Walking in the footsteps of the Moundbuilders

Squier and Davis’ map of the Newark Earthworks.

We’re standing in front of a 4-foot mound of debris beside the railroad tracks in Newark, Ohio. Jeff Gill, our guide, tells us he caught two kids huffing here once, and during that encounter he wondered if this pile of detritus might be something more, something that once was part of the ancient Newark Earthworks.

We were walking the streets of Newark on that spring day, looking for traces of a past civilization scattered among second-hand stores, golf courses and residential neighborhoods. Sometimes, the traces were easy to see. Others, it required close observation and a dose of conjecture to spot them. As we walked, we paid especial attention to alleys, which, as Gill explained, tend to follow the natural lay of the land rather than being graded like regular roads. That allowed us to see subtle swells and uneven stretches that align, more or less, with where the walls leading into the earthworks once stood.

The Newark site was surveyed by Squier and Davis in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, a book published by the Smithsonian in 1848.

“These works are so complicated, that it is impossible to give anything like a comprehensible description of them,” Squire and Davis wrote.

While Ancient Monuments is flawed in many places, it’s an invaluable reference guide to the mounds scattered across middle America. Many of the sites Squier and Davis surveyed have been destroyed by “progress” in the intervening years. In fact, a key part of the Newark Earthworks, the Octagon, is now Mound Builders Country Club, a golf course that allows public access to the mounds only four times a year, and that only begrudgingly. A recent court ruling provides hope of greatly improved access, possibly even removal of the golf course and restoration of this archeological treasure.

Jeff Gill, wearing hat, discusses the Wright Earthworks during our tour.

This tour, unfortunately, is not held during a public access day, so all we can do is stand across a busy road and view the Octagon mounds from a distance. It reminds me, vaguely and strangely, of the first time I saw Templo Mayor in Mexico City decades ago. I marveled at the urban swirl around an archeological dig exposing the remains of the Mexica’s main temple in their capital city of Tenochtitlán. While urban Newark has little in common with Mexico City, it does share this pre-Colombian grandeur intertwined with the mechanics of 21st century life. It’s also a mortal reminder of how small we are in the stream of time. So much came before us. So much will (hopefully) continue after.

My favorite HDR shot from my trip to Machu Picchu in 2007. I took the first bus up to the site that day and was rewarded with this view.

That trip to Mexico in 1990 was the beginning of my fascination with archeological sites, ranging from Machu Picchu to Teotihuacán to Chaco Canyon to Cahokia to Serpent Mound.

At the base of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán. Photo by BUG.

Shortly after moving to Athens, I learned Ohio is dotted with thousands of mounds, prompting me to explore Serpent Mound, Newark Earthworks and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in short order. Even the local trails at Strouds Run State Park lead me past the remnants of mounds.

Serpent Mound in Ohio. This is the first site in Ohio I visited after moving to Athens.

While cycling in Athens, I’m constantly — sometimes painfully — reminded that brick roads tend to spread and undulate as the roadbed beneath them shifts over time. But here in Newark, Gill points out a brick alley that is more than 100 years old, each brick remaining level and true. That suggests, he says, a foundation beneath it that served as a road bed long before we arrived, the constant pressure of foot traffic compacting the soil, preparing the perfect site for this alley we’re now standing on. As he speaks, I flash to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, which sits atop a towering sandstone mesa. Walking up to the site, visitors tread a path marked by the indentations of human foot traffic dating back nearly a millennium. It’s all connected. Somehow.

Footprints worn into the sandstone over time. I think this is from my visit to Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico in 2003. The first time encountered something like this was at Acoma Pueblo in the 1990s.

As we viewed the Wright Earthworks, a site tucked next to a welding yard off Newark’s beaten path, several local residents said they had never been to this spot. It struck me how important it is that we educate ourselves about what came before us. Gill repeatedly cited newspaper accounts to bolster or diminish theories about the site. What will happen 100 years from now, when newspapers are long gone and digital archives spotty? Will the decimation of local media sever us from our past?

Even the street names in Newark give hints of ancient origins. Roads like Ridgeview, where there is no ridge in view, suggest that when it initially was plotted, there was in fact a ridge (part of the earthworks) that has since been leveled. Intimations of immortality are everywhere. One just has to pay attention — and find the right guide.

Gill, an engaging, erudite mashup of a preacher and John Lithgow, proves the perfect leader for this tour of Newark. He’s quick to say “I don’t know” when the answer is uncertain. Archeology can reveal only so much, leaving us to speculate about what the material facts add up to. He is, in fact, a man of the cloth, though not one who seems inclined to traffic in dogma. The walking tour takes the better part of a Saturday, leading us on a circle that starts and ends at the Cherry Valley Ellipse. This is the mortuary area, where the Hopewell buried their dead, and it’s also where the Shaman of Newark was unearthed in 1881. It’s believed the deceased were left on nearby hilltops until only their bones remained, which were then bundled up and brought to the Ellipse for burial.

At the end of the tour, there are more questions than answers. What does this all mean? What were the Hopewell trying to accomplish in this sprawling complex. Only part of it — the Ellipse — appears to have been funerary in purpose.

“The site may be more like a pre-Colombian Large Hadron Collider — a vast machine, or device, designed and built to unleash primordial forces,” posits Bradley T. Lepper in The Newark Earthworks, A Monumental Engine of World Renewal in The Newark Earthworks: Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings.

During my first visit to Newark, I was surprised to see what appeared to be moats at the earthworks. But they were inside the walls. Why the hell would they put moats inside? Perhaps these ditches weren’t for defensive purposes. Lepper suggests they might actually have been designed to contain the spirits of the dead within the circle during the rituals conducted there. Lepper also notes that later peoples continued to treat the earthworks as sacred space. He cites Allan Eckert’s The Frontiersmen, where protagonist Sam Kenton notes the Shawnee were making pilgrimages to this area long after the Hopewell were gone.

It’s all connected. Somehow.

While visiting Peru’s Sacred Valley in 2007, I saw these folks gathered at the Incan site of Saqsaywaman.

Settling in

After a week at Innisfree, we’re starting to feel at home. Sydney and Sunny are settling into their routines. Sydney even managed to draw first blood on the cabin, feasting briefly on the cedar baseboard behind his cage. So I’ll spend this weekend crafting an Anti-Sydney Device to place behind his cage. Come to think of it, there hasn’t been a place we’ve lived in during the past 30 years that Sydney hasn’t defaced in some way. Innisfree is in good company.

The snake skin I found in firewood stacked by the hearth.
Detail of the snake skin

I also removed a stack of firewood someone — presumably the real estate agent — stacked there in an attempt to stage the house. During that process I came across a magnificent snake skin. I’m assuming (hoping) that snake shed his skin out in the wood pile, not here in the house. It was a big one, based on the skin. Maybe 5 feet …

Seeing the forest — and the trees

Upper branches of the Alpha Oak.

One the cusp of buying a cabin with 16 acres of forest, I started obsessing about trees. The book Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees has been aiding and abetting my new fixation.

One of the recommendations author Nancy Ross Hugo makes in Seeing Trees is to name specific trees and watch them closely, over time. We tend to see trees as massive brown/green blobs. Closer inspection reveals what complex ecosystems they are. So upon arriving here at Innisfree, I started sizing up the trees on the property. There are numerous white oaks and maples, but there are two trees that caught my eye immediately.

A white oak on the property that I’ve named the Alpha Oak.

The first is Alpha Oak, a massive beast of a tree that’s west of Dove Cottage. Based on its size, I’m betting it’s a few hundred years old, and as I stood there looking at it in awe with a friend, he noticed that high up in the branches there’s some sort of block and tackle mechanism. I’d love to how — and why — it got there.

The tree on the far left is a white oak. To the right of it, Dancer bends to reach the sun, her trunk forking into two branches like arms.

The second is the much more diminutive Dancer, which is near Innisfree. I’m to sure yet what type of tree it is (Hugo recommends not obsessing too much about that early on — to just get out and get acquainted with the tree). But the way the tree gracefully raises its branches to stake out a sunny spot in the forest canopy is beautiful. I’m going to pick up some binoculars so I can try to make an ID on what type of tree Dancer is, but that’s not stopping me from watching it sway in the wind as I sit on the deck at Innisfree.

At our place in town, there’s Maude, a massive tulip poplar that shades Maude’s Place. Both the house and tree are named after Ruth Gordon’s role in the 1971 film Harold & Maude. It was a year or two before I really even looked at that tree. It was the incredible flowers it produces that caught my attention, and from there, I started noticing what a beautiful tree it is year-round.

During the winter, Sunny and I spent hours hiking the trails of Strouds Run State Park, where I often paused (despite Sunny’s desire to push onward) to watch leafless trees sway and creek in the winter gusts, reminding me of a wooden ship bucking the ocean, it’s timber masts straining and creaking under sail. Now that it’s spring and I’m living in the forest, I’m looking closely at trees that I used to view only in profile and realizing what incredibly complex organisms they are. I’m spending a lot of time looking up, noticing deciduous details that I’d been oblivious to previously.

Our cabin in the woods

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, W.B. Yeats

Innisfree’s back porch is part of the forest. The two trees are both white oaks.

I’ve dreamed of living in the woods almost as long as I can remember. As a child, I’d spend countless hours in the jumble of thorn trees, crab apples and ragweed we called “The Woods.”

A year or three ago I stumbled across a 1943 book titled “Your Cabin in the Woods,” and while Conrad Meinecke’s sweet ode to simple living struck a chord deep within me, I wasn’t foolish enough to think I could build a cabin. It takes everything I have to hang a picture.

So when a cabin and cottage on 16 acres just outside Athens came available, it definitely caught my eye. Lara and I took a look and talked. A lot. The property is eclectic. The cabin is beautiful, featuring a wood stove, a magnificent fireplace and a south-facing porch that makes it feel as if you’re sitting in the forest. But overall, it’s small, with only one loft bedroom and two baths. The cottage, which has two beds and one bath, we targeted as a potential rental, and to be honest, I was fairly dismissive of it early on. After walking through the beautiful assemblage of wood that is the cabin, the cottage felt, well, pedestrian.

Looking up into the emerging leaves of white oaks from the deck at Innisfree.

In the end, we decided to purchase the property, rent the cottage and use the cabin as our home in the woods. Things became confusing quickly so we decided to name each structure. Our place in Athens, which has become Lara’s primary nest, is now known as Maude’s Place, after Hal Ashby’s quirky, iconic May-December romance movie, Harold & Maude. We’re calling the cabin Innisfree, after a W.B. Yeats poem that has spoken to me since the first time I encountered it as an undergrad more than 30 years ago. And the cottage will be known as Dove Cottage, after the place William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, called home in England’s Lake District. Several of the Romantic poet’s greatest works were created there.

AAA loads up my truck for a trip to Athens Auto Repair.

The close on the property was uneventful, as such things go, but it took an odd twist as I left the bank and set off to Innisfree afterward. My Nissan Titan started rumbling strangely as I rolled down U.S. 33, and as I turned to exit onto 690 it was clear something was massively wrong. Perhaps my first, best clue was the large metal cylinder my truck spit up when it finally gave up the ghost. I was praying that wasn’t the transmission, though I had no idea what one would look like and whether it could fall off the bottom of a truck like this. The AAA driver who came to tow me in to Athens Auto Repair set me straight. That cylinder was my drive shaft. Fortunately, the guys at Athens Auto are awesome and honest. It cost only about 100 bucks to replace the U-joint and get my truck back on the road.

The past several days have been a blur of trips from Innisfree into Athens as we furnish and equip the cottage. One of the things that really attracted me to this property is its proximity to Athens and Maude’s Place. I can go from being in the woods to civilization (or as close as Athens gets to civilization) in 15 minutes. Some of the other places in the woods I was looking at were 30 or more minutes from Athens. That can become a real time suck, not to mention the cost of feeding my truck.

Lara and I spent the weekend here imposing order, and we got our first tastes of how magical this place is.

Sydney and Sunny hang out on the deck at Innisfree.

On Saturday night, we sat on the porch sipping mezcal during a drenching spring rainstorm. The forest surrounded us while Sunny the Sweet Pyrenees snoozed nearby and Sydney the Angry Cockatoo settled in to sleep in his cage beside us.

Sunny takes over the bed after our first night at Innisfree.

Of course, I insisted on sleeping here the first night we took possession, so Sunny and I set up a mattress on the floor and then sat outside to watch the forest slip into darkness. It wasn’t long before I saw the flickers of early fireflies and when I looked up, through the spreading limbs of white oaks that surround Innisfree, I could see the stars glimmering. through the newly emerged leaves.

Dove Cottage surrounded by daffodils.

Dove Cottage is really sweet. A friend came by on Friday to talk about building a deck at the entrance, and he was impressed, forcing me to reassess my view of Dove as an underachiever. At that point, my intent was to rent it as a regular monthly rental  but now we’re leaning toward an Air BnB setup that focuses on a spot where families and groups can gather. The driveway that descends from the ridge onto the property Y’s, with the left fork leading to Innisfree and the right to Dove. The two buildings are invisible to each other thanks to the woods and well-thought-out site design. There are a pair of lilacs beside Dove, a grove of poplars out back, a large grassy area where a tent or two could be pitched, and a fire pit. A riot of daffodils fills the front yard. And the grassy area beside Dove yields to a tongue of forest that rolls gently down into a hollow. There’s a massive white oak back there, the largest I’ve seen on the property so far, and I think with a little trail building it can be a truly magical space.

The nits? Well, the previous owner — who had lived here since 1974 — is a diminutive man. While the design of the cabin is incredible, there are several spaces where low clearance make me feel like an ocean freighter trying to negotiate a creek. I’ve smacked my head several times already and have learned not to wear baseball caps indoors (the bill of the cap hides overhead threats). I’m sure I’ll find more negatives as I go, but as I sit here on a Monday morning gushing about Innisfree, I’m confident those negatives will be minor.

And the biggest upside? I’m writing again, something I really haven’t done since returning from Costa Rica last fall.

Rest in peace, W.S. Merwin

I became hooked more than 30 years ago, the first time I encountered his poems in The Carrier of Ladders. It was beautiful, stunning, strange. Sad to hear Merwin has moved on. As for the rest of us, well …

We continue

by W S Merwin
For Galway Kinnell

The rust a little pile of western color lies
At the end of its travels
Our instrument no longer.

Those who believe
In death have their worship cut out for them.
As for myself we

An old
Scar of light our trumpet
Pilgrims with thorns
To the eye of the cold
Under flags made by the blind
In one fist

Their letter that vanishes
If the hand opens:
Charity come home

¡Vamanos Pens!

Right before departing Uvita …

(This is my last installment in El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary. I left sooner than planned due to family issues and realized I’d never posted this final entry. If you want to read El Gringo Feo from the beginning, start here.)

October 26, 2018 — Sadness at leaving. No howlers this morning. Even the agouti is scarce. But as I’m feeling sorry for myself, a blue morpho butterfly drifts past. I’ve seen them only 8 or 10 times in the 3 months I’ve been here. An omen? The skies are blue. Well, at least by Uvita rain-season standards, and I had an incredible pasta dinner at Gian and Sara’s last night, including time to play with Misha and her Kong toy. I was the human Kong.

There are tears in my eyes as I depart. Uvita has been good to me. I’ll be back. Thanks to Jeff and Lauri for trusting me to keep an eye on the place for the past three months.

Later, while killing time in the tourist shops at the airport, I spot a gorgeous blue morpho butterfly dried and mounted for display. It supposedly was “farm raised.” Whatever the fuck that means. I decide to pass. Having a dead one hanging on the wall just seems so weak compared to seeing a real one whirling through the wild.

While I’m standing in the passport control line at the airport in San Jose, I notice a guy in front of me is wearing a Penguins shirt.

¡Vamanos Pens! I yell.

He spins around and instantly starts talking about last night’s game. He’s going to a game on Tuesday night. I ask him where he’s going.

Columbus. Same as me.

Turns out he’s heading down to the infamous Athens Halloween party. He had a place in Chillicothe for a while but it wasn’t doing it for him so now he’s trying Costa Rica.

Small world indeed.

A blurry photo of the perpetual motion that is Misha
The bananas still weren’t ready when I left, but it was fun watching them emerge.
Gratuitous flower photo
Gratuitous flower photo

El día de los muertos

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Friday, October 26

“Only against death does man cry out in vain.”
— Malcolm Lowry

At this time of year, my mind wanders the streets of Urubamba in Peru’s Sacred Valley. I brush past the spirits of Incan warriors who roamed the area centuries ago until I come to a heavy wood door secured by an imposing padlock.

I enter after being granted access by Hernan, who grew up here. We come to a second door, which opens into a courtyard lush with corn, herbs, tomatoes and clucking poultry. But before we enter this domestic Eden, I look up and spot several human skulls perched on a shelf above the doorway. They are surrounded by fresh flowers, chicha corn beer and other tributes from the living to the dead.

I’m taken aback to learn these are Hernan’s ancestors. The skulls aren’t clay replicas. They’re the bony remains of real people. In return for the humble offerings surrounding them, they guard the home from threats physical and spiritual. Perhaps that’s why Lobo, the German shepherd padding along behind us, seems unperturbed by the presence of a strange Gringo. Hernan’s ancestors have the situation under control.

It’s disconcerting to be in such close proximity to the dead, to have them occupying the same space as the living. But as the writer George Saunders has said, the dead are always with us, “whispering lovingly or harshly” in our ears. “We all carry dead people around with us, and we carry the prospect of our own death around with us.”

We all navigate this confrontation with mortality in different ways. I take great comfort in the approach I’ve encountered during my travels in Latin America, where life and death aren’t segregated to separate spheres. T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, for it reminds those of us plodding through middle age that the passion Spring once provoked in our youth is far behind us, beyond our reach. Perhaps October, then, is the most bittersweet month. The Autumn days tick down toward Winter, and El Día de Los Muertos awaits us at the gateway to November. This holiday is much more than candy skulls and dancing skeletons. It’s a time to pause and reflect fondly on those who are with us only in memory and to remember that we inevitably will join them on the other side. There’s a tinge of sadness in this, but it’s also life-affirming and conjures a flood of wonderful memories.

Life lessons in a cemetery overlooking the Mon Valley

“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity. “
— Edvard Munch

I’ve been meditating on the Monongahela River valley during my time here in Costa Rica. I’m working on a book that’s steeped in the smoke and fire and cacophony of the steel mills that dotted the river. I remember drinking beer perched high on a hill overlooking the Homestead Works and Carrie Furnace back in the late ‘70s when I was a feckless teenager, marveling at the furious orange glow pulsing down below, never fully ceding the valley to night.

When I return to Pittsburgh, I always make time to stop at the Braddock Catholic Cemetery to visit my childhood buddy, Jimmy Shogun. Twenty-nine years ago we carried him there and lowered him into the ground. That was the first time death sucker punched me, beating back, at least momentarily, my cocksure belief that I was eternal.

Shog, as we affectionately called him, was my next-door neighbor growing up in Braddock Hills. We played street hockey together, fought each other, competed on rival Little League teams and attended the same college, Edinboro University. Shog always stood by me, even when I alienated many of my other childhood friends with a college-boy’s arrogance fueled by strange ideas, new musical tastes and non-Yinzer influences. “Benzy, you egghead!” he’d chide, shaking his head, grinning broadly and giving me a shove stiff enough to get my attention but not hard enough to knock me down. He was a big guy, Lunk Yargish, as one friend referred to him. There’s a massive hole in my life where Shog once stood. He died in October 1989, just a few months after I married Lara. I remember bawling like a bullied child as we carried his casket to that plot with a sublime view of the Mon, taking a modicum of consolation in the fact that Shog had met Lara when I brought her home that summer to introduce her to friends and family before our marriage. Shog and Lara hit it off immediately. I saw that as a benediction of sorts, his blessing of my marriage and my post-Pittsburgh life.

I think of Shog often. I have his picture within view of my favorite reading spot at our house in Athens. The approach of Dia de Los Muertos always conjures images of us launching Big Wheels off ramps and building shacks in the woods. The big guy lives on as long as I draw breath.

The dead are always with us. Sometimes, they send us postcards.

“His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
― James Joyce, ‘The Dead’

During my most recent visit to Mexico City, I met Alex Dorfsman, an artist who lived upstairs from the AirBnB Lara and I rented in the Condesa neighborhood. He invited us up to his apartment, where we sipped herbal tea and listened to classical music in his bright, uncluttered apartment lined with book shelves that sagged under the weight of myriad art and photography books. We talked about a wide range of topics, including how social media is having a chilling effect on letter writing and other more calculated forms of communication. Alex focused his curious, intense green eyes on me as he told me about his latest project, Correspondencia, which he was working on with a local yoga studio. Participants were encouraged to pick up one of his art cards, fill it out and send it to someone, anyone. He gave me five of them, which I promptly addressed and sent to friends back in the States.

I couldn’t help but think my friend Barb Page was looking down from the great Copy Desk in the sky, smiling as we had that conversation in Mexico City. Barb loved to travel, and she always detailed her adventures in a swarm of postcards that would arrive in clusters. The narrative flowed from card to card, and each was numbered so I could reassemble them in order to read the message. Sometimes it would take weeks to assemble the verbal puzzle, but it was always worth the effort. Our friendship was punctuated with postcards. They came from Europe. From James Buchanan’s homestead in Pennsylvania. From New York City. From Albuquerque. From thrift shops. It was always a delight to receive this stream of smart, encouraging, literate correspondence.

Barb ventured to the other side in 2011. I’ll never forget the winter evening when she called to tell me she was ready, that she was going to refuse to be connected to machines that kept her alive. She’d had a nasty fall, which resulted in a broken hip and a domino effect of health problems. Her eyesight was going. I was disembarking from a Metro Bus in Washington, D.C., and as I walked the four blocks to our rental house in the Brightwood neighborhood Barb broke the news to me. I wanted to argue, to protest, to insist that she reconsider. But I knew Barb. She didn’t do anything without a lot of thought. So instead I listened, tears streaming down my cheeks as I approached the house. As a young, cocky copy editor I learned a hell of a lot from her during the time we sat side-by-side at The Albuquerque Tribune, the greatest paper I ever had the honor of working for. Through the years, we never lost touch. Sometimes our communication was a tenuous trickle of postcards. Other times it was random gifts we sent each other. Best of all were the out-of-nowhere phone calls, where I filled her in on my latest life updates and received thoughtful advice and encouragement. She always seemed so filled with wonder and amusement at my antics. Her approval buoyed me like the praise of a parent.

The Tribune closed years ago, another death in the family. It lives on in the memories of those of us who thrived there, and so does Barb. I’m confident she’s sitting there at the copy desk, trying to get the hang of whatever new technology the afterlife has dropped in front of her and making some post-mortem reporter’s prose sparkle.

A Boogie Down Production

Heaven and Earth are heartless
treating creatures like straw dogs
— Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5

Few losses in my life were more heart-breaking that Lynn Rawlings’ premature death. She and Lara were best buddies in college, a friendship I had the privilege of piggybacking on during my Birmingham years. Everyone called her Boogie, a nickname she earned in college. I remember the pain in Lara’s voice when she called to tell me Lynn had died. I was in some soulless hotel room in Atlanta, suffering through another in an endless series of business trips. I cried all night, unable to come to grips with the news.

Some of my most outrageous times in the Deep South were punctuated by Boogie’s infectious laughter. We were together at Honey for the Bears, an after-hours dive bar in Montgomery, Alabama, when I talked a gun-totting idiot into stepping out in the parking lot to talk, where I slowly, gently convinced him to put the gun away. I plucked her out of the Alabama River when she overestimated her limited ability to swim on a crushingly hot day. And she was the maid of honor at our wedding. I’ve never been so sad as when I sat behind Boogie’s children at her funeral, wondering what would become of them in a world devoid of their mother’s love. But Boogie lives on. Her daughter is still a key part of our lives. She’s a police officer in Alabama and comes up to Ohio about once a year to visit us and remind us that her mother lives on in our memories.

Finding transcendence in a band of humans

I ain’t no Sylvia Plath
I ain’t gonna die never
— Phil Pollard, ‘Sylvia Plath’

I learned Phil Pollard had died when Lara and I were in to Mexico City to celebrate the Day of the Dead at San Gregorio Cemetery, surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexicans gathered around the graves of their loved ones to celebrate their lives. I’d been playing hide and seek with the dead since we landed in Mexico City. News of Phil’s death hit me hard.

I wouldn’t say I knew Phil. My relationship with him was like a pebble skipping across Knoxville’s night life. He was one of those defining personalities of our years there, keeping the beat for Sara Schwabe’s Yankee Jass Band and numerous other musical endeavors, including his eclectic, electrifying Band of Humans. He and Sara played our Christmas party on several occasions.

“We’re all having a little funeral in our souls right now, too,” Knoxville’s Matt Morelock wrote on his Facebook page after Phil died. “He’d reject the mourning and admonish us to celebrate and get off the damned computer and do somethin’ freaky! I think it’s our duty now. I’m going skinny dipping in broad daylight.”

Yes. Exactly. Mexico City was my skinny dipping in broad daylight. The flamboyant colors. The persistent DayGlo presence of the deceased. No time for a funereal remembrance of things past. This was a rave.

During a subsequent trip to Mexico City, I bumped into Phil again while watching the frenzied subsonic celebrations of Aztec drummers and dancers near the Zócalo. He lives on in every drum beat of every song I listen to.

Fallen Alpinians and other friends gone but not forgotten

With all darkness closin’ in
Will the light reveal your soul
Yes one sweet kiss on your clay cold lips
I’ll know sleep you’ll never know
Where do we go, where do we go
Where do we go from here
— UFO, ‘Rock Bottom’

A frightening number of my high school and college friends are no longer with us. I remember them fondly. I remember hanging out in the rocky parking lot of Alpine, a dilapidated ice rink in suburban Pittsburgh. Shog was there. And Bilson and Glenmo. Carmine roared through occasionally in his revved up Datsun 280Z. Micki Simko showed up more than a few times. A beautiful breeze that made those Pittsburgh summer nights shine. I learned so much in that place, at that time. Those of us who survive serve the memory of those who departed much too soon. They ring as true as the notes of a Michael Schenker guitar solo.

Canines I have known and loved and lost

King went a-howlin’ after a deer
Wasn’t scared of jumpin’
off the truck in high gear
King went a-sniffin’
and he would go
Was the best old hound dog
I ever did know
— Neil Young, ‘Old King’

Mitzie, the dog who brightened my childhood and never lived up to her alleged Britany spaniel pedigree but was my constant companion; PigPen the black lab/golden retriever cross who emerged from the dust in Algodones, New Mexico, and won his name on the way home while we listened to a bootleg tape of the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan howling the blues at the Filmore East; Crystal the cocker spaniel, daughter of Brandy, another dog I loved and lost during the Birmingham years; Fluffy, a poorly socialized chow cross, unpredictable, snappy, but fiercely loyal to me; Kesey, a tired old collie abandoned at a Tennessee park and rescued on the day Ken Kesey died; Ozzy, another dumped Tennessean who won our hearts and was stuck with the name of a bat-eating metal maniac he had nothing in common with; Gilligan, a black and tan coonhound found emaciated, frenetic, plagued with worms, craving a pack to join on the day Bob Denver died; Xena, the Newfoundland who lumbered into my life and never left, still roaming my dreams whenever water is the central theme; Mully, a frustrating adrift Maltese we took in when Boogie passed.

We continue

by W S Merwin
For Galway Kinnell

The rust a little pile of western color lies
At the end of its travels
Our instrument no longer.

Those who believe
In death have their worship cut out for them.
As for myself we

An old
Scar of light our trumpet
Pilgrims with thorns
To the eye of the cold
Under flags made by the blind
In one fist

Their letter that vanishes
If the hand opens:
Charity come home

And finally, a few words from the Grateful Dead. Perhaps now I understand the grateful part of their name …

There comes a redeemer
and he slowly too fades away
There follows a wagon behind him
that’s loaded with clay
And the seeds that were silent
all burst into bloom and decay
The night comes so quiet,
and it’s close on the heels of the day
— Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, ‘Eyes of the World’