Cara/Andrea here (seeing as my new debut is getting closer and closer, I'm going to start using the double moniker so I get used to it!) Today I'm taking a summer break from scholarly research to ramble a bit.
I live in the country. From the window of my writing room, I often see deer (aka rats on hooves because they devour my rhododendrons and basil) and wild turkeys wandering in the yard. Squirrels play tag among a grove of towering pine trees, and a cardinal has taken a shine to the birch tree right outside my window. He sits and preens—he’s male of course. And twitters—the birdsong variety as he’s not yet picked an i-phone from the orchard down the road. On rare occasions, a coyote will trot up my driveway and then disappear back into the ten acres of woods across the street.
So, it sounds pretty idyllic, and for the most part it is. But this summer in particular, perhaps because I am spending more time here during the week rather than in New York City, I’ve become more and more aware of a serpent in paradise. No—no snakes in the basement or slithering through the back meadow. It’s noise. Man-made noise. It starts on Wednesday around 8 am and reaches a crescendo on Fridays—a symphony of gas-powered lawnmowers and trimmers ranging from the deep rumbling thrum of commercial tractors to the high whine of the weed whackers. The landscape crews buzz like a swarm of bees through the neighborhood, gas fumes wafting in their wake, making everyone’s ground look pristine for the weekend.
I know that I’m probably sounding curmudgeonly, but for me, part of the charm of the country is peace and quiet. However this summer it’s been noisier here than in The Big Apple. On top of the weekly maintenance routines, the town had been repaving the nearby roads, so I’ve had one of those behemoth machines that digs up three inches of asphalt grinding down the country lanes. Followed, of course, by the trucks of hot tar and the rollers.
Oh, and then there’s my neighbor, who is in the construction business. Last year, the front of his house transformed into a pillared entranceway, complete with a new porch and a three car garage. It’s really quite impressive. So I’m not quite sure why this year he needed another three-car freestanding garage built right next to the main house. Or why the lovely little grove of trees had to be chain-sawed down to lay rolls of perfect sod. (Did I mention he’s an early bird and loves to get working by 7 am?) Right now a very fancy stone wall is going up—not the traditional New England drywall, with its charming bumps and hitches that blend into the surrounding landscape, but a geometric cement and block monster that would look more at home in Beverly Hills.
Now, as you have probably gathered, I prefer nature in all its imperfect glory to manicured estates, so I’ve been muttering a lot of bad words under my breath as the cacophony of machinery has intruded on my idyllic space. At times, I find myself daydreaming about getting away to a more perfect place . . .
Of course I’m not the only one who has spent time creating a paradise in my head. Literature throughout the ages has recorded how writers have used their imagination to create “heaven on earth.” We can begin with the Beginning, and the description of the Garden of Eden. (Seeing as I am very find of apples, I wouldn’t have lasted there any longer than Eve.) The Greeks had the Elysian Fields—Homer called it the Elysian Plain—where there was no snow, rain or storms and “life is easiest for men.” Virgil placed the Elysian Fields in Lower World, and said it was a place of constant spring and sunlight. (Sounds good to me.)
In 1516, Sir Thomas More created Utopia, a fictional island in the Atlantic where everyone lived in perfect harmony. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, supposedly inspired by opium, looked farther afield and imagined Xanadu, a pleasure palace in the East built by Kubla Khan . . .“And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree . . .” Another Brit, James Hilton, carried on the Oriental theme by creating Shangri-La—said to be inspired by the sacred mountain towns of Tibet—in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizons. The mythical inhabitants were almost immortal and showed little sign of physical aging. (Ahh, my kind of place!)
On a more modern note, I recently saw a Forbes magazine article on the Most Idyllic Places in the World to Live. Tops on the list was Gaiole, in Chianti, a tiny town that dates from the 10th century. (I like that they hold a wine festival every September.) Kefalonia, an island in Greece where Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed, ranked high, as did Ljubljana, in Slovenia, a “little Paris with hints of Art Nouveau,” which is a melting pot of German, Latin and Slavic culture.
Getting back to my own musings on peace and quiet, perhaps the most serene places I’ve ever visited is a spot marked “Island Lake” on the topographic map of the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming. Some years ago, my brothers and I backpacked there (at 16 miles in from the trailhead, and an altitude of over 11,000 feet, it’s pretty remote.)
During the day, they fished for cutthroat, brown and rainbow while I hiked and read the books I had valiantly carried in my backpack. Evenin
gs we would watch the alpenglow paint the surrounding cirque of snow-capped mountain with the most indescribable shades of pink and mauve that I’ve ever seen. When the sun went down, the night sky came alight with a brilliant display of stars. It was . . . heavenly. And the silence—the absolute absence of any sound, save for the wind and the water rushing down from the glaciers, was awesome. I’ve been lucky enough to visit some pretty interesting places in the world, but Island Lake is still one of my favorite spots.
So, now that I’ve taken you on an admittedly rambling peregrination through my summer thoughts, I’ll end by asking that age old question: what’s your idea of paradise? Have you a favorite place in literature? Or a spot in the real world that is your perfect getaway?