I signed my first writing contract a few days ago. A creative nonfiction piece, “Shiny Things I Found in the Gutter,” was accepted by The Tishman Review. It will appear in the summer issue at the end of July. This was another milestone on my stumbling journey trying to find the words. Writing and fishing have much in common. Sometimes one is at the right shady pool below a riffle when the trout rise. Or, more often, not.
I was fortunate to work with TTR’s new creative nonfiction editor, Hannah Howard, whose memoir “Feast” was published in March, 2018. Hannah lives and works in New York City, so her emails arrived before I was out of bed. (Read an interview with Hannah here.) TTR publishes a quarterly issue of art, fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction with each issue available in a variety of formats. Go give the latest issue a read.
There was a lightning strike one morning while I sat on the back porch watching the rain, tucked under the eave, cradling my coffee cup. The trident strike forked above the hills to the west directly before me. I counted the seconds until thunder, four, and then came the boom of the rolling report in a wave. The dog hustled off to squeeze herself beneath the bed. The lightning was lavender against the white-gray clouds, a rare morning bolt here, where any lightning storm is rare. Spring might bring rainbows, occasionally an unlikely double bow, but little thunder.
I waited for another flash, but none came. The storm moved north only discharging the single bolt. I went upstairs and walked out across the street in the rain to fetch the newspaper. Sheltering it inside my jacket, I turned back to the house. For a moment, I stood bareheaded in the rain, distracted. The front garden was alight: purple wisteria hanging heavy like grapes, dogwood, rhododendron and lithodora blooming, a profusion that appears all at once in the spring to overwhelm the senses like the riotous confusion of a carnival midway after sundown.
Once I lived out on the plains, where the dirt was red and the rivers muddy with ochre. I came from this verdant valley, bordering rain forest, to prairie. There was only horizon out there on the open plain. I was at sea. I itched to get my back up to something, some hill or canyon wall, a modest butte, but there was nothing, only cloud. Until one day, the rising spring clouds, blooming thunderhead towers, became my mountains.
Every spring afternoon there was a thunderstorm on the plains. When the sky grew green and bruised in the southwest, a tornado might form from the wall cloud. In the very buckle of the Bible Belt, where warm moist air from the gulf meets the dry cold air flowing down from the Rockies, a dry line forms. That’s where a tussle between the two clashing atmospheres spawns thunderstorms, super cells, tornadoes. One spring I drove a dry line, it traced the highway, and I raced the coming storm to Dallas-Fort Worth airport. By the time I reached Dallas, the sky was black and swirling and I was deafened by thunder.
In a land with no mountains, clouds become mountains.
It started to rain yesterday, a slow soaking rain seeping deep to the roots. There were ten days of sun and heat since the middle of April. We were caught unprepared, still in fleece hoodies and heavy socks, sweating and blinking like pale burrowing creatures venturing above ground.
The trees burst and scattered pollen, drunken profligates the lot of them. The air was curtained with gold. When the wind turned, the moon brought rain to soothe and sweeten the saturated air, waxing bright and growing full. This gentle rain, Lady Rain, comes on the eve of May. I suspect magic is afoot.
The lupine leaves spill droplets, rivulets run from the cups of rhododendron blossom, and everywhere the growing green sighs and drinks. Magic is afoot, indeed.
Water makes small choices. A trickle of liquid always moves downward, below, however imperceptible the angle of decline. When water encounters an obstacle, it seeps under and around, or crowded by a jostling flood, flows over. A single pebble might turn a deluge. There is no effort.
Study the surface of the river to learn what lies underneath it. This is the way of the spring river: to scout from the banks as the flow subsides to find what changes the winter floods brought to the channel. The water, turned by a pebble, can move boulders in the winter as it courses down from the mountains.
Bright lines shining across the current are stones covered only by shallow water marking a riffle. The water turns and dances, laughing over the lines of resistance.
April is greening, there is rain, sometimes slant and hard, sometimes hail. In April, rainbows may follow, forming perfect prisms, even the indigo and violet bands in the bow are bright as they bend to shimmer in the treetops.
In April, in the wet fields, among the damp shallows under oaks and willows, Camassia plants break into prolific bloom. It’s known as the wild hyacinth, of the same family as asparagus, and its roots were once ground for bread by the native people.
In April, put out all your bowls for the rain gods to fill…
In the fall, the fruit of the persimmon tree ripens. I’ve raced the crows and squirrels to pick some coral fruit and stow it in my messenger bag to bring home. It ripens to orange in a basket on the kitchen counter. If I’m late in a season, only husks remain, and the withered star of the stem.
The Japanese garden is circular, a groomed oasis among fields of tall grass studded with gopher mounds and stands of walnut trees, oaks and firs along the river greenway. The garden is laid out with axled paths anchored by stone benches dedicated to the memory of lost beloveds. There is a granite table set with a mosaic chess board flanked by granite benches. The dog and I cross here sometimes, coming to look for herons fishing beside the gentle water rippling through the canal.
It’s spring now. I study the garden as we pass and the beckoning blooms on the trees: the snowy cherry, a purple red bud, the tight promise of bracts on kousa dogwoods. Each tree awakens in its own time, opens to the sun, and so quickly releases blown petals beneath its branches to mulch the soil. The magnolia tree blooms are as big as my fist, a full cup, a golden chalice, then offered to the wind.
Maybe we come to resemble our dogs rather than the other way around. Maybe we pick the puppy, the adolescent rescue, the older foster grieving a previous owner, a dog who speaks to our unspoken and unexpressed, a nearly-domesticated not-quite wild desire, a yearning for an element we suspect but cannot detect. The dog becomes the feral avatar declaiming the landscape.
Labradors are kin to sea lions and seals, land mammals at home in slashing rain, ice, and open water. The dog retrieves sticks and balls and practice dummies. anything that floats. She reads the scent of the field like the Sunday New York Times, taking her time, working the puzzles. She cocks her head, listening to the moles and gophers working the ground beneath us, one paw raised as she considers. She shows me the way of invisible beings I cannot hear or scent, worlds beneath my feet.
Though she’s shy with people and prefers children to adults, she’s a nemesis to the gray
squirrels and the brown that leap from the tree branches. (The varmints seem to have divided territory, with the grays in front of the house, and the browns out back.) Once Mercy chased a gray across the verge and down the sloping hill, coming back to lick her chops with a muzzle covered in blood. At the time she was bemused and thoughtful, testing the new taste with her tongue. Now she is determined to seize the next unfortunate tree rodent lingering too late on the ground.
Dogs are dogs. I know. They understand the world in their canine way. They come to accept and acquiesce to (most of) our strange rules for the sake of human foresight and opposable thumbs. Squirrels are hard to catch, a dog would go hungry many nights, so the ability to wield a can-opener and dish out a stew is a virtue. The bargain was made thousands of years ago, when it was bones thrown out to the hounds from the camp fire, rather than a bowl of kibble set down in the kitchen. Dogs on the floor, not the furniture.
From a calculated distance, I let her charge the turkey hens that wander on the grassy verge and rout them into flight high up onto the fir branches. I want them to remember us, to avoid the back yard particularly, when their eggs have hatched and they march the near-naked turklets through the neighborhood, else an entire brood will be decimated. She charges into the water when we walk by the river, scattering ducks. I keep her close in the spring, when the ducklings hatch and bob along among the reeds.
Winnemucca is the only town in northwestern Nevada, the town of one moccasin, last chance for gas and gambling, home to 7,000 people.
High desert and scrub hills shadow the short casino strip. At sunrise, the dry hills light up like coins dropping into a slot machine, illuminate the “W” posted on the grade.
North, winding along cracked highway lined with sagebrush, signs warn of wild horses crossing, Spanish burros gone native, no gas for 90 miles. It’s a long road, loading the car at dawn, and turning north-northwest for Klamath Falls and further, a desert full of sky.
The light and dark are nearly equal, tipping forward into days stretching along the equinox, here at the 44th parallel.
There are pockets of hidden wild within the city limits, in overgrown quarter-lots, secluded utility easements, secret places the children and raccoons know.
Our house joins a grassy verge that slopes sharply down into stands of fir and oak. In the winter and spring, a creek runs rough down the steep slope through the woods. Deer track through, bringing twin fawns, in the spring. There’s a growing flock of California quail skittering under and among the blackberry bramble. The dog considers this grassy
threshold part of her territory. When we walk out, she stops to stare into the blackberries, holding the quail scent, until the birds panic and break, skittering into flight.
Flocks of wild turkeys wander the streets and neighborhoods. The hens hang out together in small shifting groups that blooms to a flock when the eggs hatch and the young turkeys gain their footing. The male “Tom” turkeys are out strutting on the grass, displaying their fanned tails and puffed chests. The hens giggle and peek at the impressive feathers.
Sometimes, a hawk lounges in the birch, trying to act nonchalant, waiting for an unwary sparrow. The crows come and harry the raptor out of the roost. There are pockets of hidden wilderness in the city. This is mine.
Trying to clear the bed to plant the potted blueberries, all root-bound budding craving space, the unfamiliar sunshine made me slothy and sleepy. I pulled weeds and walked across the yard to the bin and back again, wandering away to study shoots of hollyhock. There was no hurry. Soft in the air, the first time since September, squinting into the sun.
The plum blossoms shine, when a week before they mingled with snow. The plum tree grows out on the common verge, tame once, now gone feral. In August, I picked the hard red plums, the ones I could reach from the ground, and mulched them with vinegar to brew a shrub syrup from the fruit.
“–Say it, no ideas but in things—”
Is every woman a flower? Each man a city?
No, I think, though I do love the plums* and the blushing tree, I do not concur. Unlike the poet Williams, I suppose each woman rather the river falls above the city, uncompromising, “a recoil of spray and rainbow mists” her Ideas in the sensing of things.
*This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold