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
During the past year I learned to incant Leonardo da Vinci’s maxim that “a piece of art is never finished, only abandoned.” It’s a whisper behind the left ear, while I hold the printed final draft, until I utter it out loud under my breath. The thing, the piece, the carved and shaved shape has bones or it does not. It will stand, or it will not. I know when I am done with it. I know when I have worked the vein for what it will pay, and when it’s time to launch it or leave it.
To submit a piece, to the blind dark and elements, is to launch a paper lantern bearing a flickering candle into the current of a swollen river and watch it swirl, guttering, away. I am amazed if the lantern floats far enough to find someone to take it up downstream.
I am very pleased to have one wayward vessel selected by Cutbank Literary Journal to be recognized as a runner up in their Big Sky, Small Prose contest. Thank you to the team at the University of Montana, Editor-in-Chief Bryn Agnew, and contest judge Zach VandeZande for recovering “A Posture of Grace” from the open water.
February is a long month, even with its 28 days, even without a full moon falling in the calendar. It’s snowing. Flurries shake the plum blossoms unfolding among the black branches, mingling and compromising snow with flower. Spring wrestles with ice, the flounces of her skirts stained with mud.
The month is named for the Roman festival of purification—februum. Julius Caesar purloined a day from February to extend his own month, July, to 31 days. Augustus followed suit, not wanting to be outdone, with August. February, named for an idea and not a god or goddess, was an easy target. March, with its patron being the god of war, was out of the question.
In the western calendar, we now have the ninth month, September, still named as the seventh (septem), October the eighth (octo), November the ninth (novo), and December the tenth (deca), all because the Roman emperors declared themselves gods and inserted themselves, decisively, into our idea of time.
I was honored that a creative nonfiction piece was short-listed for the Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction Award by Cutthroat Journal of the Arts in December.
Although I didn’t win, the recognition helped keep the creative fires burning during the dark days around solstice. Writing, by essence and definition, is a solitary and harrowing pursuit. Some days, I feel I’m casting long out over the water for rainbow trout; other days, I’m just spitting up hairballs. Thousands of thousands words written by writers about writing. Do sculptors and painters and composers complain as loudly and as often about their work?
I’ve been reading little stories by Neil Gaiman. From them I learned that to finish a story, to finish the piece, is the magic. In the drafting, the imps will come to lure you away to the kitchen sink to peel carrots for dinner. You must resist.
I read recipes for cooking chickpeas and learned to add baking soda to the water to dissolve the skins.
I read Smithsonian magazine’s features on the year 1968, John Steinbeck’s collected essays, and Reddit/r/politics. Yesterday I learned from CNN that frozen iguanas are falling out of the trees in Florida because it’s so cold. Yet, I circle the blank page. So many words in a narrowing funnel of intention. There’s nothing for it, but to go back again. Leave the carrots in the sink.
Today, there’s not much on offer, save a short excerpt from the short-listed piece:
I may have been six, my brother not yet five, when we loaded into the old Ford and headed out to the reservoir. It was late November, a bitter winter day. Rain slashed sideways and rocked us inside the old Ford parked beside bent stands of cattail. We were hunting ducks. There were mud flats left exposed when the water was drained before the winter rains, mud littered with pull-tabs and bottle caps. We climbed out of the Ford and trudged out over those flats toward the water. I pulled the drawstring of my hood down tight. Barney charged the gulls loitering along the water’s edge. I remember huddling together under my father’s rain poncho, shivering and waiting for a flight of ducks that never came.