It is silence, pervasive all across the land, which first belies the swing of summer into fall. As I walk along a dusty, lowland trail, the sun as hot on the back of my neck as any day of the year, I try to convince myself there are more months ahead before the snow flies. While heat waves slither across a patch of sunflowers, blurring yellow and green into an underwater-like scene, it still feels like mid-July. But my ears know better, and even though I can’t say exactly what it is that I’m not hearing I know that we have rounded the bend into a new season.
The older I grow, and the more aware of life’s – any life’s – ephemeral stamp on this world that I become, I find myself greeting fall with greater sadness than I did when I was a boy and it’s arrival meant only that Northern Vermont’s hardwood leaves and native brook trout would mimic each other in new shades of crimson. Today, I feel winter’s silent, lonely call all around me and I shake my head in pure disbelief - even as my forehead beads with sweat, the world is falling off summer’s downstream horizon.
I blink hard, my eyes squinting against bright sun, and as focus returns I watch a dragonfly hover on golden wings before landing on a dead willow twig. I circle him, putting the sun behind me, careful not to let my shadow fall across him, and set my tripod down less than two feet away. I’ve got my macro lens on and as I focus on this insect’s eyes, unchanged for nearly 300 million years, I think of a picture I saw as a child of an ancient map of the known world, its borders bounded by the words “Here Be Dragons.” My shutter opens, freezing this flying, unaltered face in front of me, and again I see that map.
I have sought the land of dragons since I can remember. The draw of what lies around the bend, the view from farther afield, the source of a river, the summit of a mountain, or the terminus of a trail is primal, while my interest in the tame and fondness for the known has always been minimal. What lies down the overgrown path wanting wear, and what, more importantly, lies beyond?
When I was nine years old, dragons and their like resided not terribly far from the farmhouse where I lived, a stone’s throw from the Quebec border. Our house butted up to the “pasture,” a tract of land perhaps 20 acres in size that like much of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont was a couple of decades beyond seeing regular mowing. Wild apple trees and alders, some large enough to climb, had sprung up among dense clumps of meadowsweet and tangled patches of red osiers, volunteers eager to reclaim their birthright and hold upon this clayey land. With perseverance and toil nearly equal that of the hill farmers who first cleared that ground to graze sheep and dairy cows, my friends and I had established a network of trails that, after riding hundreds of miles across on single-speed bicycles, had become narrow paths of packed dirt. Moldy sheets of plywood, pilfered from a neighbor’s barn, spanned cattail swales where, if we got a good run at them, we could coast through without getting more than our tires wet. At the base of a steep hill whose slope was pocked with rock outcrops containing carnivorous sundew plants, we positioned a weather-checked tractor tire beneath a ramp of better plywood – lifted with more care from a construction site – to create a jump. With dull hatchets, we removed the limbs of thorn apples we deemed most likely to blind us, beat the occasional stubborn birch stump down into the ground, and hacked enough blackberry canes away to more or less preserve the skin on our legs while flying through our spider web maze with the precision of a barn owl cruising its home territory at full speed in the dead of night. From Beautiful Hill, a name we collectively bestowed upon a vista at the far side of the pasture where three colors of violets bloomed beneath chokecherry blossoms in the spring, we could look south across the cut of Lord’s Creek to ridges of mature maple and white pine and beyond them to a choppy horizon of rolling mountains which called to me from the moment I first saw them.
I wanted desperately to give in to this Sirens song and explore those hills, but doing so would have meant disobeying my father’s stern warning not to go across the creek. My friends and I could do about what we pleased as long as we followed that single commandment. Our apple fights, and our fistfights, the crude pit traps we dug fully believing a burdock-leaf-covered, shallow depression would ensnare wild game right up to bull moose, and even our penchant for lobbing ripe chokecherries into the road in front of cars – preferably white ones – were activities chalked up to boys being boys. Lord’s Creek was the edge of our world, and we were not, under any circumstances, to venture beyond it. I had stood on its banks more than once, staring across the deep water into the unknown, where the groan of a tree moving in the wind became the throaty call of a pterodactyl, and the distant mooing of unseen cows had to be a herd of Pleistocene bison.
During late summer in Vermont the year I turned 9, when Lord’s Creek had been reduced by drought to a quarter of its size in the spring, I asked my father if I could “skip” across it to explore the far side.
“What’s the rule about going across the creek?” he offered as reply without looking up from the book he was reading. When I started to plead my case, treading dangerously close to “back-talking” in an era when it was both forbidden and punished swiftly all across Northern Vermont with a spanking, he lifted his eyes to mine and without the slightest hint of a smile – one that sometimes meant that what he said could, at my own peril, be taken with great latitude – told me, “Not one more word.”
That was that. Summer turned to fall, and eventually the wild apples my friends and I pelted each other with grew too wrinkly and soft to hurl, and our forays into the pasture were replaced by games of king of the hill, played out on fifteen-foot piles of snow plowed out of our driveways. Still, on cold days when our living room woodstove heated only a small portion of our old house, I would look through frost-cloaked windows toward the grey hills I wanted so badly to see up close. What was the pterodactyl doing now, I wondered?
The ancestors of this Montana dragonfly in front of me knew all about pterodactyls and doubtlessly found them less bizarre than my large camera lens. This insect swivels his head, nearly all eyes and capable of seeing everywhere except directly behind him, and lifts one leg to his mouth before launching into vertical flight. I watch it disappear over a line of small cottonwoods between me and the Yellowstone River, gone into an impossibly blue sky but one that undeniably doesn’t contain as much light as it did a month ago.
My path today veers around a small pond through native grasses and squat junipers. Passing close to one of the trees, a second dragonfly takes flight, landing so gently on a bowed stalk of wheatgrass that the plant barely trembles. I get a few shots from the side, but when I move toward the dragonfly’s head it speeds away faster than my eyes can follow.
Before I stand up and stretch, I notice a bumblebee on a red clover flower. Through my lens, it looks like something out of a Star Wars movie – an alien creature with frightening mandibles and a dark hood. I watch it clean its tongue of pollen, wiping its length with clawed feet, then notice how ragged its wings appear. I’ve seen bumblebees this time of year that can no longer fly, clinging to the remainder of their lives by crawling from flower to flower. This one pays no attention to the touch of my finger on its fuzzy head, intent only on feeding. I pet it for a moment, as though with my caress I might add a few more warm days to the year, then stand and walk away quickly.
A yellow-winged locust lifts noisily into the air ahead of me, flapping over the trail, landing in the tire track of a bicycle where it blends perfectly with the tiny ridges of gray soil. The track is wide, evidence of one of today’s popular mountain bikes, an invention of the future when I received a 10-speed road bike for my tenth birthday.
“You be careful around that creek,” my father said to me a week after my birthday. “If you go across, do it where it’s rocky and not muddy, and if you can’t see the bottom find a different place.”
And just like that, permission to seek my dragons had been granted.
I unwound my baseball glove from the handlebars of my bike, loaded my hatchet and plastic thermos full of lemonade into a canvas backpack, and with the push of young legs full of adrenaline sped off into the pasture. I remember now, nearly 40 years later, how alert I was. How sharp my senses were. How I noticed a blue flag iris leaping from a tuft of buttercups, swerved to miss a tiny, red bellied snake as it slithered across my path near the rocky remains of a long-gone-barn’s high drive, and how I was able to follow the zigzag flight of a woodcock that I flushed from the edge of a copse of grey birch with laser-guided precision.
It wasn’t until I stood on the brink of Lord’s Creek, after wading through tall saw grass and skirting the remains of a rusting car frame, that I had my first feelings of unease, a sense that in the land of dragons things more terrible than the pterodactyl might lurk. I stared down into the water, through my reflection where horned dace minnows quivered, to a streambed of rock. And then, with a quick look back toward Irasburg, where the top of the Protestant church steeple seemed to rise from the summit of Beautiful Hill, I plunged off the edge of the Earth.
On the far side of the stream, where water ran from my pant legs and oozed from my sneakers, everything was different. The wild cucumber vines grew in tighter curtains. The skunk cabbage was taller, the air cooler and charged with electricity, and the splayed track left deep in creekside mud seemed far too large for a moose. I unbuttoned my backpack and gripped the rubber handle of my hatchet tightly, ready to strike down either the anaconda I imagined lying near the creek or a charging triceratops – the one whose track I now followed up a gentle slope to a stand of large white pine whose boughs undulated in perfect synchrony – a single living thing breathing deeply in and out.
In heavy shade beneath the pines, the temperature was ten degrees cooler, the ground carpeted in thick, fallen needles, devoid of the underbrush so prevalent below hardwoods. As my eyes adjusted to the lack of sun, I took aim at the smooth trunk of a pine and hurled my hatchet. It spun end over end and struck the tree with the back of its head, not burying its blade into the bark the way I’d hoped, but delivering a blunt dent whose edges gleamed with golden pitch. Not bad, I thought. If the triceratops comes, I’ll be ready. I expected to see him at any moment, armor-plated head hurtling along on short, stout legs, but all I found in the pines was the remains of a lean-to partially sheltering a few faded pages from a Playboy magazine and a couple of crushed Budweiser cans. It wasn’t an entirely disappointing discovery – a couple of the photos retained enough detail to momentarily make me wonder if it wouldn’t be better to watch one of these exotic women stroll across the forest floor than to be charged by a dinosaur – but it was also proof that the land of dragons lay further than I’d come. I put my hatchet back in my backpack, along with a single page I folded delicately, and pressed on.
The locust doesn’t allow me any type of photo, but a few hundred yards further where I veer off my path into a field of wheatgrass and dried sweet clover, I begin spotting northern blue butterflies. A hatch of them has emerged, and dozens fill the air, so similar to Vermont’s spring azures that for a moment both time and geography blur.
As I photograph one in the shade of taller grasses, afternoon sun barely lighting his pale wings, and then a pair close together near the summit of a single stalk of grass, I remember chasing their eastern cousins with a net my mother sewed from curtain material about the time I ventured across Lord’s Creek. While I focus on a third butterfly, fanning its wings in preparation of flight, I remember one from decades ago that, after extricating from my net, left a glowing, blue powder of scales on my small fingers. Even at the time, I was conflicted over wanting to believe that it had imparted some type of magical fairy dust to me and fearing that I had stripped it of something vital. I offer my finger as a perch to the one in front of me, a meaningless apology of sorts to butterflies it never knew existed in a place it’s never been, and when it declines I move carefully away.
I wasn’t terribly careful leaving the tall stand of pines in Vermont when I was 10. No self-respecting dragon would make its home among the detritus of beer-drinking teenagers. His lair would be further away, closer to the hills I’d stare at during winter. Onward then, I decided, across a fence equal parts barbwire, page wire, and mossy rails, around an impenetrable clump of thorn apples, through a damp seep where forget me nots and deadly nightshade bloomed, to a forest of mature sugar maples among whose trunks lay partially-buried sap buckets, some vented by the blast of a shotgun.
I drank my lemonade sitting on a fallen log where a line of black ants marched through a forest of British soldier lichen, and then feeling refreshed, with renewed hope of discovering the unseen, set a course toward the crest of a ridge peeking above a line of cedar trees.
The hike toward that ridgeline, a waypoint that vanished as soon as I entered the cedars, was my first lesson in how much country can lie between what I see in the distance and where I stand presently. I walked for an hour, first believing I would crest the height of land momentarily, then wondering if I’d veered off in the wrong direction, finally feeling as though perhaps my destination lay in an entirely different dimension – the visible but unreachable home of dragons.
At a spring, where water flowed from a crack in igneous rock pocked with what appeared to be a record of fossil bird tracks, I decided to turn back, though not before I broke off a piece of stone with my hatchet, hoping to release the creatures that I believed were entombed within. The dark shard, a souvenir I wanted to take home, flew ten feet to the edge of young beech trees whose waxy, green leaves entirely hid the world behind. I searched for it for several minutes before deciding that it had been swallowed by this foreign land that refused to relinquish even a small piece of its secrets, then took one look into the beech trees where the largest bone I’d ever seen protruded from the ground.
A mammoth skeleton. That’s what it had it be. The Earth’s grip upon it was unyielding, even when I wrapped both hands around it and leaned away with all my strength. This was a great leg bone, I thought, and buried not far below would be the skull, complete with sweeping tusks. In a fever of discovery, I hacked at the ground all around this bone with my hatchet, sinking its blade into damp soil where it clung as though gripped from below by the mammoth’s guardians, protesting mightily my efforts to remove it.
There are still small patches of snow on the peaks of Montana’s Absaroka Beartooth Range, quivering on the horizon through the haze of early autumn. I’m familiar with some of those peaks I think before I begin retracing my steps to where I’ve left my truck, but many have not yet heard my footfalls. What adventures lie ahead, I wonder as I stop to photograph a bee fly on an aster and a tiny jumping spider among the chips of cedar mulch near the base of a young aspen?
It always seems to take longer returning from than walking to. It was another lesson that I learned when I was ten, following my course back from the land of dragons with a bone protruding from my backpack, its concealed base coated in wet, black dirt, pulverizing a tattered photo of Susie Krabacher into unrecognizable shreds. Some of the landmarks I’d passed earlier that morning I vaguely recognized, though their reverse-angle-appearance didn’t entirely account for their diminished size or growing sense that they hid little more than the occasional whitetail deer tracks I encountered. In the stand of pines where I’d picked up the photo, I found the tree whose bark I’d scarred with my hatchet, a tendril of sap seeking the ground below. It wasn’t much of a mark I decided, evidence of a blow insufficient to change the course of a triceratops during a scenario I now believed unlikely at best.
By the time I reached Lord’s Creek, picking my way through flora indistinguishable from that on its more-known bank, I was having doubts that the bone I carried belonged to anything more exotic than some hapless Holstein cow. It was a possibility that frightened me more than the thought of encountering an enraged dinosaur, disturbing enough so that with some ceremony I offered up the bone up to a deep bend in the creek, letting it spin end over end out of my hand toward a smooth surface reflecting alders and jewel weed. Better to relinquish it while there was still a chance of Pleistocene origin than have it identified by my mother as bovine.
I wanted, as the scene dissolved in a wash of spray and ripples, to hear the trumpeting of a mammoth or see the shadow of a leathery-winged reptile cut across the ground. I stared hard and listened long before slowly fixing my gaze on the hulking shape of Irasburg Mountain to the distant west. Okay, I thought. Next.
** Please take a moment to check out my New Releases, photos of Northern Vermont during the height of fall**