The Homeless Men Living By the Side of the River
I haven’t blogged in quite a while, largely because I have been mulling over an experience I had in the field at the beginning of the summer with a group of high schoolers. Now it’s Fall, and I have a lot to write about; but I can’t post anything until I tell you this story, a story that I am intentionally leaving vague, out of respect for the homeless men who live by the side of the river.
We were exploring public lands, freely winding our way through a forest. The kids who’d been scouting ahead, following a deer path, appeared suddenly in front of me with looks of shock.
There are buildings over there, wigwams! Are we on someone’s property?
Indeed, there were three log-and-sod huts, built like hogans with stacked-log walls.
Immediately concerned for their safety, I loudly asked hello, anybody here?
We were riven with adrenaline, because the encampment was carefully laid-out and developed: 2 live-in hogans, 1 storage hogan, a kitchen area with a firepit and a de-laminating 1970’s wood/formica cupboard next to it, shelves stocked with plastic salt and pepper shakers and spatula and pitchers etc., all looking dirty but usable.
I reminded us that we were on public property, so we weren’t trespassing. However, we’d obviously invaded space that somebody claimed as their own, who might not like us poking around. We were paranoid but very curious, because for three days we’d enjoyed a revolving discussion about living close to the land; and here it was, a 3-d hands-on example of it. We were suddenly anthropologists, investigative researchers, piecing together clues gathered with every glance.
Despite our panicky feelings, we agreed that whoever built the camp chose an excellent spot. The inhabitation was well-laid out under mature hardwoods (beech, oak, maple) on a sandy-soiled kame terrace next the Ct river, which glimmered behind a veil of fresh June leaves. Soon we began to relax, for, based on the evidence we found, no one had been living here for at least a year. Garbage was everywhere, and it was old; and the fire pit had dead leaves the winter’d blown into it.
Above the doors to each hogan a short excerpt from the gospel of John was carved, each about love and charity. They served, I guess, to ward off evil. And/or to remind the dwellers to be nice to each other. Normally, I’d have repulsed the superimposing of theology upon the innocent forest, but the quotes were good ones, and here seemed apropo.
Plastic was everywhere, tarps dessicating into crisp flakes that mulched into the leaves, and cracked Coleman coolers and broke-leg lawn chairs sinking into the duff, colors fading. It blanketed the tops of the hogans, which on closer inspection were rotting, and lined a pool near the firepit that must have been used to hold fish caught down at the river then kept close at hand until dinner time. Ingenious.
Hey look there’s more buildings! And smoke coming out of that one!
Up ahead to the north, in the direction I wanted to go so we could cross a bridge and get to the other side of the river, was a two-story building with windows and a clothes line—with clothes wagging on it. Not a rustic log hut, it was made out of motley-hued scrap plywood and leaned noticeably to one side.
Again, a sharp wave of stress sliced through us. We had not expected to stumble into a “hobo camp”; and now there were two of them. A 1/2 an hour earlier, we’d hopped out of a van, descended from a high granite ridge, and begun hiking off-trail to get to a part of the river that has large eddies, white water rapids and islands, hoping to see the shad run. The appearance of this active inhabitation kindled anger in me, because I thought it was selfish of whoever it was to squat on the public land and bar us from enjoying it. Realizing we couldn’t keep heading upriver, I decided to evacuate the abandoned camp immediately and go to the river’s side, so we could do what we’d come to do: immerse ourselves in biotic intensity of the shad run.
Kurt! There’s this guy coming! What should we do?
I’ll take care of this, I said, positioning myself between them and the stranger approaching. Ignoring him except through my peripheral vision, I pointed out features of the riparian community, because we did have work to do, and because I wanted my kids to understand that things were under control, even if they weren’t. Of course, they weren’t listening because they were scared. Again I felt anger because of the selfishness of these public land squatters. This land was our land, not only his!
Hey, what are you doing here? Said the man when he was twenty feet away. Can I help you with something?
We’re getting close to the river so we can see some shad, I replied.
Are you some kind of science class? He asked, relaxing a bit, but still full of worry.
We are a band of explorers, trying to absorb the expression of this part of the Nonotuck biome.
It’s the north part of the middle Ct river valley that starts at the Holyoke dam and ends at Turners Fall dam. We just came up from Holyoke. We saw a lot of shad down there.
A lot of dead shad, said Sandy, one of my high schoolers.
It’s true, I said. There are tons of them beached below the dam.
Yeah, the shad are running now, he said.
Do you catch them and eat them? I asked.
He scrutinized me, still assessing whether we were friends or foes.
Seeing that he was not likely to offer any information unless I could provide him with some reason to trust us, I introduced myself and had my kids introduce themselves. We told him what towns we came from, and why we were interested in this particular part of the river. It did help.
He introduced himself. I won’t mention his name, because he’s still there and…well, there are some other reasons that I’ll explain soon enough. He’d been there with some fellows for ten years.
Ten years! My goodness, I said. You really know this part of the river very well.
You could say that, he replied.
The look he gave me was one of sinking unease, as if he was being sucked down a drain; there was a bit of pride in it, a twinkle in his eye as he said it, but a dark pathos that shadowed it all around. I noticed, then, the scabs on his cheeks; they looked like they hurt. His clothes—jeans, flannel shirt, boots—looked clean. If he’d passed you on the sidewalk, you’d not have noticed a thing. Still, I wondered if we were safe. Perhaps he had a weapon to flash and maybe to use if something occurred that disturbed him. We were now in a wilderness, a place of where untamed forces might engulf us.
Where is the best spot to catch fish? I asked, trying to keep the conversation going in a zone of safe subjects.
The best places are just below the rapids, or you can chase them sometimes into the shallows.
I saw you built a pool at the old camp?
Yeah, that’s where we used to live, until last year. It was time to start again.
Impressive work, I said. Looks like it was comfortable.
Until February. From then until May it’s all wet and cold. We couldn’t keep the cabins dry anymore. Too many leaks in the ceilings.
It looks like you’ve got a nice dry situation now. That loft on the top over there stays dry, right?
He scrutinized me again, squinting. I’d invaded his space, and he was feeling protective.
Hey, I just want to say that we haven’t touched anything, and that we didn’t know this was where you live, and we’re not invading or anything, We’re just trying to get down to that eddy over there and then head upstream so we can cross the river. Is that ok? On the maps it says that this is public land.
It is. I’m just checking to see who you are. You don’t seem like you want to cause problems, so you can move along up over there and walk around our camp.
He wanted us to leave, I gathered. But anger appeared in my heart again; we have as much right to be here as he does, and look at the freaking mess he’s made!
Ok, we’ll do that after we check out the river. That’s what we came for.
He followed us closely, which bothered my high schoolers, who covertly pinched their nostrils to indicate that he smelled. Yes, there was a smell of old sweat going rancid. I felt a tinge of pain then, because as much I wanted to do what I wanted to do, I could see that this was his everything; this small portion of public land was his home, and despite his attempt to show a brave face, he was struggling to keep from breaking down or bursting or doing something he didn’t want to do. He was going to chaperone us, whether we liked it or not. I decided I’d engage him again, opening the conversation up to what I thought was a safe subject.
Do you grow anything around here, you know tomatoes and beans?
The three sisters—look over there.
They’d been practicing mound agriculture.
Corn, beans and squash, all fertilized with fish I find floating by, he said, smiling.
Last year we ate real good, starting 4th of July but the hurricane hit end of August and wiped everything out. This year…I ain’t got started yet. The soil isn’t as good because it got washed away. Probably gonna clear out over there, higher up, and start a new garden.
I could have gone on and maybe even made friends with him, but my kids were giving me the signals. They wanted to leave.
He followed us back to the path and pointed again the way around his camp. He didn’t want us to get any closer to it.
(Brilliant connection—and a perfect example of why I love to teach environmental philosophy in the field.)
I was scared he was going to hurt us—what are you talking about John Locke! said Peter, to the approving yeahs of his peers.
But…yeah he could have hurt us, but how could he live here for 10 years if he attacked everybody who hikes by? Sarah responded, clearly empathizing with the homeless man.
Maybe nobody hikes by. Biocitizen specializes in bushwhacking! said Alison, eliciting guffaws and chatter.
Hey look! There’s another hobo camp!!
We moved quickly by this one, which was very well laid-out, like the abandoned camp was. Five or six people could dwell here, I calculated. There was a fire burning but no one to be seen. A ten speed in ride-able condition leaned against a hemlock.
They were nearby looking at us, but we couldn’t see them.
We were almost at the bridge when we agreed that, given how rattled we were, we’d head back immediately to the van and get clam chowder at the Smithsonian in Hatfield. We were done learning about biocultural history, that’s for sure; and we really needed to sort out what we’d just experienced. Also, the skies had clouded up and it was cold and windy. And it sucked walking by the side of the busy road.
Let’s go back another way, begged Peter. I don’t want to see _____ again. He scares me!
Unanimous support for that idea, so I led us up onto the granite spine of the continuous ridge that, 2 miles south, our van was parked on. We stepped off the road and into the forest again, and everybody felt good. Until a dog started barking seconds later and appeared in front of us baring teeth, ready to rumble.
OK honey don’t worry we’re not going to attack you so please don’t attack us—
Angel! Get over here! A man hollered. Whoever you are go away! You are not wanted here!
We’re a high school science class, I yelled back, and we’re trying to get back to ________ by taking the ridge. We don’t mean to invade your space; we’re just trying to get over there. I pointed.
The man walked forward into our view, his dog returning to him. He was dressed like a forester, jeans, canvas shirt, carhart vest, work boots, belt with knife, black wool hat. Not a bum.
You’re ok, he said after scanning us closely. I have to be careful because for the last two days these goddamn high school boys been throwing rocks and bottles.
We saw his camp now: two tents, a firepit, a kitchen table under a ramada (4 posts and fiberglass panel roof). I was amazed because it was close to, yet not visible from, the road.
You guys can pass. Just keep headin’ that way. He pointed south.
Are there any more people living in the woods, Sarah asked unselfconsciously.
Oh yeah. A lot of people live out here.
Are they under attack, too?
Well, ______ down there by the riverside, he’s been fighting with these boys for a week and they lit a shed on fire. They go after him because he’s got a big mouth and he starts saying stuff.
I’m really sorry to hear this, sir, I said. We had no idea that this part of the forest is your home. Thanks for letting us pass by in peace. Take care.
It was drizzling and colder. We moved fast, with very unsettled hearts until we reached a high chainlink fence that kept us from moving forward. We turned right to follow an easy path but it led us into a person’s backyard, and that person was gardening. We tiptoed back where we came from &, to their dread, started descending the ridge and approaching the river. They protested and wanted to stay on the ridge, and so we did; to do that, though, we had to scrap through tightly meshed hemlock scrub, which was absolutely awful. My least favorite kind of walking, multiple scratching branches and constant webs in the eyes, jabbing and poking and making everybody hate the woods.
An hour later we were at the Smithsonian, eating clam chowder as the cold rain splashed outside. We were warm. We nuzzled our comfort food, quietly thinking about the homeless men who live by the side of the river.
My primary concern was our safety. “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”—my kids and I had a lot to lose, compared to these fellows: not in terms of property, but in existential terms. These men must have been driven by negative forces to live by the side of the river; but they also must have chosen to do so, because otherwise they’d have been living in a town or city, getting assistance. I think, even as I write this, that their decision was emphatic and final; they had been rejected by our economy, and that world we drive around in all the time, but also they had rejected the economy and our world. Their rejection was conscious, the result of a lot of thinking; and living out that rejection by the side of the river meant halting the kind of existential growth that occurs when one participates in our economy (as awful and unfair as it is) and our drive-around world. The wall that separated us, the homeys and the homeless, was existential and it separated us because we were intensely interested and devoted to growing our selves (in this case by learning hands-on the life of our biome), while they had surrendered that interest and devotion to the very practical task of surviving day to day in their encampments. My concerns were allayed through the process I described above; we acquiesced to their wishes and thereby avoided conflict.
My secondary concern was educational—what could we learn from our experience with these beleaguered men? Sarah’s connection with Locke started a searching discussion all of us participated in. Somehow these men were living in place where the laws we think are operative weren’t operating; the state of nature is a place of anarchy, where all too often, might is right. They were, as we learned, under attack and living in a state of war. Our theoretical discussion turned to the very basic and practical question of how it was that these camps had been allowed to be there for 10 years. There was some level of intentional ignorance on the part of the police, the DEP and municipalities. The homeless men had been given a provisional OK to do what they are doing. That official acceptance of their state of being confused us, and made us feel sad because it was evidence that—even in our lovely smart affluent liberal valley—nobody cared. There was no tying a bow on this discussion, no clever way to wrap it all up in a sweet and digestible “meaning”; the content of this lesson was about as far away as education gets from what passes as content in the MCAT-obsessed academic-industrial complex. We had witnessed the frayed edge of the fabric of our own civilization; in fact, we’d gotten a bit tangled up in it. The lesson was an admonishment: learn that if you step outside of the harsh economy and the drive-around world, you enter another even harsher world from which there might be no return.
My tertiary concern was: what can be done? It’s this concern that I’ve mulled over and over, and that has kept me from blogging. Right after the experience I have just described, Biocitizen had a successful summercamp session, for which I am sincerely grateful; all the kids learned a lot, had fun and nobody got into trouble or hurt. But everyday I thought about the homeless men, and how they were getting along. Sometimes, I imagined delivering them food and supplies; but I always shrunk back from doing so. They were proud of their self-sufficiency, and I worried that my gesture would offend them. I also worried that if they did accept assistance, I would be unable to keep assisting them; I have too many things to do everyday as it is. I felt guilty. I was making up excuses. What really sunk the idea of assisting them, though, was the dark realization that these men, pushed and choosing to live as they do, had (once had) families and friends; and these men had not been able to work things out with them. How could I expect to do any better? They might have serious mental health issues, so serious that even the support networks of family and community did not suffice. As the record of inaction attests, the police decided that these men were best off where they are, as they are. Round and round these thoughts have spun, and always I feel that I have not fulfilled my duty as human being. I have seen their suffering, and done nothing. And still I feel guilty.
Finally, I’ve had to work out how I either respect or don’t respect the way that they live. One of Biocitizen’s basic issues, that we research and teach, is what it means to ‘live close to the earth.’ These men, who have not found a place in our economy, and who have no one who can care for them, or who want no help—these men live in a world that is so different than ours, if only because they are close to the biotic heart of our biome. I genuinely respect and admire their knowledge of the river, how it rises and ebbs, how it smells (all its different smells!), its sounds. Its creatures. Its simultaneously ancient and immediate presence. There’s a part of me that desperately wants to perceive and understand those things, too; and that’s why I was so struck. These men were doing what I wanted to do, but…the way they were doing it was not pleasant (they were under attack) and it seemed futile—as futile as the abandoned camp. Their proximity to the elemental forces of earth and water and fire, I liked. And the direness of their situation, their closeness to death—as disturbing as that subject is—made them honest with themselves and with others; it made me respect them. It is said that “death is the mother of beauty” and an encounter with death makes one love life all the more, carpe diem etc. Yet, did they love beauty and life anymore than my high school students? Was my thought that they did amount to more than the projection of my own existential values and desires upon them? I’ve spent weeks in wilderness, close to elemental powers that could squish me at any random moment, and have exulted in the beauty of these uncontainable inestimable forces—but these homeless men, are they innocent of such romantic, mystical constructions? They—who live a way that has no “career advancement” or pension and health care—are aging faster than we are, because they are exposed to all weather; nobody was sure how old ____ was, but he seemed too quickly ripened. My encounter with them made me love life, and made me love their lives too—and this paradox has haunted me: my empathy for them also keeps me from revisiting them.
For they never wanted me near them in the 1st place.
If you have come this far with me, please tell me: what do you think I should do?
Note: I have tried to make the description of who and where vague, so that the men will not be bothered. I have confessed that I feel guilty for not assisting them, but I would feel terrible if they were evicted because of what I have written here. This fear, in fact, is what has kept me from writing about it. But I had to write about, if I was to free my imagination and soul and intelligence for what I will in these leafless months write about.