Monday, November 7, 2016

Lions and Tigers and a Fireman in the Treehouse—oh my!

            When Kelly walked into the big cat house at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, she broke into tears. She has wanted to be a zookeeper since she was in college but she was focused on ungulates, hoofed animals like giraffes, pigs, deer, and hippopotamuses. That was before she met the lions. In that single moment she realized what she wanted to do with her life.
            Kelly is very pretty with a mane of long, lion-colored hair. Always protected by a barrier, she says the tigers are a challenge to train, but she trains the lions by praising them and giving treats when they do as she asks. She gets an old male to open his mouth so she can check his teeth and gums for sores, and if he has a cut on a paw pad, she has taught him to hold up his paw so she can reach through the mesh to apply an ointment. When the lion behaves badly, she ignores him and he doesn’t get a treat.
             She gives her boyfriend Will a sideways glance. “You can train men that way, too,” she says. “Praise them when they pick up their socks and ignore them when they’re annoying.”
            I’ll have to try that.
            But I can’t imagine Will doing anything annoying. He’s a firefighter, paramedic, and former U.S. Army vet with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. A strong, hulking young man, Will wears size 16 sneakers (I peeked when he took them off in the mud room). He was a machinegunner in the military, carrying 110 pounds of equipment and ammunition through the scorching deserts for the entire two years of his assignments.
            Now he saves lives.
            Last Valentine’s Day he was on his way home to get ready for his late shift at the firehouse when he saw smoke. Black smoke, not the light gray that rises from chimneys. He knew it was a bad fire.
            Even though he was off duty, Will approached the house and saw that the dumpster against the building had caught and was igniting the clapboards of the back wall. When he knocked on the door, there was no answer, so he let himself in.
            Inside he found an elderly woman sitting in a chair with her walker beside her and a young man who appeared to be disabled.
            “You have to get out,” he told them. “Your house is on fire.”
            The young man the woman said was her son left the house, but she struggled to get up. Will scooped her up in his arms, carried her out, and put both mother and son in his truck to keep them warm. Then he called the fire department.
            While the fire truck was on its way, will looked for a hose and faucet. Finding no source of water, he grabbed a recycling bin and began scooping snow and throwing it at the fire. He managed to keep the fire at bay until the rescuers arrived, saving the house with minor damage.
            Will never bragged about the rescue, but one of the firemen reported the event to the fire chief, and the local paper printed a story about him. When I read the article, I realized we had a hero in the Treehouse. Actually, two heroes. It takes more courage than I could muster to face an open-mouth lion.
            Kelly says the zoo houses only rescue animals and those born in captivity, and she stresses that the zoo does not take in wild animals and donates every year to wildlife conservancy. She and Will have their own little zoo with a dog, two cats, a corn snake (Kelly’s), and a python (Will’s).

Will and Kelly are lucky to have found their life’s passions. From what H and I could tell, there was also some prodigious luck at work in finding each other.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Caga Tió moves into the Treehouse

           Last weekend's guests at Fern Forest brought us the tradition of the Catalon Christmas pooping log.
That’s right—a log that poops—presents.
Ari, from Catalonia, and Juan, from Colombia, brought their daughters Maia and Mar for a second visit to the Treehouse, this time with åvia (grandmother) Anna visiting from Barcelona. On one of their three nights with us, they told us that Santa doesn’t bring children gifts in Catalonia. They get gifts from Caga Tió, the log with a smiling face and a red stocking cap.
             Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, children place a bit of food in front of Tió every night and cover him with a blanket to keep him warm. If they take good care of the log, it will poop gifts for them. The tradition goes that on Christmas Day the children leave the room to practice their Tió de Nadal songs and pray for presents.
            Children in Catalonia, it seems, are permitted free use of the Catalon word “caga,” meaning “shit.” Here’s the English translation of the pooping log song: “Shit, log—shit nougats, hazelnuts and cheese. If you don’t shit well, I’ll hit you with a stick. Shit, log!”
While they’re singing and praying, parents surreptitiously place gifts under the blanket. When youngsters are called back into the room, they sing their songs while beating the tió with sticks to make him poop their gifts. The presents are usually small—candies, nuts, and little toys. (Larger gifts are brought by the Three Wise Men—which makes me wonder what offense Santa perpetrated to be exiled from Catalonia.)
When the log has pooped out all his gifts, he poops a hunk of coal (according to åvia Anna) or a square of toilet paper with Nutella smeared on it (says Ari), indicating that the log has nothing left in him except—ahem—poop, and the fun is over.
H was so taken with the pooping log story that the next day he took Maia and Mar to his workshop and fashioned his own caga tió topped with a red ski hat. Mar offered the log a few leafs of lettuce from the garden, but Ari declared that the tió was not expected to poop until Christmas, which I was relieved to hear.
Even though the family now lives just outside New York City, they still celebrate the pooping log tradition. When we said farewell, we offered them H’s caga tió as our parting gift.
“No thanks,” Juan said, smiling. “We have our own pooping log.”
Now, it appears, so does Fern Forest.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Every picture tells a story, every story shows a picture

            My biggest regret about being a student at George Washington University in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is that I didn’t take photos at the student rallies to protest the Vietnam War. I thought about those times this past weekend when Mike and Chantal visited Fern Forest. They’re both artists. Mike constructs public installations of huge mosaic tile images, and Chantal heads the graphic art program at Tufts. They had booked the Treehouse to celebrate the thirteenth birthday of their beautiful, dewy-eyed daughter Leyla.
Mike Mandel, "Myself: Timed Exposures, 1971"
                Chantal has published several books of her artwork, and I’m especially drawn to the images overlaid with words. The Turk and the Jew is my favorite, a visual documentation of her courtship with Mike. She’s from Turkey, a round-face beauty who holds the steady job while Mike fishes for projects.

“Photographs are basically small pixels,” Mike says. “So why not blow up a photo and make each pixel a small tile.” His work involves tens of thousands of inch-square tiles in a hundred different colors. He hires a small team to put the tiles on a grid he makes from the photographs, mostly of people and some of horses. The effect is stunning both from close up and from a distance. His work hangs in airports, subways, universities, convention centers, and even parking garages. You can see examples at

Mike began as a photographer, and I can’t get enough of the black and white shots from the ‘70s on his website. One album is quick candids of people in cars, another of cheap motels, and some naughty shots of lovers necking behind a ride at a carnival. I especially like his self-portraits using a delayed shutter. He appears with strangers in every shot, a skinny gooney-looking guy with shoulder-length hair and horn-rimmed glasses, often with his shirt off, his pants barely held up with a belt. Now in his sixties, he looks more mature—but don’t we all?

When I told him about the protest marches I attended on the grounds of the Washington Monument, when some men pushed over an ice cream truck for no good reason, when I ran through clouds of tear gas to get to class, when the GWU student center was filled with young people from all over the country crashing on the floor, when the police bloodied students with clubs, when students retaliated by throwing bricks through windows and setting a police car on fire, when I had to bail friends out of jail and was almost arrested myself, when thousands of us crowded together demanding peace, I realized that I didn’t have to take photos. The images are still in my head, and I can use words to get the pictures onto paper.

Each of Chantal’s and Mike’s art pieces tells a story. As for me, one of these days I’ll find the story I want to tell about my college days and do my best to wring it out of my memory in word images.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Treehouse pairs organic farming and English teaching

What do you get when you cross a dairy farmer with an English teacher? You get Jan and Bill from Gilbertsville, New York. This past weekend they took a break from their busy lives to spend a couple nights at Fern Forest Treehouse.
            Never heard of Gilbertsville? I hadn’t either. A little over three hours northwest of New York City near Cooperstown, Gilbertsville has a population of fewer than four hundred citizens. Just one square mile in size, during the late 19th and early 20th century the town was a summer retreat for wealthy city slickers. The Major’s Inn, built on the site of Gilbertsville’s founder, is a 55-room historic mansion in English Tudor style. Nearby, a stone bridge arcs gracefully over Butternut Creek.
            Bill’s organic dairy farm is just outside town. At 75, he is the 4th generation to run the farm. A confirmed bachelor all his life, he’s about to pass the business on to his nephew, who pretty much runs the show now.
            Since the houses on the farm are occupied by family members, Bill has moved into town with Jan, his fiancée, whom he first met eons ago. Bill had graduated from the University of Vermont and like a lot of college grads, he had no clue what to do with his life. So he went back home to Gilbertsville. The tiny K-12 school needed a math and science teacher, and Bill volunteered. Jan was a seventh grader and developed a mad crush on her handsome teacher, but of course he was out of her reach.
Years went by. Jan got married, moved to Massachusetts, and had three children. When her marriage broke up, she moved back to Gilbertsville and took a job teaching English to tenth and twelfth graders. Bill had taught only a couple years before he went back to farming. One day when they ran into each other downtown, sparks flew.
            Bill is a good-looking guy with a wry sense of humor. He walks with a limp from a sledding accident when he was seventeen. The sled went out of control and rammed into barbed wire and a guardrail, mangling his leg. After many surgeries, he gets around pretty well, going up to the farm twice a day to help milk sixty cows and muck out the bedding.
When I asked Bill about best and worst experiences he’s had farming, he said, “There are agonies and ecstasies.” He gave me the worst of farming first—seeing the legs of one of his cow’s give way beneath her and not be able to gain her feet again, and calling the vet come to put her down.
            “What about the ecstasies?” I asked.
            “Watching a calf being born,” he said. Later, after he and Jan had come back from dinner, he sat and sipped a bourbon with Harry and me.
            “I thought of some other ecstasies,” he said.
            I asked what they are.
            “A cleanly hayed field,” he said. “And smooth-running farm machinery.”
            One of Bill's tasks on the farm is maintaining the machinery. He has seven tractors, all running quite well. After breakfast the next morning, Harry took him down to the tractor shed to look at his 1950 Ford 9N.
            “Left tire’s on backwards,” Bill told him. The treads on the tires were pointing opposite directions. “Can’t get good traction that way.”
When Harry started up the tractor, Bill asked for a screwdriver and tinkered with the carburetor to give the old girl a sweeter growl.

It occurs to me that a farmer has to have lots of skills. He has to know animal husbandry, veterinary techniques, nutrition, mechanics, and the business of marketing milk products. But Bill’s also a philosopher. He deals daily with life and death and with the joys and sorrows of life. I’m not sure what keeps him going, but I suspect Jan has something to do with it. They’ve been hanging out together for twenty years, and last year Bill gave her a ring. No wedding date yet, but it seems as though they have plenty of time.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Honeymoon teamwork in the Treehouse

I’m grateful to live in an age when without blinking an eye two women can ask to spend their honeymoon in our treehouse. Younger readers may take such a thing for granted, but years ago there was a fair chance that a hotel or B&B wouldn’t accept an unmarried couple of any sexual orientation. Gays or lesbians would have to present themselves as friends and would be given a room with two beds.

            But not anymore. When Sarah reserved the Treehouse with her new wife Sommer, we had a nice flower arrangement waiting for them and a half-bottle of champagne in the refrigerator. No worries about champagne—they brought a full bottle of their own. We welcomed them with hugs and congratulations.

            H and I are planning the wedding of our older boy, so I picked the brains of these experienced event planners, taking notes as they spoke about their nuptials. They’ve been together for six years and spent a year and a half sorting out the details of the Big Day, a country-elegant ceremony and party for nearly fifty guests in Sarah’s mom’s back yard, just down the road here in Lincoln. They coordinated outfit colors (they both wore white dresses, and the attendants wore coral), food (plenty with lots left over), decorations (they made their own tikki torches), flowers (they won bouquets in a silent auction), tent with tables and chairs (they knew someone), music (the same someone), and even a flowery arbor (with help from Sarah’s mom) to stand under as they exchanged their vows. All great ideas we’ll consider as we approach our son’s wedding.

            Sarah is ebullient and petite and wears her hair in a chin-length bob. Sommer is willowy with a mane of curly locks and irresistible sky-blue eyes. Both in their late twenties, I imagine these two smart and creative young women putting their heads together through cold winter evenings as they worked on their wedding. One of their guest favors was disks cut from thick birch branches to use as coasters with their initials and the wedding date stamped into the wood. While Sommer hammered in the numbers and letters, Sarah shaded them in with a graphite pencil. Teamwork seems to be the mantra for this duo.

On Saturday they needed all the teamwork they could muster when a surprise storm popped up at Fern Forest. Dark angry clouds scuttled across the sky, and the wind came on with a ferocious strength, bending over trees and turning their leaves inside out. The howling sounded like a tornado, a rarity here in Vermont. When I went out to cover the Adirondack chairs because rain had started pelting down, gusts nearly lifted me off my feet. I had to decide whether to run to the treehouse to scoop up the newlyweds and bring them into the house, or to save myself.

At the same time, Sarah had felt the treehouse swaying precariously. The house is bolted to four strong maples, and it moves when the trees move. The wind was so strong that those trees were doing a salsa dance. When she yanked Sommer from the treehouse, Sommer grabbed their little cooler with the champagne (well, why not?), and they dashed for the main house. Adventuresome gals that they are, they sat on the covered deck, sipped their bubbly, and watched nature carry on like a banshee.

Supercell storms like that one go by fast, leaving us without power in their wake. Luckily, we have a generator. When the rain and wind subsided, the pair drove down the hill to their house to check on their cat and then retreated again to the treehouse, which hadn’t sustained any damage. Nothing rattles these two—not storms, and certainly not planning a wedding gala.

During their three days with us we talked about ceremonies, decorating, and feeding four dozen guests in the most efficient and gracious way. There was no mention of the fact that they were two women on their honeymoon. And what difference does it make? Having been married to a guy for nearly three decades, however, I gave them a bit of marital advice. Gender doesn’t matter, but there surely will be storms. And when they come, remember the three most important F-words in any relationship: Fun, Forgiveness, and—well—you know.

Best wishes to you, Sarah and Sommer, and may you have a long and happy life together.



Thursday, June 30, 2016

Elvis brings romance to the Fern Forest Treehouse

When guests arrive for a weekend at Fern Forest Treehouse, I always look for some common ground to make them feel comfortable. That’s often not an easy task when a couple is half our age (sometimes even less) and from a different section of the country. But with Danielle and Sty, it was a no-brainer—our common element was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
            My son Bry was born on January 8, Elvis’s birthday. Danielle and Sty were married in Las Vegas—by Elvis. At least, he looked like Elvis and sang almost as well, but when he signed the marriage certificate, the ruse was revealed. He was not the real Elvis.
            But when you’re in Las Vegas, fantasy becomes reality. A limo met the couple at their hotel and transported them to the little white chapel. Elvis was waiting at the door with flowers for Danielle in one hand and a mic in the other. She took his arm, and he sang her down the aisle. Danielle couldn’t remember what song he crooned, and I don’t blame her—I’d have been a little flustered, too.
            I doubt Sty was overpowered by the King. From what I can tell, Sty can hold his own. His first name comes from his early ancestor Peter Stuyvesant, who in the 17th century was director-general of the island colony New Netherland, eventually renamed New York. He traces Morris, his last name, to Colonel Lewis Morris, who in the 18th century was the governor of the province of New Jersey. Morris County and Morristown are named for him.
An Elvis impersonator can’t hold a candle to Sty.
            Meantime, the real Elvis lives on. A couple weeks ago my son proposed to his girlfriend Britt at his favorite bar where a small band was playing. Bry had arranged with them to accompany him on the Elvis song, “Love Me.” While his girlfriend looked on, he took up the mic and started singing: “Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel, but love me.”
            I’m not crazy about those lyrics. What mother would want her son treated meanly and cruelly? But he must have meant it when he got to the line, “If you ever go, Darling, I’ll be oh-so lonely” because at the next line, “Beggin’ on my knees, all I ask is please, please love me,” he got down on one knee, reached into his pocket, pulled out the little box, and held the diamond engagement ring toward Britt.
            What gal could resist a guy born on Elvis’s birthday singing an Elvis classic and asking her to marry him? Of course she said yes.
            I’m not sure how Sty and Danielle’s engagement came about, but Sty must have done something right because they’ve been married for eight years. Maybe it was the early influence of Elvis. In that case, I hope the King works his magic with my son and his fiancé. The wedding is set for October 1.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Reverend and rattlesnakes invade the Treehouse

Southern Baptist minister Reverend Walter assures me he is not one of those Pentecostal preachers who handles rattlesnakes to prove God’s protection. He handles them for a different reason.

This week the Treehouse was honored with a visit from the pastor of a Baptist church in Georgia. Walter, as he asked me to call him, and his wife Wanna were taking their granddaughter Lily on an East Coast odyssey. Lily is home-schooled, and Walter thought they could enhance her learning with visits to the Shenandoah Valley, where many of the Civil War skirmishes took place, and Gettysburg, where Robert E. Lee was defeated in the conflict that took more lives than any other battle of the war.

Lily got to see a little of Boston, where the Yankees claim to have been America’s first settlers. We southerners know, of course, that Virginia’s Jamestown colony was established eleven years before the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. But the Baptists’ GPS was set for farther north, and on Monday evening they arrived at Fern Forest.

Lily is ten, a quiet and polite girl with long, snowy-blonde hair. She didn’t seem to mind cozying into the tiny treehouse with grandparents. Walter and Wanna have nine grandkids, and Lily must have soaked up the rare opportunity for some one-on-two time with them.

When I was Lily’s age, my family attended a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia, and I’ve always regarded ministers with respectful reverence. At the breakfast table the morning after their first night’s stay, H and I joined hands with them as the reverend blessed the food and the Treehouse as well as H and me for hosting them. It was an impressive grace that made me believe the minister is in the right line of business.

But Walter wasn’t always a pastor. In the early years of their marriage, he and Wanna opened a country store in rural Georgia. One of their best-selling items was rattlesnake, which Walter says is a delicacy in the south.

“Tastes like chicken,” he said.

Walter sold them by the foot, having blown off their heads with a shotgun. In his preacher voice, he recounted some tall tales about dealing in snakes. In one case, he cut off the snake’s head before picking it up. When the headless stump struck his forearm as if lunging for a bite, he quickly learned that a headless snake can still be a live snake with snake-like instincts.

On another occasion a fellow brought in a limp rattler to sell to Walter, who would buy them cheap and sell them for a profit to someone else. He was busy that day and after paying the man, he quickly put the serpent in the chest freezer. Later, when a customer came in to purchase a snake for his supper, Walter lifted open the freezer lid to find the rattler stretched vertical, its ghastly head reaching up for Walter’s hand. He jerked back before he realized that the snake had only been stunned when the man had brought it in and had frozen solid as it tried to push open the freezer lid. 

Lily said she has never tasted rattlesnake. Neither have I. I wonder, however, if Southern Baptists say grace before digging into a tasty meal of fried rattler.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Treehouse guests teach what to count on

            Whatever happened to that old school custom of family first? My three brothers live in Virginia, Florida and Arizona. Rarely do they visit me in Vermont. If I’m lucky, I see them once a year when I travel to them, but at least we’re in touch through email. For Fern Forest Treehouse guests Robinson and Carleigh, however, family is their rock.

Rob’s mother came to New York from the Dominican Republic when she was seventeen. He still has relatives in the Dominican, most of whom don’t speak a word of English. (By the way—baseball is BIG in the Dominican with exported stars like Red Sox David Ortiz, who learned to speak English pretty well.) Spanish was Rob’s first language, which comes in handy when he meets with Hispanic clients in his job as insurance agent and financial consultant in Providence.

Carleigh’s dad moved from Italy to the U.S. with his family when he was nine. He taught her to love everything Italian. During college she spent a semester in Italy and was nearly fluent when the term ended. She and Rob met when they were students at Providence College. Other than the language of their parents, they had a lot in common. They went bowling. They fell in love.

            Carleigh, a willowy brunette, lives with her folks in Connecticut and is finishing up her undergrad degree, after which she plans to study psychiatric nursing. When we asked why she chose such a challenging profession, she said, “I’m calm. And I like helping people.”

Rob is strapping and compact with the dark handsomeness of his native island. After college he stayed in Providence for work, but he and Carleigh get together on weekends. Last weekend they drove to Vermont to stay in our Treehouse. Lucky for us.

            These two make no bones about being first generation Americans. Carleigh wants to learn Spanish so she can talk with Rob’s grandmother and aunt. I joked that if they get married, their children have the opportunity to be tri-lingual, but at twenty-three, they haven’t thought that far ahead. Whatever they decide, though, family will be at the forefront. Carleigh’s parents were in Burlington for the weekend to pick up her sister, a student at UVM, and twice she and Rob drove an hour from Fern Forest to meet up with them, Friday night for dinner and Saturday afternoon for lunch. They seemed happy to do it.

            “We wanted to see a little of Burlington anyway,” Carleigh said.

            Maybe commitment to family wears off after living in this country for centuries. My ancestors came from Germany in the mid-18th century and settled with other Germans in Maryland. After a few years they all loaded up their Conestoga wagons and drove south into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where they bought farmland. Farm families stayed together out of necessity. No one in the Valley owned slaves, and sons and daughters worked alongside fathers and mothers to eke a living out of the land. They were proud of their work, proud of their heritage, and proud of their families.

            But things changed. Young people went off to college and found work in cities. Because of distance, families broke apart. Carleigh and Rob reminded me of the way things used to be—the way they’re supposed to be. They also reminded me that in spite of the bickering and accusations among candidates during this election year, the future is hopeful. As Rob says, the stock market is due for another rough ride, but not to worry. The outlook always gets better again.

What helps during those downturns? One thing we can always count on—family.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fern Forest meets Tierra del Fuego

        If someone invited me to hop on a bike and spend a year pedaling to the southern tip of Argentina, I’d have to be madly in love to say yes. Apparently Cupid’s arrow has pierced the hearts of Treehouse guests Christine and Nico because that’s exactly their plan.
            The couple came to Fern Forest for an overnight respite after spending three days hiking and two frigid nights sleeping in shelters on the Long Trail. But bundled in cold weather gear, they certainly know how to dress for winter. Once they figured out how to zip their sleeping bags together, they weathered the snowy nights well.
            Nico, from Dresden in Germany, is a handsome fellow with a neat cinnamon beard and hair that curls over his shirt collar. While he was working as a software engineer, he got the idea of going on a long cycling trip. 
Enter Christine. She is a three-season gardener with a fit body and an adventurous spirit.
If I have the opportunity and the freedom that so many others do not in this world, especially women, then I should take this chance to do something that makes me happy and gives so much to me, despite the fact that there may be some risks along the way," she said.
Both in their thirties, Christine and Nico met when they were biking in southern California. Christine wanted to explore Mexico, but she didn’t want to cross the border alone. Nico offered to join her. They cycled down the Baja Peninsula and at La Paz found a sailboat captain looking for crew to sail across to the Mexican mainland. Neither Nico nor Christine knew much about sailing, but they agreed to load food aboard and do the cooking for the two-day trip if the captain would take them along with their bikes. He agreed and got them to Mazatlán. They biked south a ways and then crossed the country to the Caribbean Coast, and pedaled through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and into Costa Rica, where they decided to take a break from their journey.  
Now it's time to finish what they began. And finish big.
The plan is to pack up their bikes in March, fly back to Costa Rica, and point their handlebars southward toward Panama, and down into South America, eventually ending in Tierra del Fuego.
“Where will you stay?” I asked. “How will you live?”
“We’ll figure it out as we go along,” Christine answered. It doesn’t cost much to pedal a bike, and they’ve both saved money for food and whatever else they might need.
         I was reminded of my youth when in the early ‘70s I hitchhiked across the country with a girlfriend. We trusted the universe to take care of us, and it did. Christine and Nico have an abiding trust in the goodness of people and their willingness to reach out to help them if they need it. That sort of faith has eroded in the last few decades, but maybe it’s coming back. I want to believe that we get what we expect, and if we expect kindness and generosity, that will come to us. With all my heart, I hope that’s what comes to these two lovely people when they begin their long journey together.