Posts Tagged ‘April’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 17, 2011

The Cruelest Month

The days are warmer now—in the 40s (Fahrenheit) but in the teens at night.  In the corral, the snow is melting and compacting to hardpack ice, and gradually all the manure we didn’t manage to collect throughout the winter—first the ice storm, a series of deep snowstorms, several flus, and other distractions—is emerging in ragged brown mounds through the ice.  Sam looks pretty ragged, too.  His gloriously long teddy bear coat is coming out in clumps and hangs from his belly in a ratty profile.  I was afraid that there was no horse beneath all that hair, but after much work with the shedding blade, his fine short summer coat is emerging and with it his aging athlete’s muscle definition.

As Eliot says, “April is the cruelest month”—for there have been a string of deaths that have emptied out my reserve of grief.  The most recent, yesterday, was my long-time poet friend, Joe Enzweiler.  Joe has been struggling with brain cancer for the past two years—who knows how long the tumors had actually been there, but by the time they were diagnosed, he was on a slow slide off the slippery slope of the planet.

Joe trained as a physicist, but always wrote poetry and, when I met him, he was one of the brilliant young men in a writers’ workshop that also included Dan O’Neill, Linda Schandelmeier, Jean Anderson, Patricia Monaghan, Gerald Cable, Elyse Guttenberg, and me.  Joe was the one whose poems always seemed to contain a vocabulary that flew off the page to somewhere unexpected.   He was tall and wiry with an unruly tangle of blonde hair and an elusive quality—he would leave town for his brother’s farm in Kentucky nearly every year, so that he seemed to have the Cheshire quality of appearing and disappearing.

He managed to make a life for himself in a cabin he built among birch trees on Old Cat Trail.  He had electricity, but no running water, and he heated with wood.  One of the ways he meditated on the nature of this world and generated poems was to head out to his woods with a Swede saw and cut small trees—thinning out his patch of forest—which he stacked in a mosaic pattern under his porch.  He also stacked rocks, and had a years’-long project building a fieldstone wall through his brother’s Kentucky property.

Joe believed writers should write, no more, no less.  Because he had his land and could do carpentry work in the summer, most of his time was spent just writing—or running, or reading, or cutting wood, or engaging us in long conversations that drifted along as if there were no other demands on either person’s life.  Talking to Joe could make you feel that work was an indulgence, a distraction.  The true work was the written word.

Joe and I had a years’-long habit of getting together for Poetry Thursdays.  It started when he needed help navigating a computer version of one of his books—what to do about margins, fonts, etc.  It evolved into sometimes his reading aloud new drafts of his developing memoir, or my reading him new poems or horse essays.  He took the manuscript of my book and chapbook and gave me useful suggestions on poem order, sections, and the paring away of words.

Every Christmas, we would go to Joe’s place to thin out a spruce from “Joe’s Tree Farm.”  We would stop for tea first, then head out in a rush to find a tree before the waning light left us.

Now, he has left us.  “So many,” Eliot says, “I had not known death had undone so many.”  But Eliot’s words still live—and so will Joe’s.  And he was right: writing (or art or whatever we can create out of our own uniqueness) is the true work.  The rest is distraction.

Poetry Challenge 66

April 8, 2011

On Friendship and Transience

The days are warmer now–in the 40s (Fahrenheit), and a fresh snow has fallen on the melting snow, covering all the emerging dirt, spruce needles, scraps of paper.   I am glad of this warmth, even though it’s relative.  And I’m thinking of transitions.

I learned yesterday that my friend Kim had given up the struggle of her last days and slipped off into the vast ocean of consciousness–an image I once heard from a Buddhist monk.  I have been grieving her going for over a week now, and to learn that she had finally let go was a relief–followed by these warm bright days.

I still have not written the longer piece I want to write about her, but, for now, am thinking about transition–winter to spring, seed to plant, wood to fire, being to non-being, or as Faulkner put it “Was. Not was.”  Write about something in transition–the moment before the bird alights, the pause before sunup, the day before the river breaks up.   Write about things that are so transient they are lost before we have time to realize they have been present.

Post a poem in the comments and I’ll add it to this post.


Here’s one from an old friend, Larry Laraby;

Recipe for the perfect ‘Life.’


Salt and pepper

Kill the beast of indifference,
Strip the beast of its apathy.
Cut the pain of sorrow from
The flesh of oppression.

Salt and pepper to taste

Sift the fear from the first blush
Of innocence. Combine equal parts
Of love and forgetting
And stir in a generous helping of hope.

Bake at the speed of light,
Sprinkle with grace
Let cool until Autumn colors the days with memories.

Larry Laraby (1-21-2010)


The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 18, 2010

Still waiting for green, though the air is warm again after a few chilly days and a freak hailstorm on Thursday.   Today, a Chinook wind blew in sixty-degree weather or, at least, the mid to high fifties.   In the sun, it felt like summer though the ground is still frozen just beneath the surface and we still have half a yard full of snow.  Out on the Tanana, a lead is opening up, dark and sleek in the punchy white ice.  Nothing moving yet, just the ever-widening black patch of water.  The willows are fluffing out their catkins, pussywillows.  I think of cutting some sticks of willow for the living room, but, when I think about doing that, I’m usually on the way from one thing to another—back to the house to get the Cowboy Magic for Sam’s tail or off to the greenhouse for more four-inch pots, as I am just starting to transplant the first flat of seedlings.

Today, Trish came up to work with Sam again.  She lunged him after we took another bushel of hair out of his coat, then we brought him over to Mattie’s side of the corral—the larger flatter side that doubles as a small arena—and got out the saddle.  Sam is a professional horse.  I often think he may have been a circus horse.  He stood stock-still in the morning sun while we fussed with him.  Finally, he was saddled and Trish got on.  She walked him around the corral, getting to know him.  He moved willingly, none of the usual feet planted stubbornness he used to exhibit back in the early days.  She seemed happy, and so did he.  It should be a good summer for Sam with three of us doting on him.

As for Mattie, it may be that some of our long-running issues are becoming resolved.  She’s trotting pretty reliably at the end of the longe line now, and stood for the saddle and for mounting today—her first ride of the spring.  We headed off around the corral and she trotted, leg yielded, trotted in small circles—in short, she remembered everything and it was gratifying.

There’s almost no ice left in the corral now and the sand drained quickly.  The yard is soggy and scattered with wood chips from the firewood chopping area.  The grass is flattened and brown.  We have chickadees and juncos at the bird feeder.   I’m listening for robins and thrushes in the woods and the rattle of a woodpecker.  We’re still a long way from greenup, but I have three flats of starts to transplant: tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and delicata squash.  I took them out for an afternoon in the greenhouse, and managed to transplant some of the cucumbers today into three-inch pots.

I heard a report that a friend’s spouse, out cutting wood, saw the year’s first mosquito.

Tonight, around ten thirty, a sliver of moon hung low in the sky, fuzzy through a thin layer of cloud.  With night, the chill in the air returns, but the light lingers longer in the sky now and there’s a slatey light on everything.  We could still get snow, but all our restlessness calls out for true spring followed soon by summer.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 9, 2010

Sam hasn’t posted for a while.  He’s been busy this winter growing a magnificent coat of white fur, which he is now in the process of shedding out.  But now, he’s ready for an update.

Sam, in spite of being an Andalusian gentleman whose ancestors are from a much warmer climate than Interior Alaska, grows a coat that is nearly four inches long by the time shedding season comes in April.  All winter, he looks like he’s half polar bear, and as the sun returns to the corral, the longer outer hairs gleam so that he looks haloed in the morning sun.  Mattie’s hair is not nearly as long or thick, though she seems to grow more of an undercoat.  Now that they are shedding, the corral is littered with clumps of their hair, especially in spots where they are standing to be groomed.

Today, Trish, from our horse club came over to see Sam.  She is considering being one of two riders (besides me) to ride him in lessons and clinics this summer.  We have an ambitious schedule planned and now that the ice is nearly melted from the corral, we can start getting the horses fit in earnest.  We stood for nearly a half hour in the sun grooming out his shedding coat with the shedding blade—a metal strip with a serrated side that rakes the loose hairs from his coat.  We were nearly ankle deep in white hair when we were done.  We tacked Sam up in the longeing cavesson and surcingle and got him going in circles at the trot and a bit of canter.

All the clicker training I’ve done—however sporadically—has paid off, it seems.  He stands to be groomed now—not as much inching back to the end of the lead rope then “panicking” at the feel of the halter pulling on his head.  He stood still as we worked on him, dozing in the last sun of the day.  He was—well mostly—polite as Trish walked him then sent him out to the end of the longe line to work.  He seemed happy to be working and comfortable with what we were asking of him.

Afterward, we went to work with Mattie, too.  After the last incident I reported a few weeks ago, I’ve been working with her on moving her shoulders away from me, tapping on her shoulders till she takes a step sideways away from me, then rewarding her by letting off the pressure, then trying again.  The idea (which I found on a John Lyons trainer’s blog) is to teach her to move away from the whip so that, eventually, I can just point the tip of the whip at her shoulder or hip and she will move out to the end of the line, instead of turning to face me.  Things have been better with Mattie, too.

It’s gratifying to have new people come up and see Mattie and Sam, for it gives me a better perspective on how far we all have come.  I’m less timid about pushing the horses a little now—though I always watch Mattie carefully for signs that she feels threatened—and they know more of what I expect: good behavior.  In all, it makes for pleasanter times with them, and I think of the behaviors I’m trying to shape in them as horse survival skills.  Just like teaching Jeter, the poodle, to sit at the side of the road when he hears a car coming rather than revving up to chase it, teaching Mattie and Sam to be calm and responsive to humans could save their lives if they ever have to be cared for by some other humans less crazy about them than I am.

In the book Black Beauty, Anna Sewell writes that horses’ lives are a story of changing hands, going from person to person.  Unlike dogs, who often live with one person for their shorter lives, horses move from owner to owner throughout their sometimes forty-year lives.  Girls grow up and go to college and their beloved horses are sold to a new owner, or a divorce or illness happens and the owner can’t keep the horse, or a rider is in a long search for the right horse for the purpose and goes through several in the span of years.  Recently, the endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, a half-Arab flea-bitten gray (like Sam) died at 38 with his life-long owner at his side.  He has the record for the most lifetime miles in competition of any horse in that sport—and he competed in his last race this past fall.  He is the exception, to have lived so long with one owner.  I hope to counter this trend with Mattie and Sam—but want them to have reasonable manners just in case.  Besides, they both have psychological and behavioral baggage from their pasts; I want them to feel secure with me.

The corral is mostly down to dirt, now.  This weekend, if the temperatures go back above freezing, we’ll get a crew together and rake and scoop as much of the manure as we can off the packed and frozen sand below.  By next weekend—if it doesn’t snow or rain and freeze (knock on wood)—we could be getting out the saddles.  I have two more lessons on Stormy in the indoor arena, then Mattie and Sam get my full attention, with the help of Trish and Casey.

There are tiny tomato and cucumber plants under my shop light and in the window during the day.  I’m beginning to clear out the greenhouse to prepare it for this summer’s plants.  The ground is brown with dead grass and leaves; the trees are a web of bare twigs.  The Tanana below us is still white with a widening gray swath that shows where the ice is thinning, thawing, and refreezing.  Anything can happen—snow, forty below, a quick melt and breakup.  We’re holding our breath.  We have our Nenana Ice Classic tickets in the can.  One day we’ll see pale green like a haze in the hills.  Then, then, spring.

Poetry Challenge 44

April 7, 2010

I hear that it’s spring in some locations south of here.  Trish McConnell in her blog The Other End of the Leash posted some stunning photos of crocuses and daffodils.  But here in the Interior, we have piles of gray snow, melting and refreezing puddles, and lots of brown ground.  It will be a month before the first green.

So write about opposites found in one thing–winter embedded in a spring month, the dog with the cat-like traits–or how opposites are more like each other than they are different.

Send a poem as a comment and I’ll post it here.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 29, 2009

Finally warm weather. The snow is mostly gone, though still piled in a ridge where it slid off the roof over the past month, and still spread in shady spots in the woods. The corral is now mostly wet sand, boggy in spots where water is still draining off the hillside above, and pocked with the holes Mattie and Sam’s hooves have made when it was softer. Today I examined what had looked like a big patch of unmelted snow and discovered it was Sam’s white winter coat spread out in a spot where he had been rolling.

The tomatoes are four inches high and in their flats in the greenhouse. Soon I’ll be transplanting them into larger pots, one stage away from their final pots–square kitty litter containers, good for saving space in a small greenhouse. I have lettuce in a pot for the deck and a pot of basil I couldn’t resist planting. The deck is warm, the sky is blue, the geese and cranes are staging for their last push north to the nesting grounds. Spring, really, finally.

For those of you who associate spring and flowers, however, spring here is a grimy pause before the bursting-forth of summer. The ground is still soggy, not quite melted below the surface. The trees are still mere sticks, except for the willow catkins or pussywillows, the first hint of what is to come. The roads are muddy and flooded in spots. Everything is brown and gray without the relief of snow. The migrating birds passing overhead: geese, cranes, swans, ducks-are what we have instead of daffodils and crocuses.

Downriver, the tripod still rests in ice, though there are leads in the river and the ice is too soft to walk out on now. If this warming trend holds till Saturday, the ice will go out in Nenana and someone will win a share in the Nenana Ice Classic.

This year, again, proves that there is no predicting spring here in the Interior. When we bought our Ice Classic tickets April 5, only three weeks ago, we were all complaining about what a cold spring it had been. It seemed foolish to predict breakup before May 1. Now, an early ticket just may be a winner. It could be going out now while I write this.

We’re all waiting. Once the ice is gone, our brief spring will start and go. In another week it will be early summer, with bluebells and wild roses, pasque flowers, robins and thrushes, and all the wonderful work of gardening, conditioning and riding horses, and sitting on the deck with friends into the long pale night.

Poetry Challenge 17

April 22, 2009

Now that spring is on its way here in the Interior, we’re watching for little changes that mean we’re really done with winter. Willow buds puff out into pussywillows; low spots in the road fill with water during the warm parts of the day; geese, cranes, and ducks flock in to feed and rest on Creamer’s Field, then straggle north to breed. The big, unmistakable change will be when the ice goes out on the river in Nenana and we learn who had the best guess–and a little more spending money for summer projects.

So write about the small changes that happen where you are that signify a larger change. It doesn’t have to be about spring, or not just about spring. Focus on the little things and let us read through to the big ones.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 20, 2009

Spring progresses here. As I sit at the kitchen table writing this, the sun warms my back. Behind me, by the large window, are four flats of tomato plants in small yogurt cups. Again, this year, I couldn’t resist planting all the seeds in the packet–a small forest of tomatoes.

Yesterday, we spent two hours in the corral, scraping up the manure that fell between snowstorms this winter, now a brown stew on packed and melting ice. Both Mattie and Sam have snow on at least half of each of their sections of corral, packed and grainy. Sam paws at the snow till he’s loosened the surface, then lies down and rolls, flipping from one side to another in his glee at the motion. Mattie rolls, too, then stands, shakes out snow and her shedding hair, then bucks or canters toward the fence to nip at Sam, who nips back, crow hops, clatters the metal fence panels, then trots away. Mostly, though, they doze in the sun, as if saving up its warmth against next winter.

The corral looks like a frozen moonscape–the brown stuff emerging through packed ice. Here and there, sand shows through, saturated with melt water that has nowhere to go till the frozen ground beneath it melts and can drain. In the woods above our house, the ground is still thick with snow, though at the top of the cut bank behind the house, wet loess is emerging. Shasta daisies that I’ve planted there over the years emerge from the snow, leaves already green–I don’t know how–and ready to begin the season. It will be June before they flower, though.

This is breakup in Interior Alaska. The roads are slick with melting snowpack. Where there’s exposed road, puddles form and potholes deepen. The first of the local greenhouses have opened–warm with sun and furnace air, moist with blooming plants. We’re six weeks away from planting time.

The river is still frozen, but getting soft in spots. On our drive toward town, we can see the Tanana arching through its slow bends and oxbows as it heads toward Nenana. Even last week, we could see people walking dogs on its white surface or clustering around a few ice fishing holes. But gray patches are forming–slush ice–and by the end of the week, no one will be walking there as channels of open water carve through the ice.

In Nenana, the tripod, whose movement marks the final moment of breakup for us, is still firmly lodged in ice. After the river clears in Fairbanks and all that swift water, ice, driftwood, and anything else that got left on the ice this winter rushes down stream, it will raise the water level in Nenana where the Tanana joins the Nenana River just above the tripod site set up each year for the Nenana Ice Classic. Each year, the tripod is set up just out from the historic railroad station, a long wire strung from it to a clock by the bank.  The wire will trip the clock, stopping it the moment the tripod moves downstream. We buy tickets with the day, hour, and minute we predict the clock will stop–a 50/50 game, with half going to the village of Nenana and half divided between everyone who has a lucky guess.

But breakup is tricky. Some years a channel forms where the tripod is and moves it just enough to trip the clock, though the rest of the river is iced in. Or the opposite–the river will clear, but the tripod is stuck in the one patch of ice that doesn’t move. One year, the tripod tipped nearly far enough to trip the clock–but not quite–then rested in that position for days. But eventually it all washes downstream and we go about the business of summer.

Here’s the Ice Classic site:

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 7, 2009

When I first started writing these posts, it was deep winter. I wrote from a comfy chair (see the post on Ed’s Chair, March 2) close to the wood stove, so I could write and stoke the stove as I went. The energy-inefficient but psyche-efficient wall of glass that looks out over the Tanana River valley was mostly dark, reflecting the cozy room back to me as I wrote.

Now the day is bright and light lingers in the northern sky past 10:30 at night, a kind of watery blue at the horizon deepening to ultramarine above us. Gradually, in the weeks to come, the darkness will bleach out of the sky altogether, leaving us with only a few hours of deep pastel sunset/sunrise and hours and hours of blissful sunlight.

Already, I can feel the drive of energy that summer brings. The people I know here feel it, too. We’ve started our long-season seeds–I have tomato plants three inches high on a shelf by my wall of glass. They’re ready to be transplanted into small yogurt containers that I spent hours drilling drain holes in last summer. I have more starts to plant as the weeks go on and we get closer to our optimal outdoor planting date, June 1.

But spring has its downside. There are people among my friends and acquaintances who are struggling now that winter is finally, inevitably passing. The snow is still good for skiing, but will be too mushy and slick soon; the roads will be subject to black ice as rain starts to fall; all the trash and horse and other manure will be emerging soon. If things aren’t well with the psyche, now is when it really shows. March is tough for us all here–we’re impatient by then. April can be delightful for some, but others fall away.

So is April the cruelest month, as Eliot suggested? Or is it cruel in that it reminds us how separated from the rhythms of the land we’ve become? Like the redpolls that flit through the willows to dive-bomb my feeder, like Mattie and Sam dozing sideways to the sun, like the swelling tips of willows ready to bud into pussywillows, we feel the urge of spring, even though it’s not quite here in the Interior. If the life we lead keeps us inside out of the breeze, the melting snow, the mud, something primal chafes. But if we can get out in the air for even a little while, perhaps that chafing can heal. Even better if we can be out in it with friends.

For me, besides my human friends with whom I’ve been working on some difficult projects lately, being outside with Mattie and Sam, feeling those partnerships renewed as we work towards our first riding day of the year–after the ice has melted from the corral and the inevitable puddles have drained through the sand–restores me to balance. Yesterday the temperature was near 60 by the hay barn, and I stood detangling Sam’s mane and his full tail. The snow, melting, fell in chunks from the greenhouse roof, and Sam would startle, then relax. He wasn’t as pushy as he usually is, and he seemed to enjoy the attention. After nearly four years, he is starting to trust me. Later I did the same for Mattie, her black coat so warm in the sun it made me sleepy.

I often tell my friends to come pet a horse when they feel weighed down. They laugh, thinking I’m joking. I’m not. There’s nothing better I know.

Poetry Challenge 13

April 2, 2009

13 Ways

In honor of Poetry Month, and because this is Challenge 13, take a tip from Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Pick something at random–I once wrote one on a roll of masking tape–and write 13 short “views” of the thing, ranging from the minute view to the grand.

Stevens’ poem starts:

“Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.”

Here’s a link to the whole poem:

And here’s a site with poets who are writing a poem a day during April. Don’t know if I’ll be that ambitious.

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