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Listener Essay - Taking Note

Bob Slack
Connecticut Audubon Society at Trail Wood – The Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary -- Teale house";

Debbie Slack was honored to be a recipient of the 2018 Edwin Way Teale Artist in Residence at Trail Wood sponsored by the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Inspired by the residency, Debbie has been writing a series of essays which has expanded into a memoir titled "Trail Wood: A Love Story." Debbie is also focused on publishing her novel, "Margaret Mary and the Gutsy Girls." She is excited for their story to leave the comforts of home and venture out into the hearts of girls everywhere. Outside of writing, Debbie enjoys exploring nature with her husband, Bob, and their two Labradors.

~Taking Note~

This is the third time I visited Edwin Way Teale’s office at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, however, it is the first time I arrived without my husband, Bob, and his camera. I am alone, prepared to work, to observe and take note. Previously I had arranged this appointment with Vern Pursley, the caretaker. His warm smile greets me and welcomes me into the home. Vern leaves the front door open and the breeze caresses the screen. Entering Edwin’s office, I gently set my backpack down and remove my paper and pens. Vern tells me to make myself at home and stepping away he says if I need anything to give him a shout. I can’t imagine shouting in this space. I can barely imagine sitting at Edwin’s desk and actually writing. The last time I stepped inside and sat down, I was in such a state that I trembled.

Sitting down now I wonder—did Edwin sit up straight with elbows on or off his desk or did he lean back in his chair? In photographs of Edwin in the woods he often appears relaxed, sitting on a downed tree, one foot resting on a branch, notebook and pen in hand. His contentment shows in his smile.

Several items grace the large desk’s surface. Clues of his writing practice have been left undisturbed. There are two blotters, the smaller one on top. Both have patterns of scribbles and darkened watermarks. Old fashion pens, dry of ink, all point in a southwesterly direction towards the windows behind me. There is a small bronze sculpture of a beaver eyeing me. I gently pat his rounded head. Edwin enjoyed his beaver sightings and last summer Bob and I were fortunate to spot a beaver with his head capped in sunlight swimming across Beaver Pond. Left of the sculpture are several paperweights and four small carved birds, colorful and silent. The only birdsong I can hear are the chickadees gabbing outside the door. I wonder if Edwin noticed this beaver and the wooden birds while he catalogued ferns or penned A Walk Through The Year which tells of his and Nellie’s daily sightings over the course of one year as they explored all one hundred and sixty acres of Trail Wood. Every day I read from the corresponding day that matches his observations those many years ago. On April 21st Edwin wrote “. . . a towhee by the stone wall bordering the lane, fills the minutes with its call of good cheer.” On a similar April day, Bob and I listened to the towhee’s “good cheer.” Are the towhee and the beaver Bob and I spotted descendants of the ones Edwin observed? The belief in the continuance of life, of generations of beavers, birds, insects, flowers and trees, still prospering at Trail Wood is a comfort to me, especially during a current decline in populations of certain species.

The curtained window to my left holds the blue sky with a weighted gray cloud. Sunlight highlights rocks resting on the sill and captures the back of a maple picture frame on the far corner of the desk. I know what it holds . . . Edwin’s Pulitzer Prize Certificate. Unbelievable. Here I sit and there it sits. And I am writing on paper lying upon his blotter. Sitting here is more than being in a state of awe and wonder, it is in reverence.

The five o’clock sun illuminates the desk, however, the far corners of the room above the bookshelves are dim, reminding me of the approaching darkness. Tonight if the clouds pass by carrying the threat of rain along with them, Vern is going to lead a night walk around Trail Wood. The moon’s glow will highlight the purple martin house outback, expose the grasses of Starfield Meadow, and illuminate the path through the woods. I can imagine the full moon’s reflection gliding across Beaver Pond while an owl atop an evergreen calls out.

For now the birds have quieted, but the wind begs for attention, howling through the branches and settling, and howling again. The scent of sweet rain breathes into the room. I turn on the desk lamp and a photograph of Nellie wearing her eyeglasses, a pink floral dress, and a blue jacket comes to life. Her gray hair is blown away from her face. She’s smiling and holding a pair of binoculars. I often wish I could chat with Nellie over a cup of tea. Spotting the dust coating the picture, I want to find a cloth and wipe it clean. I suddenly want to put down my pen and wipe off all the dust coating the pens, the birds, the books, the shelves. However, I don’t want to rearrange anything. I know it is important for the vase decorated with the mallard in flight to remain where it is in order to greet the morning sun. And a book removed and studied needs to be replaced where it was found. I’m very grateful that this house, and most especially this room, where Nellie and Edwin sat by the fire and spoke about their day’s discoveries, where Nellie edited Edwin’s writings and often read to him at night, remain unchanged. I wonder did they laugh a lot, sing or dance? I imagine they did. I know they loved each other and this place. You can hear it in their words, see it in in their smiles and feel it in their home. They cared deeply for each other, for the wildlife and these woods.

So why does this layer of dust suddenly concern me? My house is dustier. And it’s not that the dust is thick. I can’t write my name in it. Staring at the thin film covering the pens I realize it’s not the dust, but what the dust represents. It means Edwin has not picked up a pen recently and Nellie hasn’t read The Observer’s View Of Ferns, or sat in the rocker and listened to the night song of the owl. They haven’t gone for a moon walk or kissed down by Hampton Brook. I don’t want them to be gone, but the dust speaks the truth . . . up to a point. Yes, they have both passed away, but Edwin and Nellie feel very close. Reading Edwin’s daily observations, visiting Trail Wood frequently, and now sitting here with pen in hand allow Edwin and Nellie to feel present. But it is more than the placement of pens or being in their home that brings Edwin and Nellie close to my heart, it’s that the life here at Trail Wood is still living. The birds will migrate south each autumn and return in the spring to build their nests. The ferns that turn brown and shrivel will re-appear a youthful green. The summer’s fragrances of lilacs and old-fashioned roses continue to beckon the bees while the brook sings as water dances over the rocks. The winter’s white canvas will once again be imprinted in tracks of deer, coyote and fox while the beaver’s lodge is dusted in snow. And tonight the shimmering starlight will be a backdrop to the full moon rising, reflecting its light over this wondrous land called Trail Wood.

I take a deep breath and pick up my pen. It’s time to write. But first I whisper, “Thank you Edwin, thank you Nellie.”

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