Air

gryphon

Last year an eclipse bloodied the full moon in her home sign. It was after solstice, after the holidays, the demarcation of the before-time.

Under this year’s full moon, a wasp queen woke from her secret winter nest inside an oak haunch stacked for the fire. She circled madly through the kitchen hammering the light above the stove.  While I chopped vegetables for soup, her gryring shadow fell across my knife magnified into a furious gryphon on the wing. She was finally trapped and set free into the December night. 

A flood of narratives are on offer everywhere reflecting on the old year gone, but I do not read them. It is air now, not stone. Watch the blade and not the shadow.

Down along the river the sky and water blend together at the horizon, smelted iron without inflection, my boots sinking down in the saturated loam. The dog reads the shades of scent in the air and tells me their story. She presses her nose to the long grass, following, to raise a pheasant. When the fireworks started, she slipped under the bed.

I cut my hair on New Year’s Day. Six inches of hair grow in a year. I picked out the moss and twigs and mud with a wide-toothed comb and sliced away old handfuls with sharp steel shears.

Not Yams

blue_oak

–A Thanksgiving Screed–

It’s late Wednesday afternoon when my father finally breaks away from his practice and comes home to load our big white Chevy wagon for the trip across the state to Idaho. Dogs and shotguns stacked in the back for bird hunting Thanksgiving morning, pastries and coffee cakes Mom baked and wrapped stowed safely away from the dogs, and coloring books for my brother and me during the 400 mile trek over the Cascades, across the high desert, twisting through icy passes in the Malheur, until finally crossing the Snake River and up Olds Ferry Road to my grandparents’ place.

Dad’s clan gathered in the drafty farm grange surrounded by fallow disked fields under light snowfall. Women brought covered dishes and converged to carve three or four turkeys. I snitched black olives from the relish bowl and stuck one on each finger. The food was cold, at best lukewarm. The turkey was stringy and parched, mashed potatoes congealed, and green beans boiled with bacon for hours took on the flavor of the bleak November sky. The women did their best, I know now and understand, with what they had in that rustic grange hall.

The important thing, Mom said, was family and yes, I had to wear a dress until dinner was over, and yes, I must try everything and not just butter a roll for a turkey and pickle sandwich. (The Jell-O salad with fruit cocktail and swirled Cool Whip was palatable.) The worst dish, nastier than gelatinous dressing and greasy gravy, was the platter of sticky yams coated in marshmallows.

Eating a cloying yam, a sickly sweet potato, the stringy fibers of an acorn squash, was a feat too far. The taste of orange mealy vegetables made me gag as surely as the trip over the mountains made me car sick. Butter, brown sugar, and marshmallow are for fools. I was not so easily deceived. Yams are the bottom of the fodder rainbow and better left to beasts. Try it, Mom hissed, but I gagged over my plate and she lifted me up by one arm and hustled me away from the table.

Carving pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns made me retch, reaching down the stinking cavity into a sticky web of seeds smelt of dying earth. Even pumpkin pie, dressed with cream and spice, tastes of swampy rotting entrails. Roasted carrots coated with honey and sesame seed served by loving friends are a problem. I toy during conversation to discreetly hide them under a stray rib of romaine.

“Eat the rainbow,” nutritionists counsel, so I slug down a shot glass of carrot juice every morning and call it good. Autumn markets showcase brimming bins of orange squashes and tubers so I give them wide berth. Cooking magazines displayed at checkout feature glossy butternut and patty pan recipes and I can’t swallow. I look away instead and read the headlines of the tabloids featuring the latest dish on Harry and Meghan.

Fire

Half the water is gone from the bucket when I check it this morning, but there’s less ash than the day before.

They come at night, creep up from the dry shaggy woods in the dark to drink. I dump the water and carry the bucket back to the house and rinse it out. I refill it with as much water as I can carry without slopping out most of it walking back to the hill where the deer trail opens from the withered bramble. With the fire so close, the wild creatures are fleeing the forest and moving down toward town. 150,000 acres of wildfire burn a few miles to the east-northeast, ash flurries sift down. I wear my best mask, pull my hat down low.

The West is on fire.

The red flag warning for strong dry easterly winds was issued over the weekend. Labor Day skies dawned clear and blue with the coppery mellow light of early autumn, a crackle of birch leaves skittering across the drive. By evening smoke enveloped the valley in a sickly thick fog. Hard winds swirled up born of the high pressure and heat in the heart of the state and dropped trees and power lines. Power lines sparked fires in the parched forests.

Evacuation alerts for the eastern county into the Cascades woke us in the night. The fire jumped the river and consumed homes and towns along the watershed, fire burned down river insatiable. Rainbow trout, summer steelhead, and Chinook salmon hatchlings were released downstream from Leaburg moments before the fire overtook the hatchery. It’s too soon to know what is lost, but it is incalculable. The fires are still burning.

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

–Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

“Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died…,those who loved them forever questioning “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”

–Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

In August

roses2

For August, a checklist:

Buy roses, an odd number as the French do, rather than an American dozen–white roses, with a blush, to suit the bleached sky in the afternoon and the crumbs on the tablecloth. Cut the stems very short. Wipe the dark cobalt vase to place on the dining table. Fill the bowl with water each morning and sigh.

Water the monster red geranium, the one that managed to survive three winters, the one that spilled out and overwhelmed its large ceramic pot to litter petals on the deck that look like jam-stained rubies.

Check the Orthodox calendar to confirm the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos. I am not Orthodox, but the stores close in Athens and it would be difficult to find a taxi if I was there. It was yesterday.

Count the cantaloupes swelling on the vine. I tickled the yellow-starred blossoms with a twig because I didn’t trust the bees. They seemed distracted.

Make more refrigerator pickles, grate zucchini and salt it, squeeze out the water in a clean cotton rag. Bake muffins. Bake pastitsio. Grind handfuls of herbs from the garden with garlic, olive oil, anchovy, fresh lemon and blend in creme fraiche to drizzle on watermelon.

Listen for distant thunder.

Move the hanging fuchsia to the backyard; a doe crept up on the front porch early one morning and ate two-thirds of it. The dog warned me, but I stayed in bed.

Bundle up the wool Flokati rugs and lug them down to the local laundromat. (Laundromats are damp and dismal places, even with all the supposedly hopeful scents of detergent and fabric softener.)  Load a bag of quarters in three industrial-size machines, cold water only, and work the crossword puzzle in the free weekly newspaper while the machines spin. Lug the wet wool home again and flatten the rugs to dry in the sun for several days, turning as needed.

Let the young repair men inside to replace the tattered canvas of the awning. Though I tugged the monster geranium and its fellow potted roses and nastursiums  out of the way, the trailing petunia managed to be crushed underfoot.

Walk Ben to the park and loop down Walnut Lane to see the enormous house under construction. Let the workers pet Ben, but avoid the nice woman with the yellow Lab, because Ben is sketchy sometimes. Throw sticks for Mercy on the hill and let her greet the neighbor’s landscapers who arrive every Wednesday.

Wash the grime, the dust, the layers of cedar off my old pony because it’s hard to see out the windows when Mercy and I head down to the river. The car is 22 years old and I paid much more to have her rebuilt than her resale value, but she’s a trusty manual transmission and survived my son learning to drive and his powerslides into curbs, although she is missing two hubcaps and the right side mirror.

Strain the red currents that soaked in apple cider vinegar for a week and blend the juice with a thyme-infused simple syrup. Bottle the fruit shrub and tuck it away, satisfied with sampling the overfill.

Think of calling the chimney sweep, but sit on edge of the front porch and roll the white blossoms of summer savory between my fingers instead.

[A revised repost from August 2018]

Descry

ben_as_angel

My father still lives in the house I grew up in, lives alone since my mother died twenty years ago. For twenty years, Dad kept the last Mother’s Day fuchsia I gave her alive until the old knot of roots finally failed. I repotted it twice, each time doubtful. He brought it inside each winter, placing a plastic yellow bucket underneath to catch the watering runoff. I cut stems before it faltered, grew new roots, grew two new plants. It’s not the same, I know. It’s something.

We might save our lives but not our flagrancy.

Dad finds dogs on sale with varying outcomes, lost causes in need of rescue and rehabilitation, German Shorthair or Brittany Spaniels. Emmy is the prize. He found Ben up the valley on a farm, a food- jealous, resource-guarding bright Puck unable to make eye contact.

I started him on a leash around the little block of the old neighborhood using Mercy’s hefty retractable that we run through fields after pheasant scent, though Ben is half her size. (You can never be a bigger asshole than from the beginning.) I landed him like a Chinook at the end of the line when he bolted. Then we talked.

For two years Ben and I walked the old neighborhood, under old trees with leaves and without, in rain and fog and steaming July heat.

A woman we met walking told him he carries Buddha’s thumbprint on his forehead.

Another woman gave him a plaid bandana to wear around his neck.

Ben catches my scent out back when I tend Dad’s garden and calls for me to come, it’s time to walk.

Solvitur ambulando

 

 

Stone Road

stone_road

“This harmful road into the New World, quickly became a ruthless, angry search for wealth. It set a tone in the Americas. The quest for personal possessions was to be, from the outset, a series of raids, irresponsible and criminal, a spree, in which an end to it–the slaves, the timber, the pearls, the fur, the precious ores–was never visible, in which an end had no meaning.”

–Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America

Barry Lopez lives upriver, below Sahalie and Koosah, close by the landing at Finn Rock. I believed it was mine, this river; these were my own moss ferned trails down to rock and rapid. I read Lopez’s River Notes.

Each spring I ranged over stone deltas along the river channels to study the flow, after winter floods remapped the current, before wading into the water and letting snow melt wash me down stream. The black dogs walked up river beside me and then floated along behind, waves of August bleaching the bend where we would land.

I was young and proud in presumptive possession, but long years teach, even if one does not learn:  I belong to the river, bearing the same nativity as heron or trout, not the other way around.

A green university town, emptied of students in March, ordered under curfew two nights, a text alert announcing the second restriction was delivered eight minutes after it was already being enforced. Windows broken in Starbucks; fires set.

Traffic stopped Sunday over the Ferry Street Bridge, made way for crowds marching north to the river front park, mostly masked and carrying signs, a young woman riding her small gait horse bareback, so many people so close together after so many weeks, panting for breath.

“We would have to memorize and remember the land, walk it, eat from its soils and from the animals that ate its plants. We would have to know its winds, inhale its airs, observe the sequence of its flowers in the spring and the range of its birds…To be intimate with the land like this is to enclose it in the same universe we occupy, to include it in the meaning of the word community.”

–Ibid

 

On the Road to Jericho

river_path

One red tulip cup opens in the front garden, not yet plucked by a wandering doe, a bright cup between gray lavender and dusty sage. Tree pollen billows and blows in rafts.

The full moon brought clear skies and warm afternoons, breezes to loft the gold dust away across the hill. A bright copper penny placed in the bottom of a vase will keep tulips stems upright rather than dropping their heads. An old woman told me that once long ago, repeated her instructions and stressed, as she looked up into my eyes, that it must be a bright penny.

A penny for your thoughts.

Wealth untold in this little hill that is my home: a wood, a bramble patch, an onion bed, four pots of geranium overwintered on the top deck, a bay laurel, countless rosemary cuttings grown from two mother shrubs, birch and maple saplings salvaged from the garden and potted for some unknown reason save I couldn’t bear to pull them up and toss them on the heap. I have windows and wind. The dog chases sticks and tennis balls in the morning and we patrol a patch of wild grass and woods.

I wonder at the fortitude of my friend in Manhattan without so much as a balcony; she lives alone and hasn’t left her apartment in nearly five weeks. How does one live without sky?

All those living in cities without seeing the sky for the smother of human hurry, and now skies above Delhi and Los Angeles are blue and clear, though a bright penny is paid as price. Fin whales were seen close off the coast of Marseille. My grandfather worked a tug boat there during the war, salt water somewhere under the oil and blood. Clever monkeys.

hunting

Mercy and I go out to the river and watch, proxy hunting ground squirrels, nutria, and pheasant, for a hunting dog must hunt. During the first rainy weeks of what-comes-next, we owned it all, strangely alone along the river paths, in the endless acres of park.

Yesterday, we went down to the canal beside the Japanese garden, skirting a generous margin away from three young women practicing hoops under the blooming cherry tree. They came over the rise to watch Mercy swim and laughed when the dog ran to greet them. She showered water when she shook herself and tried to pry away a pretty hoop, but then dashed back past me on the bank and into the water, showing off.

The trio were singing when they left to cross the footbridge, spinning their streamered hoops and waving, When they disappeared into the trees on the farther bank, I could still hear their voices.

 

 

Dirt Moon

greenhouse

The greenhouse is open and swept, most combs the paper wasps crafted knocked down. A collection of seed packets is stacked on the shelf. It’s still too cold to start tomatoes because the only heat is solar, but soon. The sun is marching north. Take a breath. Take another.

Here are radish, chard, kale, carrots, some seeds so small that breath will scatter them. Three packets of sugar pea pods, the heirloom variety, fourth generation nasturtium seeds gathered and dried in autumn all sleeping and waiting for this.

It must be getting early, clocks are running late
Paint-by-number morning sky looks so phony
Dawn is breaking everywhere, light a candle, curse the glare
Draw the curtains, I don’t care ’cause it’s alright

The moon waxes in the sign of the Bull, the place of earth. Lettuce roots are shallow and salad might be grown in a dish, plucking outer leaves every night for supper, until days grow too hot and the plant bolts to seed. Soak the peas.

I see you’ve got your list out, say your piece and get out
Guess I get the gist of it, but it’s alright
Sorry that you feel that way, the only thing there is to say
Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey

Four yards of mint compost delivered last week and dumped under the birch tree. Oregon grows one-third of US peppermint. After the mint oil is extracted, the cooked vegetation is spun further into a fine compost. The heap steams from the center, each shovelful releasing shimmers of heat. Pollen from the birch blows gold away as gray clouds gather.

I know the rent is in arrears, the dog has not been fed in years
It’s even worse than it appears, but it’s alright
Cow is giving kerosene, kid can’t read at seventeen
The words he knows are all obscene, but it’s alright

Artichokes, woody herbs such as oregano and rosemary and alliums grow outside the fence. In a hard winter, late spring, the deer will try to eat the chokes and even the green tips of sprouting garlic, but usually they move on as the season softens. Last year there was a late snowstorm and deer pulled up onions as they ripped at the greens. I pushed them back into the dirt. Deer are so destructive to gardens because they cannot bite, they tear with side teeth.

The shoe is on the hand it fits, there’s really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s alright
Oh well, a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway
And that was all I had to say and it’s alright

Mercy watches me pitch compost into the onion bed and her tennis ball rolls down the hill. In the dark of the moon, I push the shallot sets down under the black dirt. How old is Asher, our young downhill neighbor? I try to remember, but figure he’s between 13 and 14 now, born at home in the beforetime. He has books from the library about gardening and wants to learn, but doesn’t know how to handle a spade.

I find an overturned two-gallon black plastic pot and sweep out the leaves and webs. Asher shovels compost into the pot and mixes in vermiculite from the bag I bring out from the greenhouse. He watches the heap of compost steam.

“Is it cold?” he asks.

“Feel it,”

Asher presses a palm down over the impression he shoveled out.

“It’s hot,”

I nod as he uses his bare hands to mix the dirt and glittering minerals together in the pot. I tap out pea seeds and radish, show him how to read the back of a seed packet. Give them dirt, light, and water and get out of the way, I advise. Nothing will stop them.

hail_clouds

 


Italicized lyrics lifted from Grateful Dead tune “Touch of Grey,” by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter

 

 

Bird Box & Glitter Bomb

heron2

The sun melts the frost and the wind blows downriver with the iron scent of snow. I zip-up my down vest.

Monday, March 16th, with public schools closed through April, the University emptied, people working in offices booting up laptops to work from home, and the announcement that all Oregon restaurants and bars are ordered closed yet to come later in the day. Circles tighten.

There’s no one else on the road. Christmas-morning-style silent empty streets, yet without the tingling expectation of warmth and fellowship to come with cinnamon and cider. There’s a flagger ahead on the parkway and I’m startled construction work is still progressing at the stadium. She flips her sign to “Slow” when she sees us, the only car for miles. I wave as we pass, yet a clench and fleeting guilt that I’ll be stopped and asked for my papers crossing the frontier.

Everything clenched. Dominoes tipping in slow motion grasped in triple time.

The long grass in the fields is wet. The dog and I walk out to the canal. There is no one else. As we tread the open space, I decide this is my estate and inheritance and that I am its Lady, surveying the opening green haze of the willows and cottonwood and translating the song of a red winged blackbird. Breathe here, a cold wind bright sun burning my cheeks, remember this.

Canada geese post sentries for their flock and these sentries watch us approach and escort the smaller birds further away in an orderly retreat. I keep Mercy tight-in on her lead until we pass, and then release her to dash to the water.

The heron. We withdraw to let her fish in peace and move down the canal, the dog working the bank where the nutria dig their dens. The song of the blackbird repeats a phrase from an ancient reed pipe. So it is, and was, and will ever be.

I read somewhere, probably Reddit,  that a clever teacher uses glitter to teach her first-grade students to visualize otherwise invisible germs. At the beginning of the school day, a spoon of glitter is dished into the hand of one student. At the end of the day, the class looks to see where they can find glitter. It is everywhere.

Blindfolded with a Bird Box.

The sun is high enough now, the frost is melting. Time to go.

 

First Breath After

quince

Wild quince is blooming out among the river brambles and tiny bleeding hearts tremble beneath the ferns along the animal paths.

New moon yesterday when the lights join again to trace the waxing wheel from dark seed to bright mirror and back to darkness. Mercy and I walked out to the old boat landing. She swam after sticks and dug in the sand. I pulled rusty bits of shopping cart out of the river and up onto the stones, too heavy to pack with us when we leave. The rough-built cross marking the place of ashes still stands after the winter floods.

february_willamette

Vic still lives across the road, though he can no longer drive and can barely hear. When Shirley died in July, he refused to move no matter how the family implored and reasoned. A friend takes him out for exercise and errands several times a week. He orders groceries online, tins of sardines and rice pudding. I labeled his house key and put it in the little wooden bowl on the table with the other odd bits.

Sometimes I glimpse Shirley, out in her robe and slippers, watering the planters or checking the mailbox. We would stand in her driveway and talk and laugh. Mercy, bored with it all, would lie down and wait in the shade.

Somehow she melted, like the moon, like the snow.

A year ago there was a snow storm in the valley that dropped almost two feet over two nights. When I opened the blinds the first morning, the dogwood tree was bent to the window glass. I went out with a broom and rocked the branches to dump the powder, much of it down my arms and neck, but the bent dogwood did not break. It bloomed in May.

mercy_snowplay

Repost of Born for This the first breath after:

Vic is shoveling snow off his driveway with a flat half-spade. There are soft trailing footprints where Mercy and I climbed the slope to deliver white bean and chicken soup and take away a bag of trash to the street. We put the bins out for collection Sunday night as snow started to fall and stick. I knocked a foot of snow off the bins with the snow shovel, twice. The snow on the hill is up to Mercy’s belly and my knees. I’m keeping an eye on Vic through the front windows as I write. Vic is 89. He doesn’t want any help.

Vic’s red plaid Pendleton is tucked into khakis hitched up to his lower ribs. When the sun came out after the latest flurries, he leaned against the garage and unzipped his coat. He slices at the top of the snow with the spade and lets it slip off to the growing pile on the side. Looking south to the Butte, he stops and rests, bowed with both gloved hands on the handle of the shovel. Twice I nearly pulled my boots back on to go out to help and then stopped. He refused my help twice already.

Monday morning there was a foot of snow. Mercy was out back barking before daylight, baying at snow drifts. My phone starting pinging with incoming text messages. The power went out at ten o’clock, yet I had enough presence of mind to brew extra coffee and fill every thermos from the top cupboard with hot water before it went. We lit a fire and set up the camp stove under a sheltered eave. I pulled on my gear and took the dog out back to dig the gate free while she capered and plowed through the powder.

Small trees, herbs and shrubs, my beloved curling hazel, all snapped and broke under the weight of the first fall. Fallen cedar limbs yawn like leviathan bones jutting from the snow. A 30-foot scotch pine toppled in the back and took out a section of fence. Fir trees cracked in the middle distance. An electrical transformer flashed and exploded farther away. Another ten inches of snow fell. Shy yearlings lurk down the hill behind tree trunks watching the dog tunnel in the snow. Deer mice crept in during the night to scoop frozen drippings from a corner of the grill pan.

Mercy danced.

The main roads are plowed now. The power is back. The sun was out briefly before it freezes tonight. Our hillside spur road needs to melt more to drive down; even in the Outback there is not enough clearance to negotiate the grade. Shirley was referred to an oncologist and has her first appointment tomorrow morning. She thought she’d try to walk down the hill to meet her son where the roads are cleared. I shook my head and suggested alternatives. Shirley is 81.

The patient advocate at the cancer clinic is sending transportation for the appointment, a chained high-profile vehicle with a chance of climbing.

Shirley doesn’t think Vic will be able to travel with her, although he desperately wants to go.