A Slice of Heaven

There’s a dream that’s been expanding exponentially in my head these days. A dream of my own little piece of heaven.

Twenty-nine years ago I worked to buy beer and impress the girls with a nice car and stereo system; twenty years ago I was just trying my damnedest to scrape by and make ends meet; ten years ago, I bragged on this very page that all I cared about was living life to the fullest, swearing not to, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” as Thoreau said.

Things change.

Now I dream of a little piece of heaven; a sliver of land, a bit of structure to keep the rain off and the wind out, and other people at the margin of my ever-expanding personal bubble.

Perhaps I’m immersed in that over-40 experience of becoming acutely aware of my own mortality. Maybe I am simply growing less and less content with the life I’ve lived thus far.

Maybe, I just need a little slice of heaven.

I can see it in my head, though its characteristics twist and churn and its contents rattle and jumble. But it is a sweet tract of land, no less than twenty acres, I think. It is enough to keep the neighbors close…but not too close. It may be larger.

On this good piece of earth will be mature hardwoods and perhaps some softwoods, thick enough to keep the undergrowth down so that I can walk among them in my old age and not trip on saplings, vines and tangled grasses. Sunlight, in the morning and late evening, will dapple through that woods like drops of flame, and as I stroll through it with my ash walking stick the face of the sun will flash into my eyes through the canopy and make me blink and squint. What growth there is on the forest floor will be tender, perhaps emblazoned with wildflowers, berries and ripened nuts.

There will be grassland, too, a little prairie area where I can be in the wide open when I wish. I can walk the margin, that ancient merging between forest and openness, keeping one shoulder to the trees and the other to the rustling, swaying grasses. From the prairie, I hope there will be a view of mountains, studded with more trees, their brows softened by time and the drift of clouds.

Somewhere on this little slice of heaven will be a creek, of course, for I can never live without water nearby. It doesn’t have to be a large creek, bigger than I can easily step across but small enough to be companionable. A quiet conversation friend, a fellow antiquarian in my walk and in my broodings when the little melancholies arrive as they must, joyous in the little victories that always seem to offset the sorrows.

The little creek will have green, moss-covered stones in it, crystal water leaping over them. It will have rippled, nervous water scarcely ankle deep as it rushes over round gravel and stone; it simply must have deep, mysterious holes to ponder as well, something to probe the depths of, because no creek, no stream, no river should ever be known completely.

Somewhere on this plot of paradise will be a little wooden house, not too old, not too new and not too big. Comfy enough for the two of us and a good dog, with a covered porch that overlooks the same mountains as the prairie undulating between us. I’d like to have a chimney, too, and a cottage garden and a vegetable plot. There should be rocking chairs on the porch, a little table to hold coffee cups or iced tea or just for Suzie and I to hold hands over; my ash walking stick should rest in the corner of the rail until I return for it. An old yellow dog should be napping on the same porch when not exploring the woods and prairie with me, sniffing at rabbit trails.

I could fish in the little creek, if I choose to, or shoot quail in the field. But sensibly, with stewardship. Only a fool shoots all the hens in a covey or takes home all the fish he catches in a small stream; like the people of Easter Island, who at some point made the horrifying, conscious decision to cut down the very last tree in the entire world as they knew it, you can only protect your little slice of heaven by being frugal.

In the fall, the leaves and grasses turn the hue of dragonfire, and in the twilight of my life glow brilliantly. When spring is born, both will turn tender green, the color of renewal.

There should be stone there, in the creek and in the forest and in the prairie, because stones are the heart of the earth, its bones and its brawn. They should be smooth and weathered, rounded by wind and rain. The sky should be blue when it is not gray and heavy with rain, the horizon clear and crisp when not feeling contemplative in mist.

At the first touch of winter, light snows will shroud the creek banks, gather on tree branches and drip in the midday sun from the rooflines. We may stay to let winter unfold over us, or we may go back to the little house on the Rez again to await the return of spring, because my roots are always there.

Inside the little cottage, there will be a few old double-barrel shotguns, fly rods and shelf after shelf of my best friends: Thomas McGuane, Henry David Thoreau, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Norman Maclean, Havilah Babcock, Gene Hill, Ernest Hemingway and, of course, Harry Middleton. They are the most patient of friends, awaiting me without complaint until some cold November evening when I slide them from their nooks and crannies to let them tell me their stories again in the warmth of the chimney fire.

Photographs of family will watch over me from the mantle, tables and walls: Grandparents, parents, ancestors I never knew, good dogs I have had the joy of knowing, a Shetland pony named Nancy and a quarter horse named Kate. I myself will smile from a fading moment in time, holding a rainbow trout in both hands, a river rushing, coursing around my knees. Suzie and I will look down on ourselves, our souls captured in brief microseconds by the sudden snap of a shutter, as the frames hold the chapters of our aging together as proof we were ever here on this wonderful old earth at all. In the antithesis of Dorian Gray’s famous portrait, they will fade with the spark of life within me and the emulsion will go blank as I go to meet my ancestors.

And that’s the way I’d like to go: Leave no trace behind. Nothing that will hint that I was ever here, except maybe these words, the labor of my spirit and the offspring of my heart. I don’t want to burden the earth with my body, but if I am to be buried, I want to it to be on my own terms, in the place of my choosing, not some fifth or tenth or twenty-fourth tenant in a row of headstones covering acres of what used to be prairie.

A little slice of heaven. I don’t know if I’ll ever find it, know it’s hills and trees and grass and birds and fish. I don’t mind living like a pauper – or like Thoreau – to be there, to immerse myself in it. Whatever it takes. This crippled, flailing thing we call civilization, culture, society, what have you…I’ll leave it behind as gladly as a plague.

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