October 08 2020 Edition
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By the Way
The powerwent out. The storm blew in, short and sudden. The maple outside the window was blowing like embers in a stiff wind. And then the light was gone.

So was the internet. I walked out onto the porch for the sunlight and looked out at the rain and added up. Without the steady flow of communication through my laptop, I couldn’t work. No immediate conversation with people 50 miles away down the county. No searches. No tools in virtual space. And in Covid, no way to borrow a connection, not in the Berkshires after 5.

The storm had just given me the evening off. I put on a jacket and walked out into the blowing, damp aftermath. The rain slowed quickly, and the afternoon was warm, and I could charge my phone while I drove. I turned on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer (I’d just borrowed it online from the library) and headed to Lanesborough.

Route 7 was closed. I was listening to the novel, and Hiram Walker was explaining his life as one of the Tasking folk, the enslaved people on a Virginia plantation. He was nine years old and his mother was taken away from him, sold away, forced away down the Natchez Trace to Kentucky or Tennessee. No one told him or talked to him. He knew he was alone. He walked up to the cabin of a woman who has lost all of her children and her husband and asked her silently to let him stay.

The actor reading aloud lifted his voice in a field holler, in a strong and intent tenor call and response, and it was beautiful. I almost didn’t see that the road I was driving was suddenly gone too, cordoned off and inaccessible. I swung right onto Route 2 (directly away from where I was headed) and then left onto the dirt road that will take you eventually up to Oblong and past Cricket Creek Farm. The storm had left traces and in one place wires down.

A shuffle of backroads and I was headed up another ridge — to Square Roots Farm, above Cheshire Lake. When I got there, among people coming and going to pick up their CSA shares, the place felt muddy and electric with the end of the season and the immediacy of the weather. They were passing the word about the state of the roads, and I walked back to my car feeling absurdly lucky, with a six-pound chicken in each hand.

It was full dark by the time I got home. I’d called for a pizza from Hot Tomatoes, and the small shop by the river felt warm. They were lending a neighbor a phone cord and a place to plug it in.

Up here the wind on the hillside sounds vast and gentle when the house is completely silent and the only light comes from two beeswax candles. I sat for awhile playing old contradance tunes from memory.

Hi Walker has a gift for memory and music. He can hear a tune and sing it, recall a voice or an image or a verse, and I think about his agility and the clear tone of his singing and the skill in learning by listening. I think of the pain and strength in his music, the anger, the feel for the earth, the beauty of it.

The melody line I’m feeling my way through is simple, just a way to listen in a quiet room. Minor tunes in a slow beat of three. The Butterfly. Star of the county Down. Innisheer. I first heard that Irish waltz in the fiddle jam at Mass MoCA, and I learned to play it in Maine from a wind player with an Irish flute. He would play a bar or two, and I would play it back, a phrase at a time.

Time was I could play waltzes and reels by ear for hours ... though most of them I would have followed slowly by ear from people who know hundreds of them familiarly without a page of music.

I looked into the candle flame and watched the wax bead and played runs in minor thirds and fifths. Professor Ernest Brown taught me years ago that spirituals will harmonize in fourths too, carrying the sounds of West African sales. I am playing an air called Da Slockit Light, Scots music (where my family came from if you look back far enough), and I feel keenly aware of all I have. Because when the power goes out, I am warm and fed and safe. — By the Way Berkshires


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