Finding Signs, Squirrels, and Lost Pines
1:29 PM, JANUARY 7. BASTROP COUNTY LINE, TEXAS HIGHWAY 71 EAST
We crossed the Bastrop County line on this uncharacteristically cold-for-Texas morning in January, scanning the clear and cloudless blue horizon for something worth dropping out of the 5th overdrive gear and on to the shoulder. I have a passenger for this ride--Chelsey Darr to me, Chelsey Clammer to the rest of the reading world.
Wife, friend, published writer, editor, soulmate riding sentient shotgun for this particular leg of our journey through Bastrop County space in Central Standard Time. With nothing between us but a sun-faded gray backpack subbing for the busted-off middle console of the truck bench seat and the renewed appreciation for comfortable silences that comes after a recent 72-hour hot engagement in the relationship's occasional cold war--early-morning-off-guard-verbal-explosions/mid-day-exchange of rapid-texting-fire-with the occasional-email-artillery-shelling/late-night-close-range-arguing-by-porch-flare-light/not-so-early-morning-clothesless-conflict-resolution-and-return-to-peace time diplomacy--we're moving forward once again.
Our longest running relationship fight summed up in one non-run-on-sentence: she thinks I'm way too angry/judgemental/negative about everything and I think she works way too much to the exclusion of everything else. The fact that we're both leisurly sitting here side-by-side and accelerating sans anger in the same direction is unspoken proof that we're making headway--until the next intersection of wills, anyway, or until one of us realizes we're still double-back driving down loops we've driven before.
2:10 P.M. INTERSECTION OF TEXAS HIWAY 71 & TUCKER HILL
We saw the the county sign, pulled off the highway at the first chance to turn off, parked the Ranger, and shouldered the tripods and cameras to walk back to the shoulderless stretch of highway with the sign.
As signs and plauges tend to do in the Bible--and Bastrop County apparently--one leads to another. A few feet from the prominent green Entering Bastrop County sign on the other side of the trash-speckled ditch was a weathered, beat-to-shit sign you're not likely to see while doing 60 mph on 71, or at least we didn't.
Where do the lines between lovers and land intersect? And if no one sees them, does crossing one result in transformation or transgression? Hell if I know, but Chelsey said there's a giant squirrel somewhere up the road a ways and I love squirrels. We packed up the the gear and trudged through the highway ditch back to the truck. And, sure enough, since signs tend to come in threes, we literally stumbled across another one.
I flicked my Zippo open, lit up a smoke, and pondered the slightly melted, wooden message with an extinguishing metal clank. In fiction, we would call this third sign foreshadowing, unless I'm fuckin' with ya, in which case we would call it a red herring. But this is fact--or as close as I can come to it-- and I neither fish nor foretell the future, nor do I intentionally fuck with my readers. Nevertheless, a good story has an element of suspense and--squirrel! We fired up the Ford Ranger and continued on to what would become a blasphemous pilgrimage of sorts, depending on what you believe.
3:09 P.M. 2626 TX-71, CEDAR CREEK, TX 78612
How does one describe a religious or mystical experience? Visions of angels? Hearing heavenly voices? Feeling one with the universe or higher power during meditation or yoga or seance or spell casting or sweat lodging or prayer? Burning bushes? Spiritual warfare on physical battlefields? Getting knocked on your ass by the voice of God? (or knocked off your ass in Saint Paul's case, granted he was riding a horse, although, if ya want to get real deep into the exegesis, the Bible doesn't state anywhere that Paul was riding anyone when Jesus spoke to him, however several artists have shown him falling off a horse) Oh, and an ass is not the same as a horse because they're different species--but a horse does have an ass.
INNER VOICE #1: We're talkin' about squirrels, Spencer, ya need to focus up, now, and knock it off with the horse's rear jokes, or whatever the hell it is ya think you're doin'.
INNER VOICE #2: So, you're saying I'm beating a dead horse, in other words? Making an ass of myself, perhaps?
INNER VOICE #1: (Silence.) Just show 'em the next fuckin' photo.
I haven't always been a squirrel worshiper. I was raised Baptist, baptized at the age of five at Trailwood Baptist Church shortly after my Mom told me the "good news" out by the swing set in our Grand Prairie, TX, backyard. In short, Jesus died for my sins and if I didn't ask him into my heart, I was headed to the fiery depths of hell when I died. Pragmatic five-year-old that I was, when faced with a choice of spending eternity in a human-sized BBQ pit and asking a 2000-year-old dead dude to take up residence in my chest, I went with the latter purdy quick. And I went to church with my folks every Sunday 'till they got divorced, and I prayed on a semi-regular basis and never heard anything back. Mom kept on with the Christian homeschooling ACE curriculum until I convinced her to let me go to public high school freshman year.
Although I hadn't been to church regularly in years, I still identified as a Christian all the way through high school, and no one ever bothered to ask me why--until I went to college. For the first time, somebody, a Theater professor, bothered to ask me what I thought about it. And--this is key--he didn't tell me what I should believe or what terrible things would happen to me if I didn't see it his way. It was a conversation as opposed to a commandment or a shaming or a fear-laden hard sell. Long story short, I had no way to prove any of the stories were true or that hell was true or that certain people would go to hell and others would go to heaven. As or perhaps even more important, I had never felt anything particularly positive associated with the fundamentalist, evangelical right-wing version of the religion with a literal interpretation of the Bible. (Just hold your tails, I"m giving you some background info for the squirrels. They're soon-to-come.)
So, I began letting Christianity go around the time I took my first Philosophy class in Intro to Ethics and started looking around for other sources of meaning.
The following year, I took a Greek & Roman Mythology class, which I found boring and confusing (apparently all of the Greek myths have tons of different versions), and I ended up with a D-. My biggest takeaway was that people have a long history of making up stories bigger than themselves in an attempt to make sense of and give meaning to their lives. Zeus with the lightening and Hermes with the messages and Athena with the scales, and the never-ending interstellar soap opera going on between them and the mortals, they all seemed over-the-top and out of my reach. Yet people believed and worshiped these entities as if they were supernaturally real at one time, probably because they do embody various universal aspects of ourselves (no shit they do, we made the stories up along with characters/deities). So, I left class early one of the few times I bothered to show up with some of this on my mind, and I saw some squirrels scampering across the campus mall.
And I thought
--Why not make up a myth about squirrels? Better yet, be like a squirrel. They're not mythical or imaginary, they're right there in front of me. They're cute, fun, smart, always busy, a little scattered in both deeds and actions, yet almost always busy.
From that point on, I made them a semi-regular part of my life, always getting excited when I would see them, talking about them, learning how to make their sounds. At one point, I even attached Velcro to the bottom of a plastic Burger King toy Squirrel from the Ice Age movie to the dash of my car in the same way that many Catholics stick a Jesus or Virgin Mary on their dash. I leave offerings on Squirrel Appreciation Day, January 21st. (Proof below)
Chelsey and I have a Squirrel and Raccoon (her sacred animal) shrine in our apartment.
Now that we've established that squirrels are a, um, special part of my special life and special DIY quasi-religion, back to the awesome moment at hand.
Ms. Pearl, as one of the customers of the nearby Belmont Pecan store named her, stands a towering 14 feet tall, not including the steps of her holiness's alter, making her the tallest giant squirrel statue IN THE WORLD. She has her own website and 30 to 100 of her dedicated acolytes make the daily pilgrimage to have their photo taken with her. As I stood there in the divine presence of Ms. Pearl, I wondered if this is what Muslims feel going to Mecca for the first time, or what Christians/Jews feel like in Jerusalem.
I don't remember the last time I have gotten down on my knees, hat in clasped hands, and prayed. Some among us have spent much ink, paint, blood, and tears in an attempt to describe the ineffable feelings that overtake one in a mystical state of divine rapture. Luckily for me, describing my experience in this moment is purdy easy and only takes one word--nothing. I felt nothing kneeling at the alter of Ms. Pearl the 14-foot-tall wooden squirrel. I didn't feel afraid of going to hell, I didn't feel ashamed that I have a foreskinless dick, I didn't feel afraid of getting thumped on the back of the head for squirming in my pew, I didn't feel the throbbing numbness that comes from comparing dowel-shaped whelps and bruises on my sister and I's 8- and 10-year-old asses in the bathroom mirror after another daily dose of motherly this hurts me more than it hurts you divine discipline, I didn't feel self-righteous hatred toward other people regardless of who they love/fuck, how they look, where they were born, or what they believe. If anything, I felt purdy goofy and found the whole spectacle purdy funny as I hope y'all do as well.
5:17 PM, THE LOST PINES OF BASTROP STATE PARK
It is becoming more and more difficult to find a smoking hotel room, thanks to the public health initiatives that have essentially relegated smokers to the periphery of society where the smelly wretches belong (and honestly prefer to be, given a choice between fake-coughing, condescending hypocrites and a dumpster-adorned back alley). Fortuitously for us and our journey, one of the only hotels in Bastrop with a smoking room was a Days Inn within walking distance of Bastrop State Park--or what's left of it after the most devastating fire in Texas' history swept through it like an apocalyptic damnation straight out of the Old Testement in September of 2011. We hadn't planned on going to Bastrop State Park, but something about the place seems to attract those with a penchant for the flammable. Once we checked in and unloaded, I took the tripod to scout around and see what I could find with what was left of the daylight.
"Ideal local conditions" have changed considerably and lost has become a double entendre of not only separation, but also expiration. With the sun disappearing, I left the park entrance and returned to the motel. On the short way back that boarders parts of the park inaccessible to the public, you could see either dead or dormant trees still standing like burnt grey headstones, barky trunks with decapitated and cauterized limbs.
It reminded me of how I felt before going with my Mom to the impound to collect my dead adopted father's things from the car he smashed into an overpass column on his last trip home from work heading South on I-35 in September of 1999. Granted, he wasn't still in the vehicle or anything and I'm not going to show you any pictures of that shit even if I had any, my show and tell only goes so far. I don't remember what of his we collected from the busted up, smushed in Ford sedan. The steering column was entirely too close to the seat and the airbag was still deployed, deflated, and speckled with fluid remains, dried and darkened from the heat. All of the airbags and Help Prevent Fires signs in the world don't stand up too well under less than ideal conditions.
I knew I would definitely going back to Lost PInes tomorrow. Looked like my kind of carcass. I've learned it is good to go see what remains--whether it's a few specs of a human or 232 acres with some trees left of a 6,613 acres of a forest--however little that may be.
12:03 P.M. JANUARY 9. BASTROP STATE PARK ROAD 1A
We paid the 10 bucks for our all-day passes to Bastrop State Park and rumbled down Camp Road 1A to one of the heavily burned sites of the park. Less than a mile in, we saw what was left.
What struck me most is how motionless the blackened, brachless trunks were, as if I had taken for granted the constant rustle that accompany the living even on seemingly windless days. For me, trees have always been in the background, a place-filler, the secondary scenery at the periphery of the primary mammalian actors of our planet. But standing and squatting here, in the deceptively lifeless quiet of the lost-lost pines, I found another layer of life every bit as primal and primary as my own. Not far from the base of every burned stump was a freshly planted little sprig of a new tree.
If trees are alive enough to nurture one another, I suppose it is high time I started treating them more as equals, to the extent that I can.
This moment was one of the most surprising of the trip. What I thought was going to be a campy, jokey moment turned into something more. I actually felt something; a slow, steady pulsation that was emanating from the tree. In debating whether or not to share that, I did some research, and according to German forester Peter Wohlleben in "The Hidden Life of Trees," during trees' process of protecting themselves from bugs, "news bulletins are sent via the roots not only by means of chemical compounds but also by means of electrical impulses that travel at the speed of a third of an inch per second." Is it possible that I was simply feeling my own pulse? Sure. Is it possible the tree considered me a threat? Sure. At this point, this is where, if for no other reason than it is simply more profound, I choose to believe what I felt. Trees are alive in ways not too dissimilar from our own and I, um, had a treehugger moment with one of them. :)
At this point, it was time to find more of the living loblolly pine trees still left in the Lost Pines forest. Because whatever devastation occurred, or will occur, and whatever is lost, there is almost always new growth to be found.
-loss + -loss = found :D