Jack & his Worms

In Firm Without, Frugal, Hollow Within, Lace, Shell-Bearing on March 25, 2011 at 2:18 am

There are places so far away in time and memory, I don’t know how to get you there.   The best way in may be to walk the last mile on foot…let the car drop you off and go on ahead.

Now you can smell the crazy-rich-loamy, wood-clay smells Earth puts out all the time, when she’s not covered in concrete.

Just inhaling them, these wood-spirit smells, starts me to trembling, palms sweating, barely breathing.  I couldn’t understand why this idea never occurred to anyone else…you want to remain with the noisy pack and miss this?

The perfume of oak and fern shrouds my steps that scamper madly on, then halt, to, suddenly, at last, hear pure and total silence.   A silence that will become so loud over the next two weeks that my ears will hurt to return to the city.

An unnamed breeze that comes and goes as it pleases leads to the gurgling ford…could never quite make it to the last stone without my feet getting wet, but my shoes were in hand before the dust had ever settled as the van roared up the road…

This is the formal entrance to the camp, a 2×3 hand-painted sign, over a bleached pine-post fence, no-longer-mended, like everything else let to return to its natural state on the old farm…old pasture returning to meadows of grasses, mullein, lambsfoot, and an Indian paintbrush or two…downed trees devoured by thickets of wineberries, new homes for Spring fawns…old growth forest on mountains on three sides forming  Cooper’s cove, in this little 500-acre parcel that was almost Heaven….

Long days and dreams to spin, but the dinner and friends and banjo, stars,  sleep-outs, stories, spring-fed pond, all-night nocturnal hikes and occasional all-day hike, wove in and around Jack Shaffenaker and his worms.

Jack lived a few hollars from Shaffenaker mountain, on the side of one of the large hills called mountains in West Virginia…he lived in a cinder block contraption that would have had stumped both Laura Ingalls Wilder and the editors of the Foxfire anthologies.  You could almost touch both walls with one arm span, but it was a tunnel with haphazard edges, that held wood-burning stove, coffee-cans-turned-spittle-cans, cardboard houses designed specially for his cats, army cot with sleeping bag, cookpot, guitar, and stacks of newspapers for his worms.

The worms lived in round, metal washtubs out in the yard, like mercury tears shed by an inorganic god on a lush hillside of green.  Plastic trashcan lids held the improbable newspaper in place, but by-gosh, when you lifted a few layers there was nothing but black soil and wriggling brown-pink-white worms.

We had earlier been told by our camp counselor that Jack had been offered the proverbial promise of being a “very rich man” for some invention (a type of shoepolish?) he had designed, but he had long ago refused the idea of patenting because he wanted to stay rooted to his life just as it was.

Jack had real-life large ears, like the kind you see in Depression-era photographs of farmers, miners, and people who live around dust.   They heard and saw things in the mountains that don’t emerge for city-dwellers in a mere two-week vacation.   But those wood-spirits danced in his fingertips when he picked the guitar.   The fire dancing on the wood and the bowls of stars were the extension of what he didn’t need to say:  just like the woods, he told you everything just by being silent.

He was as much a part of the mountain while he was alive as he has most likely returned to by now.  He didn’t have a car…he walked to town or relied on neighbors for rides.  He gave of himself in the humblest, quietest way, picking the guitar, telling us stories around the campfire, in exchange for good company and a frugal meal…because, we, the camp, were his new neighbors, and he was neighborly to the all the scattered few who lived in those parts.

A transistor radio may have been his deepest foray into technology, though I’m not even sure he had that…no t.v., computer, typewriter, phone, let alone iphone, Jack was the living legacy of the oral tradition…a tradition that may be dying unnoticed in our world of omnipresent computer-connectedness.  This was thirty years ago, I was a teen, Jack appeared then to be at least in his 60s or early 70s…

I was too young then to know what questions to ask, but now of course I would ask for days…or just sit, also like in those old photos of  people resting on porches from who knows what trials and toil….

But keeping his wants simple, he gave himself and those around him the opportunity to even partially see how primordial, at essence, everything is.  He looked so salty, he literally looked dusty, he looked like you might scrape his skin off right while he was alive, and it would mold right into a clay ball.  You felt he was more than content alive, and would go on being every equally bit as content to have his body mold right back into the side of the mountain and become food for his next batch of worms.  Joyfully!  I can see his sheepish grin and marbley brown eyes twinkling in the soil I dig in right outside my door…


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