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It's Nelly's World

Wishful Thinking

alec vanderboom

What would I give.

Sometimes the mind slides an updated picture over what is actually in front of the eye, and so it was yesterday--the day before the snow that is now whitening the view out the window--at the place called Big Deep.

Nelly and I walked through the woods along the creek, following it all the way to the elbow bend where the water is caught in a great cup of rock, and there it collects, deep and green. One perfect giant of a tree is poised at the very edge of this C's midpoint, and on one of its strong arms, held out high over the water as in benediction, a thick rope has been tossed and secured. The big knot tied at the end is the place where bare feet press together, once airborne, then let go when the farthest reach has been attained--and splash. Into the swimming hole that suddenly is before me, a vision of August here in March.

There are dozens and dozens of people here. Towels are spread on the soft dark sand--bequeathed thoughtfully by early-spring floods--under tall pines. Nylon chairs are set in the shallows, and teenage girls cool their heels (and ankles) while chatting at the same time they listen to the radio that sits on top of an ice chest; a multitasking talent of young ladies who could also add painting their nails and making life decisions into the mix without a carefully combed hair escaping their braids. Dogs wade (Nelly looks for unwatched picnics). Children line up for their turn on the rope. It is the community swimming hole 2010, but its pleasures are essentially unchanged from the swimming hole 1910.

The only thing that's different, apart from the portable radios, is the concentration of people. It's ten times greater, because so is our population. But there is a bigger factor: there are vastly fewer swimming holes these days. People are rapidly shutting off access to spots people have been using to battle the summertime heat for generations. Perhaps someone can explain to me what changed somewhere around 1990 to make litigation the number-one threat to what remains of our steadily diminishing commons. There simply had to have been some legislation, or consolidation of power, that got slipped onto the books around then. Someone can explain to me, and then I'll feel simultaneously sad and mad, which is the state into which modern society puts anyone who is awake enough to notice what is being lost.

And so, if you possess any knowledge of a great swimming hole--one that feels practically yours alone--guard it closely. It may be taken, and what then would you do on a long hot summer afternoon?

It has been a few years since I last visited the gem of my private collection of swimming holes (yes, I'll share them, if you are very, very nice to me and/or help work on my motorcycles). It sits at the apex of the crown because it is not one, but rather six, ponds in which to float solitary, swimming among the clouds that have photographically printed themselves on the flat surface of the water. This was as far as the developer got: six gravel drives to six ponds at six homesites. But no homes. And no one around. Oh, and a secondary benefit of disturbing the soil to build those drives: the thickest concentration of blackberry canes in five counties. You can pick quart upon quart in minutes, then sit down by your very own pond--which one shall it be today, dear?--and eat all the berries you can hold before splashing back into the icy cool.

What a freaking Norman Rockwell, eh?

The earliest in my collection was practically literally painted by him, or maybe closer to the physical equivalent of inhabiting a Charles Ives symphony (most probably New England Holidays). My childhood best friend, the daughter of two artists, spent summers at the family farmhouse in Vermont. And sometimes I went there too. For an image to complement the description, refer to the Charles Sheeler photograph previously posted. Shaker austerity. The very paucity of any raucous amusements--mainly, we went outside with our sketch pads, or went blueberry picking up the mountain, or collected fresh fir balsam to stuff sachets, or played Scrabble at night and assembled puzzles when it rained; that was about it--is exactly what made these vacations seem unspeakably rich to my young mind. And then there was the swimming hole. A concrete dam had been built on the brook rolling down the hillside from some cold origin, and the water backed up nine feet deep. We threw ourselves, again and again, screaming at the shock, into the numbing water. I will never forget that time and that place: it is an immersing memory of a private place that seemed there for us alone. The essence of summer, and the fullness of a wet joy. I hope you remember your own. Better yet, I hope you have it still.

photo: O. Winston Link,
"Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole,
Luray, Virginia," 1956