Tuesday, April 22, 2008


The snow has gone and any further snow we get this season would be a short-lived joke of nature, so even though I live in New England, I think it’s safe to say that spring is here. When I open the door in the early morning, the air is filled with the sound of ecstatic birds. The handful of daffodil bulbs I planted last fall are in bloom and the trees are leafing out.

It all makes me miss the asparagus bed I started almost three years ago at the last place we lived. I’d always wanted the luxury of being able to step out into my own backyard and harvest asparagus minutes before supper. Asparagus takes time to establish itself; one is supposed to wait two or three years before harvesting it ad lib. This spring would have been our first year of asparagus gluttony.

But we left that house last summer, leaving behind the asparagus, a raised-bed vegetable garden, a lilac bush, a couple of pretty young trees we planted, and numerous other growing things. It was the first time in years that I’d felt like literally “putting down roots,” so leaving those growing things was a little sad. I miss them especially now that spring has returned. I hope they are being well cared for and enjoyed.

I’ve moved five times in the past nine years, after living in one place for twelve years prior to the beginning of this new, nomadic existence. Considering the wear and tear on body and soul all this moving has wrought, I’d say I’ve moved too many times, except for the fact that there was good reason for each of the moves.

Each uprooting requires sorting through belongings, at least a little; thinning out the mass of accumulated stuff prior to packing it. I had a friend once who swore he'd never own more stuff than he could transport in his car. At the time, he drove a Volkswagen Beetle and was still in his twenties; I’d love to know how long he managed to stick to his vow.

Last fall I considered starting another vegetable garden, or at least an asparagus bed, but didn’t. And now I’m not sure whether I will or not. Instead, we bought a share in The Food Bank Farm. It’s a Community Supported Agriculture farm, whose primary mission is to provide fresh, organic produce to area food banks (the farm gives away half its annual harvest; about 200,000 pounds a year). This seems like a good way to put locally-grown food on our table and do a little something to help people who are nowhere near as fortunate as we are.

We already feel a sense of ownership in the farm, having transported the hundred or so bags of leaves our maple trees produced last fall to a collection spot at the end of one of the farm's fields. We, and clearly many other leaf-rakers, built a mountain of leaves there, over twenty feet high and covering about half an acre, thus contributing to the farm's mulch and compost supply. I remember emptying bag after bag of leaves there last November, with flocks of geese heading south over our heads, and feeling that our leaves were a kind of harvest. Come the next summer, we would effectively be eating them.

So instead of planting spinach and peas in a backyard garden these days, we’re eagerly awaiting word from the farm that the first crops of the season (which will be a variety of salad greens) are ready to be picked. And instead of digging up part of our lawn for a vegetable garden—the former owner of our property used a service that kept the lawn looking like a first-class golf course, and I can assure you those days are over—we've been digging a pit and constructing a large sandbox for the youngest of our grandkids to play in.

It seems there are many ways to put down roots.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Famished, dehydrated and fatigued after my walk (see previous post), I registered little of the double-decker bus ride back from Land’s End to Penzance. I collapsed onto a seat on the upper deck and sat there drinking from a bottle of water I’d bought while waiting for the bus.

The names of two little towns we passed through remain in my mind: Newlyn and Mousehole (charmingly pronounced “Mouz’l”). In one of these, the streets were so narrow I could have reached out and touched buildings as the bus crept along. But that’s all I remember. Back at my B&B, I took a long, hot bath, ate an early supper at the nearest pub, and fell into bed.

The next day, Sunday, I spent a few hours exploring Penzance before catching the train back to London. I’d made the decision to spend the weekend in Cornwall almost overnight so I hadn’t had time to educate myself about what there was to see in the area. My minuscule budget argued against buying a guidebook for a town I would be leaving that afternoon, so I just wandered, absorbing the sights.

To my surprise, those sights included subtropical flora, including many palm trees. I learned later that the presence of this unusual vegetation is due to the town’s location on a peninsula where it basks in a flow of air warmed by the Gulf Stream. Ignorant of this at the time, I found the sight of parks and gardens full of lush, vivid flowers and palm trees quite mind-bending. Was I in the British Isles or the West Indies?

But my mind was already bent anyway. Just before leaving London for my Cornwall adventure, I’d had a call from a film director who wanted to talk with me about the same script I was already at work on with the other director and his producers. And, oh, music to my naive ears, she said wanted to keep my story just as it was. We’d made a date to meet on Monday. My agent had told me that since there was no contract with the first group yet, and no option money paid, I was morally and legally free to make such a move; in fact she encouraged me to do so.

My mind was awash in hard choices. Stay with the people I’d been working with, who’d excited my imagination by mentioning some wonderful actors they hoped to cast? Change horses and go with the second director who seemed to want to remain true to the story as I’d originally envisioned it? Which was more likely to result in the longed-for “green light” and seeing my idea turned into a movie?

Even knowing what I do now about the movie business, I still don’t know if I made the right choice; I transferred my script and all my hopes to the new director. The script never did get made into a movie, though I earned enough in option money to keep going for a while.

In any case, I can’t help feeling the decision was colored by my experience of walking along those Cornwall cliffs. My life, my future, was in my own hands. Why not take a chance, take the road that looked more promising. In fact, I’d been taking chances since writing the first line of my first screenplay almost exactly two years before this trip. So my solitary walk on Saturday was actually as much an affirmation as it was inspirational.

As a result of all this brain work on top of my exhilaration from the day before, I was ravenous by lunchtime. It was another fine, warm day so I found a fish and chips “take away” shop and took my lunch to a wooden bench on the long promenade that skirted the harbor. There were very few people around, despite the glorious weather, and I thought it would be a peaceful place to eat, watch seagulls, and gaze at the sea.

As I sat there gobbling my food, I heard the unmistakable sound of someone tapping a microphone, checking to see if it was live. Then someone introduced the Mayor of Penzance, who in turn introduced the Cober Valley Accordion Band.

Now that I was paying attention, I saw the band assembled on folding chairs about fifty feet away. They opened their program with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Happily, they were just far enough away that it wasn’t unpleasantly loud, so instead of relocating I gave up on the idea of a tranquil lunch and accepted the novelty of it all.

Suddenly I was joined on the bench by large, late middle-aged woman I hadn’t seen coming. She was armed with an enormous sausage wrapped in paper, and a cardboard container overflowing with chips. She didn’t say a word; didn’t even give me a glance. She lowered herself heavily onto the bench and began to eat.

A little later, while the band played “I’m Tired and I Want to Go Home,” my bench mate, having finished her sausage and chips, dug around in her capacious purse and took out a banana which she ate slowly and thoughtfully, pausing between bites to hum “Amazing Grace.”

Then a pair of teenagers on roller blades appeared, skating in slow circles on the promenade between my bench and the accordionists. They held hands, every now and then drawing together to embrace and kiss with hormone–charged abandon; as if they were alone on the planet. At this, the sausage lady heaved herself to her feet and wandered off somewhere, leaving me alone with the gulls, the circling kids, and the sea.

It amuses me now (with a dry chuckle) to note how this series of odd events on the promenade of this pretty Cornish town, each more unexpected than the last, foretokened much of what lay ahead for me in connection with my foray into the movie biz, where nothing is quite what it appears to be.

My train trip back to London later that afternoon was uneventful.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


One warm, clear, summer day in 1999, I found myself making a solo trek along the Cornish Coastal Footpath, from the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, to Land’s End.

I ‘d come to Cornwall at the suggestion of a pleasant and persuasive man, a film director, with whom I’d been working in the London office of a British film and television production company in the effort to transform one of my screenplays into something the producers thought they could find backing for. Over the course of several days’ work, the script had come to resemble a sort of gentle thriller, not at all what I'd had in mind when I wrote it. But, innocent that I was, I still believed I could find a way to please them while keeping the story mine.

I hungered to see my words brought to life on screen, and the director’s desire to set the story in Cornwall was perfectly acceptable to me, so I took him up on the idea of doing a little location scouting myself. It’s possible he thought that wild and beautiful landscape would work some magic on my writer’s brain, filling it with the sort of scenes he wanted to see in the next draft of the script.

But this side trip, my solo walk, was entirely unplanned. I’d left my bed & breakfast in Penzance that morning and taken a bus to Porthcurno, planning only to visit the theater and return. Innocent of the abrupt change of plans awaiting me after I discovered the possibility of walking along those cliffs, I’d brought no lunch; not even a bottle of water. I think I had an orange and a bar of chocolate in my jacket pocket. I was hot, hungry, and very thirsty when I reached Land’s End. And as happy as I could remember being in a very long time.

During my walk along that spectacular coastline, with fields on my right, sheer cliffs dropping to the sea on my left, I had it all to myself, encountering only three or four other people the entire time. The distance between Porthcurno and Land’s End seems to depend on how closely one sticks to the path; the length given in guides ranges from four to six miles. If my memory is accurate, it took me between two and three hours, with much meandering, such as a couple of side trips down to the water which was an irresistible blue.

So despite the occasional sight of another hiker half a mile ahead of me, and those few whose paths crossed mine, I was alone on the journey. And I felt utterly anonymous. No one in the world who knew me, knew where I was that morning. Had I tumbled down the cliffs, been eaten by a rabid sheep, or washed out to sea, no one would have even known I was missing for days.

My screenwriting career ignited, burned merrily for a few years, then died. Sometimes I scratch sadly through the ashes, wondering how it might have turned out had a thousand things been different.

But the memory of those hours in Cornwall stays with me like an epiphany. Being entirely on my own for these few hours, with only myself to take care of, and only myself to take care of me, was an ecstatically liberating feeling. I know the feeling was partly due to the brief escape from my ordinary responsibilities, but beyond that, I think it was due to the spontaneous decision I’d made to try the walk, consulting no one, setting out unprepared, just seeing an opportunity and impulsively acting on it. I felt happiness settling in on me like a barometric change.

[If you’d like to read a detailed account of someone else’s journey on this leg of the path, but in the reverse direction, i.e., Land’s End to Porthcurno, and see his stunning photos, look here: http://www.jbutler.org.uk/e2e/sccp/w1/index.shtml]