Greg Dennis: We can make nature sacred again
If you follow the wide trail through thick pine woods above the Robert Frost cabin in Ripton, a more rugged path breaks off to the right.
It’s as much stream bed as it is trail. Especially in this stop-and-start winter when frost and mud and tree roots confound the skier and hiker.
Rambling up that trail eventually leads to what is, for some of us, a sacred little spot.
Today in that place sits just the sorry shambles of an old house.
Curiously, it’s on the northeastern slope of these hills above Frost Land and Bread Loaf. It must have been a lousy spot to site a house in the old cold days. But a family occupied the place for decades.
It is “a house that is no more a house upon a farm that is no more a farm.” Up there, “the ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest. The chisel work of an enormous glacier that braced his feet against the Arctic pole.”
The lines are from Frost’s “Directive,” the poem that was brought so wonderfully alive in Bristol resident John Elder’s book, “Reading the Mountains of Home.”
Why do I say the site above Frost’s old haunt is sacred?
Well, perhaps it’s that way to only a few of us. But the sacred is where we find it.
This — the pile of rotting clapboards, the caved in, dirt floor basement — is the House with the Blue Bed.
When I was a teenager, we would ski up to this house from Bread Loaf or the Frost cabin. Just to immerse ourselves in the wild, away from It All, and to look at the abandoned house and its magical blue bed.
Though the structure was abandoned even then, it stood tall in those days. Its windows were empty frames staring blankly through out to the beeches and maples. No one had lived there in our lifetimes. No color anywhere. Everything about the place was blasted and washed with the gray of time.
Except for a tiny blue, impossibly sky-blue bed that could be spied in one of the bedrooms.
Near the turn of this century when I came back from living Away, one of the first pilgrimages I made was to the House with the Blue Bed.
I wasn’t even sure the house was still there. Maybe I had in fact dreamed it. But there it was, all fallen down like London bridges.
I emailed an old friend who had taken some of those ski treks with me to visit this mysterious bed.
She replied instantly from her home on Baltimore. “I think I have a painting of that house.” And a few minutes later, another email with the image she had made up there, one fall afternoon 40 years ago.
We humans have plowed under so much nature and neglected most of the rest. “There is an almost self-congratulatory ignorance of the natural world that is pervasive in Euro-American business, political and religious circles,” the poet and essayist Gary Snyder writes in “The Practice of the Wild.”
Yet Snyder insists that sacred places remain and that they can be revivified — resacralized — by hopeful and attentive humans.
Which, in reading Snyder this week, is how I came to think of the House with the Blue Bed.
Somebody else noticed this homely hold spot, too. You can look it up, right there in the converted barn that is headquarters to the Rikert Nordic Center. There you can spot “Blue Bed House” on the map that’s on the wall next to the wood stove.
These days we’re somehow all supposed to be our own “brand.” We prize our individualistic disconnection from one another and the spiritual life. But even in our foolish absorption with Donald Trump and “Two Broke Girls,” I will stubbornly contend that we can and should find our own sacred spaces.
Snyder: “Sometime in the 1970s at a conference of Native American leaders and activists, I heard a Crow elder say: ‘You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough — even white people — the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost. They just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”
How long until we hear those spirits again? Well, they’re speaking every day if only we listen. As they have been speaking for some time now in our literature.
“For the first two hundred years of Anglo settlement in North America there wasn’t a developed literature of place,” Middlebury College professor Dan Brayton told me. “It really wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that American artists and intellectuals developed a serious, sustained celebration of place and nature.”
Now we have a long history of it to draw on, should we care to turn off Netflix and walk outside to some quiet place.
“I sometimes think that nature writing is the main stream flowing through American literature and thought,” Brayton’s colleague Jay Parini told me. “But it’s also a religious stream — the idea, in Emerson, that ‘nature is a symbol of spirit,’ and that every image in nature is somehow connected with a spiritual reality. So nature writing, at its best, becomes spiritual writing and is based on a practical kind of spiritual exercise: going in to the woods, going to the lake, getting close to the earth itself, especially the earth stripped of human shapes and forms.”
Sometimes, too, the sacred can be found in the old human shapes and forms. A poet’s cabin tucked at the edge of a high meadow. And a lost blue bed living on in imagination.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on is blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @greeengregdennis.com.