‘Wasn’t I seeing a little more than most?’

Howard Axelrod

Howard Axelrod says: “It’s hard when your personal orientation and values don’t accord with the dominant culture. How do you find a way to live?” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Howard Axelrod could have traveled anywhere, and had almost everywhere, studying overseas and crisscrossing the country twice before age 25. But to understand why he lived alone without a clock, computer or cellphone in the backwoods of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom for two stark winters, you need to rewind four years to a promising, portentous spring.

“It was a fine blue-sky afternoon, early May,” Axelrod recalls in a quiet voice. A 20-year-old junior at Harvard University, he knew finals were three weeks away. Then again, a trio of schoolmates beckoned with a basketball.

“We need one more,” he remembers them saying. “It’ll just take 15 minutes. You want in?”

Midway through the pickup game, someone attempted a jump shot. The ball boomeranged off the rim. All four players grabbed for the rebound. That’s when, in slow motion yet all too suddenly, Axelrod fell to the floor.

The pain in his right eye bore like a bee sting, like acid, like a tight-squeezing fist. It was only on the way to the doctor he realized it was the result of a teammate’s finger having hooked into his socket.

“I can’t see anything in my right eye,” he said.

“Just heavy swelling — nothing to worry about,” he remembers the physician replying.

Instead, the accident severed the optic nerve that transmits images to the brain, forever stripping Axelrod of half his sight, almost 45 degrees of peripheral vision, all his depth perception — and so many societal illusions he once thought to be true.

‘When my own reflection ceased to be’

In an instant, everything went flat and nothing appeared solid — not just the seemingly two-dimensional juice pitcher and glass he kept missing when pouring, but also the larger view of himself and humankind.

“To be 20 at Harvard was to inhabit a world that was shiny and bright and moral — a world that might still be corrected.”

The English major had expected to follow his father, brother, uncle and cousin to law school. After the accident, he saw everything differently.

“Outwardly I looked the same but inwardly felt quite another way. I had to stop and think about the degree to which I was letting achievement stand in for meaning. What is there when you strip everything away? I realized I was looking for a different kind of depth. I wasn’t searching for my own reflection or my own personal voice but for the voice that would remain when my own reflection ceased to be.”

Graduating from Harvard, he set out to forage — first in Italy, then New Mexico, Idaho, Montana and finally, yearning for the simplicity of his childhood days at camp, Vermont.

“Wanted: a cabin or house set in the woods, with good light, very solitary,” he penned on signs he posted on bulletin boards around the tucked-away town of Glover. “Proximity to a stream or brook. Running water and electricity preferred.”

Axelrod rented a ramshackle house at the dead end of an unmaintained dirt road, some 5 miles from the nearest neighbor.

“Coming to the woods hadn’t been an exercise or a retreat — it wasn’t something to take notes on and jar for later, like summer berries,” he’d later write upon reflection. “I needed to live without the need of putting on a face for anyone, including myself. I needed to be no one, really, while carrying the hope that my particular no one might feel familiar, might turn out to be someone I had known all along — the core of who I’d been as a boy, the core of who I might become as a man.”

‘What I was searching for’

And so he snowshoed, stoked a wood stove, sought provisions twice a month from a combination post office and general store or, when a storm swallowed up the road, from a basement bomb shelter hiding canned goods from an earlier era.

“The surrounding promise that had tormented me during mud season — the purple branchlets of the birches, the pointed, brick-brown buds of the sugar maples, the scent of the wet earth returning to the air, every tree pushing into itself, into particular branches, into particular leaves, saying here and here and here — had finally come true,” he’d later write. “The world was reaching for me — and I could feel myself reaching back.”

One day a landline installed long ago rang. It was his brother phoning from the Boston area.

“I read this book,” Axelrod recalls him saying. “It’s called ‘Into the Wild.’ Ever hear of it?”

The silence signaled no.

“It’s a true story,” continued his brother, who went on to stammer and stumble as he explained that the 1996 best-seller by author Jon Krakauer was about a 20-something man named Chris McCandless who fled society, only to, ah, um, ah, die of starvation.

But Axelrod survived the seasons — “the white expanse of winter, the muddy fight into spring, the glorious green summer.”

“Glaciers, with sheets of ice more than a mile deep, had pushed through this land thousands of years ago, carving the hills and mountains, depositing boulders and rocks as they went,” he’d go on to write. “It was the same land I was standing on. The silence wasn’t just the silence of the moment. It gave me a sense of carrying something in myself that was the same, too, something delicate but abiding — something that had remained no matter the radical changes in my life.”

Then came the fall. After a year of not shaving or checking himself in a mirror, he couldn’t see his increasingly savage beard or spindly body. He did feel his jaw, no longer exercised by speech, ache as he ate. The loneliness, for its part, throbbed harder than his recurring migraine headaches.

“Even in my mind, it was becoming harder to articulate what I was searching for, and how I might succeed. It had something to do with the question of instincts — the right ones to follow, the right ones to ignore.”

‘So compelling and so familiar’

One day the landline rang again. This time it was a New York City friend overwhelmed by medical school and the metropolis.

“Any advice for a poor city dweller?” Axelrod recalls him asking. “What have you found up there?”

“I wish I could translate it,” he replied. “But I don’t know how.”

“Maybe once you get back,” his friend said.

“Maybe.”

That was 15 years ago. Axelrod injured his eye May 2, 1994, retreated to Vermont in the fall of 1999 and returned to Boston in the spring of 2001.

“I didn’t come back as some wise man with answers — I came back overwhelmed by everything,” recalls the once 155-pound student who had withered to 120 pounds. “My fears were the opposite of a child’s. I was afraid of the light, afraid of the noise.”

The city was a blinking, blaring alarm. But by 2005, Axelrod successfully published a New York Times Magazine profile of James Blake, a world-ranked professional tennis player who had broken his neck, lost his father to cancer and suffered a stress-related virus that paralyzed half his face.

“He went from being on top of the world to really losing his identity. It was so compelling and so familiar. It was my excuse to get to talk to him,” Axelrod recalls.

book

Howard Axelrod’s new book is “The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

That led to suggestions he write something longer.

“It came up that I had lived in the woods. It’s not that I thought this would make an easy or great book. I realized if I tried to write another story, I was going to superimpose mine on top of it.”

And so, from memory, he began typing words on a blank screen.

‘So what’s the takeaway?’

“I knew the feelings — I just had to figure out how to tell the story,” Axelrod says today. “An empty page and a blinking cursor is a most receptive listener. For a really long time, I had 500 pages about snow.”

Now he has a new book, “The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude.” The 224-page Beacon Press paperback is racking up impressive reviews nationally.

“Mr. Axelrod is clearly a gifted writer,” The New York Times says in one example. “His book is flecked with wide-awake observations: the way rumpled birch trees resemble ‘crushed cigarettes after a party’; how the menus in a diner are ‘commandment-size.’”

But the author, set to join former Vermont state poet and current MacArthur fellow Ellen Bryant Voigt at Champlain College’s Young Writers’ Conference in May, wasn’t looking to impress anyone.

“I really was learning something — how to see, how to listen,” he writes. “I was learning how to move from the visible world to the invisible, and back again.”

Toward the end of the book, Axelrod recalls a family reunion.

“You’re like a modern Thoreau,” someone said. “So what’s the takeaway?”

The writer didn’t know how to answer.

“I wanted to be able to say something, but there was no way to give the pictures in my mind — the way the woods looked behind the house, the way the chickadees darted branch to branch, the way the far mountains looked from the vista.”

In a world increasingly channeled by earphones or touch screens, he realized some things can’t be summed up in a few seconds or sentences. Instead, they must be explored and experienced — slowly, deeply — for oneself.

“If everyone’s reality included blind spots, if that was simply the nature of perception, and my own perception was constantly being reminded of its blind spots, wasn’t I seeing a little more than most?” he concludes in his book. “It was a comfort to think I hadn’t only lost something — to think I’d been given a way of seeing, or not seeing, that was potentially profound, if only I could figure out how to use it.”

Kevin O'Connor

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