photo by Sheri Dixon

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Aroma of Safety

I was hanging laundry out yesterday. Yes- I'm one of those nut-case ol' hippiechicks who uses a clothesline to dry our laundry on all but rainy days- year round.

It's Hot right now in East Texas- Hot with a big red capital "H". It envelops everything in a cloak of "Wow. So this is what Hell is like. Lets not go THERE". The cicadas buzz, the grass crackles underfoot, the dogs dive into the relative cool under the house or porch, and the ducks can be found in any water- pond, puddle, trough or dish.

As I was pinning items to the line,thinking of many things as I do when hanging out the laundry- my To Do list for the day, the excitement of our impending building of our little cabin in our woods, how much I love and will miss THIS house, and up on the tail of that thought, the question of "Well then, why are you moving?", the wind shifted almost imperceptibly- languidly, with an effort.

And I caught The Scent.

The Scent of summers long gone, of summers in Wisconsin, the summers of Safety.

Oh, sure. Most people say "Eww. Smells like melting pine trees".

That sharp, sizzling aroma of melting pine trees as the sap softens in the oven-like sunshine reminds me of why this cabin is so important to me.

When I was four years old I became Cabin Aware.

My grandparents had friends with a summer cottage on a lake in central Wisconsin, and were allowed use of it every summer. Nothing fancy- in fact pretty primitive, the cottage had a name as alot of them do, snugged up to the waterfront- pier and boat on the lake side and pine-filled sandlot with hand-lettered signs on the road side announcing to friends and family that Here was Summer. Right here. Right now. You've been to work or school, packed your car, drove the interstate to the four lane to the two lane and then woven through the thickets of evergreen on the silent sand trails and you've made it- Tall Pines Cottage, Grandpa's New Office, Sleepin' Inn, Lazy Daze, sign after lovingly crafted sign until the one we were looking for- Sunny Side Up.

Sunny Side Up was on Pine Lake (one of hundreds of Pine Lakes in Wisconsin), just outside of Waupaca. There was no indoor plumbing. Water was coaxed from the hand pump outside the kitchen- old, rusted, hard to start, perfect. The water tasted of the earth, of iron ore, of living things. Once, filling a pot for cooking water, a little frog popped out mid-stream.

Toilet-related issues were taken care of in the "indoor outhouse"- a closet of sorts up the stairs onto the back porch, but not yet inside the house proper.

Baths were swimming in the lake with Ivory soap- because it floats.

There was rudimentary electricity and if you were an adult, you got a bed in the house. If you were a kid, you slept on the screened porch. I pitied the adults.

Sunny Side Up was surrounded by plantation planted pines- acres of monoculture that I now recognize as less-than-ideal, but as a child it was magical- dark rows of perfectly planted giants, several feet of fallen needles muffling any sound at all except for the wind through that dark living tunnel- an invisible ghost train.

One year I "tamed" a chipmunk to sit on my hand to eat crumbs. Day after day I put the crumbs closer and closer to my outstretched fingers- matching unblinking stare for unblinking stare with the striped fluffball seriously packing morsels into his cheeks until the day he hesitated for a moment, then stepped onto my small six year old palm, grabbed the bread crumb and sat right there- eating out of my hand.

And the air was thick with the Scent of Trust, and Patience and the Aroma of Safety.

When I was in junior high school, my grandfather retired and attained his greatest dream- a lake cottage of his own. It was on a much bigger lake (Silver Lake just outside Wautoma) and had the added novelty of being not only on Silver Lake's shore, but having Fish Lake directly across the street- there was not a window in the cabin that didn't have a lake view. Unfortunately, the "street" is Hwy 21- 2 lane but a main semi-truck route, and Silver Lake is a very popular ski-boat lake. The sign painted on the cement block retaining wall said simply "Norm and Ellen Albeck" and I loved this cabin for all different reasons.

Where Sunny Side Up had been a lake cottage made of wood, but not log, Norm & Ellen's was log-sided- painted barn red, and lined inside with 100% knotty pine. The windows opened inward, like in fairy tales. There was indoor plumbing, and ample electricity.

By that time I had become a young lady of great independence and surliness and summers were spent spending as little time with my boring family as possible (except my grandfather- he remained Cool forever). Every day I'd collect up my little sheltie, pack provisions and we'd go hiking. For hours. And miles. Before cell phones. Without a map.

It was glorious.

We'd circle Silver Lake, Fish Lake, little lakes that had no names, through plantation pines and wild birch groves, past farms and fields and once, by accident, into a gravel pit. And through it all, all the miles and right back into the "new" screened porch overlooking the lake at night, over the big breakfasts on the griddle and the bonfires on the beach and the popcorn while playing cards late into the night permeated the Scent.

The Scent of Confidence, and Family History, and New Independence, the Aroma of Safety.

As a girl scout, back when that still meant tying knots, laying a trail and primitive camping, I went to day camp every year to Trefoil Oaks, the very old girl scout camp just outside Racine. Getting to camp meant well over an hour each way every day on a stinky old school bus singing camp songs all the way. It had a huge old true log lodge, water that had to be pumped and outhouses with gallon buckets of water tied outside- paper towels and hole-punched soap tied next to them. I adored it.

I tried sleep-over camp one year at Singing Hills- which had platform tents, showers and was on a beautiful lake, and spent some time at the New camp- Dreamsend, which had flush toilets and a duplex-type lodge that was of a contemporary design. I hated them both.

When I was too old to be a day camper at Trefoil Oaks, I became a counselor.

When I was too old to be a counselor, I became the director.

The lodge was solid, and old, and permanently anchored to the earth by a huge lopsided rock fireplace. The windows opened in a fairy tale. I'd sit at the desk, or be making gallons of Bug Juice in the old galley type kitchen that was open to the rest of the lodge- only a tall bar designating where the kitchen stopped and the rest of the interior began- and the noises of Summer- of children singing or chattering, leaves and gravel crunching underfoot as they passed by, the squawking of the pump handle and the splashing water, sunlight dappling through the open windows flashed off the dust of thousands of campers- including my mother, myself, my daughter, and I'd breathe in the scent of mosquito repellent, and campfires, and marshmallows, and the ever-present scent of the pines.

The scent of the excitement of new discoveries, the security of permanence, the Aroma of Safety.

And I realized (more quickly than it's taking you to read this, and much more quickly than it's taken me to type it- we don't even own THAT much laundry) that that's it- not in a nutshell, but in a pine cone.

Though we love our old house and it's always taken care of us, and we've looked at all sorts of things to live in out yonder- from yurts to earthbag homes to finished-out storage buildings- what I want, no. What I NEED for my family is to be Safe.

My family has seen more than its share of uncertainty and fear and flat-out horror and more than anything else, *I* as The Mom, Need for my family to be surrounded, sheltered, cushioned by things I've truly only felt from inside the stout, wood-grained solid walls of a cabin-

Family History


And I closed my eyes and inhaled the Blazing Aroma of Melting Pine- till I could taste it at the very bottom of my lungs, and it was Good.


  1. Hanging laundry reminds me of living in Cuba... :) Also... your puppy is gorgeous.

  2. Lovely post! I totally understand the cabin thing. Now that I am constantly around wood, I've found that I now get a little nervous when I am inside steel and drywall buildings. And a bonus fact - I've also found that small towns make me a lot less nervous than cities. I was nervous for 20 years and didn't even know it! LOL

  3. Annah- I've never been to Cuba, but I've seen the sun set on Key West and remember my dad telling me how close we were to Cuba :)
    Phill- how funny about being nervous. I've never been to NYC but just the idea of it makes me twitchy...


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