Nonfiction

From Issue I (2016)

Living in the Edge

by BRETT ANN STANCIU

 
Hooded View of Death Valley Crater | WILLIAM C. CRAWFORD  Digital photography, 2015

Hooded View of Death Valley Crater | WILLIAM C. CRAWFORD
Digital photography, 2015

 
 
 

The first summer my husband and I were together, we lived for a number of weeks in a borrowed tipi. My friend Debi had loaned the tipi to us with great excitement. A former lover of hers had lived in the structure most recently, and she was happy to arrange transporting the rolled canvas and long poles. The morning it arrived at the field we had also borrowed, I spiked a fever. I lay in the opened hatch of an old Saab we owned then, and E. checked in on me periodically. I vaguely recall the positioning of the poles was quite precise, and unrolling the heavy canvas must have been difficult. I had a fever of intensity where I was no longer wholly in my body, but floating elsewhere, part of the current scene yet simultaneously not part of it. The whole unfolding of this house seemed to have happened without my participation.

Living in a tipi was like nothing else for a number of reasons, the most immediate being (and this should have been a giant well, duh) the base of a tipi is round. Risking sounding like the freakiest hippie, I’d describe this difference as a profound change in energy flow. That tipi was quite large, with a soaringly high center. Lying on our backs on the bed, our entire domestic life was then contained within that circle, arched over by the poles lodged in the earth and joined in a knotted clasp over our heads. Energy ran around the circle, rather than bollixing in corners. A week into tipi sleeping illuminated an experience of the world I had never imagined; with the dissolution of walls, the world appeared surprisingly unfettered. Tipis, of course, with their buffalo origins, were unknown to this area’s indigenous Mahican and Pennacook, who lived in longhouses. In a post-modernist nomadic style, this tipi was a contemporary version of beige canvas, but, nonetheless, something that could be stashed in the rear hatch of a decrepit Saab.

Living in a summer-world tipi is living in a realm of edge habitat. While more permanent tipi dwelling—and certainly tipi life in colder temperatures—would require sealing the tipi skirt to the earth, we simply laid the canvas on that blueberry field and spread a carpet remnant in the kitchen area. On sunny days, we rolled up the sides and let the unchecked breeze flow through. Rainy days, we listened to pattering on the rolled-down canvas, the only portal to the world the small domed door whose flap we frequently propped open. Edge is the joining of two places—field and stream, forest and meadow—that mingling of diversity where wildlife thrives, where songbirds nest, groundhogs tunnel, foxes hunt. Where the heavy drape of canvas lay on the ground became a variant of edge habitat for us. Roll it up, and we could bend out and pick blueberries for breakfast oatmeal. After sunset, the far side of the tipi, where we stored odd things, was filled with darkness and night, while we cooked at the plywood board of a kitchen counter or lay in bed with the glowing smallness of hurricane lamps. One night, a visiting skunk brushed E.’s bare knee as he lay in bed, and we jumped out in the dark and drove down the field, where we slept the night’s remainder in the back of our Rabbit. The next day, we sprinkled moth balls around the tipi to keep this marauder away.

Thinking back now, with a repugnance of naphthalene, I wonder at those days, when the edges of our world seemed to be filled with nothing but sunlight and cicadas, my fear of the dark, and harmless—albeit sometimes odiferous—wildlife. In those days, with great drama, we believed what plagued our sleep might be remedied with a box of white flakes we purchased in the grocery store.

A singular element of that energy flow in my tipi-dwelling days, no doubt, was the starriness of untried love. We were at the nascent place in our relationship where we believed our future would always sing with joy. In those Vermont summer months, I savored the lengthy sun-lit days, the tipi sides tied up so the fragrant season moved right in.

It’s now been so many years since those days. I look back on my life as a young woman and see myself as not much more than clay just beginning to breathe and push. Certainly, the love E. and I had was tender, like a garden sprouting up through stony earth. A friend’s little girl, maybe three years old, with strawblond hair and uneven bangs, wandered through our group in those days. Her parents were split up. The father’s new girlfriend birthed a son that July. The little girl carried around a wooden Ben & Jerry’s truck and held it against her skinny chest, nursing her toy, one of my keenest memories of that summer. How much I desired a baby, a child to solidify E. and me from couple to family.

Since then, E. and I have lived and slept in so many different spaces, all over this continent, from a soulless metal trailer in Washington State to the mouse-inhabited hunting camp we bought years later in wooded northern Vermont. Within me, I carry all those structures. One snowy Halloween, camping in Yellowstone, a ranger woke us at dawn, knocking on the window of the black diesel Rabbit where we slept. We believed we were snagged for slinking in without paying, but instead he politely handed in our little cooler, which held nothing but some foully fermenting chickpeas, and cautioned us about bears. Hadn’t we read the signs posted everywhere? Indeed, we had not. Even now, we laugh about that, how kind the ranger was—not at all what we expected—and how cold that mountain air was on our skin.

Our life has sprawled so far from those saccharine days. We now have two beloved daughters, birthed by the scalpel. We’ve gone through a vale of tears and recrimination and misery; we’ve weathered through too-long days, through nights of illness, through injury and uncertainty and stark fear. So deeply into this marriage now, when I think back on those days that seemed so lusciously eternal, I remember the scent of that dirt path winding through the back part of that field. I had never lived beyond the pavement before, and the dust rose in those hot summer days, the earth giving itself up to the sky. The blueberry bushes were too scrubby and wild to produce more than meager handfuls of berries, and when it rained, I staggered awake in the middle of the night and stashed the library books in the car, as water inevitably dripped down the poles. At night, I read by two kerosene lamps placed side by side, lousy for reading but unmatched in warmth. I learned to clean the glass globes every morning with crumpled newspaper. Since those days, our energy has repeatedly rattled unhappily in corners, squirreled around, not at all creative, not at all imbued with that holy transcendence of those wooden poles, ends on the ground, tips crossed in the heavens. Our life has been as profane to the core as possible.

And yet, I resist the over-idealization of that round house, of the blush of early love. Our marriage is by far a grittier thing; as clouds hold hailstorms, birth demands blood, and every seed contains its own life and death. In my youthful days, I saw those discrete things—tipi, field, glass lamp—as things unto themselves. But human life, intensified through relationships, is all edge—hunt and home, blueberry and skunk—dynamic, alive, shifting. Tipis are designed to be rolled up and carried from place to place, a movable hearth, a home between our hands, a domesticity and family life continuously rekindled and re-imagined. A life inherently always in the re-making.

 

Brett Ann Stanciu

Brett Ann Stanciu is a writer, sugarmaker, and believer in home gardens and using clotheslines. She lives in northern Vermont with her two daughters. Her novel, Hidden View, was published by Green Writers Press in 2015. Read her blog at stonysoilvermont.com.

William C. Crawford

William C. Crawford is a writer and photographer who lives in Winston-Salem, NC. He was a combat photojournalist in Vietnam. He later enjoyed a long career in social work and taught at UNC Chapel Hill. He photographs the trite, the trivial, and the mundane. Crawford develops the forensic foraging technique of photography with his colleague, Sydney lens-man Jim Provencher.