Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thanks To Whoever

Hezekiah and Esmeralda
Songwriting in Music City wasn't paying very well, so I took a break from the strings and left Nashville. I headed north up Interstate 65 to join a contractor who was putting up a house on the edge of Brown County State Park near Bloomington, Indiana.  The building site was at the end of a dirt road, perched above the wooded shoreline of Lake Monroe, a huge reservoir constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers under the Flood Control Act 1938.

Sparsely populated and heavily forested, the area had once been the homeland of the Miami Indians.  The 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne transferred approximately three million acres of this prime timberland to the US Government, reducing by two-thirds the holdings of all Indian tribes in the region.  Within thirty years any Native American who had not voluntarily relinquished claim to this homeland was forcibly relocated by President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Policy.  

Just down the road from where I strapped on my tool belt was the summer home of the painter T.C. Steele, an American Impressionist best known for his pastoral Indiana landscapes.  He arrived in Brown County in 1907 and on a two-hundred acre tract of land built what would become known as the House of the Singing Winds, now a historic site operated by the State.  The tour of the home highlights several of Steele's innovations; a basement, which was unheard of in local dwellings of the time, a fireplace instead of wood stove and the first electric lights in the county.  The power for this remarkable form of illumination was derived from a huge bank of leaded batteries.  A community phenomenon, the hill dwellers would walk for miles to come see the house light up when Steele and his wife entertained. The tour guide at Singing Winds explained that back in their day, neighbors never thought to knock at the door.  When they arrived at someone's home, they just walked right in.  Good God-fearing farm folks certainly wouldn't expect to find one of Steele's naked models posing on a platform or lounging on a couch in the middle of the day.  Artists or not, the Steele home welcomed its guests without restraint.  A shoeless neighbor might arrive at any hour and think nothing of letting himself in to see the electric candles work their magic.

T.C.  Steele
South central Indiana is seismically unstable and prone to tremors and earthquakes; not something one would expect to find in a state associated with the corn belt.  But down south the terrain is reminiscent of the choppy hill country of West Virginia and parts of eastern Kentucky.  Exploited for its rich timber reserves, the land supported subsistance farming at best.  Its small, land-locked communities never really tasted the profits of the ag-industry that swept into regions to the north and west surrounding the aluvial plane of  Wabash River.  Building codes are tough.  Homes require their first floor block foundations to be filled with concrete.  My job, the first day out, was to help reinforce the new foundation by loading the walls with re-bar and cement.   A mixing truck made its way up the narrow gravel road by noon and we transferred its extra sloppy load of mortar to the catch funnel of a powerful pump which in turn forced the mixture through what looked like a brass-headed fire hose.

I was up on the scaffold, about nine feet off the concrete floor, holding the hose head and pumping cement into the wall when a big bubble of air, like a rat being sucked through a snake's gullet, came blowing up the line.  As if in a TV cartoon, when the air pocket reached the end of the hose, the escaping pressure whipped the brass nozzle and me right around through the air.  I hit the railing on the scaffold, bounced back against the block wall with the wind knocked out of me and collapsed like a pile of rags on the planking.  I sat there dazed, trying to catch my breath and make sense of what had just happened, slowly realizing how lucky I was not to have ended up with my brains splattered all over the floor below.  I had a pretty good bruise on my left side, but no broken ribs and no punctured lung.  The weird thing is that when I replayed the events from memory and came to the part about bouncing off the scaffold railing, I noticed that in reality, there wasn't any scaffold railing.  The planks I was sitting on lay directly atop the galvanized pipe framing that held me up.  So like I said, it was very weird.

I had spent the previous night in a tent within a hundred feet of the new foundation.  Surrounded by the state's seemingly boundless tracks of hardwood forest, I choose the only spot available, a completely isolated, half acre, nineteenth century Hooisier cemetery.  I had pitched my shelter under a huge oak tree on the north end of the plot, something an Eagle Scout like myself would not have normally done, but it was the only half-way level spot I had to choose from except for the thick green grass directly in front of a weathered double headstone.  Carved a hundred years earlier, the worn lettering belonged to a couple, who in their nineties, had passed away within three days of each other.   Initially, I had laid out my ground cloth right on top of Hezekiah and Esmeralda, but then I thought better of it.  I'm not superstitious, but I just figured it was a mite disrespectful and maybe even a little bit creepy to sleep right on top of them.  So I my moved my gear under the oak.

The morning after my near fatal accident, I remember climbing out of my sleeping bag and poking my head out of the flap of the tent.  It was crisp and cool and clear out and I hesitated a moment before crawling out onto the dew soaked grass.  Instead I looked up and there above me, on a the lowest limb of the tree, sat two immense pileated woodpeckers.  These birds, with their shocking red, white and black markings, are largest of their sub-species on the North American continent.  A deep forest avian, they have a pre-historic, jungle like caw that is impossible to mistake once it is recognized.

Motionless, these two giant birds were sitting side by side looking heads slightly cocked, looking directly down at me.  We eyed each other for a long minute.  Then, as if responding to a starting gun, the two took wing, and in a grace full arch, swept  low over my tent, then glided the length of the cemetery before rising just enough to disappear, one behind the other, into a dark opening in the leafy forest canopy.  Stunned and amazed (Isaiah 29:9), I couldn't help but connect the names on the headstone to the two birds in the tree and then to miracle of the invisible scaffold railing that had saved my life the day before.

Could those two rascals have had something to do with it?  Could it have been a little pay back for acknowledging their tenure on this piece of ground?  Or were they spirits from the long vanquished Miami tribe, reminding me that I too visit these hills and this life on the most tenuous of terms. Then I found myself shaking my head and thinking "Ron... come-on!  Where are you going with this?"  Its true, back in my early days, I probably smoked a little rope from time to time.  Maybe I wasn't thinking straight.  Those two incredibly unique birds probably just happened to be there by chance.  But you know what?  They sure made me reflect on how lucky I was to be waking with the living in a spot resplendent with nature's beauty   Anyway, thanks to whoever.

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