Not Yams

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–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.

Dust and Phantoms

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The clock turned itself back one hour, one week too soon. US daylight savings time ends late All Hallows Eve, before dawn of All Saints. The dog jammers from bed about breakfast in her whale-singing-song steadily gaining pitch. I look down at her and then look at the clock, digital time out of sync with the gray light dawning through the windows. Trust the dog. Always trust a dog to know when it’s breakfast.

Shuffling upstairs in wool socks and sad sheepskin slippers, kicking puffs of dust and leaf strung on strands of hair as scaffolding along the baseboard, it’s time to sweep the floors again. Again, and again, chasing all the detritus blown in or tracked in or slipped through cracked afternoon doors and only seen in the slanted cast of this waning light.

Hard frost: 22F/-5C the eaves are white with crystal. The citrus trees replanted this spring in thick keg-shaped ceramic pots are still outside, covered in yellowing sheets against winter. As the wind stirs the worn fabric, I startle at the unexpected apparition outside the kitchen window, cloaked phantom treat-or-treaters dressed like cartoon ghosts. I hang the hummingbird feeder back up outside while the birds hover at my ears impatient to suck the sugar water.

There is much, so much, to let go of.

Big white cannellini beans I scraped from the bottom of a bin in March, when the world scrabbled for toilet paper, go in the pot with a smoked ham hock acquired at the same time, shoved in the freezer against fear. Two bay leaves from the laurel tree, two stalks of celery, five peppercorns, and all day to simmer, all the time in the world.

[It’s Decorative Gourd Season…]

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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Days grow shorter. Light leaks away more spilling sand.

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It’s nearly my birthday

Stone Road

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“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