Her family owns a woods, and like a girl in a fairytale, she disappears between the trees. Leaves murmur above her. Sun dapples her face. Brittle twigs snap beneath her feet.
She is in her mid-twenties, tall and fine-boned and long. Her eyes are piercing. They have a touch of skepticism in the corners. She has a sharp tongue, and a crippling insecurity. She is oblivious to her own strength.
She perches on a ridge above the valley, and takes out a pencil and paper.
As she sits, the breeze plays with her hair, long, silky, chocolate. Her hand smooths it behind her ear. She is distracted.
She draws the broken body of a songbird.
She has found a beauty in its corpse, nestled gently in a bed of leaves. The purity of the idea excites her. No one will buy this sketch. Rather, she does it for the love of form, love of birds, love of art.
She has had no formal training. She never will. Her training will come from these woods. She will wander here, and watch. After all, she is from a small town. She is poor, and a woman. She knows the odds are against a career.
As the pencil lead scratches the paper surface – the vision cuts off, like a dusty old movie clattered to a stop.
Three decades later, all that’s left is the land and the sketch. And maybe, somewhere in the dirt, a tiny chickadee skeleton.
I’ve walked the ridge a few times since she died.
The timeline is disorienting:
Thirty years since she sat and studied here.
Twenty since she and I stood for my grandfather’s family photos. I remember fidgeting in the blinding sunlight as a little girl, her warm gentle motherly hand on my shoulder.
Six months since she came here as a middle-aged woman. She wanted to be with family and on this land as she battled cancer.
She didn’t live to see this summer.
And the coda felt too cruel to be real. A few months later, her mother – my grandmother – walked out the farmhouse door and died, unexpectedly and instantaneously, of a literal broken heart. Legally, the land became her heirs’ before her body hit the ground. So now the survivors, having been kicked and tossed and shocked about, look at each other. And we wonder: what the hell?
We stand on the ridge by the house and look out into the sunset. Trees have grown. Paths have disappeared. Shingles have slid off the barn roof.
The land has become an eighty acre secret garden.
And yet, despite the neglect… As I wander, I can understand how this land shaped my mother, and I can understand how it shaped her art. Which is to say: the way she saw the world. Its future now is a tangle of possibilities. I feel a sense of protectiveness that I’m not sure yet how to express. So much could be done here, but I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I had other plans.
It took living on the farm with her for those six weeks to understand how volatile a Wisconsin woods can be. Now I’m both in awe and afraid. In January, icy black tree skeletons are the only thing to suggest life. Dried grass corpses shiver, rattle in the wind. After my mother’s diagnosis, I walked the valley of the shadow, and the wind burned my face.
But by July, the ravines have been overrun with yellow, green, and blue: waving, pulsing, shimmering, buzzing, glowing with heat and white-hot energy. Wildflowers burst defiantly into the sky, jack-in-the-boxing up from the dirt and waving up to the clouds. We have arrived on some verdant Venus.
It is in the dormancy that summer burns, unseen, beneath our feet.
Justin Vernon gave an interview to the Guardian in July 2015. In it, he said about western Wisconsin:
“Elevations and rolling hills and lakes. But it is wild. In the winter it’s cold, vastly white and colourless. Even the water is slate. But its transformation is what has drawn me to the place too: there’s an explosion of energy – there’s no other way to say it. It gets so lush. And it gets so lush so quickly.”
I find myself imagining circumstances in which I might see her again.
I keep thinking of encountering her in those woods. After all, there is an old archetype of forests being a place where magic happens. I imagine God somehow miscalculating. Bringing me there. Her here. It seems an easy mix-up to make. I am half her, after all. Our souls are similar. We’re standing on the same ridge above the ravine. If I look to the side, you might be disoriented at the similarity of our profiles. And isn’t thirty years half a heartbeat in the grand scheme of things?
So it doesn’t seem impossible to be walking one day and come upon her, sketching the delicate dead chickadee.
“I’m here,” I’ll decide to say, voice choking in my throat.
And she’ll look up, startled. I like to think she’ll recognize me. (But depending on the way time flips, maybe not.) (I must remind myself: She was a single woman for more years than she was a mother…)
There would be so many things to tell her. Even more things I’d want to ask.
But this weekend in July, I’d say: There’s a gathering of twenty thousand people two miles from the farm. Musicians from all around the world are coming to a field down the road, and they’re singing. The sound of their voice is echoing in the valley. There are musicians and artists, and they’re all meeting there, and they’re under the heat and the sun and the cottonwoods, and they’re saying it’s one of the most beautiful weekends of their lives. It wasn’t just you thinking it. This really is a special place.
I don’t know what she’d think. I can imagine her looking to the north, against the wind, and wondering.
In the middle of her battle, in early February, she bought me a ticket to the inaugural 2015 Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival, co-curated by Eau-Claire-based producer and musician Justin Vernon. It was scheduled for the weekend of July 17 and 18 in a field two miles from the family farm. The ticket was the last gift she gave me.
She only bought me one. Ostensibly, we wanted to make sure she felt well enough to go before we invested in a second.
But the real unspoken insinuation was that she wouldn’t live that long.
“Eaux Claires. That’s a thing. That’s an actual thing now,” Justin Vernon said during his set with Bon Iver on July 18th.