Fog

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01.15.17

“In nature, everything has a job.  The job of the fog is to beautify further the existing beauties.”  Mehmet Murat ildan

We are under an inversion now.  Most days, the sun breaks through in the afternoon and is especially glaring as it shines through ice crystals in the air, but the fog creeps back in during the cover of darkness.  As I drive over the frozen white Flathead River to go into town, this red barn is such a beautiful pop of color on another gray day.   In summer, with the sparkling blue waters of Flathead Lake behind it, it’s a picture postcard.  But, I like it in the winter, how it stands out as a sentry in a white field.   It feels like a lighthouse, as if I’m on a ship out at sea, comforted to know where there is land.

The other thing I’ve been watching during these foggy days, just a quarter of a mile or so past this barn, are the Bald Eagles, silhouetted in trees which line the river.  In the big snowy field between the road and the river, there is a dead deer or fox or coyote, partially buried in the snow.  Ravens on the ground have encircled it, but there is always one Eagle who stands nearby, but apart.  There is a certain loss of dignity to see this great white-headed creature standing on the ground amidst ravens and crows, but he is always king of the feast.   Beyond, back in the trees and staggered on different branches, I’ve counted as many as six Bald Eagles, perched still and silently, awaiting their turn.  And, over on the south side of the highway, a flock of Canada Geese are deep in the snow, pecking for seeds in the tracks which a farmer has made for them.  I often think maybe I’ve seen a Snowy Owl in a low-lying branch near the road, but discover it’s a white plastic bag, caught in the thicket.  And, the deer family in our yard make their daily late afternoon trek down to the water, slowing trudging through ever-deepening snow.  Wild turkeys have been sheltering in place on the front porch.  It’s an ancient winter’s tale out there, as well as in here by the cozy fire, and on and on it goes.

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”   Andrew Wyeth

January nights

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01.10.17

It was an interesting storm the past couple of days.  We started out at nine degrees on Sunday, but the day warmed up quickly and we got a good eight inches of snow, interspersed with rain, by yesterday afternoon.  (You have to live in the northwest to experience rain at eighteen degrees.)   Arctic air is scheduled to arrive tonight and five below is the forecasted temp tomorrow morning.  Then, by the week-end, more snow.  Serious Winter, we all keep saying.

I got a text the other morning from our summer time neighbor to the north, who spends the winters at their home in North Carolina.   She had heard that Flathead Lake had frozen over.  It almost did, twenty years ago, our first winter in Montana, and back in the day, it would happen every ten years or so, and there would be stories of trucks driving across the lake.  All thirty miles long, fifteen miles wide, covered in ice.  With the cold we’ve had so far this season, there is talk.  And, I can see the white band of frozen ice, moving out towards the center of the lake, from the western shore.  It glowed by the light of the moon last night, and it felt ominous, deep in the middle of the silent night, like an ice creature creeping towards my door.  Such is the darkness in January.

The days move by slowly, but there is already more light at the end of the day.  In the laziness of January, I like to sit by the fire with my book, in the hour before it’s time to start dinner.  Yesterday, the sun was so bright at times that I needed to shield my eyes, and then a skiff of wind blew the heavy snow off the trees, and I was suddenly in the middle of a snow globe.  There is something about watching the light leave a January day.  I’ve written a random quote in my journal, from somewhere:  “daytime drops like a tear down a cheek.”  This balance of dark and light, so seasonal, so rhythmic, yet so fragile and delicate, is a more compelling story than any of the stories, in any one of the books I pull down from the shelf.

Winter: Tonight: Sunset
by David Budbill

Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.

January

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01.04.17

“No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”
― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

The Deep Arctic front arrived and as I look at the night-time forecasts, it flirts between -19 and -24, and let’s not even mention the windchill factor.  The subzero and single digit temperatures are lit up in red on the local Lutheran Church reader board as I drive by, just in case none of us has noticed.  Some of the ski areas are closing the next few record-setting days.  But, everybody knows, unless there is a white-out blizzard, you simply have to get outside, for even a tiny bit each day, or you could likely lose your mind during our northern winters.  Even if it’s just down to the water’s edge to look across the lake, and then look down to the south, and then up to the north.  It felt bleak there,  though the biting wind was over, and the weak sun cast a bit of shine in the gray.  There was a metallic smell, and somebody’s lawn chair had been swept up the lake and deposited on our beach.  It made me think of a shipwreck.

But, I looked up and could see the quarter moon moving in my direction.  An eagle was perched high in a tree nearby.  I followed tracks across the snow to see where the deer got water and where they returned up into the woods, miraculously finding food and shelter.   It was eerily still, and I remembered how last year I wrote here about keeping the wolf from my door during the month of January.  “One must have a mind of winter” Wallace Stevens tells us in his poem, The Snow Man.  You don’t just wake up with it, some January morning, as you crawl out from under wool blankets and down comforters and crank up the furnace.  No, there is a discernment required, and then a commitment to this winter’s mind.  It can be difficult some years.   But it really just begins with nothing too strenuous, and definitely not heroic.

Christmas trees

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12.30.16

Years ago, there were often times I took the tree down the day after Christmas.  In full disclosure, there have been some years in which I looked at the tree, day after day, and looked forward to getting rid of it, long before Christmas morning even arrived.  But for a while now, I haven’t been inclined to rush things so much.  There was even one year, having cut down our own tree, that we kept it up, with just the lights on, until February first.   This year, while I like the idea to de-clutter and simplify, clean out drawers and closets, there is something about the New Year’s resolve with all its goals and affirmations and stridency, that just sounds tiresome.  So, even though pine needles have replaced gifts under the tree, and Christmas tree china clutters my table and kitchen, I’m on pause until I actually need to start the new year.

As a matter of fact, after being at Joy’s family cabin in the woods on Christmas Day,  I came home, seriously thinking, before the new year arrives, of decorating one of the big trees at the edge of the lake, in tiny colored lights.  Rich, who often states that he just wants to get through the holidays, somehow managed to throw five strands of colored lights on a tall Sub-alpine Fir, in the middle of their Lodgepole Pine forest, down the hill off the back deck.  We would look out the dark windows and see it glow, alone, amidst all the other trees.  In the night, as I slept up in the loft and listened to the wind howl and heard the trees sway, I would look out the window to make sure it was still there, a solitary beacon of good cheer.  And, adding to this unexpected holiday decor, he had set up a generator down by the river, and if you wanted to make the trek down the icy hill, he would turn on the dainty colored lights, strung across three small trees, next to the water.  I did that, and while Duncan lay face down on the ice, staring at a kaleidoscope of ice crystals deep in the river, Rich and I talked about the way the snow changed the primary colors on the trees into purples and oranges.  A little Christmas magic.

The sunny arrival back at home was a nice surprise after all the Christmas snows.  “Deep Arctic air will slam into western Montana”, goes the forecast, bringing fresh snow for the start of the new year.  I suspect it will snap me into a forward-looking gear and New Year’s Day is likely to be a good one to put Santa Claus away, sweep out the needles, as well as the corners of my mind, which could use some clearing out of their own, to make room for the fresh start of a new year.

Merry Christmas

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12.25.16

This photo was central to my Christmas cards this year–the ones I never sent out.  I took it in Santa Fe, on our anniversary this month,  through the window of my favorite little shop, Doodlets.  It was cold and crisp and festive, and our restaurant across the street smelled of delicious northern New Mexico cuisine, and there were luminarias everywhere, just like at our wedding.   It was a magical moment, just like Christmas is, at the heart of it all.

Off we go to Joy’s family cabin, five hours of driving over snowy mountains and across wind-swept plains, next to rivers and forests, and up the steep hill to their handmade cabin, in the woods, on Christmas Day.  Family, the heart of it all.

Winter Solstice 2016

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12.21.16

A warm front blew in on big winds and knocked down tons of the snow.  I hope that today’s above freezing temperature and sunshine melts the ice left behind, and cleans the slate for the next winter storm to arrive in time for Christmas.  Today is the Solstice, that time when the sun stands still in the sky.  Like ancient cultures, we hold on to the faith that the sun stops in time, before there is too much darkness for it to recover from.  The darkness feels very deep this year with so much anger and hatred in the daily news and the fear for our world’s future.

I’m often comforted, in some simplistic way, that “things have always been bad.”  When I read the stories and myths about how humans experienced the Winter Solstice, it’s impossible to appreciate how profound their fear must have been to lose the light and be at the abyss of starvation and dreadful cold.  Powerless to a natural order they did not understand, they believed that the sun needed human assistance to avoid being devoured by the darkness.  With human and animal sacrifices, prayers and rituals, and fires through the night, they did their best to save themselves.

We do our own bit with lighted Christmas trees, candles, parties and celebrations together.  But, everybody I know this year, has scaled way back, kept things simple.  Weeks ago, I created a Christmas card to send out, but when they came back from the printer yesterday, they felt too cheerful, too nostalgic, and just too dishonest.  The ancients would never have given up their agency so readily.

It’s our tradition on the Winter Solstice to walk out on the north edge of the lake at sunset and look for remaining light to leave the sky.  This could be the first year we’ve actually seen the sun, but it will be cold as the air comes in off the water.  It feels important to be in that cold, to be still and silent, to let the darkness go deep.  And, perhaps, “make an oblation to all you’ve lost” as Peter Mayer sings in his song, “The Longest Night”, before we slide into the merriment of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.   We leave a candle burning all through the night on our dining room table.  Ever since I discovered Tom Hennen’s poem, “Sheep in the Winter Night”, I place the three little miniature sheep I bought from a local artist next to the candle.  Their wool comes from sheep in Idaho and the flame illuminates them so that “their wooly backs were full of light gathered on summer pastures”.  It reminds me of the tiny spark of light that’s always there in the darkness.  As Michael Meade wrote in his essay, “Bringing Back the Light”, “the light we discover in our own depths is a speck of the original star, a spark of life that connects us to each other and to the Soul of the World.”

Sheep in the Winter Night
by Tom Hennen

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.

The Christmas Cat

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12.17.16

“Christmas can never go by without my remembering a certain little cat.“–The Christmas Day Kitten by James Herriot

This was the photo–the last one I ever took of our kitty, Chatpeau–which I posted in the online photography class I’m taking about “Impermanence”.  The subject of the day was “loss” and a lot of us had photos of beloved pets.  There were many consoling comments to my photo and soft words of comfort about how we will be forever connected to our cat.  I knew I’d always remember this Christmas because of her…

I got a call from Don, while I was running errands in town yesterday.   I had to pull off the road, sobbing, when he said he’d walked through the woods to the house next door, after being asked to check on something for the absent neighbor, and thought he heard a cat meowing in their garage.  When he searched inside, their was evidence of old cat poop and urine, but no cat, and all was silent.  He called our vet to see if a cat could live this long, in shelter from the bitter cold, but without food and water, and no one there really knew.  Don told me he thought that, dreadfully, it may have been the crying out of an animal in its death throes.

When I got home, I bundled up against the eight degree temperature, prepared to sit on the stairs to the attic in their garage, until dark, listening and calling out for her.  Don went with me and said that the food had not been touched, but as we talked, we heard the faint cry of a cat.  I would talk, then be silent, and he would follow the quiet sound of her reply.  We thought we had isolated the noise to one area, and that maybe if he tore out two wooden steps, we’d find her trapped behind them.  He rushed home to call the homeowner for permission and to get tools.  I sat on the stairs and began to sing to her, like I did when we found her and her brother as tiny kittens, left on our doorstep.  She began to howl and it seemed she was getting closer.  I went outside, to see if I could hear her through the outside wall, and when I came back in, I caught the glimpse of a black tail at the top of the stairs, and heard her eating the dry cat food Don had placed on the floor.  It’s a mystery where she came from.  I slowly slowly made my way up the steps, talking softly to her, and kept my distance when she saw me.  When I heard Don again outside,  I clutched her tiny, skinny body in my arms, and trudged us through the snowy woods for a homecoming in our warm garage with her brother, and food, and more importantly, a bowl of water.  She drank and drank, and ate and ate, and the kitties rubbed against one another like they always had.

They are outdoor cats with cozy wool bedding over heating pads in a heated garage.  But, I had to let her in when she came to the door, and she spent several hours cuddling and telling me all about her ordeal, trapped for nearly a month without food and water.  Her brother came in for a little visit as well, and then we sent them outside.  She protested at the door for a while before deciding the warm garage was better than protest.

It was -18 degrees when we awakened this morning, but everybody was happy when Don went up to the garage to check on them.  Chateau followed him right back down the stone steps and weaseled her way into the house.  She’s been sitting by my side on the bench in the breakfast nook all morning, as I type away on the computer.  This indoor visiting can’t go on forever; they need to care for themselves when we travel.  I don’t know what we’re going to do.  The first lesson in my photography course was entitled “Live immediately”.  Guess all I need to do, in this moment, is to cherish our own little Christmas Cat’s return.