• Landscape and Narrative
from Crossing Open Ground
• Learning to See
from About This Life
from About This Life
• The American Geographies
from About This Life
• Prologue: Pond's Bay, Baffin Island
from Arctic Dreams
• The Naturalist
• The Entreaty of the Wiideema
from Field Notes
• Teal Creek
from Field Notes
•The Woman Who Had Shells
from Winter Count
• The Letters of Heaven
from Light Action in the Caribbean
from Winter Count
• The Mappist
from Light Action in the Caribbean
In the Magdalena Mountains east of Ordell, in country that’s been called the Bennett River country since the time of white people, an anchorite (as I would later come to understand the word) settled. His name was James Teal. He drove in when trillium were in full flower, April of 1954, in a green 1946 Dodge and stayed first for several weeks at the Courtyard Motel in Ordell before moving up onto the Bennett.
He brought no remarkable possessions. He walked with a slight limp, which my father thought might be from a war wound. He was tall, lean, his face vaguely Asiatic. I remember people noticed right away that he was not an intruder, and was easy to speak to. For a stranger who didn’t have a job, or a way of life that fit him anywhere, he drew remarkably little suspicion in Ordell. Days, he was out of town in his car—people saw him walking in and out of the woods at different places; evenings he spent around the motel. He ate supper at Dan and Ruella’s café or the Vincent Hotel. He didn’t go into the bars. He bought groceries, like everyone, at Clyde’s on Assiniboine—that’s long gone now—and bought rope and pipe and things at Cassidy’s Feed, which had a hardware section back then.
People like my father who always watched everything just a little said they saw less of him as summer went on. I don’t remember, really, seeing much of him myself. I was infatuated with Esther Matthews and I missed a lot then, I suppose. But by the end of summer, August, he was gone.
After that, from the winter of `54-`55 on, he lived up on the Bennett. He gave the Dodge over to Wilton Haskin, who owned the Courtyard—some say he traded the car for rent or tools or meals, but if he did it was Wilton who likely got the better end of the deal. Wilton drove the car until he died in the fall of 1975. Then his son Clarence drove it another ten years.
Teal lived in two places I knew of on tributaries off the Bennett. One was at Cougar Creek and the other was on Lesley Creek, though for some reason then we called it White Dog Creek and now, like myself, some people call it Teal Creek.
Teal understood very well how to get on alone up there. He found spots where hot springs surfaced near south-facing benches, where he had light enough for a garden—which meant he looked the country over more closely than anyone I ever knew, or heard of. I was only inside the second cabin he built, but the first one must have been much like it, tight and simple. He broke and moved a lot of rock at the second place, a terrible amount of work, really, to make a good foundation for a one-room cabin. And he built a flume there at the second place, a wood chute to carry the flow of water from the hot spring through at floor level. He packed a woodstove in and had creek water, and he built a porch big enough to cover some of his firewood and a daybed.
I was thirteen the summer he moved up on Cougar Creek. I didn’t go up that way to hunt or wander or fool around. No one did. At the time all the country around there was so open, so empty of people, no one much kept him in mind. He wasn’t any trespasser. It was all federal land. We would see him in town once or twice, early in the spring or late in summer. He’d work a few weeks for Wilton, buy staples at Clyde’s, and then hitch back out to Bennett River. From the highway he’d walk up Cougar Creek to his place or, later, the four miles up White Dog Creek.
Those times he’d hitch back out of town, once I got my license, I’d think about offering him a ride. He was the most beguiling person to me, beckoning, like the first pungent smell of cottonwood buds. He seemed as independent and benign as the moon. But I was shy and my father disapproved of that kind of curiosity.
I went away to college in `59. Summers I worked with my father, a heavy-equipment contractor. In the summer after my junior year we were building logging roads back up from the Bennett. One night, halfway home, I missed my wallet and turned the truck around, certain it had fallen out at the work site. I found it on the ground alongside the grader I was driving. By then it was after seven, but the sky was still bright, and I got to thinking about James Teal. Without knowing why, without really looking at what I was doing, I pulled off the road at Lesley Creek bridge and sat there. I wanted to see his place. I wanted to talk with him. Where did he come from? What sort of things did he work at? Did he have a family somewhere? I wondered if he was purely white, but I wouldn’t admit to the rank curiosity, the willingness to invade his privacy. I’d never had a conversation with the man. I had no reason at all to be calling.
Still, that evening I went up the creek. Dusk was long enough to see by for a few hours and I carried a flashlight to come back. I walked along a deer trail, just a few yards into the trees, a narrow path cushioned with moss and fir needles. No stranger would guess a man occasionally passed there.
It was dark when I finally descried the cabin. I saw its angles silhouetted in trees against the sky. Teal was standing on the porch, looking into the woods, but not toward me. In hearth or candle light I saw he wore a white T-shirt tucked in his trousers and that he was barefoot. I squatted down on the trail. Two Swainson’s thrushes were calling, back and forth. After a while they were quiet and Teal went in. I heard the door close, the metal latch fall.
I felt foolish and at the same time a little frightened. I’d come all this way, then said nothing, and had hidden from the man. I couldn’t understand why I was scared, but I got so dizzy I had to sit. I felt myself in a kind of sinkhole in the darkness. I knew if I walked up to the cabin and spoke to him I’d be all right. But I turned back on the deer trail. My skin prickled. I ran fast, imagining feral dogs chasing me down. I tangled in limbs and blackberry vines. All the way out to the road I felt an edge of panic.
At the truck I calmed myself. It wasn’t Teal that had frightened me. It wasn’t the dark, either. What scared me was the thought that I might have injured him. I knew right them what it meant to trespass.
Late in the summer of 1967, I moved back to Ordell and went to work full-time for my father. I had married a woman named Julie Quiros from Stuart River. I’d finished four years in the army, none of it, I’ve always been grateful, in Vietnam, and we’d had a daughter, Blair. My mother’s younger brother, despondent, involved with another woman, had shot himself and his wife, and their three children, all girls, had come to live with my parents. Clyde Brennan had closed his store and another market had opened up.
Teal, like the first wildly colored harlequin duck I ever saw, had been somewhere at the edge of my thoughts all that time, ever since that night. When I got home I asked my father if he’d seen him recently. He said yes, Teal had been in town that August, had worked a little for Wilton, the same as always, then he’d gone back out to his place—and certainly, whether it was federal land or not, it was his place by now.
What could he believe in? I wondered. What allowed him to be comfortable out there from one year to the next? Whatever his beliefs were, he didn’t bother anybody with them. Whenever he came to town he got on easily with people. I remember even a few times he played softball with us, laughing as much as anyone when he dropped easy pop flies or struck out. Did he keep a tidy shelf of books up there? And which books would those be? Did he reel and crouch in the moon’s light?
Though I’d never done so as a boy, I knew there were spots along the Bennett good to swim in, and on an Indian summer day in September of `67 I took Julie and Blair up to a place past Teal Creek. They swam. I couldn’t keep my attention on them. I felt my unseemly curiosity, the cowardice and insistence of it, and I knew Julie was aware that something was running in my mind.
I looked over at her, at the soft, veined line of her neck, where it rose from her shoulders.
“You know that fellow Teal?” I asked.
“I don’t know, really.” After a while I said, “When I was fourteen, a man named Ephraim Lincoln told all of us a story about Teal, one morning at Clyde’s during hunting season. He said he found where Teal had walked barefoot in the snow and seen where he’d knelt down for a long time by a little waterfall, then lay out full, naked. I shook my head and laughed right along with the older men, but everyone knew that the scorn was wrong, misdirected. It was Ephraim who was lewd, a corrupt individual.
“Ever since then, I’ve known I wanted to protect Teal. And that I should—that I’m meant to—receive something from him. I don’t know what it is.”
Julie rested her fingers on my arm.
That fall instead of going up Enid River to look for deer with a friend I went alone up the Bennett. I planned to walk in along Cougar Creek and just roam around. If I saw Teal’s first cabin, well, fine. I’d look it over. I knew I wouldn’t shoot any deer up there, no matter. It would have been wrong, mixing those things.
I got about a mile up Cougar Creek and then knew I shouldn’t be in there. I turned back, feeling a familiar dread and misgiving. Then, a short way down the trail, I was fine. It occurred to me that maybe Teal was dealing with menace, that out here he went chin to chin with an evil I could not imagine. The knowledge that he might do this shamed me. Where was my own courage, my own resolution?
That winter I began reading to Blair at night. We started off with fairy tales, but the most interesting stories to us after a while were Indian stories, ones collected by George Bird Grinnell and James Willard Schultz from Cheyenne and Blackfoot and Gros Ventre people not so far away, over in Montana and Wyoming. At first I thought Blair would be bored. The stories were mostly about young men traveling, or about the creation of the world. But she liked them. The stories were simple, without irony. They had a disarming morality to them that I enjoyed experiencing with her. When a story ended, Julie would hug us together and say, “And that’s how the world really is. It’s a true story.” Later, when they’d gone to bed, I’d sit with some of the books and wonder about the Creation, and what it was, really, that kept the world from flying apart.
The year after I returned to Ordell my father had a heart attack and asked me to take over the business. Our lawyer drew up the papers and it was all done in a few days. My father had fifteen men working for him. I wasn’t eager for the responsibility.
The following spring I decided to go visit Teal. One morning I just got in the truck and drove up the Bennett. If he asked me why I’d come I was going to say I didn’t know. I felt bound to, I’d say. I wasn’t going to make something up.
It was raining when I left the house and pouring by the time I got to Teal Creek. I followed the deer trail all the way in to the cabin. From a clearing in front of the porch, another trail went between trees over a rise and out onto a treeless bench. I saw Teal standing out there in the downpour, beyond the green rows of a new garden. He was bent far over before the flat gray sky in what appeared to be an attitude of prayer or adoration, his arms at his sides. The rain had plastered his shirt to his back and his short black hair glistened. He did not move at all while I stood there, fifteen or twenty minutes. And in that time I saw what it was I had wanted to see all those years in James Teal. The complete stillness, a silence such as I had never heard out of another living thing, an unbroken grace. He was wound up in the world, neat and firm as a camas bulb in the ground and spread out over it like three days of weather. The wind beat down on James Teal. Beyond him clouds snagged in the fir trees. The short growth in his garden between us was fresh and bright. When I turned to leave, the cabin looked lean, compact as a hunting heron.
That night when I lay with Julie I described the scene and told her the details, the history of my long desire to know James Teal, a desire that seemed, in that moment, to have abated. Two years later, on a balmy Saturday afternoon in May 1971, I again felt compelled to visit him, as though he had called to me from a dream. I found him slumped in a chair at an outside table, the remains of his lunch before him. Sparrows flew up from crumbs on the white porcelain plate. He had been dead only a few hours, I guessed.
I moved him over to the porch floor, laid him out there with his arms over his chest, and went inside to look for a blanket. I never before saw a room so obviously lived in, so hand and foot worn, so spare as that one. Beside the bed was a table and stool. The iron stove, a storage box, a single shelf with pans and dishes and some books. At one of the two windows was a sort of kneeler, which I later learned was called prie-dieu.
I covered James Teal’s body with a yellow blanket from his cot and walked out to the road. I sat there in the truck with the door propped open for a long time, reluctant to start the tasks that would bring the sheriff and the coroner and perhaps others up Teal Creek. We were reading a story just then, Julie and Blair and I, about how First Person was going to create bright, metallic dragonflies, cutthroat trout, short-eared owls, elk, and the other animals. I had not looked ahead as sometimes I do, but I imagined reading that evening about animals filling up the world. I imagined it would make us feel fine and grateful. Reading it aloud would make us feel as if nothing would go wrong.
Barry Holstun Lopez. All Rights Reserved.