6. The Mall and the Otter
The time comes to “throw and go,” as Vaughn and I often say. We pack our carload of accoutrements and pull out. For five and a half weeks I haven’t been farther away from the cottage than the two nearest towns; now we cross the 9-mile-long bridge across the Strait and are back on the mainland before lunch. We buy a lobster roll in Cap Pelé, New Brunswick. We drive via Fredericton, along the St. John River valley, which is spectacular, even though the new highway can’t compare to the older road down below, along the riverbank. The St. John is wide – wide enough that in places there are islands in it on which cattle graze – and a broad green valley slopes down to it. In some places farmers’ fields end at the water. I wonder if there is a dam somewhere on the St. John; what we’re driving past looks anything but man-made.
We cross the border at Houlton, Maine. Back in the USA. In this part of Maine, I-95 is mostly a straight corridor through forest. What’s behind the wall of trees that is all one can see from the highway? An endless forest or a narrow strip giving the illusion of one? Unknown, to anyone watching the clock and the speedometer and thinking about how long it will take to get to Bangor.
We do get to Bangor, to a Hampton Inn set in the midst of a vast expanse of mall. It’s behind a Toys ‘R’ Us, next to a 99 Restaurant & Pub. Near it are Wendy’s, Starbucks, Borders, Best Buy; in the middle distance Macy’s, a windowless beige fortress on a slight rise. These are only the immediately visible landmarks. The giants of American retail have set up shop here in a trackless maze of parking lots.
In the evening, following a fight with Vaughn, I go out for a walk which I fully expect will be at best an ironic gesture. I tell her I’m going to go look at nature, in this bucolic environment. It’s on the verge of getting dark. I walk down the side of the Hampton Inn’s driveway and see to my surprise that there is a big open space, a declivity of some kind, not paved, maybe a hundred yards across, between this road and Borders. Why didn’t I notice this driving in? It’s a definite valley, filled with dense vegetation and some trees. I walk to the end of the driveway, cross the parking lot of Starbucks, get to more of a main road which even has a sidewalk. I turn downhill and where the road crosses over the unpaved land, I hear the sound of water running down below. There is a creek flowing into the area, rippling slightly. Now this is getting interesting. On the other side, I leave the sidewalk and climb up a slope below Borders, walk along its blank side wall looking down at the land below me. The creek, surrounded by reeds, widens out into pools. There’s what appears to be a berm, an earthen dam? Something constructed, though completely covered in grasses and bushes. Near the corner of the building, on this side where presumably almost no one goes, there’s a picnic table. An amenity for employees on break? A young woman is sitting on the low fence of the parking lot which is beyond Borders, drinking a coffee; I wonder if she’ll be freaked out by my appearing from this unsanctioned direction. She pretty much ignores me, which seems like a good sign. I realize there’s a pond down below, open water under the sky. “There’s an actual landscape back here!” I say to her, in defiance of the unwritten code which says that I should mind my own damn business lest I come off as some kind of predator and that she, as a young woman unaccompanied at night, should be on guard against any unknown male. “An otter lives down there,” she says, breaking the code as well. One of the few advantages of being over the hill is that I give off an appearance of harmlessness; hence she can talk to me. She tells me that all this used to be cow pastures and they left this part for drainage. In the spring, when the snow melts, it floods. I don’t want to press my luck and become a bore, so though I’d like to go on talking with her, I go on my way, saying “Enjoy it.” “I will,” she says, sounding slightly annoyed. Maybe she thinks I’m rude for leaving abruptly? Too late. I keep going along the edge of the parking lot and the blank side of Staples; I see that the first pond is succeeded by a second. There are some trees scattered through the area, but mostly it’s tall grasses and reeds. I figure periodic flooding keeps trees from growing in. It is, in fact, nature and a very pretty spot, framed by unlimited economic growth. At the other end of it is I-95. I turn back. As I’m coming back up the parking lot I see the young woman walking off with a young man. So that’s what she was doing – waiting for her boyfriend, presumably after getting off work. I wonder how she knows about the otter; did she see it herself? I would like to see the otter.
In the morning Vaughn and I try to photograph the scene. It’s impossible to capture the scale of the mall world surrounding the natural; as Vaughn says, the only way to really show it would be an aerial photograph. The pictures are perhaps too pretty, but the juxtaposition is there: the Hampton Inn reflected in the pond, Toys ‘R’ Us and Best Buy beyond water. In the parking lot behind us, an employee has hooked up a hose to a spigot on the wall of Borders and is watering the spindly saplings growing on islands dividing up the parking lot. The contrast between her and the stream is so perfect it almost seems staged. As she works her way slowly down the row, she moves her car so she can hear its radio.
When the subject comes to you, it’s a sign you’re on the right track. And if this tableau isn’t about our relationship to nature, what is?
We get home to Cambridge and a day later I’m at a place in Arlington called the Bar-B-Q Barn, where I’ve gone several times to get propane tanks filled. For the first time I notice, through the chain-link fence at the back of the property, that a stream runs by it.
This reminds me of another, similar stream that runs by the parking lot of the vet we used to take our dog to, on the Cambridge-Belmont line. It feeds a pond, not too unlike the ones at the mall in Bangor, though not set in a ravine the way those are.
This in turn reminds me of a passage from one of my novels. The narrator and his best friend Dal (both seventeen years old) find a place to hide where they can spy on Dal’s dad, who they suspect is having an affair. They’re next to a local pizza joint called Sorrento’s, in somebody’s side yard.
In a few quick and silent steps Dal got to where the evergreens started, with me almost stepping on his heels; he lowered himself to the ground and began to crawl between them and the fence. We squirmed along the base of the fence with the thick trunks of the evergreens at our elbows; I kept trying not to snap the dead twigs and small branches that were lying there. Under the thick branches of the evergreens the darkness was complete; I felt protected by it, and I got a feeling I remembered from childhood games – it came from being in a space that no one else had ever occupied, close to home and yet a pioneer.
I was breathing the smells of evergreen needles, earth, dead leaves, blacktop, motor oil, distant garbage, and pizza exhaust; my hip was wedged against the trunk of one of the bushes and its solidity felt like a fortification. . . .
What an odd space the narrator finds himself wedged into, a marginal, unnoticed hiding place that is almost not a place at all, that hardly anyone ever thinks of, let alone physically occupies. The smell of the earth and pizza exhaust.
In 1997 I wrote a longish non-fiction piece called “Fox on the Shore,” about the death of my half-brother and also about nature in P.E.I., which has been accepted for publication by a journal called Ecotone. An ecotone is “a transitional zone between two communities, containing the characteristic species of each; a place of danger or opportunity; a testing ground.” There could hardly be a more appropriate place for the piece to appear, because “Fox on the Shore” ends this way:
Next summer I will continue to cut trees and brush, to maintain the difference between open land and encroaching woods. To hold off sameness, to make sure there are two presences out there, so that out of the two that are visible there can come into being an invisible third. That is the real action, for me. It goes on at the edge, where unlike things meet, where a person on foot passes from this to that. Beauty lurks on the boundary line.
Suddenly I remember, when I was probably seven years old, following a trickle of water running down a shady, wooded slope in Madison, Wisconsin, on the campus of the University. Finding and following this miniature stream was like a voyage of discovery. It would disappear beneath leaves and twigs, then re-emerge a few feet downhill. It fascinated me; every time the stream emerged it remained thrilling. Later, I found out to my disappointment that it originated out of some building; maybe it was the outflow of a lab. There too, the same ambiguous transitional zone.
It’s more than an abstract idea. There really are these marginal threshold spaces, barely noticed, where nature persists in a context supplied by, dominated by man. Maybe it’s now time, once again, for me to get onto the wrong side of some fences, to explore some of these spaces in real life and carry some of these thoughts with me as I go.