Trees and Fountains


Following Trails


    The story continues, Gladys’ and Clayton’s, on the land, to the end of their lives, now mine.... Because loneliness at home hurts less. The visitor, Margo’s Bing, could see: “Give him all the land he wants.” In 1942, to plant flowers around the house, the “Red House,” then trees. After the first cutting from Loraine’s willow, which became “the whip,” through good years and drought, while I carry water, they grow tall, m
ore “around,” with “rings”—42 one claims—then start to die, cut down, dragged to the hillside; I must witness, after piled-on brush is burned, and the thick trunks continue to smolder, through circular, drifting smoke, and flickers, lightning low on the southern horizon, as storm clouds gather, before bedtime. “All this in my lifetime.”

For a moment only, a year or more, each time, away. Still time to go again? Theater, music.... Friends? I start to gather words, to live again, telling the story “back,” more. Who might have been a new friend says, “It’s all in the past. There’s nothing for the future.”

        The land and I are left, but I don’t

call it mine. The work is all I ever had, yet “Beautiful”. I’m still planting trees, from now the “burr,” slowest growing oak, so every day for me is toward “The Open”.  


1976 November 6:  (Gladys, to her Diary)  Greg started work on a big fountain in the park.

           November 25:  Ray, Bob, and Greg set the big concrete bowl on its pedestal.

    photos: Gary and Gladys (1977)

    completed fountain starting to fill

     So fountains....

    Beside a hill-side spring Indians had uncovered and made into a small pond, I loved to arrange sand and pebbles for water to flow out through. These creations didn’t outlast a day because cows soon passed along the pond’s edge. On this day, I’d ridden my Shetland Bob and tied him under a small tree while I played at the spring again. Suddenly, something behind me hit the ground and Bob broke the leather straps of his bridle. Coiled on itself was the whole length of a snake like none of the green-streaked grass snakes I’d often seen before. Bright bands of color circled this snake. It may not have been the red-next-to-yeller-kill-a-feller kind, but I stayed away from spring-play after that, and from the drowning tree.

    The first real fountain I created utilized the kerosene tank in the brooder house. It was connected to the heater by a flexible tube about five feet long. My daddy would not have approved this confiscation if I’d asked, so I didn’t. Disconnecting the tube, I moved the tank to sit on a box among the flowers on the east side of our house, where nobody went. Filled with water, the tank could keep a small fountain “flowing” for nearly an hour while I arranged road rocks in a circle and watched admiringly.

    1979 June 30:  My loneliness circles a world that no one sees. I must not be the central character in this narrative. Both my grandfathers were “giants” in their time; one I knew, the other I never knew. This year my parents have lived fifty years at this place. Their story has not been told, nor this place described. I might have escaped, but always returned, though the sky is too big, the light too bright; everything brittle, every imperfection shows. April permits flowers and awakening green, but struggle always lies ahead for a beauty too fragile. Then October tempts hope again with its special quality of soft light and air, serenity....

    I don’t recall whether I was still a student or working at a job somewhere, but I had returned home, and the hour was early morning. A plain white iris had bloomed and I discovered it dew-covered, crouched close to see better, and suddenly was filled with such new joy that everything around was changed. Looking into that flower I felt that I could be changed too, life become good, if I could remember and hold on. Nor was this one incident or an isolated moment; again on a frosty morning I was among trees on the north hillside, bright golden sunshine everywhere, leaves wet on the ground. Then a movement overhead started a cascade down of yellow and red leaves. I focused on a single red leaf and went to where it fell, and it was me. These moments of joy, outside of loneliness, will be the “meaning” of my life.

    I have not felt such joy in the presence of any human being, which still frightens, because it means I shall be dependent on impersonal sunshine, rain, wind, ice, on just “nature,” as I plant.... And not God either, though I pray and pretend.

    For years I could approach “that tree” alone, to gaze at the empty noose of rusted wire, where a boundary was for that still-familiar, secret place, that gave deep-layered significance I’d come to expect. Then, when a bulldozer came to make a pond, I lost the tree and noose, and transferred my communion (in 1956) to another oak, “the relic.” These visits were the park’s first promise I might return, during more than forty years: planning, planting ten-inch-tall, bare-rooted seedlings, laying avenues, tapping into springs, building forms for concrete, shoveling, carrying, climbing, pouring, moving an “old barn” to be “the cabin,” waiting, wishing. Working weekends in sun or rain, away from cities and libraries, lying naked in the sun.

    For so long I didn’t know how to describe it, only knew that my life would be different from everyone else’s. With this mistaken awareness in youth, as age now dawns comes first a temptation to regret, a speculative glimpse of waste, finally “understanding” and some joy because of all that was “meaningful” in a life like mine.... The following poem by Rainer Maria Rilke captures this moment for me, in Paris:

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.

Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,

and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;

grant them a few more warm transparent days,

urge them on to fulfillment then, and press

the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.

Whoever is alone will stay alone,

will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,

and wander on the boulevards, up and down,

restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

     I am Gregory:

Standing again on Sylvanus Reed’s gin lot with D. E. Lyday and Dr. Looney when leaves on the oak relic were still golden, before lightning, or whatever, took it down, inventing nothing.... When the last bale is bound, will I be glad to remain in their company, in Dr. Looney’s, after his petition to separate Mulberry’s white school from black Siloam’s? Knowing the ground I’ve still to cover—No!

    Or sitting with Perry Parks beside his butane stove and the old fireplace mantle—there, from the Lightfoot “residence”—the idea (inconceivable to us both) that I will one day “own” his place, his “land” waits, while he walks as a child again on fallen timbers of the stockade, and I feel, that Sunday afternoon, for the first time, a coldness, or reticence, in the distance between us, Parks and Hall.


    1967 December 23: (Gladys) Last night after supper, Clayton and I were all set for Christmas, and both of us, for no reason at all, got awful lonesome to see you. Guess it was the first time since July 1 that we had been still long enough to be lonesome. House all clean, tree all up, shopping all done, and no Greg.... Clayton said, “It just won’t be Christmas without Greg.” He said it so sweet that I had to tell you.

Eleven years later, his fall on ice at a pasture “gap,”

when I didn’t help him rise,

was the passing of a bar and preparation for his saying,

three years more, “Maybe it’s for the best.”

Coughing, choking in the last days left no breath for either to say,

“I love you.”


        Beyond the woods, west from where he fell, is “the old slough,” though I remember it “sixty years” later as the pure spring my father brought us to, where a tin cup on a tree branch gave a drink of the cool water. Our ride that day ended at the Johnson family cemetery: “I came for the first time with my father and Doyle and Dwight; we were on our horses to find stray cattle. It was not fenced as now. Tall trees crowded ‘round, and in my memory still the stones stand ‘ghostly.’ (An early “Denver Realization”) My father pointed to an oak ‘so big’ my horse could hide behind it. We will walk into these woods again.”

Borrowed Pages from Another Life

    Last year (2013), entering the 77th year of my life, I read Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and, struck hard by the way it spoke, tried calling it to the attention of friends, or people I know, saying he’d wanted to do for “the West” what Faulkner “did for Mississippi”. A tall order.

    And from my own lifetime of reading, including Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, I’ve nurtured a thinly veiled ambition, picked out of his epic discovery: “these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life”. Same tall order, of course.

    Something of Stegner’s “to do for” has remained my steadfast motivation in Gathered Words, now a quarter century on. At the start a friend asked, “Who will read this book?” (Mulberry, not being Paris.) All who first encouraged, “Begin now while...” are deceased.        

    The narrator in Stegner’s novel, like me, has his grandmother’s letters, lives in her house, and is attempting to understand her marriage to “grandfather,” an attractive engineer of few words, as they leave the cultured environs of New York and New England to live in late 19th century Colorado’s rough coal mining settlements, and have their children born. The “letters” included in the novel are actually part of an historical record, written by a published illustrator/artist of the time, discovered in the archives of the Stanford library. The letters tell one version of the story, but Stegner employs the novelist’s brief to develop and portray characters peripheral, but central to “knowing” how the marriage finally failed, beyond mere tragedy, in “repose” we see as mute acceptance. Born under a “double rainbow,” that child’s short life is woven in.

    I too inherited my grandmother’s traveling trunk half-full of letters in their original envelops that start to tell another woman’s story, who married into my father’s family in Mulberry, a family bearing small resemblance to her own in another county. And I live in a house built by my grandfather for tenant farmers on the Hall place, required to make do as the “ideal home” my mother believed she came to Mulberry to create. Born into that home, the “red house,” during a year of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, I would not otherwise have started ... “gathering words”.  To “know” why I did not simply leave ... “the land” is to watch varied possibilities flicker, till one becomes inevitable.