Fourth Installment of: A Thin Slice of Sky

Neighbors

Lou Jonas

 

He was part Jeremiah Johnson, part Audubon, and part soldier of fortune. Lou rented the old cabin while we spent two winters inWhitewater,Montana. He holed up with his books, guns, letters and botany collections, to outlast the winters.

Bundles of dried mint hung from his ceiling. A burlap bag of venison jerky slumped against one of the support posts, like a laborer on siesta. The cabin was dark and warm. His bed had no pillow. “Bad for your back and neck,” he asserted. He stretched and tacked animal pets to the outsides of the cabin. Crammed into the north wall, serving as cheap insulation, he had stuffed envelopes from women around the world. Years after Lou moved out, we sorted through them collecting the exotic stamps.

Dad admired Lou for living life so easily. Dad coveted his powers of observation. Lou saw the natural world acutely. Ever ready, a botanist’s magnifying glass hung around his neck. He frequently flicked it open to examine rocks or plant parts. I was entranced by his jolly yodeling and tricky whistling.

Lou’s mountain prowess was legendary, at least in our family. He was a real live hero, stamped from the mold of Pecos Bill and Daniel Boone. One day he squinted and gestured southwards to the bony ridge.

“Biggest buck I ever saw lives up there,” he said. “I was sitting up there quietly one day, when down below me, what looked like a cheery tree started to move. That was not a tree, that was his antlers. Never saw him when I had a gun.”

In all my future hunting, I kept a lookout for this monster, believing all the time that a mule deer of such grandeur could really exist.

Lou told of meeting a bear face-to-face coming around a corner on a trail. He was alarmed but determined not to show it.

“I just growled at him,” he said.

The bear decided he had met his match. Ursus turned and padded away. Even now, when I hike quietly on paths with moist leaves, I imagine meeting a bear and wonder if my courage would match Lou’s.

A walk with Lou was an education in ecology; he knew and told how plants, soil and climate fit together. He named the conifers, grasses, dicots and ferns. He explained the mutual lechery of algae and fungus within lichen. Stopping at a swiped anthill, a black mud hole, or a rotten log that had been ripped open, he estimated how much time had elapsed since the bear had visited. He spotted a tuft of cinnamon-bear hair on a barb of a fence wire. No one else was as observant.

“This is what the ruffed grouse eats in the winter.”

“A porcupine likes aspen- one’s almost girdled this sapling.”

“A bull elk has used this tree to scrape the velvet off his antlers.”

He was a walking plant identification guide, a lecturer without a podium. Though he never attained his doctorate, due to personality clashes, he said, no professor stirred my interest in nature the way Lou did.

He suggest we gather Morel mushrooms one summer evening. It had been raining for two days. We walked through O’Connell’s place, across an aged logging bridge and into a young stand of lodgepole pine. On the forest floor was a buildup of needles, spring under foot. Tow or three times each year we would make this fifteen minute hike and harvest a couple of pounds, to be sautéed with deer steaks or scrambled into eggs and bacon.

Like a playground drug pusher, Lou got Dad hooked on puffballs. Compared to Morels, one could really make some volume with puffballs as they grew to the size of grapefruit or cantaloupe. Dad would spot these freebies in the pastures of the Church Farm and bring them home, like a Viking proudly bearing his plunder from the Anglo-Saxons. Slabbed and fried in butter, their tofu-like flesh was supposedly edible, though I don’t think the kids ever found out. Even Mother, who normally liked any food that was free, was lukewarm about puffballs. Perhaps Dad ate them just to be macho, not to be outdone by Lou.

My own male ego was also exploited once when, with Lou, we were hunting atopBaldMountain. We had shot a young buck and dressed it out. Being the inordinate distance of half a mile from the house, we thought it best if we took some nourishment before attempting the return. Eight inches of old snow patchily covered the ground. Near a big fir tree, where there was no snow, we built a small fire. Lou divided the liver into three pieces. We roasted them on sticks, as if roasting marshmallows. Camp robbers hung close by in the trees. When the meat was black on the outside, we tried to eat it. It was rare inside. Lou at his; Dad ate some of his. I tried, but after a few feeble attempts, the men said I didn’t have to eat any more if I didn’t want to. I had passed initiation. I was tough. The troops of Napoleon retreating fromMoscowdidn’t have it any tougher.

Another foolishness Lou forced upon Dad was bathing in the creek. A thick growth of willows offered privacy from the county road. Bathing here was not a leisurely affair, even for hardy Lou. Ninety seconds usually sufficed. The procedure was as follows: step in, yell, splash water upward to body and soap very lightly, yell, rinse, maybe by lowering oneself into the twelve inch depth of the refrigerant water, yell, stumble out, dry off. Actually, yelling was nearly uniform throughout. I tried it once as a teenager. A bath in 33 degree water sounds like a manly challenge. It sounds invigorating until you are naked and standing with one foot on a shark rock, the other on a slippery, mossy one. The air temperature has dropped from its afternoon high of 89 degrees to 59 in the shade, and the only mosquito in 300 yards is biting the back of your thigh. At that moment, being a mountain man like Lou loses its appeal.

Lou had more challenges for me than creek bathing and charred liver. We visited him in the cabin one winter evening. I was four. He offered me a candy bar with the wrapper pulled back.

“Why are all these adults watching me expectantly?” I wondered.

One bite told the answer. I spit out the soap I had gnawed off and blew bubbles for a few minutes. They all laughed. How was I to know the difference between a bar of soap and a candy bar? Both were unfamiliar, especially candy bars.

 

WillAdams

 

WillAdamswas a real old-timer. His place was a quarter mile upstream from the rock corner, half a mile downstream from our place. The county road cut through the placement of his buildings like the ventral slit a fisherman makes cleaning trout. The house was on the left, the barns tight up against the road on the right. To see the inside of Will’s house and to talk to him was to visit a different era. No museum will likely capture the plain, coarse way of living of this denizen of the woods and master of manual labor.

An entryway clung to the face of the dwelling. In the 1990’s one might call it an airlock. In Will’s house it was a clothes closet and a “smell lock.” Earth, sweaty, raggedy coats, boots and tools formed a gauntlet.

Stepping into the house proper, some natural light showed a coal stove for cooking and heat, and a short grizzled, stoop-shouldered man. Food cooking smells deeply impregnated walls, curtains, floors. Here was a man and house as comfortable with each other as a gopher and his hole. Sterility was sacrificed to function.

Will was not overly threatening, but neither was he charismatic and warm. He tended a few chickens and two dozen of their eggs was the reason for my call. He shuffled to get them. Leaving the cool, pungent quarters and stepping into the sunshine of his south-facing yard, we stopped at the water pump. That it worked and was his only source of water in all seasons amazed me.

His siding had two long cross-cut saws nailed to it. These were no idle artifacts bought in an antique store for decoration. They were tools, employed, as I understood it, not so many years before. Perhaps some of the stumps, rusting machinery and rutted trails I discovered in the forests ofBearCanyonare remnants of Will’s logging labors early in the century.

 

Patron Saints

 

The best fishing hole in the 400 yards of creek we considered “ours” – by use – was behind Pat O’Connell’s place. We freely traversed her property. It offered the best nearby climbing tree, the most fruitful service berry patch, and access to the best fishing hole.

Mrs. O’Connell had set up a camp trailer for summer visits but rarely used it. We gawked through the windows of her trailer a couple of times, feeling awkward, prying with our eyes into her belongings. Her lands didn’t seem taboo.

The road past her big spruce climbing tree and camp trailer was marked by decades-old ruts of log wagons and truck. Were the adjoining lands some of the fields of Will Adams’ labors? The road led t grouse hunting, mushroom patches and needle-padded hideouts. Huge ant piles stood as sentries on either side of the red, clayey road. If Mrs. O’Connell had been stingy, forbidding a half-dozen kids to play on her land, the maps of trails and bear wallows which now exists in our minds would have been much smaller. Sadder than the actual physical limits would have been the blow to our gentle view of the universe. Mrs. O’Connell’s gifts and kind allowances enhanced our faith in people and peaceful view of the world.

AuntDelwas another patron saint to poor mountain children. The mother of Dad’s sister-in-law, she could hardly be called an aunt in the technical sense. Generosity called for the honorary title. Christmas, Halloween and Easter were celebrations she marked for us. A box would appear by mail, propped on the mailbox. Eagerly we surrounded it, a treasure from the civilized world;Dellived inGreat Falls,Montana. We would not have seen such delights as plastic Easter grass, candies and Halloween masks had Delphine Hume not taken an interest in our situation. We hardly ever met and didn’t write to thank her that I can remember. Her reward in heaven will include film footage of the twinkly-eyed delight of six small ones.

 

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