The Outer Layers

It seemed to her that he alone knew her whole life – he had known the foolish child that she had been under her father’s care, and he had known of her secret life with Erlend. So he was like a clasp, she thought, which bound everything she had loved to all that now filled her heart. She was now quite cut off from the person she had been – the time when she was a maiden.  – KRISTEN LAVRANSDATTER, pp 252-254

Grace, like water, flows to the lowest part. – PHILIP YANCEY 

I love the smell of our home in the late afternoon. The aroma of garlic and onions drifts down the hall to my study where I craft words on paper to my younger self – trails of cumin and cayenne – a pot of beans simmering in a broth of smoked turkey necks pulls me from the long ago summer fling I’m trying to parse into coherent sentences – our foolish bodies full of foolish agency – how I left a splinter in my foot the night we slow-danced outside, and the tiny sliver calloused, taking decades to heal – a souvenir I thought romantic at the time. 

After hours of writing, I resist hunger and charge out the door in my gray canvas work pants and pink flannel with pearl buttons and pockets. I walk the 765 steps of our wooded drive.  Back and forth. With purpose, broken sentences still rattling inside my head – shards and fragments – how I flung myself into risk, not heeding my mother’s warning about women in our family. If a man looks at us hard, we’ll get pregnant.  I sit next to an old growth yellow pine and lean against the thick bark, puzzled and flaking easily.  I inhale the tree’s faint vanilla. My domestic savory perfume cleaves to the forest’s own spiced balm.  

Broad leaves layer the ground, breathing old leather and whiskey, the gnarled trunks and vines and branches now visible in winter – curves and rot – suspended bony elegance – new contours to discover.  I kneel for neon blue mold spreading over a fallen branch, wine speckles of gall wasp nurseries.  

The original owners of this property planted bulbs in the early 70s. Each spring, multiple varieties of daffodil, crocus, and muscari burst through oak leaves.  I am still learning what the land needs here. I am still learning the topography of my own heart, ever shifting.  There are no lessons from the past – only a path to where I am now. 

I love walking toward our home at sunset and catching the scent of our kitchen in full bloom. I learn the animal shapes in the leaves along the way – snake and armadillo and the muddy tracks edging the pond – raccoon, deer, coyote. 

Dennis calls from the screen door. He steps outside, and I see his silhouette against an amber glow, the shape of his hands lifting a round thing in the air – a giant wafer. He lowers the disk and hops and dances.  “Come and get it!” he shouts. It’s cornbread – a crisp outer layer, pillowy warmth inside – a kind of earth in my mouth.  I know this for certain and run toward him as if the fading light behind this delicious food is possible to grasp.

I sometimes wear Dennis’s oversized down coat he bought decades ago at Burlington Coat Factory. This man who knows all my secrets – who is no monk – who delights in cast iron and cornbread. The coat’s zipper is broken. Just walking with it open is a comfort. I want to lay down in the forest with this coat and spend hours gazing into the canopy. I can do that. I have that kind of life now. 




Fat, wet snowflakes drop from the sky, and I realize there is no desire to contact the man who impregnated me when I was 18.  

Those tiny fists melt before they hit the ground.

Joanna ES Campbell holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University.  Her checkered past includes teaching ecological literature and land ethics in the Wilderness & Civilization Program at the University of Montana; organizing statewide heirloom tomato festivals; and graduating high school by the skin of her teeth. She is the undefeated 1986 jump rope champion of her elementary school in which she peaked athletically.  Her writing can be found in various guest blogs and anthologies as well as Farming Magazine, Art House America, Arkansas Review, Process Philosophy for Everyone, Relief, and Orion Magazine. She is co-author of the book, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food, as Seen by a Mother and Daughter. Joanna lives on Petit Jean Mountain in central Arkansas where she putters with her husband on eleven wooded acres. She is currently writing a lyrical memoir drawn from her experiences of wilderness and community in North America. Follow her blog at 

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