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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Nellie: Upon the Bare Earth

Moon, Duncan Lake, NH
Moon, Duncan Lake, NH

As I descended down the deep-woods path, I feared that I had lost my way in the dark. With each step, everything that I thought I knew, had vanished. Until I was willing to navigate the thinning veil—accepting that there are rule changes in the unknown—I would continue to question everything. When it came to decision making, falling apart or not was at the forefront. As noted before, falling apart is sometimes precisely what is needed. The collected fragments often include bits of lost treasure.

That night, the wandering transformed from a sense of adventure to exile—finding and losing, knowing and unknowing, seeing and unseeing. Releasing the old ways is possible when we dare to navigate the untamed world. Much like a place of dreams, it is both fertile and infertile, but only if we open our eyes. Fear and dread exist when we look away from harmony and splendor. What we cease to believe in will eventually retreat.

An earlier version of me would have turned back in search of the old familiar story, which would never change until I was willing to walk away. There was light there, in the homeland of old stories, but not enough. I had been there too long. Dismissing the urge to flee, I picked up my pace.

How long it would take to reach my destination was not the point. Any detour or shortcut would merely lead to a dead end. The most essential part of the journey was to come and go freely without getting stuck on either end. It was time to ignore familiar traps—securities cloaked in a well-crafted disguise.

My flashlight flickered recklessly on a canopy of oak and pine boughs as they protected me from the relentless rain. I should have gotten here earlier.

Hearty applause from the trees cheered me on as it rained harder and louder, too heavy for the leaves. I yanked my hood over my head and continued, stumbling over a thick tree root sprawled randomly across a carpet of russet pine needles.

I waved the light around, illuminating the green tent, screen house, blue tarp-covered shower room, and teepee that served as a potty. I squeezed the strap of my backpack. Home.

If I stood in that place any longer, I would have been unable to move at all. I tried to inhale slowly, but I gasped instead. I swallowed, took a few tentative steps, and stopped again. I sensed them, the ancients, the ancestors that have always surrounded me. I was ready to know them and honor their support without taking on that which is not mine.

My truth would no longer endure waiting in the shadows. It was time to speak and live directly from the heart. It was time to break away from what was not for the greater good. I was prepared to dispel the myths that had kept me in place for so long, too long, but time is only what we make of it. I had convinced myself that living in the wild, confronting my fears, creating, and being, would somehow work.

I was called upon to authentically tell the stories of the others—the nameless, numbered souls. I thought that my own story would wait, but out in the deep woods that night, I realized that this was my story, too. It was the Indian Woman, as indicated in long-lost records, and my great grandmother, who guided me. If my ancestors dwelled in the woods, I would too. My words would come from knowing. For this, I was grateful. I knew what I must do.

I hurried over to the tent and tugged at the zipper—careful not to get it stuck on the loose nylon—and entered my abode. I clipped the flashlight on the hook overhead and smiled weakly; my inflatable bed was still firm.

I held my breath and listened carefully. I couldn’t decide if it was a good thing or not that I couldn’t hear the night’s sounds. Usually, the banjo frog chorus was so loud that I had to wear earplugs, not because I didn’t enjoy them, but they distracted me from much-needed sleep. I could not ignore their symphony. That night, the torrential rain beating against the tent drowned them out.

I tossed my wet clothes in the corner, slipped on my oversized red plaid shirt, and tucked my flashlight into my pocket. I climbed into my cold, damp bed, pulled the quilt under my chin, and waited for the unknown.

Sometimes at night, I sang away my fear, a trick I learned as a young girl when I associated the screeching March winds with Nature’s rage. Mother is angry. I should sing to soothe Her. My singing—a combination of defiance, self-control, and triumph over terror—worked.

I woke up to a steady dripping on my head. I dragged my bed to the other corner of the tent and stared into the darkness, anticipating the next drip. There were no more. I finally fell asleep to strains of swelling rain and the sorrowful interlude of loons.

My tent faced the East. Daylight brought with it a sense of security. I had made it through another night. I unzipped the door flap and peeked outside. The sky was feathered with gray clouds and a tinge of pink around the edges. I stumbled out of the tent and dumped the rainwater out of each sneaker before forcing them on my bare feet. What was worse, mud in the tent or puddles in my sneakers? There is no answer.

I squished my way around the new homestead, stopping inside the screen house to make a pot of coffee on the Coleman stove and then on to the teepee.

Everything was different. When you’ve been using an outdoor toilet—a hospital commode perched over a bait bucket, under a blue tarp attached to trees in a bustling community of spiders—you fantasize about flushing.

The mosquitoes found me just as the coffee started percolating. The dragonflies found them, beckoning a smile. I opened the cooler, pulled the cream from the ice-cold water, and retrieved my cup from a milk crate beneath the table. I decided that singing two verses of White Choral Bells was the right amount of time for the coffee to brew.

I leaned back in the wet aluminum chair and cupped my hands around a faded Disney cup that I found in a box at my mother’s house. This was the best part of the day. The hot coffee provided much-needed warmth and the confidence to proceed.

I gave the sun credit for trying to shine. It was enough to dry the puddle in front of my tent, but not enough to take away the sponginess in the earth.

My solar shower bag was of no use on such a morning, so I lugged a five-gallon kettle out to the end of the makeshift dock, filled it with lake water, and heated it on the cookstove. When it was steaming, I added more lake water to cool it down and then dragged it into the shower room.

After hanging my clothes on the hook, I stood naked on the wooden pallet and dumped a small pot of hot water over my head. It felt good. I stared up at the sky through the trees, imprinting the unlikely view. A red squirrel, that I later named Miriam, looked down and scolded me. Little did she know that I was one who carried nuts and seeds.

My shampoo and conditioner looked out of place on the crude shelf nailed to the giant pine. I caught my reflection in the mirror that hung above the soapbox and lathered my hair. A plump brown toad joined me. I was not alone.

This was the beginning of my four-month experience of living in the woods. I had no electricity or any modern-day comforts. At first, I was flooded with doubts. I also knew that I could overcome any possible distractions and obstacles and meet this necessary achievement. If I were to inhabit Nellie (Nanatasis), I had to find and follow in her footsteps, walk upon the bare earth, know the night skies. I had to face a world without manmade limitations. Only then, when I valued the core of darkness and light, would I conquer my pre-wired fears and embrace belonging and wholeness.

Cultural and ancestral healing is possible via acknowledgment. To get there, we must own our stories and stand in our truth. It isn’t always comfortable, and we may believe that there is peril. Still, sometimes, it is necessary to leave what we think of as home before finding our way back. This was a rite of passage for me in writing the voice of Nanatasis / Nellie Baldwin in the Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series. She was indicated in the records as Mrs. Lewis, Indian Woman, Age 100. I merged her with my great grandmother, who is of Abenaki descent. Living in the wild was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I had become comfortable with no walls, plenty of rain, spiders, and swarms of mosquitoes. I relied on the night sky. I had become so accustomed to the woods that it took several months to re-adjust to walls, floors, and a roof separating me from the sky. I missed my connection above and below.


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