Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Prospect of the Fae?

Revisiting the scenes of a Green Mountain childhood

Made magical by moonlight, does this silent and spectral byway mark the bounds that divide the realms of man and Fae? Is that our prosaic world outspread beneath the mists, or do we look upon an older and more lambent land: an ephemeral place fated to evanesce, taking us with it, should we unwisely dare to step within its precincts? ... But I have been there, and I tell the tale.

Road between realms

A road between realms: Will you follow it?
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What it looks like today, I can only imagine. But in time of yore (the 1970s, when I was growing up), I lived with my mother, stepfather and sister in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and such vistas as this are the stuff of my childhood memories.

Now, in your mind, see this scene afresh. Begin by deleting the road, or perhaps replace it with the ghost of a lane, worn by the passings of a single truck; for we lived alone on a mountain, our nearest neighbor almost a mile to the east. Perhaps you'd see that neighbor’s homestead glimmering in the distance like a family of fireflies, seen in fitful flashes through a curtain of birch and hawthorn as branches swayed and leaves danced in the chill breeze of dusk in early spring.

Or perhaps it would glow clear and steady — the ground now stripped of verdure and banked with an alien landscape of snow — between clutching skeletal twigs, a family of somnolent glow-worms huddled against the polar calm of a December midnight. See now the birches rise all around you, a dense grove of skeleton-trees, bark shining silver-blue in a double glow: the moon from above, and seemingly still brighter, the unmarked snow from beneath. Oh, yes: that snow, trodden by no son of man! I live today in a distant city where it is never quiet, and sometimes I long for that snow, that frozen, abysmal silence as of the tomb, concealing a thousand quiet dramas and tragedies among the wild woodland creatures all around.

Come, then, and walk with me: into a place that was, and may still be....

We turn now away from the neighbor’s homestead, uphill by way of a meadow: no lights in sight, and none needed. Up the hill widdershins past the gravel pit gaping to our left: a quarry that never really was, but a trove of little semiprecious jades and geodes, jasper and garnet, to be sifted and studied when the weather warms.

Now come we to where we must enter the wood again; it is dark, but I will guide you, for I know the way. Even were the road not gleaming in the moon so bright, I would know it well, for it is the way home. Turn right now. The way is steep, but at least the ground is dry and there is no ice. Ah, and there is the glow from the house ahead on the left. We are almost there.

You have noticed that the lights seem dimmer and yellower than you expected? That is because we can’t get electricity up here. We light our house with lanterns and cook on a wood stove; we also use the latter for heat, and indeed it does get cold. You are lucky to have come now; in January, the wind blows in gusts from between the stars and the trees shrink.

Now as we pass the house, look left and see how it is situated. It is shaped a bit like a boomerang, isn’t it? One storey, Colonial tongue-and-groove construction, perched atop a small, forest-footed cliff, and angled around that big oak growing on the edge. And you’re right: Seven lightning-rods is a lot. But then, you weren’t with us two summers ago, when we built the house.

This was a peril we had not foreseen when we made our plans: that the storms should come so close. Again and again, in what felt like a siege of heavy artillery, the lightning struck all around us. Again and again, we’d fall to the floor, trying to imagine it was possible that we’d really survive the night un-vaporized, as the whole of our vision went from black to white and black again, and the ground rumbled and vibrated beneath us. When it was over, we resolved to protect our house against lightning as no similar dwelling was ever protected before. And even so, we have misgivings; perhaps there are reasons why Vermonters don’t build so near the tops of the mountains.

Why are you stopping? I never said we were going into the house. The house is unusual but it is not what you are here to see.

Have a care: Under the snow are small, shifting rocks; this stretch of path can be hazardous in any season. Here; take my hand; I’ll help you up and ... here. Now we are at the south end of the summit ridge, still in Monkton County, but Vergennes county begins a hundred feet downhill in the forest just below the ridge to the west. It is with this ridge that we have our business.

The night is clear, and as you look to the west you cannot see forever, but you can see far indeed. You can see — but step carefully, and not so near the edge; the fall would surely kill you — out near the horizon a patch shining silver amid the black and white. That is Lake Champlain, scene of a great battle in the War of 1812, and somewhere in that lake falls an invisible line that marks the boundary of New York; beyond it are the misty peaks of the Adirondacks, marching to the edge of sight.

Would you like to stop? We can go back to the house if you’ve no stomach for more; there is food for the hungry and beds for the tired. But if your love of the New England mountain wilderness in the quiet of the dark has been tickled, we may walk on a while more by moonlight. Be sure and speak up loudly as we pass through here. The cougars in the caves near the bottom of the ledge to your left would rather avoid you than attack, but it is wise to warn them.

Now we are past the caves; as you see, the forest falls away less steeply here. We are now making our way between thickets of blueberries, although of course there are only a few dead brown relics left mummified by cold on the twigs. From down a steep scramble to the left comes the icy tinkling of a tiny rapids, a small, fast stream near where the wild ginger grows — a faint piquance tickling the nostrils even now in the snow because some animal has recently uprooted and gnawed one of the rhizomes. The path grows narrower and less sure. Now we are beginning to pass beyond the part of our mountain that has been explored in living memory, for here the woods grow dense. But they are not dark tonight; the moon is bright and there are no leaves.

We have left far behind all that is familiar to me. What is ahead you know as well as I: the night and the gibbous moon, the snow, the forest, the deceptive frozen silence, and, under it, all the tacit tragedies of the wild. It is indeed a winter wonderland: our earth as it was before us and may be when we are gone. I will walk on a bit. And you?

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