Pine Nuts: The past has a tangible presence |

Pine Nuts: The past has a tangible presence

McAvoy Layne

One of the nice things about portraying characters out of the past is the feeling you get when you stand where they stood and see what they saw. Within this confluence of past and present, there is a palpable kinetic link to be embraced and enjoyed.

As an example, on my way home from the Mother Lode country one beautiful California morning I drove up to the isolated cabin where Mark Twain wrote, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Alone with my thoughts and feelings, I wandered aimlessly around that venerable old cabin up there on Jackass Hill, which Sam said was named before he got there. Then the strangest thing happened. Without my making a rational decision, the Jumping Frog started telling his story through me, and I became an amanuensis channeling the author. Tears started welling up in my eyes and my voice increased in volume to where I was close to shouting.

“I do wonder what in the nation that frog throw’d off for; I wonder if there ain’t something the matter with him, he ‘pears to look mighty … baggy, somehow.”

The story was jumping out of me like the very frog himself, Dan’l Webster, and once the story ended, well, the stillness was so profound I found myself reaching out to touch the atmosphere that he had breathed. This stillness was interrupted by a blue-jay’s cry, “Hey, tell the story about me! Tell the story about me!”

So it happened, without deliberation, out flew, “The Blue-jay Yarn.” And darned if that blue-jay didn’t sit there and listen and laugh and beg for more. I found myself laughing too, and a chill ran from the top of my head to the tip of my toes.

Upon finishing the Blue-jay Yarn, well, darned if that California Blue-jay didn’t give me a wink and a nod, as if to say thanks, and off he flew, over my head into the foothills of Tuolumne County. I, in turn, taking the jay’s cue, gave Samuel a nod, turned on my heel and wheeled away, wholly satisfied in soul and spirit.

I’m convinced there is something more to time than years and centuries. There is a way to bridge the gap and touch the past. We just need to learn how to do it.

Another indication that this might be true came to me while exploring the Twain home in Hartford by myself while a crew set up the lighting for a documentary. When I entered the billiards room off the Texas deck the hair on my arms went up. The presence of the man was so strong I wanted to light up a cigar and join him in a game of billiards.

As I wandered through the sprawling 25-room mansion, I encountered the closed door of a room that was most likely a guest room, but as I reached for the doorknob my hand withdrew and I felt repelled. I was to learn later, and now I understand; that was the room where Susy died.

Yes, the past has a tangible presence, I only wish I knew more about it …

Learn more about McAvoy Layne at

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