Ice of the Month Club – Shipment #1

Happy New Year!  Here’s hoping that 2015 brings happiness and good health to all of you.

I’m pleased to report that by visiting this blog, you are automatically enrolled in the Ice of the Month Club.  Each and every month all winter, you will receive a shipment of rare, exotic ice from Hyland Hill.  Even if you live in an unpleasantly temperate environment—our friends and family members in Los Angeles, Miami, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Nairobi immediately come to mind—you can now share in the bounty of ice that Edith and I harvest so easily here in Vermont.  (As I write this post, the temperature is 5 degrees above zero Fahrenheit.  Please restrain your envy.)

So, as an end-of-year treat, here is Shipment #1:

ice #1

This “lace” of crystals (approximately ten inches wide) was part of an icy curtain that hung from the sixteen-foot width of porch roof, then gradually thinned over a period of several days, then simply vanished.

Lovely, Dark and Deep (Part 3)

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura . . .

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I 1-2

 Gustav Doré, Dante in the Dark Wood (1866)

Gustav Doré, Dante in the Dark Wood (1866)

“Entering the Dark Forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol of the soul entering the perils of the unknown,” writes J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. The forest is “the realm of death, of the secrets of nature or the spiritual world. . . .” In many folk tales, legends, and survival stories, the “[r]etreat into the forest is symbolic [of] death before initiatory rebirth.” [1]  Consistent with this view, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim viewed wooded environments as representing the inner realms of the mind. “Since ancient times,” he wrote, “the near impenetrable forest . . . has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. [When] we succeed in finding our way out, we . . . emerge with a much more highly developed humanity.”woz [2]  Stories about entering dark woods and struggling with strange experiences range from fairy tales (“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Vasilisa the Beautiful”) to children’s books (Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and George MacDonald’s Phastastes) to classical
drama (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to musical theater (Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods) to canonic poems as varied as Dante’s Inferno and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

 Sir Joseph Noel Patton: "The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania" (1849) - National Gallery of Scotland

Sir Joseph Noel Patton: “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” (1849) –
National Gallery of Scotland

Why are forest images so common in myths, literature, and dreams—and what accounts for all the dark symbolism? Robert Pogue Harrison, writing in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, a scholarly exploration of forests in Western thought and imagination, states that most inhabited lands throughout the West were more or less densely forested in the past. Western culture literally cleared its space in the midst of wooded places. The dark, tree facedensely vegetated areas thus defined the limits of civilization—the line between the Known and the Unknown, between In Here and Beyond. Pogue writes that the forest has tended to represent “an outlying realm of opacity which has allowed . . . civilization to estrange itself, enchant itself, terrify itself . . . in short, to project into the forest shadows its secrets and innermost anxieties.” In particular, Christian traditions have tended to view forests as symbolic of the Other. “The Christian Church . . . was essentially hostile toward this impassive frontier of unhumanized nature. Symbolically, forests represented the anarchy of matter itself; culturally, they were the last strongholds of Pagan worship. The darkness of forests—full of dangerous beasts both real and imagined—stood in opposition to the light of divinity cast from above.” Harrison notes that “Where divinity has been identified with the sky, or with the eternal geometry of the stars, or with the cosmic infinity, or with ‘heaven,’ the forests became monstrous.” [3]

Yet wooded landscapes retain intense psychic power in positive ways. They are places that present us not only with shadows but with light as well. It’s hardly accidental that millions of people seek woodlands as sources of exhilaration, solace, emotional sustenance, and spiritual regeneration. Countless hikers, trekkers, and campers feel drawn to forests out of delight, not dread. Edith and I do, certainly—an experience made easier by the bizarre good fortune of having our own little wedge of woods below the meadow on Hyland Hill.

hillside #2

*   *   *


[1]  J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London and New York:  Thames & Hudson, 1987.

[2]  Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1975; Vintage Books, 2010.

[3]  Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1987.

A Shed of One’s Own

“. . . a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Right.  Fair enough.

But what about men?  What must guys have to write fiction?

A shed.  Money wouldn’t hurt, but definitely a shed.

The American novelist John Gardner states in The Art of Fiction that when writing a novel, an author’s goal is to create “a vivid and continuous dream.”  For me, at least, dreaming the dream requires almost complete isolation.  A Himalayan cave would do nicely.  An off-season shack on a beach near Tulum might have possibilities.  An 1840’s-era farmhouse in Vermont comes mighty close.  But even in our calm rural setting, distractions of any sort are a threat to the process.  Even the ordinary activities of my nearest-and-dearest (Edith making business calls downstairs, for instance, or our son, Cory, listening to Tudor polyphony while he writes computer code) can pop the bubble and jeopardize the process.  I lose track of the plot.  My characters stop talking to one another.  The spontaneous, intense, sometimes torrential flow of words from the mind to the page—what I call “white-water thinking”—slows to a trickle.  To dream the dream and, especially, to get the dream down on paper:  this requires solitude.

The answer?  Purchase a cheap ready-made shell, have it transported to our property, and fix it up.  This is exactly what I did this past summer and autumn.  The project coincided with many other tasks and family activities, so the work ran long, but the time and effort will surely pay off in the long run.

Here’s how it happened.

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First, two local carpenters, Alfred and Eugene, constructed the shell in nearby Chelsea, Vermont.

01 - building #2

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On the Fourth of July, Alfred and Eugene towed the shell to Hyland Hill on a flatbed trailer and carefully backed into our meadow.

02 - arrival #3  ◊    ◊    ◊

Winching the shed off the trailer got kinda touch-and-go for a while . . . but somehow it all worked out.

02 - arrival #4

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The result:  an austere little shack with lots of potential.  Jacked up on cement blocks and properly shimmed, the shell was now level and stable.  Not ready for prime time . . . but it certainly possessed the virtue that realtors tout:  location, location, location.

03 - early work #1

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Then my work started in earnest.  The goal was to create what Hemingway called “a clean, well-lighted place”; and, first and foremost, that meant installing lots of windows.

03 - early work #2

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Properly inserted and trimmed, they would let in the sunshine but keep out the rain and the cold.

03 - early work #3

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I wanted the shed to be comfortable year-round, so I added a thick layer of insulation to retain the warmth from a little heater I planned to use during cold weather.  Rigid foam insulation three inches thick seemed adequate and affordable.

04 - insulation #4

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A series of intricate tasks followed:  1) adding circuitry for two electrical outlets, 2) paneling the walls with tongue-and-groove wainscot boards, 3)  trimming the windows with sills, 4) sheet-rocking the ceiling, 5) adding a pine floor, and 6) painting the whole interior.  Like a Pentagon battleship, the project ran late and over-budget.  The payoff, however:  a cozy space conducive to turning inward.

05 - almost done #3

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Putting down a rug, moving in some furniture, and plugging in a heater completed my labors . . .

05 - finished #1

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. . . just in time for winter.

05 - finished #2

File this whole experience under:  “If I’d Known What I Was Getting Into, I Never Would’ve Bothered.”  Still, the deed is done.  The little shed sits out there in the meadow.  It’s cozy even now that the temps have plummeted.  And although it’s certainly the result of my own obsession, and though I hope to go out and work there several times each week, it’s an equal-opportunity shed—accessible to any member of the family and to our guests.

Now comes the hard part:  writing books.