Archive for January, 2016

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.

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