Friday, July 11, 2014

color and landscape, texture and voice

"Can you teach me to read numbers?" I asked.
"I don't think it's something you can learn.  Nobody taught me.  I've just always seen numbers differently than most people.  Fisher says it's a gift.  He says when he sees the numbers that start with 3.14, it's just a bunch of figures that don't mean anything more than numbers.  That made me sad for him.  For me, they are blue and purple and sand and ocean and rough and smooth and loud and whispering, all at the same time."  He paused for a breath.
I wished I could see what he saw -- color and landscape, texture and voice.
Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool 

This week we headed off for a camping adventure in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  A bit of a drive to get there, and then some car riding while in the area, we had our audiobook ready.  Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool.

There are three things that I love about this book.

1.  The window it provides into another character's quirky mind.  We seem to be accruing a cast of these quirky characters.  I would love to get them all in a room together: Flora and Auggie and Early and Caitlin and Oscar and Hazel.

Early is that strangest of boys.  And one who we see that, despite his being different, there is a warmth and trueness behind his oddity.  And much to be gained from a friendship with him.  This book is a story of two boys, Jack and Early, both adrift and lost, who at different points in the book guide each other, help each other see things differently, their perspectives, understanding, and meaning shifting again and again.  They head off together into the great Maine Woods, seeking an enormous black bear.  Pulling from their own needs and losses and truths to help each other.  It made me think at times of Huckleberry Finn, and at other times of Stand By Me.  With a bit of Dead Poets Society and A Prayer for Owen Meany mixed in as well.  If that makes any sense.

As our perspectives on Early change from odd to wise, from assured to weak, we also have a chance to see our own family's world, The New England oceans and forest, through the childish eyes of someone who has never seen it.  Someone for whom being in the woods, surrounded by trees is new, the trees seem to be playing a symphony to him. That is how Jack, the narrator born and raised in Kansas, saw our woods.  The ocean was different for him.
The first time you see the ocean is supposed to be either exhilarating or terrifying. I wish I could say it was one of those for me. I just threw up, right there on the rocky shore.
2.  The idea of reading numbers.  Early has an ability to see a story behind and between the numbers of pi. It is an interesting idea.  And one that speaks to the psychologist in me, who spends a good deal of time trying to make meaning of the clues before me, whether it is a child's play, or art, or words.  How with a bit of time and observation you can get a window, a glimpse of the meaning and truth of a person.  How these things, words and behavior and creations, are not just that, but are windows into another landscape, with textures, needs, and surges of emotions.
"...These numbers, see how they look wavy, like the ocean?" 
"No, they don't look wavy.  They're just numbers.  And you're making up a story to go along with them.  I get it.  It's pretty creative". 
Early balled his fists again.  "They're not just numbers. The story is the numbers.  Look at them!  The numbers have colors -- blues of the ocean and sky, green grass, a bright-yellow sun.  The numbers have texture and landscape -- mountains and waves and sand and storms.  And words-- about Pi and about his journey.  The numbers tell a story.  And you don't deserve to hear it."
3.  The idea of navigating.  Each other, and how in a relationship it can be about one guiding another and then, as the title suggests, in the last few chapters, during the return from their adventure, how the strength has shifted, the other has lost their balance, and Jack begins to navigate Early.
Connecting the dots. That's what Mom said stargazing is all about. It's the same up there as it is down here, Jackie. You have to look for the things that connect us all. Find the ways our paths cross, our lives intersect, and our hearts collide.
And so, with this story, and its metaphors and meaning and musings and perspectives playing as this little trip's soundtrack, we explored the pants off the little patch of the White Mountains we were visiting.

This campground was rich with paths and brooks and bridges and signs that guided us through them.  And full of textures and feeling, of icy mountain stream water that takes your breath away for exactly three seconds when you submerge and wriggling tadpoles that eventually rest trustingly in your hands.  Like Early, who tried to hold back the ocean with sandbags, I watched Elliott drawn to holding things as well and he spent hours trying to dam a section of the brook with rocks.

We left the campground for an afternoon.  And drove the auto road up Mount Washington.  We should have paid more attention to the numbers at the gate.

The Appalachian Trail!  That's what Jack and Early are following!  exclaimed Elliott.

Nicholas and I, to the amusement of the others in the car, found the free CD that came with our admission passes to the auto road strangely fascinating.  Particularly the part about the plant life, the alpine plant life, that lives here and nowhere else in the world, so perfectly and specifically adapted to this environment.  Thinking about what made this place unique and the idea of how just a step off a path could take away something that will never exist again.  It's a provocative metaphor for how we walk upon this earth.

A place where houses need to be held down by chains.

Or built with stones.

We imagined the day to day life of the early people who visited up there.

And took a selfie.

As in any good adventure story, or at least in our little family, any of our adventure stories, we were poorly prepared and missing things that were needed to make it a complete success.  We had left our fleeces behind in the campsite.

And it was cold.  And very windy.  And there was a 40 degree difference between the base and summit.

Turns out, I am not someone who does well driving a car two feet from a sheer dropoff to certain death.  So I pulled over and let Jonathan drive.  And I enjoyed the views each time we pulled over into a parking area.  And only then.  And we pulled over often.

From the CD we learned the word krummholz, the gnarled and craggy trees that can survive in the subalpine zone.  Which is a word of texture with texture of its own.  And a word I am putting in my pocket to pull out and run my fingers over.

And collected images of devices and signs unique to this place in addition to the tiny alpine plant world.

Upon returning to the campsite, we had a bit of a surprise waiting for us.  A sort of Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch parallel story line if you will.  We had been careful.  I had noticed the signs everywhere, warning of bears.

Food and garbage had been carefully attended to.

But perhaps, looking back on it, there were signs that things were going to be interesting.  Early would have noticed.

Because as I walked around the campsite, I came upon this, on the back of our tent.

My first thought was teenaged hooligans, as my mother would call them.

But then I saw this.

And this. 

I put my hand up to the claw marks and found that the scratches fell exactly where my own fingertips ended.  Though I was trying to make this out to be a raccoon, those were some very big raccoon paws.  The word bear entered my brain.

We had found the great black bear that becomes central in Navigating Early.  Or, more accurately, the bear had found us.  And like the story of Pi, I was left wondering if the story was magically manipulating us, or if we were making our story fit our book, or if it all was a strange coincidence.  There we were, in the woods, with trees whispering symphonies and bears hidden within them.  Luckily the only dead bodies were the remains of our tent and my special pillow.

I found it disturbing that what the creature had removed from the tent, carried off a bit, and destroyed, was my pillow.  No one else's.  Nothing but our wedding gift tent and my expensively awesome old lady bones are aching ergonomic pillow.  

Some nice women from the site next to us gave us some duct tape.  And I dutifully added duct tape to our list of things to remember next time.  

And Jonathan headed down to the ranger station.  Our neighbors to the other side had also been ransacked.  They had had even more damage and loss.  And they were heading home.  And I needed Jonathan to find out just how high the danger level was at this point.  Because that had been my pillow.

Jonathan came back followed shortly by a ranger in a golf cart.  I think park rangers find their campers' antics a bit amusing, but they only show this by a slight glint in their eye as he told us we were perfectly safe.  There was a year old cub, all 200 pounds of him, who had been bothering the campground dumpster lately.  And likely this is who had visited us while we were away.  He was playing, the ranger said.  And his mother is not around to tell him to play elsewhere.  I purposefully did not ask where his mother was.  Another lost and untethered child in our story.  

This kindly ranger spoke warmly of his naughty bear, and told of what he had done so far to guide him away and off into the wilderness.  But said, beginning to look a bit sad, that now it was probably time for him to go.  To get a team there to tranquilize him and move him up north, into the great wilderness of the mountains.

I felt a bit bad for our part in this.  I lamely told him I thought the cub would have a better life there, and he smiled at me.  Clearly that ranger and that cub had a story between them as well.

And so, we left the next day, having had a quiet and uneventful sleep that night.  And headed back home.

And now we have added to our story, added memories that are blue and purple and sand and ocean and rough and smooth and loud and whispering for the kids.  Textures and words and images to carry along with them.  Whether the story guides us or we create it, it moves along with us.

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