Temple Stream: A Rural Odysseyby Bill Roorbach
Great blue herons, yellow birches, damselflies, and beavers are among the talismans by which Bill Roorbach uncovers a natural universe along the stream that runs by his house in Farmington, Maine. Populated by an oddball cast of characters to whom Roorbach ("The Professor") and his family might always be considered outsiders, this book chronicles one man's
Great blue herons, yellow birches, damselflies, and beavers are among the talismans by which Bill Roorbach uncovers a natural universe along the stream that runs by his house in Farmington, Maine. Populated by an oddball cast of characters to whom Roorbach ("The Professor") and his family might always be considered outsiders, this book chronicles one man's determined effortoccasionally with hilarious resultsto follow his stream to its elusive source. Acclaimed essayist and award-winning fiction writer Bill Roorbach uses his singular literary gifts to inspire us to laugh, love, and experience the wonder of living side by side with the natural world.
—Melanie Rae Thon
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.44(w) x 8.17(h) x 0.67(d)
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By Bill Roorbach
Random HouseBill Roorbach
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The most direct route from our parlor to temple Stream is out the deck doors and down the steps, alongside the barn and down some more, following the slope of our scruffy backyard past the gardens, past the hollow apple tree, through the milkweed meadow to the ever-thickening bramble of raspberries. From there it's a bushwhack into a boggy stand of balsam fir and white birch, then over a tumbled and moss-claimed stone wall, across the neighbor's first hayfield, finally through tangled streamside alders to the water, four hundred paces altogether, a thousand feet due south, thirty-four feet of altitude down. The stream there moves slowly through beaver flats, its course marked by silver maples and black cherries and yellow birches leaning. It's a pocket paradise-birdsong and beaver work, no roads near, no houses in sight, large hayfields on both sides, a broad swath of sky above.
Our house was built in 1874 by Mary Butterfield and W. F. Norcross, newly wed, and was positioned not quite across the street from her parents' house and on their land (which had been Abenaki territory). Mary's husband and infant son died just three years later. She must have walked down to the stream sometimes to try and think, grief-struck. Her parents' house burned down about the same time, more sorrow. They came to live with Mary in her place, which was tiny, if still new.
By the time my wife, Juliet Karelsen, and I bought it-October 2, 1992-the house was considerably bigger, having grown addition by addition at the hands of a succession of owners in the hundred twenty-five years since Mary mourned. Juliet and I have put in endless hours of repair and remodeling, but it's still a modest house, well worn. The floors slant sharply, the porch roof leaks chronically, the bedrooms are hot in summer, the dirt-floor basement is wet in March and April, the mice come in from the fields in fall.
We heat with wood in winter, and the heat expands to every corner. Sunlight fills the house always, and if the rooms are eccentric they're cozy, too, and after more than a decade they are our own, so much so that the house and grounds seem the very structure of our marriage. Knock on our door and you knock on our lives.
The high ground around here is Mount Blue, modest in montane terms at thirty-two hundred feet, but impressive when viewed from the Sandy River, which flows through our town, Farmington, Maine, at just three hundred sixty feet above sea level. Atop Mount Blue on a clear day, after a steep hike on a frank New England trail, one clambers over broken chain-link, climbs what's left of the old fire tower, and looks west, sees Mounts Washington, Jefferson, and Adams-the highest northeastern peaks-and endless other humps and hills and mountains, all blue and purple with distance, sometimes white with snow. One feels oneself well atop the rugged world. The closest peaks north and west (many of them mounted by the Appalachian Trail) make the Longfellow Range, named for the poet.
Eastward, there is diminishment: Day Mountain smaller than Blue, Derby Mountain less, a glint from Varnum Pond to orient the view, Porter Hill just there (our house nestled near it somewhere indistinct), Voter Hill unmistakable with its tall radio tower, then the Farmington hills smaller, and smaller yet: Perham, Titcomb, Powderhouse, Cowen. One's world-eye peers down a short, primordial slope, following Temple Stream southeast to Farmington, where it makes an unhurried confluence with the Sandy River. The Sandy continues east till it meets the mighty Kennebec in meanders at Norridgewock. The Kennebec meets and absorbs the Androscoggin yet further east at Merrymeeting Bay near the city of Bath, flows on in estuary past revolutionary Fort Popham and finally to thorough (yet continual) dispersal in the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Temple is our point of contact with all the waters of the world.
I meant to mark our first summer solstice on Temple Stream with a little hike and a swim. The day was all southerly breezes and unseasonably hot, every green thing taking hold, the sky blown with popple fluff and soaring hawks.1 Juliet was at Clearwater Veterinarian with our dog, Desmond, and the new puppy, Wally: Wally had to get his shots.
I'd spent the morning rough-wiring our gutted bathroom-our only bathroom-the third room to go under the hammer in nine months of hard do-it-yourself remodeling. The steel tub balanced loose on bare floor joists, soon to be replaced by an antique claw-foot (found, like Wally, in the classified ads)-twenty dollars, a hundred mile drive. Juliet and I had been bathing by candlelight under broken plaster for two months, not an altogether unpleasant fate.
I shook the old vermiculite insulation and sawdust out of my hair, dropped my electrician's belt on the kitchen table, hurried through the attached barn and out into the day-sky like blue heaven, white butterflies floating purposefully over everything. I fairly dove down the lawn. You could hear the stream roaring through the fields below-that's how high the water was after a week of rain. I'd strip down and jump in quick no matter how cold, wash the frustration of the morning's work away, slough off every dead cell of winter, emerge a new man, baptized for a new life in this new house, this new town, this new world. I gamboled down through the tall grass and hawkweed flowers, playing wild.
At the raspberry brambles I pulled up short. I had distinctly heard a low grunt just beyond the olden stone wall and five or ten yards into the dense foliage of Lulu's woods. I'd cleaned up an old farmstead dump just there, took out a wringer-washer, several mysterious boilers, a bedframe, maybe a hundred bottles of no interest, but I'd had to leave the cars, four rusted old beauties heaped upon one another, no engines, no tires, grown over nicely and camouflaged by Virginia creeper and wild grapes.
That grunt. My dairying neighbor's Holsteins had been pushing their way through his faulty electric fence as a matter of course, but this wasn't a cow. I pretended to forage in the brambles, thinking not to scare whatever beast it was before I could get a glimpse. My neck prickled with the distinct sensation of something watching me, something very large. There'd been coyotes all winter, singly and doubly and in a large, loose, howling pack. We'd had a bear for several weeks that spring, a nervous and scrawny but formidable yearling that repeatedly visited the compost pile back up the hill behind the blackberries, closer to the house. But my gut guess was moose, because the presence I felt was that size, and moose were common enough, if not in this exact spot. I turned my head incrementally, picked as if at berries, looked slyly into the trees. Back behind the stone wall something moved distinctly, shuffling in the litter of the forest floor. I peered into the shadows. Nothing. I stepped closer, pretended to examine raspberry leaves, all the while scanning the thick foliage of the wood sidewise.
Then the creature spoke, in a booming voice: "Berryin'?"
I jumped, shouted a curse.
The voice said, "I'd not expect many berries this time of year!"
"Who's that!" I demanded.
"Didn't mean to scare you," the loud voice said.
I spotted him then, a huge figure in the leafy dark.
One prefers to minimize one's fear: "Startled me, is all."
"I hate a start," he said, pronouncing it stat, and stepped into the light.
He was enormous, wide beard untrimmed, two streaks of gray in it, thick mustache that fell over his mouth, flannel shirt, top button ripped, thermal-underwear shirt beneath despite the heat, massive shoulders, massive arms, massive hands black with engine grease, massive chest pressing the bib of a huge pair of Carhartt overalls, legs like tree trunks, big leather shoes that looked to be shaped by a chain saw, unlaced, heavy rawhide dangling, one pant leg rolled up high showing long johns.
It's the first day of summer, I wanted to tell him. It's ninety degrees.
His gaze was not unfriendly, exactly, more like wild. He was a moose. He said, "I couldn't help but notice you have some cars here." Caz, he said. Couldn't help but notice? He was deep in our space. He took a couple of long strides toward me, climbed nimbly up on the jumbled stones of the old wall, displacing them noisily with his weight, eyed me but briefly from my skinny ankles to my tattered gym shorts to my Field Gallery T-shirt, cast his gaze on the closest of the old cars.
He said, "This one here is a '36 Ford coupe. That one there is a '32. This chassis under here is from a Model A, yessuh! These wheels must be older yet. That under there is a Volkswagen Bug, 1959." My visitor didn't smile, didn't make eye contact, but looked at the car bodies fondly.
I relaxed as best I could, tried for an affable tone, said, "I kind of inherited all these."
He looked at me hard. He said, "Where is it you're from? I can't place that accent."
"We moved here from New Sharon," I said, which as an answer to his exact question was a lie, as was the covering concoction of a Maine accent I'd thrown in for good measure. Juliet and I had only rented in New Sharon, ten miles downstream on the Sandy River, a tentative first year in the area after I'd taken my first teaching job, at the University of Maine at Farmington. But for the moose man, I wanted to be from Maine.
"New Sharon? Not our New Sharon. You're from Connecticut, yes?"
He had me pegged exactly.
"True enough," I said.
"Lotsa money down they-uh," he said, exaggerating his Maine twang.
"I prefer it here immensely," I said.
"Immensely," he said. He jumped down off the wall easily, clatter of rocks, tugged at all the vines, put his hands on the roof of the nearest car, rocked the formerly unmovable thing a few times. I stepped up too, struggling in the tangle of vines. We stood there with the car between us. I'd never really looked at it, was surprised to see how whole it was, elegant lines of another era, some of its chrome parts still gleaming, junk nevertheless.
The moose man said, "I know a feller who would like this here one."
I was speechless: was the moose man casing cars?
"He's got one in restoration just like this, see-and could use a few of these pats. See how clean the dash is here-you've even got the glove-box door and that gutta-percha knob there." He talked fast, where my stereotyping would have had him slow and laconic, and it was as if he were speaking a foreign language, or possibly Old English.
I said, "It's a '36?"
"The last good year for the American automobile," he said, and seemed to see me again. He couldn't hold my eye (nor I his), but checked my outfit again, clearly found it wanting. The last blackflies of the season began to appear. Several crawled up his arms, but he didn't seem to notice. I tried not to swat at mine, either, waited uncomfortably for them to bite.
He said, "So you bought the Moonrobin place. . . ."
"From Pete Johnson," I told him.
"Pete Johnson. He's the schoolteacher?" Teach-ah.
"I reckon so, over in Anson."
"You reckon so."
And he'd pegged me again, caught me imitating him. He rocked the hulk of the '36 coupe, the last good car made in America, a thousand pounds of rusted metal.
"The old places are trying," he said, and "We do like it when people from away take care of our older homes."
I took offense: "We love this place."
"You love it, we live it. How long will you plan to stay?"
One knows when one is being baited. Others of our rural neighbors had said similar things about the evanescence of flatlanders, and I knew that long explanations weren't going to get me anyplace useful with the moose man. I just stood there in my dashing gym shorts, didn't say a word, slapped a blackfly on my neck, couldn't stop myself.
"Fairies got your tongue?" Now he really did look at me.
And the fairies did have my tongue.
His eyes softened. "Going for a nature walk, Professor Rawback?" He had my name and my job title in his files, somehow-and this was unsettling.
I said, "Tell me your name again?"
"Down to the brook to have look, carrying your crook and a book?"
I grew unaccountably heated: "Listen, Big Guy, I'm down there every day. I grew up in nature. I know my way around the woods, okay?"
He was taken aback, or maybe just acted taken aback, that particular Yankee brand of joke born of Yankee irony. His eyes glittered. He shook his head. Suddenly gentle, he said, "You maybe know your little bit of the woods. And that is the thing, isn't it, with you yuppies. Well, I ought not say you. But these yuppies coming into the woods know maybe Mount Katahdin, and they surely know Acadia Park, and they have been up to Moosehead in their BMW 320i's, and thus, you see, they think they have been in the forest primeval. And you, Professor, you walk back and deposit micturants in the stream and that's your nature for you. What do you know about nature? 'In wildness is the preservation of the world,' that's what you know, and it's horseshite, hagwash, manure of chickens to be spread on the fields."
He knew Thoreau. My wheels spun, trying to catch up to this moose-mannered social critic who wouldn't say his name.
He minced a little, said singsong, "Oh, I go forth unto the woods and I'm feeling spiritual now. Think I'll quill me a poem!"
Abruptly then he became furious, and I started again to feel afraid, this on top of my own rising anger. Who was he to lecture me, standing here on my property? There was just the junked body of a '36 Ford coupe between us, and he was rocking the thing like he might pick it up and put it on my head.
"Easy," I said.
"Easy," he repeated.
We stood there examining the old car and "feeling our feelings" (as my wife the former art therapist would say). His showed in his posture. Mine must have shown in my neck, which pulsed uncomfortably. I didn't want him to see the heat in my face. At length, in modulated tones, and by way of peacemaking, I said, "It's awfully good to meet you."
The moose man spat. But slowly he relaxed. The hatchet was buried. Conversationally again, humorously even, he said, "It's not so bad to meet you, a-neither." He rocked the car a little. "Just don't get to thinking you own these woods, Professor."
Excerpted from Temple Stream by Bill Roorbach Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Bill Roorbach is the author of the O.Henry Award-winning story collection Big Bend, as well of the novels The Smallest Color and Life Among Giants, now in development for an HBO series. He also wrote the memoir, Summers with Juliet and the essay collection Into Woods. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, Harper's Monthly, Granta, and the New York Times Magazine. He lives with his family in Farmington, Maine.
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