Looking for Loneliness

Carl Sandburg 3We should all be as fortunate as Carl Sandburg in choosing a place to live out our final years. At the age of 67, Sandburg, who had spent much of his life in the Midwest, moved with his wife Lilian and their grown children to Connemara, a rural estate in North Carolina. At Connemara, Sandburg was surrounded by books, his wife’s prize-winning goats, and 264 acres of land — pastures, forests, and mountains. Sandburg would often take his chair outside, onto the rocky outcropping shown in the photo above. There he would sit to read, write, or think. He spent the last 22 years of his life at Connemara, where he produced a third of his total writing output.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the time in my life when I wrote poetry was also a time when I took long walks by myself. I often walked to a quiet neighborhood not far from my college, stopping to sit and think at an empty lot where a house had burned down years before. There was a lovely view of the valley beyond the low stone wall that had survived the fire. I loved to sit by that wall, thinking, praying, scribbling in my journal.

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My photo of the sign in front of Sandburg’s solitary retreat at Connemara.  I have never seen a chair on the rocky outcropping where Sandburg like to sit, but I found a photo of Sandburg’s chair on a hiking blog.

Looking back, I wonder if I was too fond of solitude in those days. But I wrote a lot of poetry. Now I usually walk with family members, so taking a recent hike by myself at the Carl Sandburg Home was quite an event. I wish I could say that I had discovered Sandburg’s quotation all by myself. The truth is, Sandburg’s observation, which he made in a letter to a friend, appears on the front of the National Park Service’s brochure and in a sign near the famous rock: “It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'”

For Sandburg, finding a quiet place to reflect was as easy as walking out his side-door. For those of us not living in the country, it may be more difficult to find the place or even the time for sitting and thinking outside. But Sandburg is right: from time to time, self-imposed solitude is good for the soul, particularly beneath the swaying branches of hemlocks and pines.

November 2014

November 2014

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This is my fourth post about the Carl Sandburg Home, which is a fascinating and beautiful place. This photo shows Sandburg’s idyll (minus the chair).

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Many thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the Writer’s Quote Wednesday event.

Solitude: “I went to the woods . . .”

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden (iPhone 5s)

“I’m doomed!” I thought as I saw the cars. Freed of responsibility for the afternoon, I had driven to Flat Rock in search of solitude.  I’d never seen more than half a dozen cars in the parking lot on previous visits to the Carl Sandburg Home. On this sunny Saturday, I barely found a spot in the Flat Rock Playhouse parking lot across the street.

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At least a dozen people passed me as I searched for a trail map at the building by the front lake. There were no maps. Carl Sandburg, the “Poet of the People,” would have rejoiced to see such a diverse crowd enjoying his peaceful retreat — old and young couples, college girls, families with small children, exercise enthusiasts, dogs and their owners. But how was I to take a photo representing solitude if I was surrounded by people on my hike up to Big Glassy Overlook?

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As it turned out, I needed other people to help me reach Big Glassy Overlook. I headed up the long driveway, past Sandburg’s house, and along the path that — I thought — led to the top of Glassy Mountain. With few signs and no blazes marking the trails, I became concerned that I was headed instead towards the circuitous Little Glassy Trail, which we had taken a couple of weeks ago.

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“I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” ― Henry David Thoreau (Coolpix L320)

While I hesitated, a mother and two little girls came into view. The younger daughter seemed to find my request for help amusing. Was it because I, a grown-up, was lost? Although they were going to the goat barn, the mother knew how to reach Big Glassy from there, so I tagged along. The mother pointed out that my shoe was untied. I felt myself sinking even deeper in the young girl’s estimation.

As we walked towards the barn in awkward silence, another group approached from the opposite direction — grandparents and tweens. They were looking for Little Glassy Trail, but they had just come down from Big Glassy Overlook and assured me that I could get there on the path behind them. I thanked the mother and little girls and headed up the trail.

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A couple was ahead of me on the uphill path, so I slowed down, hoping to achieve “solitude.” I trudged up the hill, hearing the crunch of fallen leaves as I walked (my shoe was untied again). Soon the sound of voices died away, and I was by myself in the woods. In college, I often took long walks alone; maybe the close quarters of dorm life had something to do with my need for solitude then. But, in recent years, family hikes had become a social activity, a time for talking as much as getting exercise or trying out a new trail. How long had it been since I had gone on a hike by myself? Or listened to the crackle of dry leaves beneath my feet?

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One nice thing about being alone: I could take lots of pictures, although the memory card in my Lumix had rebelliously declared itself to be “Write-Protected.” Once its built-in memory filled, I was left to my iPhone 5s and Coolpix L320, neither of which offered an AF grid. So much for trying the Rule of Thirds. I had noticed large patches of granite more than once during the 1.5-mile hike to the top of Glassy Mountain. Now that I had finally reached the overlook, I walked carefully over the slippery outcropping to see the lovely view of the valley.

The couple who had been ahead of me on the trail was sitting on a bench when I arrived. They got up immediately, despite my urging, “Don’t let me drive you off!” Secretly, I was glad when they assured me they were leaving. I would have a few moments alone in this serene spot. Instead of taking pictures, I sat down on the granite summit, drank from my water bottle, and enjoyed the panorama.

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This was a mistake, because, seconds later, two more couples showed up. The older couple began posing for photographs in front of the view, while the young couple settled on the bench, seemingly determined to stay there until the rest of us left. I needed to go, anyway — I was supposed to take my daughter shopping. I retraced my steps on the descent, thankful that it was light enough for me to enjoy the fading fall colors. Amusingly, I encountered the mother and her two daughters on my way down the trail. They had visited the goats. “They were butting each other like crazy today,” the little girl told me, as if I were now a friend.

Although my walk to the overlook had been mostly solitary, now I encountered more people, alone or in pairs, hurrying down or heading up. To my surprise, I met some people I knew: the homeschooling mother and son who had introduced me to the Carl Sandburg Home on an August field trip! I was introduced to the father of the family, and we chatted briefly. The mother was pleased that I had returned to the Sandburg site so many times. I tried to explain about the “solitude” photo assignment, but their faces wore puzzled expressions as we parted ways.

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By now, I was making plans with my husband on my phone. He updated me on our son’s chess tournament: his team had won second place! I got lost — again. Impatient to reach my car and immersed in the logistics of whether I could get downtown in time to pick up my daughter, I failed to notice where I was walking. Wondering if I had time to stop by the bakery and buy an almond croissant, I veered left onto a driveway. Suddenly, instead of the shimmering lake at the entrance, an unfriendly gate confronted me. “How did I miss the lake”? I thought in disgust. (I had planned to take more pictures.) Resignedly, I clambered over and walked along the road to the overflow lot — thankful that I would soon be rejoining my family, sad that my slow rate of travel had cost me the croissant.

Unlike Thoreau — who lived in the woods for two years, two months, and two days — I went to the woods to be alone for a few hours. What had this solitary experience taught me? Getting lost seemed to accompany solitude, if solitude meant being by myself in a public place. My self-consciousness had also increased on the hike: I was keenly aware that the people I met perceived me simply as a middle-aged woman, not as part of a family or a couple. When I had encountered people whom I knew, I felt compelled to justify my presence there without any family members. Why? Did that imply that I saw myself not as an individual but only in relation to other people? In addition to elevating my heart rate, the climb to Big Glassy Overlook had heightened my sensory perceptions — my awareness of sounds, in particular. Bird calls, rustling leaves, the occasional falling nut: would I have missed these, had I not been alone?


All photographs taken by Sandra Fleming. Text and photographs are copyrighted by Sandra Fleming © 2014. Please do not use or reproduce them without her permission.

Return to Connemara

Smooth as silent glass

Water bends beneath webbed feet

Darkness rims the day


IMG_2734Weekly photo challenge: Refraction

Haiku and photos by Sandi Fleming, October 2014

All photos were taken with an iPhone 5. “Return to Connemara” copyrighted  ©2014 by Sandra Fleming.


IMG_2712For Irish readers, Connemara is the name of Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, North Carolina. An American poet and writer, Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize three times. Today, his house is a National Historic Site, which I wrote about in a September post. On Sunday afternoon, my husband, son, and I went to Connemara for a short hike–short, because it was after 5:00 by the time we arrived and beginning to grow dark. As the light faded, so did my hopes of fall color photos. Even so, I could see why Sandburg found this peaceful setting conducive to his writing.

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Time Travel, Lincoln, and Goats

Last week I had the opportunity to do some time travelling, an occupation usually reserved for science fiction. My husband, youngest son, and I visited Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, which was like walking back into the world of 1967, complete with calendars. IMG_2373When Sandburg died in 1967, his wife and daughter moved to Asheville, leaving almost everything in the house — even the cigarette butts, according to our docent.  My perspective on 1967 was that of a four-year-old, but mingled with my memories of mimosa trees and my omnipotent older brother are corded telephones, linoleum floors, a television set with legs, and Danish modern furniture.  These metal lawn chairs outside the bookstore reminded me so vividly of the long-gone green chairs on my parents’ concrete patio that I caught my breath.IMG_2396

The history of the house itself was more interesting than I had expected. Built in the 1830s by Christopher Memminger, a Charleston lawyer, the house — which he called Rock Hill — was used as a hide-out during the Civil War, when Memminger’s Charleston property was seized and he, as Secretary of the Treasury of the Confederate States of America, was a fugitive.  As pictured below, this long slit in the dining room wall was made by Memminger so that he could stick the barrel of a gun through it and frighten off would-be marauders; the dining room was downstairs, presumably so that it would be closer to the outdoor kitchen. Fortunately, no raiders ever appeared, but the intriguing hole remains — presumably, they found a way to block it in the winter. Our guide chuckled at the irony that Sandburg, Lincoln’s best-known biographer, bought a house that had been built by a slave-owner and officer in the CSA. There are even rumors that the seal of the CSA was once hidden atop Glassy Mountain!

IMG_2395The next inhabitants, the Smyths, were also from Charleston, but they used the house as a year-round residence and named it Connemara to honor their Irish ancestry.  In 1945, Lilian Sandburg bought the house and its 264 acres because she was looking for a place where she could raise her growing herd of Chikaming goats and where Carl could write. And she found it!  At Connemara, Sandburg produced about a third of his total output, while Lilian’s herds went on to win numerous prizes. He also read a great deal, judging by the number of books in the house: apparently, the Sandburgs shipped an entire boxcar of books from Michigan to North Carolina when they moved. Bookshelves lined the walls of the two main floors of the house. (Workers regularly clean the books to minimize silverfish damage.)

In the first room, IMG_2363we saw a large piano (played primarily by the Sandburgs’ oldest daughter, Margaret) and a guitar, which Carl played. Andres Segovia was a fan of his and even wrote a piece in honor of Sandburg — which, if I heard correctly, was too challenging for Sandburg to play; Segovia’s sheet music was available for purchase in the bookstore.IMG_2365

Lilian Sandburg’s brother, Edward Steichen, was a well-known photographer in his time. His photos are hung throughout the Sandburg home, including this one in the front room: “Isadora Duncan in the Parthenon, Athens.”

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A life mask of Sandburg sits on the shelf in his office.

A bibliophile himself, even my husband was impressed with the number of books amassed by the Sandburgs, who left more than 11,000 books in the house.

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Living in an antebellum home, the Sandburgs were aware of the dangers of fire, given their extensive library, and had a professional-grade fire hose installed on the wall of the stairwell.

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IMG_2379Pictured on the left is one of the many television sets in the Sandburg house — another irony, since Sandburg felt that television was a thief of time. The president of Zenith was his admirer, however, and more than once bestowed televisions upon the Sandburg household. There were televisions in the bedrooms, too, along with furniture reminiscent of the twin beds in my childhood room and a treadle sewing machine that reminded my husband of his grandmother’s machine. To avoid distractions, Sandburg preferred to write in an attic room without a view.

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While the kitchen seems antiquated now, it, too, was representative of its time. My husband was forcefully reminded of his Aunt Rosabelle’s kitchen in South Carolina, which was probably updated around the same time as the Sandburgs’.

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Although my husband and I were fascinated by the house, my son was delighted when we finally emerged from its musty interior into the afternoon sunlight. After a quick stroll through the outbuildings near the house, we headed on to the Goat Barn, where David happily interacted with the young goats; the billy goats were sequestered on the other side of the road.

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Nowadays, the goats — which are descendants of the prize-winning herd that Lilian (or “Paula,” as Sandburg affectionately called her) developed — have a fairly carefree existence, tended by the National Park workers; back in the day, however, Lilian worked tirelessly to breed a goat that would produce the maximum amount of milk, finally resulting in Jennifer II. Amusingly, the Sandburgs became involved with goats when one of their daughters wanted a pet cow: they talked her into a goat instead.

Playing with the goats was David’s favorite part of the trip. I do think that I will read some of Sandburg’s poetry to him in the next couple of weeks, and perhaps we will embark on Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, which I vaguely remember from my childhood.

David was sad that we didn’t see water snakes by the dam as we crossed over the pond at the entrance to the Carl Sandburg Home — on our previous visit, several snakes had been sunning themselves — but he and his father enjoyed seeing some brim swim past (no fishing was allowed, however). Next summer, we’ll have to be on the watch for the free productions put on at the ampitheater!

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All photos in this post were taken by Sandra Fleming (on her iPhone, because she left her better camera at home). Click here for a virtual tour of Connemara, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Here are the snakes that we saw from the safety of the bridge on our first visit to Connemara:

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