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.
The dog doesn’t wait for the sun to rise, though the birds still keep their roost until daylight. Mercy, the sly-eyed pirate, is awake and singing for breakfast in the darkness. These hours of daylight are short before the winter solstice, further shortened by the pall of bitter mist. Night brings a shroud of ice, freezing fog until, and unless, the sun breaks through at noon, weak at its low southern meridian. Tree trunks are flocked with frost. Maybe the vapor will lift, maybe not.
The winter solstice marks the moment the sun halts its southward march and hangs, hugging the horizon. The word solstice, a noun, derives from the Latin and means simply Old Sol stands, and there he hangs. Located, as we
are, halfway between the equator and North Pole at the 44th parallel, the southern decline is sharp.
If I see the moon, it is low in the west and bitten, growing shadowy like the sun ranging south. The fog encases the hollows between hills, and the hills themselves. In the northern hemisphere, darkness deepens, while creatures burrow into the earth for warmth and we shelter under down and fleece. The new moon comes before the solstice like a bell. For now, waiting in faith the wheel turns again, to ascend again, lift like cloud and mist off the hill top.
The fall issue of Watershed Review dropped today and it’s packed with fresh fiction, poetry, art, and creative nonfiction. I’m delighted to have a short lyric prose piece titled “Sorting Skins” included in the nonfiction section of this issue. And it IS short. Sarah Pape, managing editor of the review, was a pleasure to work with, from acceptance through proof stage.
As of today, I’m 233 pages into my novel, and approximately 3/4 finished. I’m slogging through word-by-word to finish the draft by the first of the year. One. Word. At a Time. After playing with short pieces, like the Watershed work, this project is tapping into a sustained-other-world to hold and spin out the narrative, no varnish. One of these days, I’ll post an excerpt. In the meantime, here’s a short synopsis:
Nocturne: Three Dog Night
When a sheep rancher and her dog are brutally massacred, suspicion falls on the neighbor’s rescue dogs. To protect her dogs from being blamed and destroyed, seventeen year-old Sammi flees with them across the state toward the high mountains. As Sammi desperately tries to elude the state police and forensic biologist pursuing her, she crosses paths with the otherworldly beast spreading carnage, and his master. Sammi must fight for her own life, as well as the lives of her dogs, against dark immortal forces.
Six months ago, I resigned from a job working in a shabby cubicle with a stunning view to the east. I rarely turned around from my dual monitors to look out the window, not unless there was a rainbow or a police take-down at the transit station. Even then, I only turned because other staff rushed into my cube to lean against the credenza, chattering and pointing and leaving fingerprints on the glass. I spent too many years in different cubes, in hindsight all remarkably the same. I write at home now. I spend long moments lost, gazing out windows.
My writing desk is upstairs in the southwest corner of the house. Spencer Butte is framed outside the windows, looming sometimes, like an iceberg daunting the bow of a ship. This corner enclave is where I write longhand, with black ink in a book of unlined paper, on most mornings. I notice my handwriting has improved these past six months, where it was nearly illegible when I started the book. I thumb through the pages, and volumes, and see this practice has also given me a steadier line across the page.
Last week a tattered summer lingered as the temperature rose into the ‘90’s. The valley sucked back up the smoke from dozens of wildfires, sickly yellow white and smothering, as another stagnant high pressure front sat over us. A few days of relief with the winds from the Pacific like a deep exhalation, and then the creeping return of the smoke down from the mountains. Numb and anesthetized, stunned by weeks breathing micro-particles of ash, the streets were quiet, the schoolyard empty at the noon hour.
Only the moon brings rain, sure as she shifts the tides.
Spinning down from the Gulf of Alaska, bright and cold, the dark of the moon brought cloud. Then rain. Aching sweet petrichor, the perfume of grateful stones washed, the turning leaves sighing in the showers, the new moon brought sheets of rain. This week the temperatures are 30 degrees cooler. Snow is falling in the mountains. Though this moon-borne storm may not be enough to extinguish all the fires raging in the west, it is enough. I shook the dust off my raincoat and Mercy and I walked the damp paths in the oak savanna up the hill. I thought on the path of the solar eclipse, marking the past new moon, of the fires in Oregon, and the floods in the southeast. Shadows fall.
Tomorrow is the Equinox, when we ride down the dark turning wheel of the year, when Persephone retreats, exhausted, with the seed into the earth. It is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, bringing reflection of the past year and contemplation of the one to come. The feast day of Archangel Michael approaches in a few days. On Michaelmas, folk wisdom records, the last blackberries turn bitter, for the Devil has pissed on them.