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78 | ecotone Crush the Snakes and Shoot the Buffalo Mark Dewey nonfiction | 79 My father likes to tell the story of visiting the long-abandoned homestead near Rainy Butte, North Dakota, with his sister. They wanted to keep some of the land their family had farmed for generations, so before the estate sale they drove west from Minnesota with a shovel and a couple of five-gallon buckets, which they filled with enough soil to grow a few chives. After what my father calls their act of preservation, they stood in the field and looked at the sky and listened to the wind in the grass. The Great Plains, which used to teem with buffalo, are empty now, my father says, of everything but grass and wind. He and his sister meant to go into the house and search for remnants of their mother, but when they stepped onto the porch, where no one had stood in years, snakes shot out from under it in all directions, hundreds of snakes, I imagine, though he doesn’t mention a number. Instead of going in, they waited until the snakes were out of sight and then ran back to their car. We’re afraid of snakes in part because they take us by surprise, like broken vows, so before opening the door of the house I just bought, where nobody has lived for twenty years, I kick the sill and rattle the panes of glass and wait a minute to let anything that might surprise me hurry into hiding. Better not to know so soon. A few dead wasps in cobwebs near the ceiling drift backward when I open the door, and clumps of hair on the floor roll over in the draft. The air smells like dirt. There’s no sound except the constant stream of language in my head. I listen to that for a while, as I might listen to water rolling over rocks in an actual stream. Better not to know so soon because I’m standing in a house that friends advised me not to buy, and I want to like it for a while before I realize they were right. Dozens of apartment complexes stand beside the Beltway, with swimming pools and exercise facilities and man-made ponds full of cattails, and some of them offer discounts with the first and last months’ rent free. Discounts and convenience were exactly what I needed, my friends advised, until the shock wore off—my marriage had exploded—but I’ve avoided those places, perhaps because while living in them as a child I came to believe that you could never know when everything would fall apart. “The shit has hit the fan again,” my father would explain, and while I wondered if there was a way to turn the fan off, we’d pack and move to another of those places. Instead of renting a convenient apartment , I bought an abandoned log cabin on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sixty miles from Washington , where I work and where my children live with their mother. I wanted to be part of a historic context, not one of convenience, and I had reason to believe the cabin had been built by a Confederate soldier named Robert Eaton, based on the plat map I was given after purchasing the property, which was in ruins: the sill log was rotten, the mortar was crumbling, and the window sashes had buckled long ago. But I wanted to believe it could be restored to its 80 | ecotone original condition, like the cabin down the road, and that I could be the agent of its restoration. The fact that the man who owned the cabin down the road also owned a herd of buffalo should have told me that his powers were of a different order from mine, but I couldn’t hear that kind of thinking then. Instead the presence of his buffalo, a species that left Virginia long before the Civil War, encouraged me to think that anything was possible. The logs in my cabin are American chestnut, a natural resource that shaped American construction for two hundred years. “If...


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pp. 78-90
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