On Monday the skies were clear and the sun high, and I walked the woods to the height of our land. Down low, just past the barn and brief expanse of pasture, the trees are dense and predominantly coniferous, but as I climbed the hardwoods increased in number, and I soon came to the sugarbush that comprises the upper swath of our property. Here the understory clears, and the light coursed past the leafless upswept limbs, casting long, serpentine shadows. The effect was almost cathedral-like.
For a time I followed a fresh set of deer tracks, a small animal, young or female or both. It’s been a good winter for the deer; almost every afternoon now, I see them grazing the almost-snowless hayfield across the valley, rendered in miniature by distance. Well, not really a valley; more like a crease.
The tracks led me to the stream the runs almost the length of our property, and where the deer crossed, I turned onto the streambed. The flowing water was covered by ice just thick enough to support my weight (though it cracked and complained of the burden), so I walked directly down the stream’s center, following the bends, clambering over a big cedar that had fallen from one bank to the other. Beneath the ice, I could hear the water folding and churning. Once I broke through into a shallow pool, but the water did not breach my boot tops.
It’s something to walk a frozen stream or riverbed, not at all like walking an iced-over pond or lake. I’ve done it before, a couple years back, following my sons on their trapline, and I remember thinking there was something magical about it. Maybe the motion of the water underneath, maybe the delineated path. Or maybe just the absence of human activity: No ice fishing shanties, no racing snowmobiles, not even the shouts and laughter and slapping puck-sounds from a pick-up game of pond hockey. It is a seasonal path, and even then one that reveals itself only when conditions are right.
Later that afternoon, almost evening really, I was visited by Erica Heilman to record an episode of her Rumblestrip Vermont podcast. To be honest, I’d almost backed out after initially agreeing, but I was glad I did not, because Erica is a phenomenal interviewer, certainly the best I’ve encountered, and I learned a lot. We talked for nearly three hours about writing, ego, building houses, ego, killing pigs, curiosity, ego, education, and making a living, along with a few other things I don’t remember (we might have talked about ego, too), and I was reminded that the best interviews aren’t really interviews at all; they are conversations guided by questions until the balance shifts and the questions themselves become an outgrowth of the conversation. Generally speaking, the fewer questions it takes to shift that balance, the better, though the very best interviewers also know when to put their hands back on the wheel.
Whether conscious or not, Erica has an innate understanding of when to steer and when to follow, which is at least part of why her work is so damn good, and I was reminded that for everything I’ve said here about writing, I’ve yet to speak about interviewing, which for anyone writing about other people is a foundational skill, and one that I know from experience is not always well-honed. So. Given that I’ve now written every scant thing I know about interviewing, I suppose I’ve remedied that shortcoming.
The next day, yesterday, my family returned, overflowing stories of deep woods wall tent-living with a small community of friends new and old, people for whom such circumstances are no novelty, but rather just the way things are. Stove-top biscuits slathered in bear fat. Smoked whitefish. Wild rice from the fall harvest. Beaver and muskrat. Maple sugar from the previous spring’s sugaring camp. Fresh-killed squirrel. And so on.
As I listened to their stories, I thought about my walk on that frozen stream the day before. And I thought about how, for most of us, life is a bit like the path laid by that stream: It folds and churns, twists and turns, and it can be a wondrous, almost magical thing, especially if we take the time to pull up take notice every so often. But for the most part, we stay between the banks where the walking’s easiest, the risks best understood. (Or, in some cases, I think, not understood at all. Not even acknowledged). And there’s a lot to be said for that. There really is. There’s a whole lot of good living to be done without going too far off course.
Some people, for some reason, just can’t help themselves. They’ve gotta scramble up one of those steep banks, poke their head over the top, and see what’s out there, listen for what calls to them. It might look crazy to the rest of us, might sound like gibberish. But here I am reminded of just one more rule of interviewing: No matter how crazy someone looks or sounds, it’s almost always worth listening to what they have to say. Because you never know what you might learn.