting expeditions. On each of these off-trail plant missions, Joe easily outpaces his interns. Seemingly unaware that his near-sprint up the mountain puts the rest of us 20-somethings to shame, he scampers along at a solid, inexhaustible clip… rather like he’s darting up a household staircase. There is nothing for us to do but pick up the pace and pray he will discover an oddly colored trillium or an unfamiliar patch of bloodroot… anything that might waylay him while we regain our breath.

Joe also puts a lot of stock in his daily intake of Gynostemma tea. Gynostemma (Jiaogulan) is a Chinese veining plant that Joe has adopted as one of his specialty herbs. It is a longevity booster with very similar chemistry to the Ginseng root. Gynostemma’s medicinal properties can be extracted from the vine and leaves and, therefore, it can be harvested far more sustainably than Ginseng which is currently verging on extinction in our native forestland.

During the 16 months that I interned at Mountain Gardens, I retained very little knowledge concerning plant medicine or gardening. Instead I was inexorably influenced by my daily interactions with a man wholly committed to his life-mission. His dedication is not based in an intellectual ideal or a nine-to-five obligation. Whether he is teaching, dancing, gardening, or re-directing a compulsive intern, Joe is wholeheartedly contributing to a positive outcome in the cosmic plot line.

In an addendum that he attached to his well-known essay, Paradise Gardening Joe wrote:

… I still hold firmly to the belief that the best way to address global warming, diversity loss and other planetary problems, the best way to address war, injustice and other social problems, and the best way for humans to live on the planet to realize our full physical, mental and spiritual potential are the same ‘way.’ Mountain Gardens is an effort to act out this theory – We are actors in a piece of ‘visionary ecological theater.’

When I think of Joe I imagine him accompanied by his ubiquitous mug of Gynostemma tea, sifting through piles of gardening literature at a table dusted in potting soil and residual root tendrils. Or I imagine him meandering through the day’s projects… repotting, seed saving, weatherizing… the seemingly minute alterations which, over time, have built his Utopia.

In a world mesmerized by quick progress and instant gratification, Joe holds a space for methodical, meaningful, real-time change. At Mountain Gardens the tedious cycles of growth, decay, and reconstruction are understood, simply, as the Earth’s stalwart style of instruction. Joe nurtures his own property with a similar relentless, unassuming nature. He is a true “Earth-style” instructor whose very life demonstrates his fundamental belief: that humans can interact courteously with the rest of this planet.

Jesika Feather is a mother, teacher, writer, and community organizer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. She enjoys living closely with brilliant, zany individuals and then writing about the ensuing rigmarole. You can find some of this in Communities Magazine or on her blog at:

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Ouija Board

by Dorothy M. Place


The spring of the year World War II ended my mother began to fantasize that our family would move to a farm.   She was inspired by my grandfather’s stories about farming in the “old country” and by the radio programs that featured celebrities who were moving to places like Bucks County, Pennsylvania or Darien, Connecticut, purchasing farm houses that dated back to the revolutionary war, and turning them into modern getaways from their hectic urban lives.  That dream became an honest-to-goodness decision in the most uncommon way.  My mother heard about Musa Jean’s Ouija Board and latched onto the notion that the board could foretell if a farm was in our family’s future.

“Dorothy,” my mother called out the window one afternoon.  She had a voice like a bull horn, perfected over the years of trying to get my father to listen to her.  “Go across the street and ask Musa Jean to bring her Ouija board over after dinner.”

She didn’t have to ask twice.  Musa Jean, several years older, was my only source of information about what life would be like when I became a teenager.  I was the oldest child.  What could I learn from my younger sister and brother?  I already knew more about life than the two of them put together.  But Musa Jean.  That was different.  She had a room of her own, a collection of pictures cut from movie magazines, and a vanity table with a mirror made in three sections so she could see the front and the back of her hair at the same time.

            I crossed Lafayette Avenue and raced up the hill toward Musa Jean’s house, careful not to step on any cracks. Mrs. Principio, a tiny, elderly woman clothed entirely in black was coming down the hill toward me.  Her swollen ankles bowed over the side of her shoes, the outside part where the heels had worn down almost to the sole.   The black veil that hung over her face waved in and out in time with her shallow, hasty breaths.  Rosary beads wound round and round her fingers like the chain wound around the sprocket on my bicycle, each bead helping to propel her forward in the same way the chain drove my bicycle.  I stepped back into the weedy patch of green that filled the space between the curb and the sidewalk.

            Grasshoppers bounced on and off my legs like ping pong balls tossed at the wall. A yellow dandelion flower snuggled in its spiky nest of leaves, waiting to spring upward into a long-stemmed ball of cotton.  Junior Shamsey’s dog, Prince, out for his late afternoon stroll, stopped and lifted his leg on the fence post. Slowly, Mrs. Principio passed.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Principio,” I said respectfully. 

She neither turned her head nor said anything, just leaned into her uneven walk.  Once, I asked my mother why Mrs. Principio always wore black.

“Somebody died,” my mother she said shortly.  “Go set the table for supper.”

            “But she always wears black,” I persisted.

            “Someone is always dying.  Now stop asking questions and do as I told you.”

            There was no reason to pursue the topic.  My mother was interested in cooking, cleaning, sewing, and raising children, the emphasis always on good for all of the above- mentioned.  Good children meant being seen and not heard, especially the not-heard part.  I rang the doorbell at Musa Jean’s house, hopping up and down on one foot as I waited for someone to answer.  One hundred and fifty-two times was my record.  A brown moth struggled to escape its imprisonment in the spider web that stretched from the light fixture to the door jam. A spring burst of leaves as green as mint-flavored chewing gum covered the elm tree in the front yard. From somewhere in the house, I could hear a radio playing.  Mrs. Stocking finally opened the door and motioned up the stairs before I could ask if Musa Jean was home. 

            I shouted as I took the stairs two at a time toward the attic bedroom, “Ma wants you to bring over your Ouija board after supper.”

            The door was closed; I entered without knocking.  Like dancers on stage, little bits of dust shuffled in and out of the spotlight that entered the room through a small dormer window near the roof.  The pungent smells of perfume and nail polish tickled my nose and made me want to sneeze a good one.  The vanity table wrapped in a pink organdy skirt looked like the midsection of a ballerina, and the black and white pictures of movie stars covered the walls right up to the peak of the slanted roof.

            Musa Jean was sitting on the edge of the bed, one leg tucked under her body, the other leg hung over the side, her bare foot swinging back and forth as she leafed through a movie magazine.  Her hair was combed in a style similar to the one Joan Crawford wore in her latest film:  pompadour on the top and sides, long and straight down her back.  Musa Jean’s jaws moved slowly and everyone once-in-awhile, a bubbled swelled out of her mouth and exploded with a satisfying pop.  Her finger and toe nails were polished and her playsuit was cinched tightly at the waist, making her breasts look round and large.  

At the time, I was not sure about breasts.  Whether I wanted them or not, I mean.  It seemed to me like they’d get in your way when I ran.  But they looked good on Musa Jean and she told me the boys liked them.  She was like that.  Told me important information that my parents never thought to tell me.  If it wasn’t for Musa Jean, I could have grown all the way up without knowing that stuff about breasts.

            I flopped down on the bed next to her and looked up at the photographs of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, and Clark Gable.  I couldn’t put pictures on the wall of my bedroom because my mother said the tape left black marks that were impossible to get off.  We never had scotch tape in the house anyway, so it wasn’t worth arguing about.  But if we ever did get some scotch tape, I would give a go at arguing.  It would have been nice to have a picture or two on the walls.  The only picture we had in the bedroom my sister and I shared was a sweet-faced woman with long hair softly falling about her shoulders, sitting on a chair, and holding a baby draped in blankets.  The woman was real pretty and looked at the baby like it was a little Jesus. I was pretty sure she never said shit like my mother did when she was mad. 

            “I like Clark Gable best,” I told Musa Jean.  “When I’m old enough to have a boy friend, how old will he be?”

            “Too old for you,” she said handing me a movie magazine opened to a page showing Sterling Hayden standing by the mast of a sailing sloop anchored off some island in the tropics.  His white shirt was unbuttoned to his waist, his pants rolled mid-calf, and his blonde hair was lifted slightly by an unseen ocean breeze.  He was a long way from my home where a concrete world snuggled up to the rotting ferry piers on the Hudson River. I wondered if I’d ever see a place like the one in the picture.  There had to be a real honest-to-goodness place in the world like that, right?  Or how could they get that picture?    

            “He’s going into the Navy,” Musa Jean said matter-of-factly.  She knew everything about movie star stuff.  “We won’t be seeing him in the movies until the war is over.”  She fell backward on the bed, holding the magazine high over her head.  “I think I’ll put his picture on the ceiling right over my pillow so he’s the last thing I see before I turn out the light.” 


            After supper, Musa Jean arrived with her Ouija board under her arm.  She laid it out on the kitchen table, and she and my mother sat across from each other, gingerly placing their fingers on the pointer.  Musa Jean reminded my mother that it was important to keep her touch light.

            “Let the pointer do the work,” she instructed.  “Otherwise, we’ll never know the truth.”

            I stood behind my mother, leaning on her shoulder and rocking back and forth. I was what you called fidgety when I was young.  My mother always said that I was the kind of kid that got on people’s nerves.  “Dorothy,” she’d yell, “you’re getting on my goat.”  Whatever that was.  As far as I knew, she didn’t have a goat.  Maybe goat was a secret code word for one of her body parts.  I edged up as close to the board as I thought was safe.

            Musa Jean leaned slightly backwards in her chair and half closed her eyes.  She began with what she called “the warm up questions.”

            “Will Sterling Hayden come back from the war safely?” 

The board responded affirmatively, without giving the question much thought, making it appear to be a pretty sure thing.  Musa Jean winked and gave me that “I told you so look.”  She returned her attention to the board.

“Will the Japanese bomb Jersey City?”

The pointer hesitated, started off the board and then careened toward the word “no.”  We breathed a sigh of relief.  Jersey City was pretty close to where we lived and right where my father worked in the shipyards.

Confident that the board had warmed up sufficiently and noting my mother’s growing impatience, Musa Jean asked the question of the evening.  “Will the Mullers move to a farm?”

We held our breath as the pointer slid to and then past the word “no”, skated across the letters of the alphabet without hesitation and lightly played with the tops of the numbers zero through nine.  At first, it looked as though the board didn’t know the answer but, as if suddenly coming upon our future, the pointer boldly headed for “yes” and stopped.

We were jubilant.  In her most dramatic voice, Musa Jean announced, “The Mullers are moving to the country.”

  I jumped off the chair, clapped my hands, let out a couple of howls, and danced about the kitchen.  My grandmother’s china cereal set on the shelf above the refrigerator rattled.  Our dog Bubbles came into the kitchen to see what was going on and joined in with a few prancing steps of her own.  My sister came out of my Grandfather’s room to see what was going on. 

“Bill, we’re moving to the country,” my mother called to my father who was in the living room, smoking his pipe, and listening to the latest war news on the radio. 

“Hah?” my father responded. 

“Quiet down Dorothy.”  My mother grabbed my arm and made me sit on the chair.  “Your father can’t hear me with you making all that noise.”  She raised her voice and yelled, “We’re moving to the country.”

My father mumbled and turned the radio louder.

“He never listens to me,” my mother said to no one in particular.  “All he cares about is that damn pipe of his.”

Musa Jean folded the Ouija board carefully, as though it was a living thing, and returned it to its box.  She rose to go.

“Congratulations, Mrs. Muller,” she said to my mother.  “It looks like you’re going to be a farmer.”

“Can I have a pig?” I asked.  I really wanted a horse but knew that wasn’t possible.  My grandfather said that horses ate too much and you couldn’t eat them.  A pig seemed a surer bet.

There was no answer.  My mother was too busy grumbling about my father’s inattention.  I walked Musa Jean out the front door and sat on the front steps as I watched her go through the gate.

 “Will you have time to polish my nails tomorrow?” I called after her.  She hurried across the street without answering.

 Stars had popped out in the sky and it wasn’t even dark.  No moon that I could see.  Soon school would be out and it would be time for us to go down to the meadows and collect punkies to light so we could smoke off the plague of mosquitoes that came with the summer heat.  I was tempted to swing on the gate but didn’t.  My mother said I could poke one of my eyes out on the iron pickets and I didn’t want to spoil my chances of moving to a farm by losing my eyesight.   I wondered if there were any ripe mulberries hidden under the weeping branches of the trees next to the steps.  Tomorrow morning I’d search for some for my breakfast cereal. 

I looked at my chewed-off finger nails, speculating whether or not there was enough left to polish.  I wondered if the Japanese would ever get as far as New Jersey and when we moved, if they could find our new home in the country and bomb the farm animals as well as us.  Pig guts would be all over the place.  I knew what pig guts looked like.  Vedder Metzner, the butcher piled them into a grinder and made sausages, but only for his best customers.  He said it was too much work to sell them to just anybody.  I went inside.

My mother and father were in the living room.  She was trying to convince him that a move to the country was imminent and he was trying to listen to the radio over her strident and insistent voice.  My mother was getting all worked up and I figured it was best to stay out of the way so I went to the bedroom I shared with my sister, hoping that Musa Jean would come over the next day and polish my nails.


Dorothy M. Place lives in Davis, California where she tends her bonsai trees and writes. She has published three short stories, one of which won first prize in the Mendocino Coast Writers short story contest as well as the Estelle Frank Fellowship.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Mother's Marbles

by Jono Walker

My mother Joy was a fearless body surfer and taught me to be one too. There wasn’t a wave we would hesitate to swim out to in any weather short of hurricane force winds at any point along the two miles of beach at Biddeford Pool. Stretching out in the clear hollow of a towering breaker and seeing your shadow appear for a split second on the sandy bottom just before everything crashes down in a pandemonium of sound and foam is such a rush. We’d fight through the icy undertows looking for the next great ride until our feet could no longer feel the sand and our lips were blue as crabs. But Joy wasn’t just about daring and speed. She had a contemplative side and was an inveterate explorer of tidal pools with a life-long collection of blue and green sea glass that will never be surpassed in terms of color and opaque purity. No raw edges in her collection. Nothing see-through. Every piece different. Each one perfect.

Her grandfather was an Episcopal Minister who built the church that now stands on the golf course in what was just a sleepy fishing village before President Taft decided to make Biddeford Pool the location of his summer White House. This turned the place into a kind of secluded resort for extremely wealthy people from Ohio…and us. When my mom and her brother and sisters were small and August rolled around they’d all pile into the car in Westport at the crack of dawn for the trip up the old Post Road to Biddeford. Driving to Maine was a grueling ordeal back then. There were traffic lights and an endless succession of small town Main Streets to get through so that by the time they got past the city of Biddeford and were pointed out the Shore Road, the sun would be getting ready to set and they’d be ready to kill one another. But once they made the hairpin turn at Fortune’s Rocks and managed to get the windows rolled down, that first wonderful whiff of sea air would fill the car and wash away all the road grit and any lingering thoughts of fratricide. Off they’d trundle down the Stretch Road with the Pool on their left and the ocean dunes on their right. At the end of the isthmus, just up the hill and around the corner from Crowley’s lobster pound and Goldswaithe’s general store, they’d pile out of the car stamping the numbness from their legs on the painted wooden porch where their grandparents would welcome them to the Rectory, a modest clapboard house wedged between grand summer homes out on Bay View Avenue.

In those days the big three-story hotel maintained a boardwalk that carved a mile-long loop around the point, which was where the Reverend took his morning constitutionals with grandchildren in tow. The first side of the loop took them through canyons of scruffy pines and bayberry bushes offering bright blue glimpses of the little islands dotting the bay of Maine. When the pathway spilled them into an open field, the ocean was spread before them on all three sides, walking now straight towards the spot Mom used to call “The End of the World”. On good days the pounding surf on the ocean side of the point sent up rainbow mists that hazed upon their hair and onto the shoulders of their sweaters. As they began their return to the Rectory, the sun would be just high enough to ripple the air above the slats of the boardwalk. Tracing through the tall grass, breezes from the sea bowed the shafts of Goldenrod and sent Queen Anne’s Lace genuflecting to their feet.

When I was a kid some things began to change, but Maine was still Maine. The hotel was converted into a Catholic retreat (locals dubbed it “The Nunnery”) and the boardwalk around the point was left to rot except for a few splintery sections that remained half buried in the clumps of sea grass along the inside arch of Little Beach. Gardeners working for the people living in the enormous mansions that were eventually built out on the point started dumping grass clippings and kitchen scraps onto mulch piles that were strategically placed where the boardwalk used to be on the far edges of the long sweeping lawns. It was a deliberate attempt to discourage recalcitrant point walkers like us, but that didn’t put an end to our ritual. We just skirted around the steaming piles of debris determined to keep the public right-of-way open until years later when my kids were small and the mulch piles had finally grown too big and the bayberry and the scratchy beach plum bushes around them had become completely impenetrable, forcing us, at last, onto the beach for our morning strolls.

I was around ten and my sister Mary Paul was seven and my older sister Joanie was fifteen when we all took a break from the beach one afternoon and drove out as a family to Fortunes Rocks. We wanted to do some sleuthing around a big abandoned stone mansion that was about to be bulldozed to make way for the dozens of seaside homes you see there today. When we got to the long driveway of the old estate there was a chain with a NO TRESPASSING sign blocking our way. We got out of the car and peered down the drive. Dad wouldn’t go any further, of course, but he knew there’d be no talking Mom out of it so after some weak protestations, he simply threw up his hands and drove himself back to the beach.

That left the four of us free to jump the chain and creep towards the run-down house. Nobody had mowed all summer so the sun-warmed grass directly around the place was up to our knees and tickly. Joy suspected the house was headquarters to a Russian spy ring, and sure enough, when we stepped onto the porch and pressed our faces up against the dusty windows something moved from behind the pieces of furniture covered in bed sheets. Or maybe we heard something, but whatever it was it scared the beach sand right out of our bathing suits and sent us scampering to the safety of the rocks out on the point.

The red seaweed made the going slippery but we managed to get to a place where we were hidden from the sniper hiding behind the curtain in the attic window. Taking cover among the heaves of sun-bleached granite we looked out across the long arc in the shoreline and could just make out the Biddeford Pool beach through the summer haze in the distance. The row of cottages nestled in the dunes along the Stretch looked like little pieces of ribbon tied to the tail of a kite trailing towards the grey, box-shaped Nunnery taking flight over the last thin shimmering line of white sand. Beyond the Nunnery the tree line sloped to the old Coast Guard Station tower where the rocks at the end of Fletcher’s Neck pointed like a ghost blue finger out into the ghost blue sea.

Meanwhile, we had a job to do. The seagulls stirred into flight by our earlier shrieks were settled back on the water riding the gentle swells along with the bright confetti of the lobster buoys, while somewhere just below we knew a Russian sub was silently circling. The sun was hot on our backs as we formulated a plan. It was my little sister Mary Paul who found the piece of sea glass that just might do the trick. Early that morning, when we were walking on the beach we passed a nun. We often saw nuns taking their morning strolls, but there was something a little different about this particular one. Maybe her habit was a bit askew, or maybe she winked at us, but in any event she looked like someone who could be relied upon, and sure enough when Joanie flashed our signal, the earnest sister with the tortoise shell glasses was at her post on the roof of the nunnery far across the water. She signaled back a message with her trusty compact mirror: “Coast Guard Alerted.”

Mom lived the last of her days sitting in a chair in a place called Maplewoods. It was nice there and for a while a remote part of her brain could be summoned upon to belt out Sinatra tunes at the Snowflake Teas, but the old girl–who cheerfully admitted in a rare moment of cognitive clarity that she had lost just about all her marbles–was soon running on nothing but the microdots of distant memories. Her eyes grew good and dulled by a life well spent. One time, even though she couldn’t have told me what she ate ten minutes ago for lunch or name any of her grandchildren in the photos hanging on her wall or even remotely comprehend the fact she now had four great grandchildren, I caught her looking over at her mason jar of sea glass sitting on the windowsill and could see something bright and clear flickering across her eyes. Some faint synapses deep inside her clouded brain were letting in gentle breezes from summers long since passed. She was walking again through tidal pools. Suddenly, an icy wave came sluicing between the rocks and splashed white and foamy around her ankles making them ache for a second before sucking back out to sea over a chattering bed of small glittery stones. Maybe that was what I saw and remembered too.

“No,” she said to Mary Paul who had proudly snatched up the piece of glass left behind by the retreated wave, “the edges on this one aren’t smooth enough yet. Don’t you see? It will work fine for our signal but we’ll need to throw it back.”

Let some other little girl come and find it later, when it’s good and ready…

Jono Walker is a writer and book review blogger who moonlights as an advertising executive and marketing consultant. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Julia, their big weedy garden, a couple of poorly behaved dogs and his trusty fly rod. Visit his blog at

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mothers and Other Creatures

by Charles Bergman


In my mind, travel and forgetting have always been linked.  I’ve lived much of my life as if I could outrun memory, or, if I got good and lost, erase the past.  Though I never ran away as a teen-ager, I’ve sometimes thought of myself as an adult run-away.  The farther away, the more remote, the better.  Never mind that I know rationally I can’t really leave anything behind.  It hasn’t stopped me from trying.  It’s a core illusion, a mistaken belief that’s been hard to eradicate.  Maybe I’m typical of many Americans in this way, in love with cars and frequent flyer miles and the open road. 

That’s why I was startled when my sister called me in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I had only just arrived earlier that morning, and was standing in line at a money exchange, travel-weary and jet-lagged.  The last thing I had expected was a call from home, much less from the past.

“Mom died last night,” Carole said, getting right to the point.  “A stroke.”

Jolting news, but no real surprise.  Our mom was well into her eighties, trailing a long medical history.  She wore a pacemaker for her heart and had long seemed frail and failing.  But she also had a wide streak of the hypochondriac, in all honestly, and loved the attention of doctors.  And that made it hard to know exactly what was going on with her medical condition.  Plus, she had a huge lexicon of medical terms—from her long career as a medical stenographer—which made her an expert at stoking all her worries about her health.   

Recently, though, she had found a renewed zest for life.  We had moved her out of her subsidized apartment in Seattle, where she had lived alone, and into an “assisted-living” home.  It was low-income, nothing fancy.  But she loved it, with all the people and a whole new social life. She even took up watercolor painting.  Carole and I began to think she might have several more years.

Her declining and ambiguous health had given us lots of time to prepare in practical ways for this moment, arranging cremation and paperwork.  What surprised me though was how emotionally unprepared I was for this moment.   

 I considered returning home, but quickly decided that that wasn’t really possible or necessary.  Buenos Aires was just a stop-over on our way much farther south—to Tierra del Fuego and, beyond that, Antarctica.  My wife, Susan, and I were traveling with twenty undergraduate students for the month of January.  Without me, the students couldn’t go on.  Plus, Carole and I decided we could easily schedule our mom’s memorial service for a time right after I got back.

I asked our local guide to take the class on a tour of Buenos Aires, while Susan and I headed back to the hotel to talk—to remember.  Memories and scenes I’d worked hard to put behind me quickly came back.   My mom’s adoration of doctors had escalated during my childhood to an addiction to prescription drugs.  She had several bouts of electroshock therapy, which was confusing and disturbing to me as a boy.  Terrible fights with my father, loud and bordering on violence, exploded into an ugly divorce by my early teenage years.  Once single, mom was gone every weekend, hanging out in cocktail lounges, becoming an alcoholic.    

My sister and I?  Left at home on our own.  I hated imagining what our mom was doing in bars and lounges, and grew increasingly angry.  These memories are still painful, even as I write this. 

When I left for college, I didn’t just go off to school.  I tried to leave my mom and my childhood behind—my first attempt at leaving and forgetting.  Not only did I think I could reinvent myself, I tried to become mother to myself.  At key times in my life, when things got tough, I hit the road.  I grew expert at leaving.   

Charles and his mother, Ellie
Much later, when I tried to talk to my mom about those chaotic years, she would grow defensive.  Every conversation became about her and how hard it had been for her.  Whatever I wanted from her, she couldn’t give.  The only solution I could see was an emotional compromise.  On one hand, I learned to be polite and dutiful toward her, a good son.  On the other hand, I quit trusting her with deeper feelings, nothing vulnerable.

You don’t have to travel to create emotional distance.  Mom felt the “it” between us, but I don’t know if she understood it.  I do know it hurt her in her later years.

As Susan and I talked in the hotel, deeper memories and lost images also began to surface.  I had forgotten how much, as a small boy, I adored my mother.  She was full of life and had a great sense of humor.  Her oldest child and only son, I loved to make her laugh, to entertain her.  Embarrassing to admit, I did routines for her—even singing for her— and she affectionately called me her “little clown.”  I remembered a blue and green dress she had.  When she wore it, I thought she was the most beautiful woman ever.  Once, in seventh grade, I faked being sick to stay home from school and try to bake a birthday cake for her.  It was a disaster, but mom doted on me for the effort, which was all I really wanted. 

In a darkened hotel room, I found myself revisiting some of the darker corners of my life.  That early love for my mom was a casualty of my later anger toward her.  And it explained why her nights in cocktail lounges when I was a young teen hurt so much, felt like a betrayal.   It was sad, but it also felt strangely satisfying to feel that early love for my mom again, before it proved dangerous and painful.

Next morning, we left for Tierra del Fuego with the class.  The students had heard the news and were gracious and sweet.  I thought I’d done some good emotional work and was ready move on, leaving mom behind once more.  But she was waiting for me in the far south.


          If the Andes Mountains are the spine of South America, then Tierra del Fuego is the continent’s tailbone.  Ushuaia calls itself the southernmost city in the world, “fin del mundo,” the end of the world.  Of course, there’s a lot more world south of Ushuaia, but the idea captures the frontier scruffiness the place—gaping holes in the sidewalks, rusting buildings, relentless gray skies. 

          Landing in the plane here can be its own minor adventure, dropping through snowy peaks and skidding to a stop at the end of a runway that sticks far out into the windy Beagle Channel.  We emerged from the small airport to find our guide, Marcelo de la Cruz, waiting for us. 

          “It’s terrible about your mother,” he said immediately, wrapping me in a huge, sympathetic hug.  The news had traveled ahead of us south.

          Marcelo is like Ushuaia, disheveled and full of rough simpatico.  His curly dark hair is never combed, his shirt-tails always un-tucked, and his coat rarely zipped up, even in the rain. 

Marcelo de la Cruz
          Marcelo is also a recognized expert on the birds of Tierra del Fuego.  People come from around the world to find the region’s unique species with him.

          “I got something special for you,” he said in heavily-accented Fuegian Spanish.  “Tomorrow night we’ll find an owl.”

“The owl will help you,” he continued, referring to the loss of my mom.  “You must let yourself be brushed by the wings of the owl.  You must be wrapped in the wings of the owl.  The owl will take care of you in this moment.” 

          Marcelo knows I love owls.  We’ve birded many times together in Tierra del Fuego, and with him I’ve seen many of the great birds of the far south—Magellanic penguins, Magellanic woodpeckers, Austral pygmy owls, and more.  This time he wanted to show me a rufous-legged owl, or “la lechuza,” a handsome, strictly-nocturnal, and hard-to-find “specialty” of the region. 

My traveling is not only about forgetting, of course.  It’s also a search, and often the object of the search is a pretext for something I don’t fully understand until I encounter it. I very much wanted to see this owl. 

          The next night Marcelo and I raced down dirt roads through Tierra del Fuego National Park in his small Renault.  He drives as he speaks, fast and sometimes careening toward recklessness.  We stopped several times, listening intently for owls in the dark forest.  Nothing.  Then, about 2 a.m., Marcelo heard something and plunged down a trail.

          By the time I caught up with him, about 300 meters into the forest, Marcelo was standing in a small clearing beside a huge beech tree.

          “Shhhhh,” he whispered.  “It’s here.”

          Marcelo pointed his flashlight at the fork in the tree, perhaps ten feet away.  A little owl stared unblinking into the beam.  A quick glimpse, maybe ten seconds, and it flew.

          “It’s still here,” Marcelo said.  “Above us.”

          Directly overhead, the owl peered from a thick branch.  I strained my neck backward to look up at it.  About a foot tall and heavily streaked, it peered left and right.  I squeaked like a small mouse.  The owl spun its round head, stared at me, and clacked its beak.  It was aloof but sharply curious, sweet-face and big-eyed. 

Rofous-legged Owl by Charles Bergman
          Owls are irresistibly anthropomorphic, with their human faces and upright posture.  They have ancient associations with darkness and graveyards and death.  And also with wisdom, perhaps from their ability to see in the darkness, which is why I love them so much.    

          “How did you know that the owl was there?” I asked Marcelo later, as we clattered back to Ushuaia, rocks clanging off the undercarriage.  I was impressed that he had heard it from the road.  I’m experienced with owls, have found them all over the world, including all nineteen species of North American owls.  But I hadn’t heard this owl at all. 

          “I will tell you how I find the owl.”  Marcelo waved his arms passionately as he spoke.  “I penetrate into the life of the bird.  I feel the owl in order to see it and hear it.  You must feel the bird in order to find it.”

          “Maybe I’m crazy,” Marcelo laughed, by now almost yelling.  “But people do not know what’s possible in nature anymore.  Now you have been embraced by the wings of the owl.”

          I loved the quasi-mystical connection he asserted with the owl.  He was not being metaphorical.  Marcelo is a hard-headed ornithologist.  He keeps careful, scientific records of all the birds in Tierra del Fuego.  But the owl is not just a biological being to him, known intellectually by data and statistics and maps.  It’s also a presence that he knows in his gut, by feeling it.  Still, for all my sympathy for Marcelo’s views, it was not until I returned home a month later that I felt the owl’s embrace. 


When I got back from Antarctica and Argentina, my sister and I organized a memorial service for our mom at the assisted-living home where she had lived her final two years.  A big, impressive crowd showed up to remember her.    

          Every relationship consists of a unique mixture of remembering and forgetting, and sitting on the fold-out chairs in the chapel in the home, I found myself thinking that death gives us our most intense, perhaps the ultimate, experience of both. 

The chaplain at the home called my mom by her nickname, Ellie.  He talked of her life in the home, focusing on one story from her painting class. I knew she loved the painting class because she had shown me several of her paintings.  But this was the first time I heard this particular story. 

          He said that my mom had wanted to paint a picture of a photograph from one of my books, a photo I had taken.   Her idea was to paint the image and give it to me.  According to the chaplain, she tried over and over again to paint the photograph, but she was never happy with her images.  She never showed me anything. 

“It was a photograph of an owl,” the chaplain said.

At those words, I almost wept, bending forward with my face in my hands.  I knew exactly which photograph, which owl, she had tried to paint.  Immediately I remembered the owl that appeared to Marcelo and me in Tierra del Fuego, just after my mom’s death. 

Susan, my wife, was sitting next to me at the service. She leaned toward me and said quietly, “The owl in Tierra del Fuego was your mom.”

Susan has no doubt about it.  In that moment in the memorial service, I believed it too with an overwhelming clarity of feeling. 

All my traveling, and there she was at the far end of the world.

          Now, over a year later, I love to recall that moment in the chapel.  I’ve told others the story of my mom and the owl, and many believe that my mom was that owl. But I no longer feel that clear and immediate faith.  I’m less certain about what happened.  Who or what was that owl?

Without doubt, the chaplain’s story added meaning to the owl and other experiences in Tierra del Fuego, but I can’t pin it down.  Often in Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, I felt animals were speaking to me, offering consolations in languages that I don’t know, but which, like music, moved me irresistibly. A pod of humpbacked whales, for example, was feeding amid a wilderness of surreally-shaped icebergs along the Antarctic Peninsula, surfacing over and over again within feet of our Zodiacs.  They breathed in vaporous whooshes and their breath drifted over us in misted murmurs from other worlds. 

Humpback Whale by Charles Bergman
Now though I’m left feeling mostly two things about that owl.  The first is awe—an overwhelming sense that something powerful and indeterminate was given to me by the owl.  And it reduces me to the state that comes before knowledge and faith and even words, which we call awe and wonder.  It’s the feeling that lurks behind all the big questions that give shape and meaning to our lives. 

          The other feeling is gratitude.  To Marcelo, who showed me the owl and insisted that I be wrapped in its wings.  To the owl.  When a wild creature presents itself, reveals itself, it’s like a gift that nature makes to whatever longing we carry with us inside.  The owl in the forest is now completely tangled up with my memory of my mother.  And finally to my mom.  One of the best things she ever gave me is this last, ungiven gift.


Photos:  All photographs are by Charles Bergman.

Charles Bergman teaches English at Pacific Lutheran University. He's the author of three books, including Wild Echoes: Encounters with the Most Endangered Animals in North America. He's written extensively on wildlife and animals, including the 2009 cover story in Smithsonian magazine on wildlife trafficking in Latin America. He has a weak spot for the Southern Hemisphere, has completed two Fulbright Fellowships in Latin America, and has led four classes on study tours of Antarctica.