Behold the historical record! Oh, the things that were so easy then, though you wouldn’t know it from that picture. It’s a scanned image of an old beat-up photo taken in Houston in late ’71. My father probably held the camera, which must have taken some fortitude on his part, something I haven’t recognized until this moment. Good on him, then.
The image goes with the relevant voodoo republishing of the post below, first uploaded in 2007 to my previous blog. I’ve written several versions of it since, and some of you may recognize the theme. Obviously the Arkansas adventure is on my mind, but the testimony coming up is perfect for the present moment here in Taos. Maybe wherever you are, too. Enjoy.
It was early November, 1971 in the Arkansas Ozarks. I was twenty-six and all alone on 170 acres of trees, rocks, fields, and streams on the side of a mountain surrounded by even more forest, cliffs, and hills that seemed to stagger on forever. Nixon was president, the war was raging, and I wasn’t going back to anything.
I’d never had an autumn quite like that. Living in the middle of the woods can give it to you, though: cold, damp, pungent, brilliant sun and icy frost, the smell of rotting leaves and ripe persimmons. I was most recently from Texas, where it didn’t do that, but the colors of the changing leaves, the smells, and even being so goddamned cold resonated mysteriously with early memories of other latitudes and continents, other lifetimes long gone by. I had real survival problems, however, no time for musing.
That region of the Ozarks was once much more populated. You could wander through the woods and sometimes find an old stone chimney and nothing more, just an unmortared flagstone chimney (or part of one) rising from the leaves among the dogwoods. My 8 x 16 foot shack was hard up against one of these, such that the large half-chimney and fireplace itself constituted the entire north wall, albeit with serious gaps on either side. There were other holes as well. My efforts at construction had been sporadic, and the seasons had overtaken me. Given the ventilation, I’d never felt anything warm from the fire. But a cold front was coming, and I decided to patch the openings any way I could.
With the last of my cash, I bought big rolls of plastic on a run to Fayetteville, then came home and stapled like a madman. I hand-sawed salvaged slabside lumber to fit between the chimney and the vertical posts at both north corners. I pounded rocks into the remaining gaps and covered all the seams with clay. When I was done with that, I gathered firewood.
That night it was thirty-three degrees with a howling wind, and the rain came down like Niagara Falls. Amazingly, my primitive carpentry had done the job: for the first time ever, I could feel real warmth from the old stone fireplace. After a meal of pancakes and apples, I sat with a kerosene lamp at my little fireside desk—a piece of scrap plywood the size of a cafeteria tray nailed to the “wall” at one end and held up by two pieces of 2 x 4 at the other—and it was like the entire universe was in my lap. The rain was crashing down on the bare tin roof in the pitch black wildness, there was no one around for miles, but I was warm and dry and—suddenly I realized—lacked for absolutely nothing.
A holy night, muchachos, and the battery’s still charged.