Back in 1991, when their collection of yarns told by much-loved woodsman Leroy Dudley got nowhere with regular publishers, Elizabeth Hall Harmon and Jane Thomas went for broke and brought out “Chimney Pond Tales” themselves. With advice from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance they did everything, including wrapping and shipping the first 100 copies all over the country in time for Christmas. An initial run of 2,000 copies was quickly followed by another 3,000. To date more than 10,000 are in circulation, and no one who has ventured inside a Maine bookstore or gift shop will fail to recognize Thomas’s whimsical cover.
Now comes a revised “anniversary” edition with new photographs and the remains of an additional story left just as Dudley recorded it on an old wax cylinder for an admirer named Clayton Hall. Hall, who was evidently an avid hiker, first heard Dudley spin a yarn around 1932, after dinner in the old guide’s cabin on Chimney Pond. One evening was enough to hook him. “Such drolleries and mysteries haunted me. They should not be lost,” Hall determined, and several years later, he backpacked an Edison dictating machine up the slopes of Mount Katahdin to the Chimney Pond cabin in order to record and then transcribe Dudley’s tales for posterity.
Clayton was Elizabeth Hall Harmon’s uncle, whom she never met. We are told nothing about him except that he spent “most of his life in state mental institutions.” He appears in a couple of photographs, a fine-looking, determined young man, and his prose style in two passages included in the book seems elegant and original. I wish Harmon’s interesting tale of discovering her uncle’s typescript included a little more about Clayton Hall. He deserves it as the “founder of the feast.”
Dudley’s yarns are mostly concerned with Pamola, the demon Native Americans believed would eat them if they ventured up Katahdin. Dudley had no fear of Pamola, and Pamola, having failed to dislodge him from Chimney Pond, grew fond of him. Not so, however, the many characters – a “widow woman” from Portland, the fat man from Boston, a Swiss man in a green hat, etc. – from the flatlands. Dudley is always patience itself with these intruders; he can afford such tolerance because Pamola will take care of them sooner or later, and Chimney Pond will return to peace and quiet.
Thomas stresses Dudley’s Native American roots and his “Indian style of telling a story.” Maybe so, but the Pamola in the Chimney Pond tales – and in her charming drawings – is broader than in traditional myths. The stories are peopled by caricatures – some of which grate on the modern ear – and don’t always have much structure.
But if the printed page has flattened some of the characters, Dudley’s love of language and nature shines through even more brightly. “I think the mountain looks prettiest,” he writes, “when everything is coming to life after its long winter sleep.” He describes the “patches of Diapensia in bloom that resemble patches of snow”– he became quite a botanist, thanks to the many he had guided – the song of the birds singing around his cabin, and “the little rabbits… hopping around the yard to get the green grass that grows.” But “we won’t say anything about the blackflies…They come to keep you from being lonesome.”
“Memory storytelling goes in and out of fashion,” Thomas acknowledges. “To record them will preserve them.” Thus preserved are also some wonderful phrases: “the (scientific) name he’d put on it would break an elephant’s back to carry”; “I was so hungry …my heart was beating over on the right side”; Pamola’s kiss “sounded like a horse’s foot being pulled out of the mud.”
New to this edition is “Pamola’s Farewell,” of which the last manuscript page is lost. The “assemblers” decided to include it unedited, along with all Clayton Hall’s approximations of Dudley’s words, like “Dennimite.” It is the roar of its explosion that sets Pamola to “moarnin.” He takes Dudley up to the mountaintop and shows him “all these paint smooches on the rocks, and all this clutter round these clear crystal springs …. look down at Katahdin Stream that picnic ground down there and all these bridges across gullies, and them tin-roofed lean too’s (sic).” The story peters out as Pamola’s tears “big as pork barrels” strike the rocks below.
“How would you end ‘Pamola’s Farewell?’” invite the editors. The story is one thing. Pamola’s world, to which Leroy Dudley gave such heartfelt witness, is still another.
Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”