The Bull Snake

Sad little girl.

Young children scare easily–a tough tone, a sharp reprimand, an exasperated glance, a peeved scowl will do it. Little signs of rejection–you don’t have to hit young children to hurt them–cut very deeply. – James L. Hymes, Jr.

Sunday afternoon Miss Louisa, who lives at the end of our road, came to visit my mother along with Miss Georgina, who lives further down the road. In the South, children call older women “Miss” along with their first name, but Miss Georgina really is a miss as she has never been married. She lives down a dusty road near Miss Louisa in a little four room house with her bachelor brother, Mr. Hershel. She talks a lot and my mother’s says it’s because she doesn’t have anyone to talk to but her brother, and he never says anything, so she saves up all her talking until she visits us.

Miss Louisa has brought us a mess of butterbeans from her garden and we all sit on the back porch in the shade and shell the beans into pans I have fetched from the kitchen. I love to listen to the older women talk as they discuss happenings in the community like Miss Johnson’s new hat, which they think isn’t a serious church hat. I like it best when they talk about funny things that happened in the past and when I hear Miss Georgina say, “Remember when…?” I perk my ears up because I know it is going to be something worth listening to.  One story reminds them of another and soon they are laughing so hard tears are streaming down their faces. It makes me feel safe when they are all laughing because the lines of sadness I see on my mother’s face are erased and she looks young and happy. Even the flies that light on my arms seem to want to be sociable rather than annoying so I let them tiptoe around until I can’t stand the ticklish feeling anymore and give my arm a shake to shoo them away for a few seconds.

Sometimes they talk in a code that grown-ups seem to have. Miss Louisa asks my mother, “How are things with James?” James is my father’s name so I listen intently to hear how things are with him. My mother looks down at me, gives her head a little shake and says, “Oh, he’s fine.” The lines around her mouth are visible again and her earlier lightheartedness is gone. Miss Louisa nods her head and Miss Georgina mumbles, “Um, um, um,” under her breath. They seem to know something I don’t and although I pretend I am not listening, hoping they will say more, the air around us seems heavy with unsaid words. I wonder if they can talk in their heads to each other and it’s something little kids can’t do yet.

We finish the beans and my green-stained thumb has a blister on it from popping the fat butterbeans open then sliding my thumb down the pods to dislodge the brown and white speckled beans into my galvanized metal pail. Mother puts the shelled beans into one big pan while Miss Louisa combines the empty pods into one and we carry all the pans back into the kitchen. Mother puts a clean dishrag over the top of the shelled beans and puts them in the refrigerator. Later she will blanch them, divide them into bags and stack them into the freezer for future meals.

The women sit down at the kitchen table and have a glass of iced tea. I hate tea so I have some buttermilk instead with the slices of pound cake my mother has cut up. It is hot and muggy in the house and mother suggests we go up into the woods behind our house to look for blackberries. We each grab one of the pans that we used for shelling the beans and set off up the grassy road that runs from the side of the house through the woods and ends in a big field of tall grass that is studded with blackberry thickets.

We walk along the old two-track road, a remnant from farming days when it was used to transport crops by horse and wagon. Now it is overrun by tufts of grass and stray weeds with ruts here and there where small rocks peep though the soil, washed naked by rain.  Miss Georgina leads the way with mother and Miss Louisa behind her and I am trailing along swinging my little pail over my head. Mother and Miss Louisa both love plants and they are admiring the wildflowers alongside the road. They stop to watch a fat bumble bee buzzing lazily on some black-eyed Susans. He lands on one bright yellow flower with a spiky brown center and the stalk bounces under his weight.

Miss Georgina says her brother and she used to walk up this road to pick cotton when the farm was still being worked.

“Once we saw a bull snake up here. It had horns and it beller’d just like a bull,” she says.

I can see mother and Miss Louisa are trying not to laugh and I dart off into the woods where I lay down under an old pine tree and give in to a fit of giggles. As my laughter dies away I look up through the branches of the pine. A gentle breeze is making the needles bend and the clean scent of the pine sap is pleasant. The bed of needles under the tree is warm under my back and I just want to stay here and take a nap.

I feel like something really bad is going on in my house but I don’t know what it is. There is an undercurrent of tension in it that makes the air feel just like it does before a summer thunderstorm; heavy and charged.  I sense a big storm is going to erupt, threatening and scary in the power it will unleash. Most of the time I wish the storm would break so the sweet air that follows will cleanse our house with its singing energy. Other times, like now, I just want to sleep on the warm pine needles and dream of happy things, hoping that when I awake happiness will be a reality. I close my eyes and make a bargain with myself, “If I see a red bird today, then our house will be happy again.”

“Tad, where are you?” I hear my mother call. I jump up from my nest, grab my pail and yell, “I’m coming.” I hurry through the bracken fern that grows lush in the drainage area of the wood, carefully avoiding the poison oak patches. I jump out of the woods onto the road with a slap of my red canvas tennis shoes and run down the road to catch up with mother, Miss Louisa and Miss Georgina, all the while scanning the treetops for a flash of red.

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

The Importance of Color


I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for. – Georgia OKeefe

No this isn’t about race – it is about COLOR. There has been substantial research in the field of color and how it affects us. There are color consultants who help businesses choose the best colors to market their products. There are even international color expos that highlight the importance of colors in all aspects of our lives. Colors can calm, stimulate, encourage and inspire us. Colors pervade our conversation. He’s as green as grass. She’s red hot. I’m black and blue. We associate colors with emotion. We are green with envy. We see red when we are angry. We get blue when we’re sad.

About this time every year, when I get fatigued with the long, long northern Maine winter, I get an almost fanatical desire to wear bright yellow. Yellow is the color of the sun and daffodils, my favorite flower. Even on gray, snowy days I sport blinding yellow clothing so bright it is guaranteed to knock your eyes out.

Recently a certain dress caused heated arguments around the world over whether it was blue and black or white and gold. (It’s white and gold.) Not since a White House intern wore a blue dress has a garment caused such controversy. Experts explained the reason people can’t agree on the color of the dress is about primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in the world. Light enters the eyes through the lens and hits the retina. The retina reacts with the different wavelengths and transmits the signals to the brain’s visual cortex. On the retina there are rods and cones. The cones see color and the rods see shades like black, white and grey and are used for night and peripheral vision. So I see the fabric as white and gold because my cones aren’t responding to the dim lighting. My eyes see it as a shade (white). So if you see blue and black your cones are more high functioning.

This makes sense to me. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly called SAD, which causes “winter depression”. Another receptor on the retina that was discovered in 2001 tells your brain whether it is light or dark outside. Interestingly, this receptor is tuned to only sense blue light. These receptors connect to the biological clock. Plain old light can be used to treat this depression but in many northern areas light is hard to come by in the winter. So researchers developed “light therapy” which entails sitting in front of a bank of lights for 30-60 minutes a day.

When I first moved to Maine from South Georgia I expected that my biggest adjustment would be to the cold weather, but in fact it was the marked difference in daylight and dark. Around the second week of September my energy level would start to go down, steadily decreasing throughout the winter months until I entered a dark depression. All I wanted to do was sleep and eat–hibernate. Every winter I would gain 20 pounds and the things I should have been doing to counteract the depression—exercising, eating properly, social interaction—just seemed to take too much effort. Around mid-April I would begin to perk up. Like a squirrel I started to feel frisky and anxious to be outside and active. After the second year my doctor diagnosed me with SAD and I got a light box to sit in front of every day. Although I was skeptical at first I was amazed at how much better I felt. I wasn’t as depressed, I slept better, my energy level never dropped to the level of a sloth every winter and I have been a believer ever since. It hasn’t eliminated 100% of my symptoms but it makes life manageable.

The controversy of “the dress” made me think of the reality of what we see every day. If I say “look at that blue sky” to my husband is he seeing the same sky I see? (He sees the dress as black and blue.) I guess colors are like truth, only accurate from one’s individual point of view.

I love color, especially bright primary colors. They lift me up and keep me alert. There is nothing as exciting as seeing the bright yellow dandelions spring up from the remains of the melting snow in northern Maine. And the beautiful green of newly emerging leaves, a green that is not seen again all year, fills me with the anticipation of a warm, albeit brief, summer. I love artists who flaunt colors across their canvases in defiance of the mundane like Georgia O’Keefe and Andy Warhol. So right now I am wearing a banana yellow blouse in defiance of the drab, snow-laden day outside my window. And I’ll continue to wear yellow until the day I see those matching dandelions burst out of the thawing ground, hopefully in May, but maybe June.


Singing The Winter Blues


           Maine is a joy in the summer. But the soul of Maine is more apparent in the winter. – Paul Theroux

I lived in Georgia for the first 44 years of my life. In March the bright green stems of the daffodils would rustle their way through the brown detritus of fall and winter until their blooms burst forth into yellow trumpets that belligerently heralded the message “Spring is here!” I was born in March and daffodils are the month’s flower but it has always been my favorite flower because you cannot look at a daffodil and be gloomy. They delicately sway in the breeze, their petals are soft to the touch and their indescribable fragrance virtual screams cheer. Like shooting stars streaming through space they burn themselves out in a few weeks having done their jobs as a harbinger of Spring. That was in Georgia.

March in Maine is cold, snowy, bleak and depressing. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, a mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs at the same time every year. Mine gradually starts to sneak up on me in October, lurks in the background through Thanksgiving and Christmas, then pounces on me with fangs and claws fully exposed in January. It tears into my psyche until depression falls upon me like a heavy, wet army blanket. It sucks at my energy until I am a miserable lump that craves light and carbohydrates in equal amounts. The only energy I can muster is to  open a pound pack of peanut M&Ms hoping for a sugar high so I can MAYBE pull my body off the sofa where I am binge watching my version of comfort video – British comedies. Usually I just lay there consumed in melancholia until I drag myself to bed in the early morning hours. In other words, I hibernate. Around mid-April I start to have a little stirring of life that I tease out until I burst forth in May like Persephone fleeing gloomy Hades for a few glorious months in the light.

Unfortunately, summers in Maine are short, barely three months. The heavily bundled, androgynous winter zombies that trudge the snowbanked streets are replaced by hordes of pale revelers intent on absorbing every bit of sun they can before winter starts sharpening its talons. You will never find anyone who enjoys summer more than people who live in the frozen north. The sight of fluorescent green leaves sprouting from tree limbs in the Spring can make you giddy with joy. For three months all is right with the world.

All summer I work on our land where we have a camp. I cut brush and limb trees and make beautiful meandering paths through the mixed evergreen and hardwood forest. Dripping in sweat, I dream of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter months. THIS  year I’ll get outside no matter how cold it is. I’ll revel in winter! I’ll fill my lungs with the crisp, clean air of January and I’ll be triumphant in taming the life sucking tentacles of SAD. As I wipe my brow with my sleeve, I know I won’t. Next January will find me surrendering with a whimper to the clutches of depression. I do all I can to fight it. In the early part of winter I use a supplemental light designed for sufferers of SAD, take antidepressants, eat properly and exercise. But little by little, day by day, it wraps around me like weeds in a pond that wrap around my ankles and drag me down into the murky depths. But I know the daffodils will once again rise up like a bevy of avenging knights shouting to me “Arise!”

I choose to live in Maine because it is a way of life that is simpler. It is a place where you can buy vegetables by the side of the road, leaving your money in a box. It is a place of breathtaking beauty, abundant wildlife, culture and art. I am a Mainer now, albeit one with a heavy Southern accent. In a perfect world I would leave Maine right after Christmas and spend the remaining winter months thumbing my nose at the insidious fingers of SAD from a tropical beach, holding something that has a tiny umbrella in it in my hand. From June through December I would absorb the magical wonders of Maine. But for now, I will surf the internet gorging on photos of sandy beaches, turquoise blue water and M&Ms. So from beautiful northern Maine I salute all you who will see the daffodils in March. My lovely beauties, I’ll see you in June.