Empty Cauldron

Everything smolders.

The fires still burn, but the solid curtain of toxic smoke begins to fold pleat-by-pleat. Lightning and thunder cracked the shell, and rain-O-sweet-blessed-rain fell a bucket full. The smoke ebbs and flows, from yellow to orange, but not the deep purple of last week. The water bucket is still out on the hill for the wild things, but they have gone their own way, braver than me.

Each month of this astounding year taught a new acronym-filled vocabulary of disaster:

AQI= Air Quality Index

Viral Load= Distance x Duration + Density

BLM= Black Lives Matter AND Bureau of Land Management

Sing goddamn.

Equinox arrives tomorrow morning when the sun moves into the constellation of Libra, the sign of the scales symbolizing  justice and balance, when days and nights equalize for a trace moment of exhalation. Then we fall. How hard is the question. There will be neither justice nor balance this season. It’s still the Year of the Rat and though we gnawed off the paw, we are still caught in the trap. There’s a hitch in my left hip from curling downward, especially at night, hugging my knees and straining for rain to fall from the eaves.

Mercy and I went out to the river so she could finally swim after two weeks, picked the ripe feral figs along the way. We fell into polite, socially-distanced step with a young woman and Otter, her red heeler . He hasn’t been the same since the fires, she said. And I nodded. Sing goddamn.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

― Ezra Pound

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]

Cross Quarter

top_deck_sunset

The corner of the top deck leads south-southwest, a prow of an old sailing ship leaning into harbor. I drink morning coffee under the awning, even in the winter,  even with my down coat zipped and a slippery mug gripped by fingerless gloves. Unless there is typhoon, when even the crows and jays are grounded, and instead I pace at the window.

Barefoot on soft cotton July mornings, the plants that wintered the darkness flower and tiny seeds planted in April now sprout fruit. A chorus of black-eyed susans lean and nod as I tell them secrets learned during the night. Outside the kitchen door are pots of dill, parsley, tarragon, thyme, mint, and oregano. Rosemary is wild and refuses to be bound. She grows in the ground, tosses her hair against typhoon.

In March there was nothing but bones.

black_eyed_susans

Perhaps we are only the reflected magic of what we cultivate, a passing breath blown on a silver mirror. Cross Quarter Day comes, a reef to bank and tack against, halfway between solstice and equinox, the feast of first fruits. In other years there would be fairs, music and contests, and young couples hand-fasting, but not this year. This year we offer up the grain on a solitary alter after Lugh of the long hand.

hydrangea

Days grow shorter. Light leaks away more spilling sand.

mercy_july_river

It’s nearly my birthday

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

 

Tao of Water

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Recite the alphabet, a silent sing-song recitation, roll hands one over sudsy other, digits and thumb, up the wrist, rinsing and turning. Zed. Omega. I try it backwards. At night, when the doors are locked and the shades drawn, I rub ointment into my knuckles.

Water makes small choices; a pebble might turn a flood.

Raccoons wash their food, roll muddy tubers and tuna fish sandwiches one paw over the other down on rocks next to the stream. They dip digits in a can of stolen shortening and gobble handfuls of greasy fat, sneak into the house through the cat door and look for crackers in the cupboard, a time after Rogue died and before Mercy was whelped.

I faced a raccoon nearly as big as the dogs, spit-sapping shock at the size of it, looking for a weapon without shifting focus away, settling for the broom at hand. It came in June to pluck ripe strawberries along with the crowns. I let it.

A group of raccoons is called a gaze. After dusk one summer night, a gaze in the neighbor’s backyard killed their cat while they stood at the door and flicked the porch lights on and off and, stamping wailing thrashing, watched.

Hail comes to hammer the gutters, applause of thunder, rivulets run down the roof of the shed and pool in the strawberry bed.

Water makes small choices.

Decameron

“Florentines carried the bodies of the recently deceased out of their houses and put them down by the front doors, where anyone passing by, especially in the morning, could have seen them by the thousands. . . . When all the graves were full, enormous trenches were dug in the cemeteries of the churches, into which the new arrivals were put by the hundreds, stowed layer upon layer like merchandise in ships, each one covered with a little earth, until the top of the trench was reached.”

–Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron

Other plagues came from the East.

Italy was infected, the entire island of Sicily. Fleas with the pestilance rode rats invading just as Mongol armies swarm across the steppe, stowaways on merchants ships bound for Genoa. A Black Death a mere 20 generations ago. Perhaps half the population of Europe died, depending on the data used and the optimism of the analyst, perhaps only two-fifths, while Boccaccio wrote his hundred stories.

The scene opens in Florence. It is 1348. After solemn mass one morning, seven aristocratic young women decide it better to flee the infected city and withdraw to a country estate to shelter two weeks in hopes of escaping the pandemic. Three young men, distant kinsmen, are invited to withdraw with them in this scheme to cheat death.

In the fresh wholesome air of the Tuscan countryside, they agree to pass the time telling stories. Each day a theme is named and each day (excluding a day for worship and a day for personal matters) the young women and men share stories. This setting provides the narrative framework for the 100 stories of the Decameron upon which both Chaucer and Shakespeare borrowed and stole.

Is it all forgotten now? Ground as grist under that same mill that bore away the bones of a score of my mothers, who survived? My old university copy is here somewhere, still packed in a box probably.

I downloaded a PDF.

We have Costco, Chlorox, and Purell, if it can be found. We have polite terms for seclusion much as Boccaccio framed for his narratives: social distancing. Baseball games broadcast without a crowd in the stadium and interactive maps updated with infections and deaths every day at noon.

Will we have art such as this?

Herman Hesse set his 1930 novel of two friends in the time of the Plague. Narcissus remains in the cloister and becomes an abbot. Goldmund ventures into the world to discover life through the senses and, ultimately, strives to translate human passion into art. The two characters embody the tension between intellect and intuition, Sun and moon, the Appolonian and the Dionysian. Art is the union of the two, Hesse surmised, a new moon.

“O how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all, but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning . . . or wise . . . and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

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.

Treading

plum_branch_rain

“She treads on the tail of a tiger

and is not bitten;

That which treads

does not stay,”

— I Ching, Hexagram 10

Rain seeps down and cradles the plum blossoms before dropping into the brambles. Out on the hill the wild turkeys gather. There are many hens and a few formidable males strutting after. Their tails are fanned and their chest feathers ruffed, making a show of light playing off the metallic sheen of copper and graphite quills flashing gold.

I find feathers in the grass; the best of them stand in a jar outside the backdoor like a bouquet. They are said to be a sign of prosperity and abundance. Mercy stands at the window and growls and frets at the mating display. Though I might let her out to scatter the birds when there are fewer, not now, not when the heat is on them.

I hear the big birds down in the woods when the dog and I walk out and remain watchful until we pass. The turkeys call to each other in high peeping chirps to gather and form a flock, a small unexpected whine from such large bodies.

They can fly, and do, when the dog charges them out on the grass verge, 100 yards into the fir trees. I’m careful, because she would kill one if she caught it, or worse, didn’t kill it and had to fight raptor claws. I don’t want to kill a turkey as much as the dog wants blood and we hold that equilibrium. When we show ourselves, the birds grow nervous, leave off their pecking and edge toward the woods. It’s best now, before poulting, because they don’t remember from season to season.

One spring turkeys adopted our elderly neighbor’s deck as their territory. Vic and Shirley were unable to go out to the garden without being mobbed by twenty-pound birds. I bought them a slingshot and showed them how to shoot dried chickpeas from the doorway. Mercy and I patrol the fence line.

I carry a long strong lead in a heavy case bought online from Gun Dog Supply, the only one I’ve found she hasn’t snapped. Yet. She’s broken steel cables and pulled posts from porches where cables were anchored. I don’t need to lift weights. I fly a hundred-pound dog.

I submitted a piece to a literary journal this morning, the first after many months turned away. How long to polish the shield before the reflection of the gorgon is clear enough to strike? Dither here, in this public scrapbook, posting markers and milestones so I might remember.

Rain seeps down and bows the buttery cones of the first daffodils along the river. Geese pass high and cry as they circle, pairs come in low to land along the canal by the footbridge. Herons fish alone and nest together, awkward above their nests in high branches of one tree. The dog swims after sticks and watches the geese land beyond her reach.

Under the cedars, sheltered from the rain, there is a rough-hewn totem most probably intended to represent Squirrel. Mercy wants to take it up and shake it, but I offer her a fallen branch instead. It doesn’t look much like a squirrel to me, but I’m distracted.

I think the Year of the Rat arrived.

squirrel_rat

 

 

Quarantine

pink_azalea_marker

Forty days and nights sequestered.

Ships wait at anchor, just as once they stood offshore from Venice during the Black Death, the Plague, the Pestilence. Venetians waiting for the crew to finally die and the diseased ship be burnt to the waterline, or live and revel in release by the Doge, trade their cargo of spices and silk, laugh at night in the wine house and raise the full ruby goblet while sharing wondrous tales from the East.

Forty days and nights in the wilderness tempted.

Make bread out of stones, to feed unbelievers with miracle; jump from a pinnacle and fall into mystery in the arms of angels; worship the Prince of this World in return for authority over all kingdoms, the Grand Inquisitor contends. This is all humanity desires: miracle, mystery, and authority, not the scourge and starvation of freedom. The prisoner remains silent, yet is set free with a kiss.

Forty days and nights in the Bardo.

Forty days of Lent.

A full moon falls on the 40th day this year.

heron_treecharcoal