Jim Betts

original works

I Am a Tourist Here

I took a roadtrip down to Levi Jackson State Park on Saturday.  No real agenda, no clear picture of where I was going to spend the night, what I was going to see, where I was going to go.  As I left Lexington, I had a sense of urgency, of needing to get there, heedless of not knowing where “there” was.  That continued until I got to Marksbury Farm Market just outside Lancaster on 27.  I stopped in for a sandwich and a chat and as I sat outside eating, I could feel the rush slip away.  I was a tourist.  I could stay there till dark, turn around and head home.  Or I could head on down to Levi Jackson pronto.  Or I could meander at a sedate pace, letting the beauty and charm of the land permeate. The words to a Bob Seger song kept popping into my head: “I could go left or I could go right; it was all up to me to decide.” I chose the latter and rolled on through the day.

I am not being completely truthful when I say I had no real agenda.  I was going down to see the mill stone museum located at Levi Jackson.  A hundred or so millstones from old Kentucky mills line the walk leading to an old mill.  What I didn’t realize was my original agenda was about to be subsumed by the conversation I was going to have with Bob House, docent and ranger of the rebuilt, fully operational mill located in the park.  I got there around 10.  He had just opened up the cabin and I eagerly pressed him for a tour.  The cabin and much of the furnishings had been built in 1805.  It was moved and rebuilt in it’s current location in the 1930’s, as part of the WPA.  And it had been operating there since.

Photo by author

The joys of simple technology!  When Bob opened the water gate (My favorite bumpersticker from the Nixon era: “Behind every water gate is a mill house.”  Get it?!), the creek was allowed to flow over the turbine (not a side mounted wheel, but a “true turbine,” according to Bob) and the foot-diameter axle began slowly to turn.  Attached to that axle is a wheel, some 4 feet around, and wrapping that is a 10-inch wide belt of leather which goes to the front of the cabin, looping around a much smaller circumferenced wheel and back.  The smaller wheel is attached to two giant stone discs, very heavy (“I don’t know how heavy they are, I ain’t never weighed them.  But I know that 4 grown men can’t pick them up.  We have people come in at night to steal them.  They can stand them up and roll them to the parking lot, but they can’t lift them into their truck.”).  Let’s say 1000 pounds.  The belt which takes it’s languid time circling the big wheel fairly flies around the smaller one, causing the upper most stone to turn at an impressive speed.  Grain, in this case corn, is loaded into the hopper mounted over the mill stone casing (a circular wooden box which keeps the grain from flying out as it is ground by the stones) and is shaken into the opening as needed.  The grain is pulverized into flour and slides down a wooden chute into a wooden trough, where Bob packs it into cloth bags containing two pounds of fresh milled cornmeal.  

Photo by author

The entire machine is made (with extraordinary few exceptions) of wood, stone, hide.  It is incredibly efficient and works in a wondrously harmonious relationship with its surroundings.  Bob said that even the small dam needed for the operation of the mill helps balance the ecosystem.  The backed-up creek environment, favored by birds, turtles, fish used to be supplied by industrious beavers.  But we hunted most of them, so the mill is doing their work.  The sound of the mill while it is in operation is practical, soothing, organic. A hum of the earth, of tree and rock and water moving in harmony.  It probably took 10 minutes for the mill to grind the two pounds of flour, but it could do that all day and night, with very little supervision, forever.  Efficient, serene, perfect technology.  I left there with the same feeling I get walking through the woods.  Of being at peace and feeling at one with the world.  The technology didn’t separate man from nature, it bound the two more tightly.

I rode home with my two pounds of fresh milled, unbolted corn meal.  I had asked many questions and been given a vast array of knowledge: ecology, economics, machine design, politics…  I had gone to look at mill stones and had come away with milling. 

The mantra “I Am A Tourist Here” is one I have been trying on for a few months.  When traveling, I give myself permission to ask ridiculous questions from complete strangers and am usually intrigued and stunned by what I learn, safe in may guise as a tourist.  However, when I’m home I operate as if I should know, as if I shouldn’t be a tourist.  As if I shouldn’t take that untried road, or stop at that new place, or be inquisitive and naive as I am when I am touristing.  Just by reciting the mantra, the fardel of society slips from my shoulder and I am given permission to look at my familiar terrain with fresh eyes, an act which almost always yields delightful insight.

Photo by author

original works

Eyes to See

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

 Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

As a young man, I had the good fortune and insight to spend a great deal of time outdoors hiking and backpacking.  I traveled to Alaska and, on one memorable night, sat on a cliffside on Kodiak Island, watching a literal midnight sun disappear beneath the horizon, bathing sea, air, land in a glowing wash.  This was followed, a twilit dusky hour later, by an equally glorious sunrise, the sun that far north traveling not in an arc but in a barely truncated circle about the sky. 

I hiked the Olympic National Rain Forest for a sodden sublime week, sitting on a valley rim, alone in the vastness save for a deer, licking the sweat from my rain jacket I had hung to dry on a branch.  I watched in wonder as a white stag, whose forebears had been imported from Sherwood Forest, emerged from the fog of a Point Reyes morning, him being more interested in lording over the herd of females and fawns who materialized, with a shuffle, out of the whiteness. 

I sang to the glories of the grandeur unfolding as I hiked up the switchbacked cliff face of Yosemite Valley, each turn bringing me higher and deeper into the vast beauty of that hallowed land. 

I guided a raft of friends down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.  We started in a tributary barely wide and deep enough to permit our craft, finishing, after many nights and rapids, in a wide, flat, slow flowing river which could accommodate a cruise liner.  The world was grand and big and I wanted to see it, to taste it, to bite off huge dramatic chunks.

I am not now that young man.  A friend’s t-shirt loudly proclaims my current state: “The older I get, the better I was.”  My hikes are now a morning walk, my vistas the downtown buildings I spy from my perch atop the coach’s tower in my neighborhood park.  Guiding rivers is now staring in wonder at the intricacies of the creek that flows through the next door neighborhood.  And yet, when I stop long enough to see, the grandeur which inhabits these spaces reveals itself.

I watched in amazement as the remains of a spring rain flowed down the creek, simultaneously carving a channel and creating a delta, as the carrying capacity of the swift water diminished with slowing flow.  In a fractal view of the world, I was watching the Mississippi River flow past New Orleans. 

On a neighborhood walk, I spied in astonishment a Cooper’s Hawk diving treacherously at a chipmunk, narrowly missing.  Or equally amazing, a Red Tailed Hawk lumbering skyward, hauling with him a squirrel who must have equaled the bird’s own weight, forced onto a tree limb perch by my insistent approach.  With the additions of a video crew and David Attenborough’s narration, this was life writ large, worthy of National Geographic. 

The other evening I went for a walk, to be greeted by a Rothko sunset: a flat, snow-leadened wall of cloud sat heavy on the sun, squashing an orange smear onto the horizon. 

Another night, I watched as clouds like a sheet of dryer lint dragged in front of a gibbous moon, fat and white, fixed and solid like a peg in the heavens.  That celestial display no less grand than the gauzy curtains of Northern Lights I was entranced by in New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail. 

I watched a Bradford Pear tree, whose flowers bested 3 snowfalls and a hard frost to sweetly declare this spring’s imminence, at last give way to the greening of the branch.  The fortitude of our trees to persevere in the face of Spring’s grudging warming is as grand as the Redwoods’ or Joshua Trees’.  Caterpillars of snow crawling on the delicate limbs of Eastern White Pines, crashing down in a secondary snowfall as the sun-warmed branches released their burdens, are as wondrous as the calving of icebergs, the process being the same. 

I feel deeply, especially in spring, the glories of the world around. The volunteer Pin Oak in my backyard, 20 years ago a twig, now is rivaling the size of the 100-year-old Burr Oak of my neighbor’s.  The flocks of warblers travel like gaily colored acrobats on their way north, stopping to pick bug and bud from trees seemingly timed for their arrival. 

My legs are hampered by age and responsibility, my hunger for adventure diminished with time, but the wonders of the world surround us even in our backyards if we have eyes to see, an open spirit and the willingness to “waste” time on the slow and the minute.