My Forested Eden
Despite the challenges aging brings, Ronnie Chittam continues to be invigorated and renewed by the land she cares for and the friends who come to cherish the sacred retreat she has created.
Living off the grid on a wild and scenic river in the Northwest is my Eden, but it makes no allowance for frailty. First, visitors admire my lifestyle: “You are so lucky to have this beautiful spot away from the craziness of cities!” Then they ask, “How much longer do you think you can take care of this place?”
It’s a shock to be in my mid-70s. I’m losing confidence that my youthful energy will keep up with my youthful exuberance, knowing that the physical means to express it may not be sustainable.
In my forest idyll are two private cabins, a quarter mile from my own. People rent them for a few days to laze in the river and reconnect to the elements from which they were forged. The men stop shaving, and the women lose their eyeliner. They return year after year, and I value them as extended family. So their concern in noticing my new wrinkles and gray hair reminds me: I expected to live forever in my dream-come-true, but I did not plan to grow old along the way.
It wears on me that others see what I am not ready to address. Yes, I have aged. And no, I am not infirm. I still walk my dogs a couple of miles each day uphill and down; I still chop wood and haul it in a wheelbarrow to the wood stove. Yes, slower than last year. And if I shut off the what-ifs about how long I can keep this up, I can enjoy every day at my pace until I go to sleep and don’t wake up.
I grew up on a farm, where being active was mandatory. There were cows to milk, gardens to plant, and food to can. Intertwined were adventures not so common even then: in grade school, my brother and I rode a horse to the one-room school where the forest ranger’s wife taught five of us about the Lewis and Clark expedition. The stories of the Native American guide Sacagawea and her encounters with roaring rivers and forest creatures ignited such a longing in me that I knew I would live one day in the woods on a wild river.
It took close to 40 years to get here—after college, two marriages, working in Silicon Valley, and serving as a hospice/hospital chaplain. When my second marriage ended, I moved to 20 acres of forest miles off the highway. It came with a shack and a run-down bunkhouse. No electricity and no indoor plumbing. Not a level patch of earth, but it all ran down to that magnificent wild and scenic river. I barely noticed the blackberry vines and poison oak running through the old pickup and bedsprings.
When my office had a going-away party for me, I overheard, “I give her six weeks.” A coworker teased, “How far is the nearest Nordstrom?” It didn’t matter. Nearing 60 and full of expectation, I imagined a spiritual retreat for people like me who wanted to actually see the stars, as well as sleep under them. It would pay for my building needs and, just as importantly, visitors to it would keep me in touch with the world. And so it has.
An Inquiry into the Inevitable
Years have gone by. The bunkhouse is now a charming home. The shack has become a cozy cabin with decks overlooking the river. The pickup carcass and bedsprings are gone, along with most of the blackberry bushes and poison oak.
Now I am cautioned by younger, more energetic souls to be proactive, to bring in a caretaker before I need one. It tears at my heart. The heaviness I feel is so deep I begin to watch my feet and stumble over the rocks I once barely noticed. My shoulders curl inward, and I hate to look in the mirror each morning. My mind slides into limbo so I don’t have to think about it. But a rebellion stirs within.
Since I began this inquiry of facing the inevitable, spring showed up! Rain clouds moved on, and the sun came out. The Pacific Sunset maples I planted to shade the house turned red at the tips as buds emerged. I announced to myself, “I’m bored with this soundtrack of growing old. I still have a class in bee pollinating to go to!”
I am reminded of some of the old-timers I met who first came here in the early 1900s. Many of them had been diagnosed with terminal illnesses, so they returned to experience their last years at the river and do some hard rock gold mining. When I talked to them, they were in their 80s and 90s and still climbing to their claims and bathing in the cold waters of the river.
Guests have their own precious memories of being here. One couple has scattered the ashes of their 12-year-old child who splashed in the water and dug in the sand, knowing he had only a limited time on this earth. Other couples officially pledged their love under the old Douglas fir. A little girl afraid of animals sat quietly in wonder, water to her chest, mother beside her, and allowed a fawn to swim circles around them. My friends are as invested in this place, and in me, as I am.
So my focus has shifted. The years snuck up on me while I was busy living. When someone pointed that out, it was like watching the film end and everything going dark while the credits ran. Then spring came. Meadows need to be mowed, brush must be burned before fire season. I have to read up on telescopes and sign up for harmonica lessons.
The universe sends me help when I need it. I don’t have time to question that now. I’ll never be this young again.