The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge


By Craig Estes © 1996

Issue: Summer, 1996

The old springhouse down in the woods from where I grew up wasn't on our property. And the way it looked last time I visited it, I'm not sure if it's even there anymore. A loss to time, elements, neglect. It had collected too many leaves, the skeletons of seasons passed, turned to dirt, collecting moisture, creating weight. The small roof had started to buckle between the posts, the beginnings of collapsing, and a small oak had sprouted in the crease. It had a couple seasons growth by the time I saw it, almost two feet tall, no doubt a forgotten meal for a small neighborhood squirrel.

I blew steam even though it wasn't that cold. The air was heavy, moist, sweet, woods mulching into life. Distant trees were obscured by the heaviness, the farthest ones blending into a wall of gray.

Gnats gathered at the edge of the darkness the roof made, creating haphazard patterns in the air, and I instinctively squinted to keep them from my eyes. I squatted and gazed under the roof.

Tiny webs appeared to hold the far corner together as they pulled at the blackened boards, collecting small insects, dust, water droplets, life. Dirt-daubers and wasps had made good on the opportunity of the overhead protection. Taking a chance for a better chance at life. But like the roof itself, the nests were in bad repair.

The water in small depression created the illusion that the gravel bottom was only six inches below the surface. The stick I used showed almost two feet. Such clarity, such deception.

I turned a large rock with the stick, remembering my childhood crawfish experiences, how I learned you had to put the jar behind them if you wanted to catch one. And sure enough, there was a small one, mud colored, with one claw almost as large as the rest of its body, backing out of the dirt cloud that was slowly dissipating. It paused a moment, realizing it had been uncovered, then backed its way under the exposed roots of the far bank.

I thought of springs I had tasted before, of springhouses I had visited. How the water had a certain body to it, a thickness almost, a taste of absolute nothingness, yet something. I cupped one hand and collected a tiny bit of the coolness, small drops escaped through my fingers, finding their origin, water slapping water, creating ripples. And with my hand being a poor vessel, the remainder soon escaped as well.

Someone had gone through a lot of trouble, I realized, for this small oozing bit of water. I guess the shelter made that obvious. It had been given protection. Protection for something I take for granted, for something that sustains life itself. Protection that must be maintained, kept strong, to be given life so that it might protect life. There was a reverence there, a calming quiet, a sense of presence.

I stood and surveyed the roof, the heaviness of the leaves, the buckled boards, pausing to allow my legs to recover. I studied the pool, the gravel bottom, the blackened rotting slab lumber of the roof, its cobwebs. I tried to imagine another time, another place, where all this had been a necessity. It was difficult.

I had decided to go, to climb the hill back to the house, but a familiar shape kept me from it. Hanging on a thin nail on the post just above me was a long handled dipper. The handle was thin and brittle looking, rough, appearing to be nothing but rust. The bottom even sported light through what appeared to be tiny pin holes. I resisted the urge to lift it off the nail, to somehow reduce it to something I had to turn over in my hands, to possess. Yes, it was enough that it was just there, and had been there all these years, waiting. Waiting patiently for the next thirsty soul. It was then I realized I had marveled at the craft of the protection and the spring itself, but had failed miserably to see the point. The point of having a vessel, a dipper, for the collection of water. A vessel, to help quench a thirsty soul, to help with the sustaining of life.

And now years later, I keep meaning to go back, back down the hill, back to visit. But I never seem to get the chance, never seem to take the time.

Might be just as well. Tiny webs can only hold corners together for so long. And the weight of a growing oak can become too great for a buckling roof. Yes, it might be best I remember as I last saw it. For several moments some years ago, it had given to me in spirit, what it had given to others so many years before, life.