Stories & Tales

Telling Stories

November 10, 2014
A girl sits in front of a camp fire

From Chuck Stead’ s Journal, October 2014

There is a chill in the air. The summer season has come to a close. Along the river bank the great sycamore tree is among the first to turn the color of its leaves. For us kids of Ramapo this tree was the Button Ball, named for the spherical seed pods that hung from its limbs like holiday tree ornaments. Along the Ramapo River above the Fourth Street Hillburn Dam, swimming holes were designated as Little Button Ball and Button Ball in respect to their depth. Further up river there was a third swimming hole known as Forty Foot. Over the years there was great debate as to the origin of this name. Despite much support for the claim that the spot once was forty feet deep, the sweep of the generally slow flowing Ramapo maintains a sandy bottom of seldom a greater depth than twelve feet. But there stood a grand cluster of boulders on the west bank of Forty Foot, and for the truly daring a high flung rope swing from a strong Sycamore limb offered what some claimed was a forty foot drop to the water! (Again this was at best a twenty foot drop.) Along about early October the Button Balls turned, no more black snakes could be found at Forty Foot’s boulder clutch, and only the hardiest of us dared to jump in on a warm day as the mountain springs feeding the Ramapo changed the river to a temperature below forty degrees.

Fishing had changed, legal seasons ended, and spawning was long over, the underwater menu was in transition. With that chill there was a deep forested scent of game. Hunting season would soon be upon us. October was a month of preparations, of tracking sign, of following the thick pungent scent of wildlife as they were now sweating, signing, leaving musk and castor to mark for mates. Hunting, like trapping, is mostly about nature study, about habitat education and eventually taking game. For the uninitiated the ‘killing’ part of hunting is hard to accept, it brings forth images of a defenseless Bambi made an orphan by ruthless mankind. As I learned it, hunting and trapping was about entering into the animal world both as predator and companion. In today’s language this would be referred to as sustainable, but in my deep history it felt like sufficiently taking what is required to survive and leaving behind the same so that the prey, too, can survive. It is a dynamic of exchange.

At this time of year my childhood was alive with the forest scent of decay, rotting leaf mold, and the dusty spores kicked up from dried grass. This was not a decay of dying in the Western sense but a decay of renewal from which life re-emerged.

Ricky Cramshaw and I followed my dad Walt into the woods along the northern stretch of the Torne Valley. He found a deer trail and slowly lead us along, making note of the heart shaped tracks of the cloven-hoofed animal that lead us deeper into the forest. Near to a magnificent beech tree, its leaves all a fire of tarnished yellow, Walt found scattered dung and the thick odor of urine. He hunkered down and sniffed it. He turned to us and said, “It’s a doe and she’s ready to talk family with a buck.”

Ricky said, “You mean she wants to get married?”

Walt smiled. “Yup, she’s looking to get hitched.”

Yes, this time of year is not about decay or change that ends the cycle. Cycles do not end. The changes from the sycamore’s leaves to the odorous doe urine are about furthering the adventure.
Come hear Chuck tell Autumn Tales at a benefit for the Historic Clarkstown Reformed Church on Sunday October 19th at 1 pm; at the church on 107 Strawtown Road, West Nyack NY, 10994. Donation at the door for ages 12 – adult is $10 and for ages 5 – 11 is $6.