Reminders of a Mountain Man Who Moved On
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Commentator Julie Zickefoose takes a nature walk most days in the woods surrounding her home. As a naturalist, she feels it's her job to notice things. And that's why even years after her neighbor passed away, she still finds ample evidence of his solitary life in the woods.
JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: I know for a fact that our neighbor, Gary, was eating all the squirrels. He ate all the little gray ones, but he liked the big, rust-colored fox squirrels the best. He'd put their fluffy, orange tails on the antenna of his old car or hanging on a line on his front porch, announcing his dinners to the world.
Gary was here when we came, living in a peeling, white farmhouse on the corner of our dirt road. He rented the place from the man who'd bought the farm from Gary's grandmother. She had died in that house and Gary soon would, too, though you'd never have believed it to hear him sing. On moonless nights, Gary sang. We could hear his voice wafting over the hayfield, loud and hoarse.
(Singing) On the cover of the Rolling Stone.
Carl, who also lived within earshot, told us that Gary was afraid of the dark. And he sang on his way to and from the outhouse. And yet, as many times as you'd pass the old house, you'd never see a light at the window, except for the dim glow from the television in the kitchen. People said that he'd had a college education, and then they'd lower their voice and add, he drinks, you know? I knew.
Walking in the woods, I'd found his beer cans, white with gold writing, in a ravine behind his house - Blatz, arguably the worst beer in Ohio. It was a glacier of white cans spilling down a wooded hill into a streambed. Other signs of Gary's impact - in the woods, the squirrels fled like scalded apes, spattering through the leaves in staccato bursts, rushing up tree trunks, leaping wildly to the thinnest twigs of tree after tree, as if their lives depended on getting out of this county.
I've never seen squirrels act like that, but then I'd never lived where they were dinner either.
Gary helped local farmers bring in their hay or round up their cattle. One day, he didn't show up for a job, and his landlord came by on a Sunday night to see why. He looked in the kitchen window, and there was Gary, standing at the sink, seemingly deep in thought. He left, thinking to give Gary time to finish up whatever he was doing and came back Monday morning to find him still standing.
When he went inside, it was clear that Gary wouldn't be bringing in any hay that day or ever. Within a month, the landlord had razed the old farmhouse, obliterating everything, leveling the windbreaks of pine and spruce, filling in the cellar hole.
Every spring, bunches of jonquils push up through the smooth hayfield, the only evidence that a house once stood here. Walking recently in the streambed behind the old house site near the beer can dump, I found a boot, mossy and green. I knew that it must have belonged to Gary, now gone five years, nearby where dozens of old, glass (unintelligible) jars. Nearly everyone had a natural terrarium inside - ferns and mosses growing happily in their little, humidity- controlled Bordean cases(ph).
He's gone, almost without a trace, but I remember. The squirrels don't run now like they used to. I even saw a big, fat fox squirrel on a blazing blue day not long ago. He climbed the nearest oak, hung head down, barked and swished his fluffy orange tail at me.
BLOCK: Commentator Julie Zickefoose is a writer and artist in Whipple, Ohio. She's the author of "Letters from Eden."
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