"We're doing what?" my husband Robert questioned, raising THAT eyebrow.
"We need to stop at the country furniture place in Taos," I returned, calmly looking him straight in the eyes. "I bought a bench last fall, have been paying on it, and now we're picking it up."
He made THAT face, that always matched THAT eyebrow, rolled his eyes heavenward, a signal of resignation, and resumed road concentration.
Northern New Mexico zipped by the car windows. We were on our way to open our cabin after the hard winter. THAT willow bench, complete with birdhouses, was love at first sight. I could see it in a little elbow of the stream that ran by our cabin. The perfect place for a sunrise cup of steaming coffee, prayers, thoughts and thanks. I kept that plan to myself, as any wife knows. Springing the bench and pick-up on Robert was enough for one day.
"I've got plans for it."
"Oh, I'm sure you have." he returned. "May I ask what they are?"
"Not telling yet." I answered with a smile.
After much fuss and bother, we got the it loaded in the truck, and resumed the ride up the mountain to over 9,400 feet, and Anima, our place of places. I faded back into memory.
Tiny, wooden-tumble-down, full of quirks, we'd bought it over a decade ago, when we worried nights about how we'd afford it. I'd lost the same ten pounds over the years, fixing, painting, plastering, sewing, and working until I dropped. Finally, its inner beauty matched the surroundings - hundred foot spruce, great father and mother mountains, sweet meadow flowers and our stream, always my teacher, running past, like a white wedding veil. Anima always answered prayers and gave people exactly what they needed, even though they didn't know they needed it, at the time. Mostly, it always gave everybody a true sense of peace. It taught me about true love. It gave me a sense of purpose, a place for creativity, hard work, and joyous satisfaction. There were times I cried salty, sorry-for-myself tears over the seemingly impossible, and hugely difficult tasks. It was always a given that any project would be done three times, and maybe three times again, but, over the years, it began to glow with a real aura, echoing the love that had been poured into it by us, our friends and family.
Reality returned, as the truck jerked to a stop in the front, at last. Our little place welcomed us with it's open door and a waft of sweet breath. It outwitted winter and stood firm yet another time. We dragged the bench onto the front porch, and began the spring tasks - throwing open windows, sweeping, cleaning, checking for winter renters, like a wonderful Pine Martin, one year, oiling. Everything was always done with hustle, bustle, purpose and passion.
"Guess it's a good place for the bench," stated Robert. "A bit crowded though."
I only smiled, thinking of its final resting place.
Across our stream, was a tiny, unkempt little piece of land that always flooded every spring. It had been left fallow because the cabin had taken every waking moment of strength for so long. There was a fetid swamp where mosquitos bred and garbage hooked in the mass of river willow. Finally, three years ago, Robert I worked there, first with saw and clippers that ridded it of its total over grown darkness, letting in the sun. Robert helped when he could, but mostly it fell to me. His job limited his time. As a teacher, I had larger blocks. I took on the cantankerous river willow and put it in in it's place, with a series of "haircuts." and serious pruning that accentuated its wonderful twisted trunks. Clawlike pine branches were clipped. Next came shovel, pick-ax and true resolve. One-hundred-fourteen wheelbarrow loads, I counted every one, of begged dirt off construction sites, got dumped in the 50 by 4 foot deep washout, on top of gathered branches, rocks and forest debris I'd cleaned out of the twisty tangle. I'd shovel a load off the roadside pile, point myself and the little groaning barrow down the steep streamside, clatter over the bridge, bang, bump and drag the teetering load on top of rocks to the final heave-ho. Once I tripped and tumbled down the hillside to stream edge, and the wheelbarrow tumped over on me. "I'm too old and too small," I boo-hooed, spitting out dirt, brushing branches out of my hair, and checking for broken bones.
I rebuilt whole hillsides weaving branches together tightly, almost like a nesting water bird, finally filling and smoothing it over with dirt. I pick-axed the little alternate stream deeper, shoring up 300 feet of the sides with hand picked and toted rocks, three at a time, and filled the bed with begged gravel, one bucketful at a time. Then came the grass seed and wild flower mixes. Like an artist spending their last pennies on a tube of paint, I spent mine on bags and bags of compost. It seemed that everything, every experience in my life, in my sweetest far-away memories pointed to this project.
We held our breath, two years ago, when the enormous snow melt sent the water level way up, roaring down the creek. The little stream filled, then rushed. But, it held, chattering and burbling to me that it could do it, it could do it. And it did. In time, the grass seed grew, creating an emerald carpet, studded with returning wild mountain and added flowers. Somewhere along the line, looking at all the beauty that had replaced such abandonment, I thought that maybe, certain humans are picked by God to be caretakers of places of beauty. I guess that's what I was, all right, but I'd also been overdosed with monstrous amounts of the "nesting instinct," to boot, and no real clear picture of why I was doing any of this at all. At times, the aching muscles, the total compulsion for this whole place, that lead people to think me over the edge, including Robert, caused me to have discussions with my higher power, regarding the infinite reasoning to all of this passion and nesting business. There were two things I knew positively though, and that was when nature approved of my efforts, it always helped me. I learned that when I was pick-axing the little stream. I was a mucky mess, swirling, churning bubbling, and then in a matter of minutes, it settled and began it's merry course over stones rocks and old logs, creating a clear, clean silver, iridescent ribbon. The second thing I learned, was that here in my place of places, there was always a lesson to be learned, always a final purpose that came as clear as the little once churned little stream.
"Will you help me get the bench over the stream today?" I questioned, one day, after breakfast, wondering what I was going to learn this year.
"Over the stream! Whatever for?" came THE eyebrow, and THE look, wrapped in the package of his incredulous voice. "What's wrong with the front porch?"
"I'm going to make a place over there," I gestured, "for coffee and thinking,"
" Where over there?"
"Where the stream takes a bend, and the little one has its waterfall." I answered. "I'm also going to take that big round of cottonwood David got for me, and put it on top of a stump. Coffee table."
My brother had stopped along a country road several years back and asked that workmen cutting down an ancient, diseased cottonwood for a round out of it's middle. He knew I'd find a good place for it, and I did. It just took a while until the time came. When the round got wet, it smelled of decades of horses who'd found shelter there under its branches. I loved having such a good thing.
THE eyes rolled to heaven. "How long do you think it'll last out there before somebody steals it, birdhouses and all?" Robert woofed.
"You gotta have faith Robert," I stated with certainty. "I'm going to make a good place. Promise."
In the next week, I placed the bench, and coffee table, and found more stumps and rounds for two end tables, and lugged them over, piece by piece. Then I cut river willow, laced it into the bench, dusted it off, and had my first session with my God in the new place.
"Well, here tis, Sir." I whispered toasting Him with a wonderful cup of afternoon herbal tea. "Hope it meets with your approval, except I am getting old and small to haul so much."
Alone, a few days later, I was out walking and noticed that at sunset, the little spot, which was not easily seen, because it sat rather deep within the forest, was bathed in golden sunlight. That next morning, Robert had to get back to town.
"Sweetheart," he stated with certainty, hugging me, while sharing a good-by morning cup of coffee on the bench. "You did make a good place. It's beautiful. Was it worth it?"
"Every load, every rock, every bag of compost." I returned. It's like having a baby. After the labor, you forget. I'm pretty relieved though, that no birds took the houses," I mused, sipping. "Then we'd be banished from here until the renters fledged the babies! Six long weeks!"
The tiny stream glimmered and sang. Mists rose from the meadow. Furry forest creatures scurried amidst the green carpet. Feet up on David's coffee table, the sweet smells of the mountain morning mingled with our coffee and conversation. Wild flowers were beginning to grow where only swamp had prevailed before. I surveyed all the years of work, and thought about what to do next. That's when the little place seemed to say, "Enough now. I can do this myself."
After Robert left, I began some tasks, but as if guided by some unseen hand, I found myself picking out a book, long forgotten, from our bookshelf. It was called, Listening to Nature, a beautiful collection of photographs and words, I'd had for years. Then I found myself at the kitchen table, writing. Almost timidly I placed the book, with a pen and the note into a plastic zip-lock bag, found a little wooden carrier, crossed the stream and placed everything at the foot of the bench. I'd written: :
Welcome! We're so happy you found our special place. Sit. Rest a while.
Read this wonderful book if you like. You add to the blessings of what's here. We hope that you'll write in our book, tell us where you're from, and give a thought or two. Step gently. Many, many things are now growing here on this fragile floor. Come back again!
The Bearman and Bucher Families
We closed down the cabin and went on some travels. But, during the course of the vacation, I wondered if anybody would find the bench, the place. Then, at one point, I became embarrassed that I'd done such a thing. Why would anybody want to write in a book? Would somebody, as Robert stated, steal the bench and everything there?
Weeks later, we finally returned to our cabin. Uncertainly, I went to the bench and opened the book. As I turned the pages, tears welled up and streamed down my cheeks. There were messages from people from all over the United States. My own children and dear friends had come and written beautiful entries. One mother had come wanting to find peace. That day, with her tiny daughter she witnessed two deer drink from the little stream, and blessed us for making such a place of beauty. Others thanked us, including Andy, a twelve year old from Atlanta.
"This place is so butiful."
Others wrote favorite prayers. Some wanted to know what kind of people would make such a place for perfect strangers. People seemed so overwhelmed with the beauty, they gave us, in words, the best and most beautiful offerings within themselves.
As I sat there and read the book from cover to cover, heart swelling, choked with gratitude for life, these people, and for my place of places. from somewhere, when I looked up, and as if the meaning rose in a sweet enormous wave and completely took away my breath. I'd always made a place for my creatures of the forest, why had it taken me so long to make one for human beings? I was completely bathed in golden sunlight.
At that moment, I truly understood my role as a caretaker of this tiny place of beauty. I knew totally, irrevocably, certainly, when you do something that is totally good, it returns to you in such magnitude that you are completely swept away by the power of it. Knowing I have done something good and right for my little corner of the world will guide and sustain me forever. No matter what comes. And it is there, in that beautiful place, that I know surely, my God will come and take me unto him, when my care taking on this earth is done.
People continue to find the little willow bench, and write in the book. I am continually blessed with all the sweetness of this place.
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Isabel's Story List and Biography