Medium 9781574412505

Living in the Woods in a Tree

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Living in the Woods in a Tree is an intimate glimpse into the turbulent life of Texas music legend Blaze Foley (1949--1989), seen through the eyes of Sybil Rosen, the woman for whom he wrote his most widely known song, "If I Could Only Fly." It captures the exuberance of their fleeting idyll in a tree house in the Georgia woods during the countercultural 1970s. Rosen offers a firsthand witnessing of Foley’s transformation from a reticent hippie musician to the enigmatic singer/songwriter who would live and die outside society's rules. While Foley's own performances are only recently being released, his songs have been covered by Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine. When he first encountered “If I Could Only Fly," Merle Haggard called it “the best country song I've heard in fifteen years." In a work that is part-memoir, part-biography, Rosen struggles to finally come to terms with Foley's myth and her role in its creation. Her tracing of his impact on her life navigates a lovers' roadmap along the permeable boundary between life and death. A must-read for all Blaze Foley and Texas music fans, as well as romantics of all ages, Living in the Woods in a Tree is an honest and compassionate portrait of the troubled artist and his reluctant muse.

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Part 1: Moonlight

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1

Things I Can’t Throw Away

T

he dead have a long reach. And they can be patient. They wait till you are ready, and then they seep back into your heart and crack it open.

They pour out of the tissue where you’ve hidden them away and insist on being known again.

Depty Dawg had come back without warning two months ago, in early

September 2002. In eight short weeks I’ve gone from being a menopausal skeptic about love, to a hormone-drenched teenager who believes in ghosts, who waits at night for one to visit her. Where once I prided myself on selfknowledge—a contradiction at best—now I stumble blind through memory and grief, astonished to find myself jealous of rivals I never knew, for the heart of a man who’s been dead thirteen years.

I can hardly remember who I was before. The one thing I’m certain of is that I was already mourning the latest dog in my life—a blond, sassy lab-andIrish setter mix named Larue. She had been felled by cancer of the snout, cruel karma for a being who always followed her nose. In long rambles through the woods Larue had revealed to me events I might not have otherwise noticed: beavers swimming in a moonlit embrace, bear cubs high in the pines. Her sturdy presence had made it possible for me to live on my own for more than a decade and write. Often I’d thought of dedicating every word to her, since she’d given up so many hours when she could have been out rolling on a dead skunk, to snooze beside me on the floor while I sat at my computer, wrestling with the muse. At the end of July I had put her to sleep for the last time, and now my bones still ached for her big-barreled body and undiluted affection, the warp and woof of our life together.

 

Part 2: Autumn Winds

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25

Miles to Go

T

wo months after my return from Georgia, I’m on my way to Texas and

Blaze Foley’s grave. It’s the end of January now, and the thermometers in New York have plunged to zero. The Catskills are white and unmoving, the air so cold it glitters with crystals.

The night before I leave, Yukon the monk helps me try to bury Larue’s ashes in the grove of pines behind the house. The ground is frozen, impossible to dig; no resting place there. It will be summer by the time we finally scatter her ashes in the percolating stream beside the cottage where she last lived.

For now, Yukon sends me off with his blessing. In our long friendship, good-byes have been frequent.

“My gypsy queen,” he breathes, passing a hand over the top of my head.

He wears a woolen cap pulled down to just above his eyelids. “It’s a love story through space and time.”

“There’s no such thing as time,” I grouse. “I’m convinced of that now.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Do you think I’m going crazy?” I ask him.

He peers at me and shrugs. “If something can heal you, let it.”

 

Part 3: Country Music Widow

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Scavengers

T

wenty-six years after I said good-bye to Depty Dawg in Chicago, I’m wandering around a deserted graveyard outside Austin looking for

Blaze Foley’s grave. No one here can tell me how to find it; you have to let him guide you, his friends all say.

The entrance to Live Oak Cemetery is marked by a sprawling grove of ancient oaks whose leathery leaves are evergreen; they don’t fall in autumn.

Live oaks can defy the seasons for hundreds of years, and here their sprawled branches cast a dense canopy over the sun-baked Texas plain. Under the great trees, gravestones—some of them dating back to the 1800s—are nestled comfortably, tilted with time, the etching on the rough granite almost worn away.

It’s the beginning of February, a few days after the fourteenth anniversary of Blaze’s death. The weather in Austin has been surprisingly warm; only yesterday it shifted, turning cold and raw. I’ve been walking under the old oaks searching for his gravesite for over an hour, and I’m starting to shiver. Beyond the massive grove, the burial grounds open onto a barren field where neat rows of young trees have been planted. I move into the sunshine, but the wind blows unhampered here and if anything, it’s colder. The gravestones beside the smaller oaks are more recent; exposed to sun and wind, they feel forlorn, less settled than the ones whose names are no longer recorded beneath the shaded stand.

 

Part 4: Small Town Hero

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True North

M

y weeks in Austin have left me with a few answers and still more questions. Like an onion, there are innumerable layers of Blaze to peel back; I realize now there will never be an end to them. Yet someday, anyway, I will have to let go.

Meanwhile I have one last stop in Texas. This morning I’m on a northbound bus to Athens, where Blaze’s younger sister, Marsha, lives. We haven’t seen each other since 1976 and frankly, I’m nervous about our visit. The botched attempt at mythmaking in the cemetery was a wry reminder. The fates may be free to pronounce me Blaze’s wife, but I’ve no idea what his evangelical Christian family would have to say about that.

The bus leaves Austin behind. Above the freeway, vultures wheel on tilted wings. Myself, I’m done with scavenging; I just want to go home, wherever that is. To find the past, I had to shed the present. I’ve given up the house in the Catskills, any means of income, and all certainty about the future. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been lucky. As I ricocheted between New York, Georgia, and Texas, family and friends have caught me every step of the way. In a world where war clamors, the earth sickens, and hunger abounds, I have had the luxury of dallying with a ghost.

 

Part 5: The Moon Shines On

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60

Numbers

N

ine months after Billy’s letter arrived in New York, I’ve finally come to a stop in Georgia. The Waller tradition of hospitality endures. At

Glyn’s invitation, I returned here from Texas, to live in the quarters for a time, collecting my thoughts.

Every morning now since the end of February, I’ve sat at this desk by a window, watching the green seep up out of the earth. By May, Georgia is spring-steeped, hot already. Leaves no longer shimmer with youth; like gardeners’ hands, they’ve darkened with the serious work of summer: gathering sunlight, making sugar. Against a wall of emerald woods, the flowering privets make a shield of white. The Chattahoochee has disappeared behind the trees again, save for the sound the water makes buckling past the cabin.

An armadillo forages in the floodplain, and turkey vultures fly low over the quarters, casting shadows on the ground. Glyn says there’s still blackberry winter to come, or maybe not this year; so much rain.

How I came to be at Waller writing about lost love is still a great, unsolicited surprise. One thing is certain: Blaze Foley’s legend got me here. So much of his true story unfolded in Georgia, and all of his life in the tree house. Our friends in Whitesburg still maintain they witnessed his happiest time, and everywhere is evidence of him.

 

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