By Jessie Jade Wright
My papa used to tell me, “Go sit on a stump, and think about what you did.”
The stump would be next to a downed Ponderosa pine in middle of the mixed conifer forest at 2,700 feet in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.
I’d watch the sunlight dapple through the canopy onto the dry forest floor. Quietness surrounded me, but my mind was chattering away with lots of exciting ideas. Nevertheless, I had to sit on that stump, and think.
I endured my papa’s lifestyle choice (while my mom had wisely chosen a different path, so we’d visit our papa on weekends and holidays). I am sure that no other girl in my class could siphon gas, build a fire under an outdoor hot water tank, walk for miles through the forest without getting lost, haul water in white five-gallon buckets, peel the pitchy bark off logs, ride a donkey and simply endure.
In the art of living off-the-grid, I mastered the ability to appreciate creative moments. I spent countless hours crafting some toy out of natural objects and random pieces of junk in the wildness of the Sierra Nevada’s.
Now, as a grown woman, I laugh out loud whenever I come across the Zen quote, “Carry water and chop wood,” because those were essential parts of my childhood.
The only pictures that exist of my wanderings on the hillside as a child are in my mind’s eye, as my papa never preserved our daily ways with the still life of a camera. I recall those wandering days without the instant gratification that photos give us these days.
I was left to my own devices, and that was exactly what my papa had in mind as he tried to help raise us in that in-between era when mass digital media began to deeply infiltrate American homes. I saw this as an obstacle to being a normal kid, but the roadblock was more than just the lack of real television.
The roadblock came in the form of a hillside up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California. Most people would not see the wilderness as block, but I had no choice but to endure the “old ways” of connecting with nature that so many are trying to emulate these days. Challenging my papa’s lifestyle was not open to discussion. I learned to accept.
I am not sure which of those mind photos stored in my mental computer bank would give the clearest depiction of this “old way,” but maybe the fuzzier pictures would be better.
I see the smoky image of a white coffee cup, probably the cool porcelain of a Corning Ware cup, that was stained brown from repeated refills of coffee, hear the fuzz of the public radio more than likely the voice of Bob Edwards or Daniel Shore explaining something about conflicts in Guatemala, or how CFCs are shrinking the ozone layers. I can see the swirl of smoke collecting at the top of the ceiling. I almost taste the acidic flavor of nicotine. That’s the inside photo.
The outside photo shows Ponderosa pines towering over the underbrush of Manzanita bushes, and the kit-kit-dizzee that rubs against the ankles leaving such a pungent smell of the foothills.
I flip through these fuzzy photo memories. I see myself hauling water in white five-gallon buckets from his water catchment system for the donkey and dogs.
Another photo shows the junk piles being overgrown by green mountain misery and littered with crisp yellow pine needles. There was an order to this madness of discarded, but still usable equipment. This stuff was as central to my childhood as the very wildness of nature that surrounded my papa’s quarter acre of bachelor trash strewn within and around his place.
I am trying to remember exactly what had given my papa the reason for sending me to the stump. Did I ask too many questions? Probably. Or did I pull my little sister’s hair? Maybe. I remember now.
I almost tricked my papa into giving up chewing tobacco.
Sitting on a stump, I had a good view of his compost pile, in particular, the mound of coffee grounds, which got me into trouble in the first place.
When a parent leaves a child or children with a large assortment of tools, odd parts, and lack of television, then the child often finds unique ways to use their time. I certainly did.
Papa would often spend hot summer afternoons in the shelter of his place hunched over his portable television (he did have one, but we couldn’t watch it). He’d sip his cold black coffee watching a baseball game while rolling a cigarette by hand.
Occasionally he would take his Copenhagen container off the counter and pack it against his other hand. He’d pull out a chunk of it, put it in his mouth, and continue watching the game. Being the little people on the hillside, my siblings and I were often the gofers for my papa. We were ordered to fetch something out of his car at times, or water the animals.
On this day, Papa had forgotten his Copenhagen in the car, and sent me off to get the container. Suddenly the idea sprung into my mind as I searched through the piles of junk mail on the front seat for the tobacco can. I grabbed the half-filled container, and an empty one out of his blue Mercury station wagon. On the way back to him, I passed by the mound of coffee grounds.
I stopped for a moment to put some of the moist coffee grounds into the empty container, and added a little bit of red clay dirt, too. I put the top back on, and left the “good” tobacco container by the compost pile.
I handed him the container with a smirk on my face, and returned outside to play.
A few seconds later, I heard him holler “Jessica Susan Wright” and then a great big laugh. He got up and came outside laughing at me. I think he appreciated my humor, mostly because he had figured out my trick before putting coffee grounds in his mouth.
Yet I still had to go sit on a stump, and think about what I did.