Environmental Literature and Nature Writing
Days Measured In Light
The windows of my house shed angles of light across the floors, and the hours stretch forward from the kitchen into the living room. I build a fire, make a pot of coffee, and settle in at my desk as the day begins.
My house is old and plain, and I am fixing it up, tearing away layers, and installing my own. The four rooms where I live have ceilings of pine, and some of the walls are covered with fake wood. There is one closet, not much counter space, the porch and stairs need repainting, the gutters me nding, the whole place rewiring, and the molding was slapped on by someone in a hurry and without much skill. The previous tenants have expressed themselves in several layers of paint, linoleum, carpet and wallpaper. I hack and rip, unpeeling the layers, trying to imagine who they were, what they thought about, how they felt about these rooms. I have torn out the wall heaters, replaced the woodstove, added shelves, painted the kitchen and bathroom, replaced a few light fixtures, and cleared the ivy from the retaining walls. Future tenants will live in rooms that look much different from these, but the wedges of light will still move silently across the floors.
My living room is 14 by 25, a rectangle that pokes its windows out over the dirt floor garage and into the branches that fill up the town. I look outside and my house is an island surrounded by trees. Two tall blue oaks in the front cut the hard rain and wind that sometimes blows up the hill. The big walnut tree near the fence gives shade on summer afternoons and a small walnut on the edge of the patio holds feeders for a good variety of birds. Some of them nest in my yard.
On warm spring nights, lying in bed, I watch small moths the color of porchlight move against the panes with soft quiet thumps. They press themselves against the siding, and in the morning a titmouse makes quick little dashes from branches to snatch them off for breakfast. The moths and birds and me live symbiotically with the house, protecting it from parasites and decay, and its skin of insulation and siding lends warmth and food.
My days as a nomad are over. I am agrarian, pastoral, a cave dweller with a cranberry kitchen. I eat when I want, listen to music, and no one leaves books on my floor. I live alone in my asylum but the world is here when I pick up the phone or turn on the modem. My cats are not wanderers either; there is enough room here for their mysterious lives. I open the back door and wake them up. "Are you happy?" I ask them. They blink at me and go back to sleep in the sun.
In the afternoon, the sun creeps in from the west, through the living room windows, and toward my desk. The light rearranges itself and reflects, and each day is another small lifetime.
I haven't taken many photographs of my house or yard to record the changes; the before and after effects of my time here. Not long ago I saw a book of photographs of families from all over the planet. The families posed proudly outside their homes, among their possessions. How would I look to the world, sitting in my yard with all my things?
Three years ago I went traveling and slept in a house near the Nepali-Tibetan border. The villagers had moved to winter pastures several thousand feet below. The owners of the house were wealthy traders. It was lar ge for the neighborhood, and had two windows with glass, and a tiny room in the back separated by curtains. There was an old Chinese trunk, some glass rice bowls, and bags of rice and millet stored along the wall. The first floor was reserved for chicke ns and yaks. The family of six shared an area the size of my living room.
Last year, some Nepali friends came to visit for a few days at my house. They live as subsistence farmers, depending on seasonal jobs as porters in order to send their older chil dren to a school two days away by bus. Singa used day-glow magic markers to put a one-syllable mantra above my doorway, and a longer one on my kitchen wall to protect my house and keep me safe. Singa's cousin Tirtha said to me, "Didi, when I go home and tell my mother that we stayed in a house with a woman who lives alone in a forest, she will never believe me."
My life here is simple. I work only part time so that I can read and write and work on my house. I am a subsistance worker in a high tech world. Let one of the other rats win the race.
I read an interview with a writer whose brilliant career has spanned 50 years. At the end of each day, he asks himself if his day has been a good one. If he can answer yes more often than no, he considers himself and his life successful.
Sometimes I can't sleep, so I lay in bed and watch the moths. Last year, my neighbor's attic caught fire. My house, less than 20 feet away, is as vulnerable and temporary as any sanctuary can be. For now, though, I think of my days measured in light. And a lifetime made up of small days.
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