The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 8, 2016

On Wildlife Refuges

I’m reflecting on the value of wildlife refuges, now that a wildlife refuge is prominent in the news. It seems like an odd place to be at the center of political controversy—a bird sanctuary in a remote corner of Oregon. Others have written about the situation with both astuteness and hilarity, but what I’m reflecting on is refuges themselves.

On the surface of things, the value of wildlife refuges seems incontrovertible, for they preserve pockets of land where the wild creatures and plants that are iconic to our concept of the North American landscape can thrive in a balanced state, free—to an extent—from human interference. The system of refuges, parks, and monuments begun by Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century was set up to preserve the unique features of American geography, including wildlife and wildlife habitat, for future generations.   There are wildlife refuges in every state in a loose patchwork of green spaces that support the plants and animals of each region, and provide refuge for us humans, as well, from the busy cluttered lives we live in proximity to each other.

Living on a ridge with a hundred-and-seventy-mile view from my deck to the Alaska Range, in a place where moose leave their hoof prints in my frozen garden as they snack their way through the neighborhood, and where foxes sun themselves by the road in summer, it might be easy to take sharing outdoor space with wildlife for granted, but even here in the North in the time I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the gradual encroaching of houses, people, snow machines, trucks, dogs, and all the human trappings that come with building up a place. The hill above us and the unsellably steep lots on the roads around us give us a sense of living with wildlife, but I won’t kid myself that it’s not a fragile sense of the wild.

Thus, wildlife refuges. And I’ve been thinking of one in particular, Laguna Atascosa refuge near Harlingen, Texas, where I had the opportunity to volunteer more than twenty years ago. Alaska was in an economic downturn, and my job running literary programs at the Arts Association had vanished, so I sold all the things that I wasn’t sentimental about and, along with my friend Dave, took off traveling across country to see family and head to Mexico. We traveled in a ‘69 Ford van which was roomy enough for us to sleep in, cook in, keep books in, and haul along enough tools that we could stop by the road and tinker the van back to life, if needed,

Dave was and still is a birder, and I learned to watch and listen for the subtle nuances of bird presence—a tremble of branch, the dim flash of feathers, the subtle variations of bird call. We headed through Texas, stopping at Padre Island for a day or two, then continuing south. At some point along the way, we realized that the van could surprise us with needed repairs at any time, and neither of us spoke reliable Spanish, so we decided to tour the Rio Grande valley north of the border, hopping from refuge to refuge, searching for birds for Dave’s life list.

Laguna Atascosa is across Laguna Madre–an inland waterway–from South Padre Island. It’s sheltered by Padre’s barrier island from the ocean and is part wetland, part desert. When we were there, in the winter of 1988, the refuge was still relatively new, and was in the process of inventorying wildlife and rebuilding wild areas that had been devastated by years of prior use. The first night we were there, we parked on a point overlooking the bay and woke to the sun rising over the water, ducks and gulls lifting into the morning. When we stopped at the visitors’ center, we learned that the refuge staff were eager for volunteers. We offered what we could: I could write and edit; Dave, with his chemistry degree, took water samples and tested them. We were given a place to park the van, and stayed for a month.

What I learned about wildlife refuges: they are run by dedicated people who love the land and plants and animals that they work to preserve. While some of the people we met were long-time Fish and Wildlife employees, many were local, working at the jobs it took to manage an area 100,000 acres large. Everyone who worked there slipped easily between English and Spanish, and they welcomed us there. I sat in their library, reading guides to fish of the region and put together fish descriptions from photos and technical information. I wrote a lot about fish teeth and diet, about dorsal fins, spots, eye color and shape and other details I’ve long forgotten. From time to time, we’d be invited on the morning bird count, driving out with our morning coffee and tea and binoculars to watch for ducks, hawks, and shore birds and the occasional flamingo or egret. Once, I was invited to go along with the woman doing ocelot research to watch the female ocelot she was tracking cross the road at night. It slipped out of the tall grass along the road, saw the lights of our truck—they reflected in her eyes—and turned around and slipped back into the grass.

That was so long ago, but what I carry with me from that time is a memory of spaciousness and the generosity of everyone there, both wild and “civilized.” At its best, this is what the refuge system does—by preserving something elemental in the land, plants, and creatures, it preserves something elemental in us all and generously offers it back to us when we have reached the point of world-weariness that I had that year. Who does this land belong to? To all of us, and those who manage the refuges do so in our name and on our behalf. In the case of both Laguna Atascosa and the Malheur Refuge, on the north-south flyway of the birds who live in Alaska for the summers and Mexico for winters—it belongs to the birds and other animals who spend part of their lifecycle there and to all of us who need to know those birds will return to our spots on the flyway year after year.

So, are refuges a political space, a symbol of some form of tyranny? Perhaps the “tyranny” of our better natures to see the value in what exists in the landscape when left to its own devices, not trammeled by humans, their machines, their construction, their squabbles. Perhaps the “tyranny” of our collective will—or the middle ground of that will—to establish such places and ensure that they continue to exist—and our collective agreement to abide by that collective will. I can only hope that the sense of spaciousness, of connection, of peace that I feel when I remember Laguna Atascosa and every other similarly wild pocket of land I’ve visited will affect those who are spending their January in the refuge in Oregon now and that they will be transformed by it.  The Paiute know this–the refuge is a sacred space.  Perhaps those “occupying” the refuge will see something there that reminds them of this: we don’t ever “own” land, but are stewards of it with a responsibility to the future to leave it better than we found it.






Poetry Challenge for the New Year

January 5, 2016

Tonight, a quiet evening playing Scrabble with Mike–no TV, no internet, no cell phones, just us, the board, and the old fashioned wooden tiles. I’ve played Scrabble since my grandparents introduced the game to me when I was seven or eight, and I find it settling to sit for an evening with someone else who loves words and let the game challenge me. It activates the part of my brain that has always responded to words, and does it in a specific and concrete way that brings back into focus what I love about them–their sounds, their resonance of meanings, the shapes of the letters and their precise order. These days, when there’s plenty to rant about that involves language–the attenuation of words, sentences, and paragraphs through the rise of texting (don’t get me started on that), or the replacement of focused attention (reading, for example) with multitasking and distracted thinking, or the plain misuse of language and logic in everyday discourse (don’t get me started on that either)–it’s lovely to sit for hours just putting letters down in a cross-word pattern with a well-matched partner. Tonight, a rarity: a tied game.

So, if you are looking for a challenge, write something that involves words you like the shape of–or better yet, words you make by drawing Scrabble tiles. Think of the texture of the tiles, the sound of the words, the movement of your tongue as you speak them. Don’t write about these things, specifically, but let them be an undercurrent in your writing. Send a poem in the comments and I’ll add it to this post.

Return to Mattie’s Pillow

January 2, 2016

Hello, friends of Mattie’s Pillow!

I’ve been on a couple-year hiatus from this blog, but, with some encouragement from friends who have been readers of Mattie’s Pillow, and with the enthusiasm that a new year brings, I’m ready to pick it up again.

When I first started this blog in 2009, I was on a semester-long sabbatical, working on readying both a chapbook and a book of poetry for publication, as well as teaching poetry for a charter school class called “Climate Change and Creative Expression”–an experimental mix of science, dance, and poetry. It was a regenerative time when I felt full of writing energy and wanted to explore some ideas about the intersection among the various directions in my life at the time (and still): writing, dance, gardening, horses, teaching. I also wanted to explore an idea–a daydream, really–that I had been turning in my mind for some time: to find a physical place that could bring all of those things together the way Jacob’s Pillow does for dancers, thus the name Mattie’s Pillow. I still have Mattie, my cranky black bay Tennessee Walking Horse mare, but my vision of a physical place is changing.

I began to slow down on blogging the spring when four significant people in my life–friends, poets, life models–died within a month of each other, and I didn’t want to bog down the blog with elegy after elegy. I pretty much stopped when I had to step in as chair of my university department rather abruptly–and stayed in that role for three years. For a while, work took all the creative energy I had.

But that’s over now, and, again, I feel the need to write and the urge to use this blog as a platform.

My intent is to change a few things in the way I’ve approached this blog. For one, I no longer feel so cagey about writing about my age or my location in Interior Alaska. As I approach retirement–still a fuzzy date, but I think about it every day–I’d like to write about what it means to go through this stage of life as a professional woman. In fact, I’d like to broaden this blog to include memories and reflections on current times–a little more honest take on the world around us.

I plan to keep the sections of the blog: Sam will still comment on the life with horses here at Mattie’s Pillow, and I’ll continue to post about the view from my home on the ridge and write about dance in our community and beyond. It occurs to me that this will make the blog somewhat unfocused, but bear with me. I think it will sort itself out.

I have also been writing about family history as a way to explore themes in American history–particularly the history of women in the 19th and early 20th Century. I’ll post some of this.

I may finally be willing to post photos–but this blog is still mainly about writing.

OK. I can see that this is all pretty ambitious. Be patient. Send me comments and thoughts. We’ll see how it develops.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

August 6, 2013

I’ve taken a long break from writing here, and now we’re toward the end of summer with the Fair going full swing. I’ve given myself a break from writing in general, a strange thing to do when writing sustains and refreshes me as much as it does. But I had reached a point where the thought of sitting in front of a computer after a work day of teaching and running a department carried too much weight of obligation—and I didn’t want that to enter or underlie this blog.

That said, I’m enjoying the last few weeks of waking when I want to before returning to campus to move in to a new office and facing the plights and gripes of my colleagues. I have a school year to go before I can step back into the oblivion of just teaching—till then, my posts here may be sporadic.

We’ve had a lovely, if hot, summer here in the Interior. Spring dallied. It snowed on the day of the Preakness—mid May—and every gardener I know put their garden in late. The late cold was followed immediately by weeks of 80- and 90-degree weather, giving us no time to adjust, so the gardening that should have been done at that point was limited by our ability to tolerate sun and heat—our blood hadn’t thinned enough by then, and we fell into evenings debilitated as the sun lingered into our long white nights.

Now we have a few hours of darkness to counter our still hot days. The cycle is shifting, and with the slatey blue light that settles in around midnight comes cooler air—down to the upper 40s the other night. Instead of our typical fair-time rain, we are having smooth blue skies and 80s during the day, but the nights are giving us warning of what’s to come.

Today, I’ll load up Mattie and Sam for one more lesson before I ride Mattie in the Fair dressage classes on Friday. We are moving up a level to Training 1—after all these years, things are beginning to click. I can feel my right side when I ride, for example, a challenge for someone as left-sided as I am. And Mattie has learned to move at an even pace, not race around, pulling at the reins.

The garden is flourishing; the tomatoes are producing green ovals that may ripen before I close the greenhouse in fall—or later in the newspaper layers I store them in. Fireweed is blooming closer to the top, but isn’t all the way there yet. A few more weeks. I’m in summer brain, every moment. A few more moments, moment by moment, absorbing everything the sun brings, storing it up for the days I’m not ready to think about yet.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 20, 2013

Redpolls and Chickadees

Thanks to football (words I never thought I’d write), I’m having a pleasant day home alone, listening to From the Top on NPR, a classical music show featuring young musicians, this week focused on music honoring the life and ideals of Martin Luther King. And thanks to Dr. King, this pleasant Sunday will be followed by a day off from teaching, a day I hope to spend, in part, listening to Obama’s second inaugural address. Because we are in the farthest US time zone from the East Coast (other than Hawaii), the whole inaugural shebang will be over by 10am—plenty of time to longe horses or do a thorough cleaning of the corral and gather my wits for the long semester ahead.

Before I sat down to write, I was watching redpolls at our new yellow feeder. Pushy little birds, they chatter and flutter at each other, trying to get the best spot to peck at the sunflower and thistle mix we’ve put out for them. They seem to have driven the chickadees away by their sheer number and pushiness, though I know the chickadees are still out in the bare willows, because I hear their calls when I go out to visit the horses—“deee—dee—dee.” They are politer birds, perhaps, waiting till the plainer redpolls have glutted for the day to come and perch at the feeder. Or perhaps someone else in the neighborhood has food that they like better. Watching the redpolls, so active and plucky, I made a mental list for the day—writing this is item number one.

I suppose I could make analogies between the pushy birds and politics—but their energy is not a difference of opinion with chickadees, but the essential energy of living things: hungry, eager, joyful, crabby, soaring, and squabbling. As I walk up to the glass door to the deck, they sense my motion and blow away as abruptly as if caught by a sudden gust of wind. If I stand still, they venture back one at a time till they are again feeding chattily away. The cat sits at my feet, watching them, plotting her summer moves. In summer, much to her disappointment, I move the feeder and stop filling it, so she is forced to hunt voles in the hay barn instead.

Thinking of Dr. King and of Obama, I remember the flocking of people from around the country to hear each man speak, a couple generations apart. For us, the attractive food is hope, something that has been in short supply in recent years—certainly in many desperate spots around the world. Looking back over this blog, I found this paragraph from Inauguration Day four years ago:

“It’s been a long dark journey through a kind of national despair for the past eight years, when the public dialogue has been driven by fear and impulse rather than reflection and reason. Horses can be made dangerous and frightening by humans who react around them out of fear–perhaps that’s also true of a nation. And horses can be calmed and rehabilitated by a calmer, reasonable presence. Perhaps we all long for that, as well. It’s a lot to place on one human being, to calm and redirect the restless herd of our national psyche, but, as I’ve said to friends here, an election isn’t about one person, it’s about us and who we want ourselves collectively to be. So, as light progresses here, we’ll watch to see how light can be progressively shed on us all with the turn of the political season. I wish for Obama all the best tools of horse and dog training: to be calm, attentive, clear-headed, non-reactive, and to lead by reward and praise rather than by punishment and fear.”

How much has changed? Well, I suppose that depends on your world view. But what I had hoped for in Obama seems to be played out in who he has proved to be; he’s famously cool rather than reactive, and seems to be learning how to balance the carrot and the stick politically. Our nation seems to have divided, say, into redpolls and chickadees—but we are still one flock, and have our humanity in common with people everywhere. I wouldn’t trade places with Obama, but I’m glad he’s there, doing the difficult work of keeping us focused on what we have in common and living out the dream that King put forward all those years ago.

Today, I notice the light returning even more than I did last week. We are now a full month away from solstice, with as much light as we had in Thanksgiving. I’m already thinking of the garden and of my plans for Mattie and Sam this summer. We have months to go before we see the ground again, but we have hope.

Poetry Challenge 78

January 4, 2013

Being Mrs. Patmore

Over the holidays, I’ve found myself in the kitchen most days, cooking or cleaning up after a previous feast. It’s been good to feel the rhythms of cooking and cleaning, of preparing and serving food to friends and family, of being at the center of such a basic pleasure as cookies, pies, marmalade, a grand meal, or a simple curry. I mentioned to someone who hasn’t seen Downton Abbey that I felt like I was channeling Mrs. Patmore–that consummate professional cook–and they said, “Who?”

So, I’ve been reflecting on simple acts that create order in our lives, such as cooking, and how the act of cooking creates community, stability, and a deep sense of pleasure in life. In reflecting on my obsession with Downton, I think that the meals eaten (by all characters) are a unifying theme. Life can be good, Downton suggests, if we share simple pleasures, made with artistry and pride, and eaten with love and respect. More on this in a longer post.

For now, write about something you do that requires skill, that brings pleasure in the doing, and that you share with others. Be sure to include the sense of taste. Post this as a comment and I’ll add it to this post.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 1, 2013

Being Resolute

After a break of many months, I’ve decided to return to this blog. This isn’t a New Year’s resolution, exactly, but it something I’ve been holding in my mind for some time now, waiting for when it seemed right to start again. Now, with the New Year and with a bit more than a week of Winter Break behind me and a week more to go, it seems like a good time.

My goal is to shift the direction of the blog a bit. Over the last few years, I found myself writing too much about friends who had died, and part of my silence here has been to take a break from that element of the blog. More than that, I am at a point when I’m looking at a major change of life—still a couple of years out, but closing fast—and I needed some time to feel right about writing about that change—retirement from my long years of teaching developmental writing and beginning a new venture, which I hope includes all the elements of this blog: horses, gardens, dance, poetry, the psyche. To write about this, I need to be more willing than in the past to admit to a few facts about myself, including how I feel about reaching a “certain age.”

So, in this time of resolutions, here’s a new start for Mattie’s Pillow: an exploration of how to change one particular life (dragging a few others along in the process) in a way that what lies ahead draws on all the things I love to do and do well. This may include the purchase of land for enterprises involving horses and gardens; it may involve some retooling and reorienting towards a new profession; and it will definitely include musings on simplification of this complicated busy life into a more sustainable one. I look forward to hearing from those of you who read this blog about how you have approached the process of life changes at any age and about helpful hints along the way.

In the meantime, things putter along here at Mattie’s Pillow. Mattie and Sam and I came through the summer happy with weekly lessons with Colleen in her new facility, Drouin Springs. In spite of his trickster nature, I was able to get a full summer’s worth of riding on Sam, no lameness, and he never managed to buck me off—not for want of trying. Mattie has developed more looseness in her stifle joint—the equivalent of our knee joint in her hind leg—which means that her left hind leg twists as she walks. In June, Tom put shoes on her hind feet that extended out from the hoof on the outside to make her balance her stance better and had a jar caulk on the inside—a weapon of a bar welded to the bottom of the shoe to dig into the ground and keep her from sliding her hoof or twisting it on the ground. She seems more stable with the shoes, though she’s always been a barefoot girl and hates the process of nailing them on. By the end of summer, she seemed stronger than ever and far more stable in her gaits.

Now, they’re on break and shaggy and bored. The last few days, the temperatures have risen to near freezing, and I’ve been able to spend time with them, longeing and grooming, and having their feet trimmed. As spring comes and the light returns, I’ll be getting them ready for another summer. Can’t wait!

The days are short now. We have several hours of lingering sunrise and sunset with three hours of sun above the horizon. It sounds so dreary to write this, but it’s actually lovely—the light on the snow reflects in shades of blue. The sky is streaked with orange and purple morning and night. The snow sits in puffs along the branches of the spruce and birch and willows, and redpolls and chickadees flit here and there. A deep peace settles in the woods here on the ridge, and I wouldn’t trade it for a night in Times Square, New Year’s or no.

To all of you who read this, may you go forward into the new year with confidence and hope of joy. We’ve survived an election, some storms, an apocalypse, and that cliff thing. Some sorrow, some joy. We continue on.

Poetry Challenge 77

March 8, 2012

Reading Aloud

On Friday night, I’ll be reading with poet Derick Burleson and fiction writer Geri Brightwell in the UAF Wood Center Ballroom (7pm). That’s the shameless plug.

Now the challenge–listen to what you or others say and notice how compressed and poetic everyday speech really is. Eavesdrop, write it all down. Then go outside somewhere quiet and say the words and phrases you like best to the trees or the street or the sky. What sounds good to the ear? What feels good to say? What sounds do you hear in response?

Now write the poem.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 15, 2012

The Ides of February

Just past Valentine’s Day, and we’re still relishing mild temperatures, sometimes in the thirties. We now have eight hours and some odd minutes of daylight and it’s beginning to feel like spring; n fact, we were warmer than Orlando over the weekend. After the long weeks of below twenty below weather—with a string of days where it hit fifty below in the lower spots in the Interior—we’re all a bit giddy and, groundhog of not, ready for spring.

I just read an entry I wrote last year at this time, though, and the temperatures had dipped to thirty below again. I am forewarned.

It’s a time of year when we are all a bit groundhoggish, sticking our figurative noses up out of our hibernation of spirit to test the air and see if we can really hope for warmer days—even summer—ahead. Last weekend a group of us came out of hibernation to gather at a the Four Winds Foundation for a day of writing and sharing, guided by poet, and my long-time mentor, John Morgan. I don’t usually go to these retreats, but I went because John and my friend Jean Anderson, who writes marvelous stories of the inner life, were going to be there. It was delightful and comforting to be in their presence, to be writing after this season of not much writing, and to be hearing the work of other writers, some of whom I didn’t know. At the first prompt, I wrote three drafts of poems, then continued to write several more, some of which I’ll keep. It was a good start to the weekend which ended with an afternoon of intense corral cleaning, making up for weeks of neglect when it was just too cold at thirty below to grip a rake and shovel.

I’m feeling my energy returning, but it will take a while—sticking with my dance schedule and starting riding lessons again—for my sluggish body to shed the deep lethargy it’s sunk into this winter. As I talk to people around campus, I hear the same story—a sleepy inertia bordering, for some, on depression, set in during the time between Thanksgiving when we had the first bout of deep cold, and, well about a week ago when the cold broke. This may have something to do with the lack of entries here, come to think about it.

Mattie and Sam made it through the cold well, with their thick coats and the warm quilted blankets I’ve collected for them over the years. We went through a bit of hay, but mostly I supplemented their night feeding with brome pellets soaked in warm water to add to their hay intake. They are still on a bit of lay off till my schedule settles down and the light lingers a bit longer in the evening. By next week I should be able to get home and still have enough light to groom and longe them in the afternoon.

Today, as I pulled into the driveway, I heard what sounded like gunshots, but was really someone shooting off rocket fireworks nearby. Sam and Mattie began trotting around their sides of the corral; I could see the colored sparks rise and fall in the air above the corral. Even after the noise stopped, the horses kept trotting, cantering, generally larking around as if the noise were merely a convenient excuse for a bit of play.

We’re all ready for the spark of an excuse; spring is somewhere at the end of another month or two (or three) of winter, but we can feel the first nudgings of it now.

Poetry Challenge 76

January 22, 2012

The long cold drags on.  We were warned.  I read in the paper last summer that we were in a La Nina cycle, which would mean long cold spells and little snow.  Here in the Interior, we’ve missed the 18 feet of snow they’ve had in Cordova on the coast.  What we get is the fine, dry stuff, the moisture freezing out of the air and falling in a thick mist over the backs of horses, fenceposts, car windshields and anything else that’s out there.

But it’s warmed a bit and today I spent a couple of hours raking and shoveling manure out of the corral, stockpiling for the summer’s compost.  And the light lingers longer, too, well past 4pm; after all, we’re a month past solstice, the darkest day of the year.  And I’ve already looked at seed catalogs online–tomatoes so plump and red, the lovely ruffles of mesclun lettuce–and I’m studying plans for swallow boxes to go up on the hill behind the house.  A little fantasy vacation to the summer to come.

It will be cold again this week–40 below at night–and the blankets are airing out, ready to go back on the horses.  We have plenty of chocolate and split birch wood.

So here’s the challenge: write about the days ahead, referring to the details of the day you’re in.  What is in flux?  What red tomato image holds you steady through this post-solstice time.  Use a vegetable in the poem.


Karen from KD’s Bookblog sent this:

Trimming Leeks

Goodness lies
in cutting away
leathery greens,
lopping off rootlets
like idle talk.

What’s left recalls
a roll of white paper.
The leek master
chops it, wilts it
in sizzling butter. Adds
broth, slivered potato, cream.
Purees, seasons, serves
her soup with thick slices
of sourdough.

The empty bowl
cradles the spoon and
a whisper of lost parts.
In the dark kitchen
discarded stems
decay like new bones
in an old casket.

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