Posts Tagged ‘beauty’

Dancing in the North

December 11, 2010

More Nutcracker

On Facebook, a friend posted a You Tube video of a Glass Armonica recording of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This music is unavoidable this time of year and in many bad renditions, but this one, played by rubbing wet fingers across spinning half globes of glass, caught the magic, the delicacy, and the precise optimism of the music.

I’m always brought back to the deeper threads of the Nutcracker at this time of year.  Last week, watching our Nutcracker, I paid special attention to the progression of Fairies in the piece.  First the Snow Fairy, in her crisp white tutu, surrounded with dancers in Romantic tutus—calf-length, floating with each movement.  The music swirls them along, and the pas de deux is energetic and full of anticipation.   Everything sparkles as Clara watches, and snow filters down on the bare backs of the swirling snowflakes.

The Snow Fairy is pristine, innocent, hopeful, glamorous—a young girl’s naïve dream of her adult self.  The Cavalier is gallant, lifting his white-tutued partner in shoulder-sits and jetes.  The choir joins in—angelic, anticipatory—and the Snow Fairy leads the group on through the spangled winter scene to all that lies ahead.

Then, after intermission, the Snow is gone, and we are in springtime—warm light, dancing flowers, and the busy flitting about of the Dew Drop Fairy.  I once heard Norman, directing a Dew Drop Fairy, say that she is his favorite role in the ballet—she is liquid, bursting with life, bringing the flowers to bloom.  And, at least in our version, she dances alone, touching the flowers as she passes, diverting their motion by her touch.  She welcomes Clara to the Land of Sweets with her newly humanized Prince (who’s no longer a wooden grotesque, the Nutcracker), and she introduces them to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her court.

For Clara, Dew Drop represents a path she could, but ultimately does not take—a solo female role, powerful in all the traditionally female attributes (the ballet is rooted in the 19th century, after all)—nurturing, creating order, displaying beauty in the flowers and in her own gorgeous tutu.  In our ballet, her tutu is a rich dark green with tear drop pearls and sequins on the crisp flat skirt.   She is self sufficient, but alone.  But Clara already has her bond with the prince and the puzzle of the second act is how she will fulfill the potential of this gift of a partner.

The Sugar Plum holds the key, and she presents Clara and the Prince with a series of alternatives: the sultry Spanish dance, with its intimations of the bull ring as the dancers pass and parry; the erotic Arabian dance, with its exploration of power and allurement and ultimate submission; and Mother Ginger, drawn from the Commedia del Arte image of the comic prostitute, the Old Woman in the Shoe, who has so many children she doesn’t know what to do—a cynical vision of adult womanhood that is comic in its cross-dressing exaggeration.  Clara and the Prince watch all this play out, and we move through these phases with them, the music subtly working on us to prepare us for the final choice—the Sugar Plum.

We are ready for her when she appears, having been soothed by the Waltz of the Flowers and the Dew Drop’s ability to restore order to the scene after the chaos of Mother Ginger’s appearance.  There is a pause in the music, and the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier appear.  The music darkens; at least it darkens beneath the upper registers, which still seem sparkly.  There is a longing, a poignancy to the music.  You sense that the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier have earned their moment in the ballet through some past series of sorrows and joys.  The lifts, turns, carries are done to rising themes in the music, as if they have triumphed, and the consequence of the triumph is the trust they display in their pas de deux.  They are both the feminine and masculine of experience—the sparkling, twirling Sugar Plum and the leaping, lifting Cavalier.  When the dance is finished, they present themselves to Clara, as if to say, “Here’s what a fully developed human life is like—incorporating the opposites of joy and sorrow, strength and delicacy, passion and restraint.”  The company dances the celebratory apotheosis, and Clara and the Prince stand together ready to accept the kingdom of Sweets as their own territory, ready to step into adulthood.

And we, the audience, watching the ballet in the coldest, darkest time of year, can be rejuvenated, as well, and sent back into the path of our own lives reminded of the possibility of living them so well that we incorporate the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier—sweetness and strength—into our own lives.  In the crisp, unforgiving cold and the perfect whiteness of snow, we remember spring and all there is to long for and nourish in the days to come.

Dancing in the North

December 5, 2010

The Nutcracker: a Prelude


A brief word on the Nutcracker, since our last performance will be today at 2 in Hering Auditorium.

Last night’s performance was radiant.  This year’s cast is a mix of upcoming North Star Ballet dancers, a couple of returning dancers, and guests at different stages of their careers.  Although the sets have been the same for over twenty years, they still remain fresh to me–it’s like entering a beloved childhood home, slightly distorted in the manner of dreams.

I have long wanted to write more on the Nutcracker, having written publicity articles on our local version of it for nearly 15 years now.   Since the Nutcracker season everywhere can extend from now to New Year’s, I’ll post a few meditations on the story and its archetypes and significances–at least as I see it.

Mostly, don’t dismiss the Nutcracker.  At the end of last night’s performance, I thought of how this ballet, unlike, say, Swan Lake, contains no tragedy (unless you are a mouse, that is), and that this lack of tragedy allows some viewers to dismiss it.  But for me, the ballet represents a rite of passage–for the dancers, for Clara/Marie moving from childhood to adulthood, and for us, the audience, watching this ritual ballet as we head into the darkest time of year.  Who wouldn’t want to go to the Land of Sweets and be ushered into the future by the ever-competent Sugar Plum Fairy?

I’ll be there this afternoon, tearing up as I always do–the gorgeous music with its dark undertones and its possibility of light and hope–and defending my bid on the ten-pound bag of organic carrots at the silent auction!

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

October 2, 2010


Mattie is a big black horse—or a dark bay, when she’s been in the sun a lot.  There’s a way she moves sometimes that’s powerful and graceful all at once, a quality that drew me to her when I first saw her.   Sometimes, standing the corral, scanning the house for movement that might indicate I’m coming with hay, she has a high-headed,  alert look that seems classic, the way we dream a horse should be.

I write this because there’s a horse out there, Zenyatta, who has so much of this dreamy quality it’s as if she were bred from our dreams of what a horse could be.  I had heard about her from a friend who had been following her career over the last couple of years, and I knew she had been winning races, but I didn’t really know what the fuss over her was about until I went to my friend Casey’s to watch her run on the big screen.

I have watched the Triple Crown races on TV since I was around 7 years old.  I remember certain horses I chose as my favorites—the gray, Carry Back, was the first I remember though I forget the year.  And there were whole eras I missed when I didn’t have TV—graduate school years and the out-of-work years after that.   But now, I don’t miss the Derby, Preakness, or Belmont.  I remember Funny Cide and Barbaro, Street Sense and Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra.  But Zenyatta skipped the Triple Crown, skipped her whole three-year-old year to keep growing sturdy bones and long muscles.  And then she started winning races.

So, today, I went, again, to Casey’s to watch Zenyatta’s 19th race.  She had run undefeated in 18.  19 would be a thoroughbred record.  She won and now holds the record, but that’s not what I remember about her.  She’s built differently than any other horse I’ve seen—a bit longer in the neck, wider-set in the hind legs.  Her gaskins, the muscle above the hock that allows the hind legs to extend and lift, seem exceptionally long so that her hind legs stride deep under her at the walk, like a Tennessee Walking horse.  She is so full of eagerness to run at the start of each race that she paws the ground and extends each front leg in a Spanish walk.  Her muscled back and loin distort the movement of her walk from behind so that she almost looks like she’s waddling or lame—until she’s saddled and moves out onto the track in a smooth trot.

She stands a full hand or two above the other mares she raced against today, which makes her easy to spot in a race—the large graceful black horse who seems to be loping along behind the pack.  The front-runners strain and scramble for the lead, but Zenyatta is having a nice easy hack.  Then, her jockey gives her two smacks with the crop, like a reminder of the business at hand, and she unfolds.  A plucky little bay, Switch, pulled ahead as Zenyatta was working up to her full stride, and, for a minute, we all thought she had waited too long.  But Zenyatta stretched out her frame and those long fluid muscles, and, in two huge strides, she had won.  We were bouncing on the couch and screaming.

So, why this horse?  She seems like a horse out of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books.  It sounds corny to say it, but she seems to take everything in: her large ears swivel to every sound and movement, she looks at the camera as if she understood posing, she looks at the crowd as if she intended to be admired.  Hardened sports announcers marvel at her ability to know where the finish line is and cross it ahead of the others at the necessary moment.

And everything about her is large—her large diamond blaze that covers her wide forehead, her long, arched neck that tapers up from the width of her shoulder to the crest to the narrower poll, her wide back and loins, the dappled gleam of her coat.  When we watch her, we know we are seeing something we may never see again.  She touches some deep longing in us for perfection or for the ideal.  She makes everything she does seem easy.

I’ve been thinking of her all day on a day when people I love and care for are dealing with troubles: a bad breakup, a serious illness, unfinished projects, the onset of winter.  She lifts us out of it all for a couple of minutes that we can replay and replay in our memory (not to mention You-Tube).  She balances us out—heartbreak/Zenyatta; runaway dog/Zenayatta; political shenanigans/Zenyatta; the waning moon, the dark night of the soul….Zenyatta.

She will run again on November 6, in the Breeder’s Cup, against colts.  Maybe she will lope less and run more.  Maybe she will find that extra speed her jockey, Mike Smith, believes is there.   Maybe we’ll all hold our breaths, endure what we need to get to that day, cheer her last race before retirement to the lazy life of the brood farm, let a little of her beauty, her strength, her confidence into our lives at that moment, in hopes it will carry us on through the winter ahead.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

August 3, 2010

Camp Joy

I haven’t written enough here about my ever-evolving love and admiration for the tomato plant. As I learn more each year about them, their soil requirements, the care and tending of the plant, I’m struck by how resilient and beautiful they are. Each plant has its own leaf pattern, so that I am beginning to be able to tell the varieties apart by looking at the zigzag of dents on the leaves. Last year’s favorite, Chianti Rose, is a potato-leaf plant, with smooth-edged leaves like large green arrowheads. The Roma, on the other hand has a more complex, almost frilly pattern of dents that all together give the plant a lacy look in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes and I go way back. In fact, when I was quite young, I didn’t like them much; the acid juice was too tart for my taste. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then, when I was turning twelve, we moved to house on a farm whose farmer planted acres of beefsteak tomatoes. By this time of year, the plants were sprawling viny bushes of dark green leaves with tomatoes ripening under them. The tomatoes he grew were larger than my hand, firm and dark red, and they sliced into earthy, sweet, sour, slightly salty rounds that we ate with salt. I have a memory of sitting under the leaves on the tan-orange earth, cool in the heat of summer—but that may be a false memory. I would have been too big to do something like that, though I might have imagined what it would be like to hide there.

We picked a bushel to can each summer. The canning took days, at least in my memory. My mother and I would blanch the tomatoes, dipping them in boiling water briefly and pulling them out just as the skin began to split and curl back. We put them in a colander in the sink and, one by one, peeled the now loose skin from the soft tomato flesh. By the end of the session our hands would be burning from the acid juice, and I would swear I never wanted to see another tomato. I have not canned one since, in any case.

Now, with the greenhouse and a sunny spot on the deck, I’m growing tomatoes on my own terms. A few years ago, I would buy a few plants at a local greenhouse to plant in pots on the deck. When we built the greenhouse, though, I began to order tomato seeds in winter, plant around spring break and nurture the little plants till they could be planted in five-gallon buckets in the greenhouse in summer. I’ve learned a lot—temperature matters, for example, and lots of water. In the master gardener class last year, I learned that tomatoes cannot live on horse manure alone. And I’ve learned to appreciate the unusual variety of tomato plants.

This year, I’ve planted Pompeii Romas, Chianti Rose, Sungold cherry tomatoes, and an heirloom variety of cherry, Camp Joy. Besides that, I bought three of my favorite from two years ago, Black Krim, which has a fruit that looks nearly bruised, blackish red, with a soft sweet taste. A friend gave me some pear tomatoes, some Cherokee Purple, and Stupice.

After a few weeks of neglect, today I paid attention to the Camp Joy tomatoes growing on the deck. When I first transplanted them there, they were still in small pots and had exhausted the nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil. The leaves were yellowing and had a reddish rust color on them. I transplanted them into five-gallon pots, two or three to a pot, planting them in composted manure, potting soil (from last year) and a bit of fish bone meal and dolomite lime. After a week or two, they still looked pitiful, but there was green growth at the tops. Then the rain hit for a couple weeks, then the past few days of hot sun. By this weekend the entire planting was rich green and small green tomatoes clung to each one.

I’m thinking about all this, because, today, I took an hour or so to prune suckers from each of the tomatoes on the deck. I tied the tops to the stakes or cages, admiring how the leaves were green, even the lower ones that had been so pale only weeks before. It’s hard to trim the suckers, side shoots that look so promising and green, but suck nutrients away from the growing tomatoes themselves. Some of the suckers I cut looked like tiny tomato plants—beautiful frilly leaves, the promise of flowers—but I was ruthless. The sun warmed my arms and back as I worked. Small birds (and yellowjackets) swooped through the air. I could smell the lemon-earth smell of tomato where I had cut the tiny branches of the suckers. When I was done, the plants looked airy and the sun shone through the leaves, a bright green light.

Tomorrow, the greenhouse till, little by little, all the plants are tended and happy and can use what’s left of summer to grow enough tomatoes to tempt me to can again.

Poetry Challenge 38

January 28, 2010

We’re reading Walt Whitman in class this week.  Students encountering him for the first time are blown away by all the words on the page until they realize that each line is a breath–some more long-winded than others.  When I read Whitman, I’m on the streets of 19th century Manhattan–the horses and carriages, the opera singers, the street vendors, the sights, the smells, the sounds.  His poems embrace all of life.

So, write a breathless poem–use ordinary speech, your own or something you’ve overheard, and let the lines ramble and fill with the details of your everyday life.  Don’t worry about a grand vision–just take pleasure in the life you see all around you.

Post a poem as a response, and I’ll post it here.

Dancing in the North

December 4, 2009

Tonight, as I sit sipping tea and grading student papers, I hear the strains of the Nutcracker in my mind.  Over at Hering Auditorium, the cast is running through its second full dress rehearsal for the young dancers of Cast B.  At 8pm, I hummed the sprightly music of the opening scene, which in our performance features young elves tidying up the drawing room of Clara’s house and spreading magic for the evening.  Later I heard the chorus of the Snow scene, my favorite, with the white romantic tutus—the long calf-length tulle gowns—and the crisp short tutu of the Snow Fairy as she is lifted through the falling snow by her cavalier.

This year, dancers who’ve gone off to start dance careers—including my son, Ira, who started as a seven-year-old boy cherub with a quiver of arrows—are returning to dance together again as professionals.  The younger girls of the corps de ballet—the snowflakes in those gauzy gowns and the flowers swaying in the breeze—are precise and beautiful.  The returning dancers give them something to aspire to.

It’s the deepening of the dark time of year.  We still remember summer, but in a couple of weeks we’ll be at the darkest day, winter solstice.  The Nutcracker with its sparkly music and comic second-act bits counters that darkness, somewhat, though if you listen closely, you can hear Tchaikovsky’s acknowledgement of darkness in the bassoons and deeper bass notes throughout.  The part where I tear up is always the Sugar Plum pas de deux, so full of strength, inspiration, yet deep longing and nostalgia.  In their perfection, the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier represent the best young Clara can aspire to as an emerging adult, yet we sense in the music the sorrow, regret, toil, and pain it takes to reach that point.  The Sugar Plum offers all that richness to a young girl in love with a wooden soldier doll, then offers her the Kingdom of Sweets, a real prince, and a chance to find out for herself.

To me this is the metaphor of Nutcracker: the younger dancers reaching and reaching for the “plum” roles and the older dancers returning, some of them year after year, to mentor them to reach that point, just as Clara is mentored in the various possibilities of her womanhood-to-be by all the dances of the second act.

And behind it all is our Drosselmeyer, Norman Shelburne, who patiently teaches the young dancers the roles in a year-after-year progression till they, too, go off to their own adult Kingdom, with memories of all this sweetness and tunes of the Sugar Plum in their heads forever.

So, if you’re in Fairbanks, don’t miss it this weekend—Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.  See you there.

Poetry Challenge 31

October 19, 2009

Honoring small things.

Glow, a frequent contributor to the poetry challenge, writes that her beloved kitty, Toklas, died yesterday.

So, write about something so small that we might overlook it, but that forms a kind of glue in daily life–the purr of a cat, the sound of a furnace in the background, the feel of a good writing pen, the taste of well-brewed coffee.  Write without sentimentality, but give the small thing its due, in honor of a yellow cat.


Here’s Glow’s poem:


at home,
the river did not run wild
but flowed bounded
red dirt farms on one side
tame oak forests on the other
every day for fourteen years
I walked to the river
sat on the Rock and watched it pass
swam in summer with catfish
long as my arms
tempted lightning during storms
cried, raged, bathed, napped,
laughed, combed my hair,
made love, called kitties and goats and dogs,
giggled at puppies learning to swim,
did ritual, chatted with the neighbors,
listened to crickets, frogs, mockingbirds,
unseen rustlers in the brush,
hiked, found arrowheads,
picked mushrooms, built fires,
scratched chiggers, swatted bugs,
mapped the edges of the land,
but mostly just sat, watched, endured
daily tedium
released by the incessant brown water
just like hundreds of souls before me
who lived along the river
lulled by the flow of water
to carry on the duties of life and death

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 7, 2009

“Snow falling night falling fast oh fast…”

This line from Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” runs through my mind each fall as the first snow falls and the days get darker. There’s something I love about the breathless quality of the line and the distantly observed beauty of fast falling snow on empty fields, the quick darkening of night. It’s something we know well here, the muting of light in snowfall, in winter.

But saying this in March is a different matter. Just when we are expecting more light, when the supermarket is filled with tulips and daffodils shipped up from Mexico and California, just when we’ve ordered our seeds and are setting up our seed starting tables and grow lights, the sky flattens with dark clouds and, for three days now, a snow fine as pastry flour sifts down on roads, roofs, the backs of horses. After the past three days, the garden is a foot farther under snow. The wood stove ash we spread there a few weeks ago is deep below white. Our spirits, about to lift with the small signs of spring in Interior Alaska–dog races, ice sculptures, the return of days longer than nights—deflate. We shoveled the driveway last weekend, giddy with the thought that it might be our last major plowing. We need to do it again and more.

Yesterday, we got six to eight inches in a day. Mattie and Sam’s corral is deep with it. The fence seems ridiculously short, as if Mattie or Sam could step over the top rail–except they’d sink in the snow on either side of the fence. They are too smart to try. Besides, what’s on either side looks the same, and they only get fed on the inside. So they stay put. They have to lift their feet a bit higher to walk through the deep snow. I hope this works as a kind of de facto fitness plan, because it’s too deep to walk safely after them on one end of the longe line, and neither they nor I can see where frozen manure piles are buried–a hazard for them and for me, and I want none of us injured.

Every spring I have grand training plans for them, starting right after Christmas. Every year, my plans discount the most important factor: winter. So far since January, I’ve been defeated by short days, 40 below weather, snow, chilblains from clicker training with my gloves off, winter inertia and counterbalancing activities–and now too-deep snow. The other night, a friend said, “Well, you don’t ride much; you just hang out with your horses like they’re pets.” I don’t think she meant ill by it, but, compared to someone in California, she’s right. I ride nearly every day in summer, barring smoke or rain, but getting two horses ready for riding after the long winter months takes lots of ground work. I feel behind. So does everyone I know, except for those with access to indoor riding arenas.

Mattie is staying dry in the back of the run-in shed. She blends into the shadows there and only comes out if she thinks I have food. Sam, on the other hand, doesn’t like to be confined. He likes to see what’s coming: airplanes flying over head, snowmachines on the road, a stray dog running by, a car coming up the driveway. His whinny is the most reliable sign that we have visitors.

Yesterday, I looked out in the thick snow and saw him napping by the fence. At that point the flakes were about the size of dimes and falling fast. Sam lay curled up in the deepening snow, his chin resting on the surface of it. I opened the door and called to him. He raised his head, looked at me, and lowered it again. I dressed as fast as I could and folded up my medium weight, waterproof blanket and carried it out to him. He wasn’t shivering when I reached him, but his thick coat was full of snow and wet where the heat of his body had melted it. I haltered him and he stretched out his front feet, stood up, and shook the loose snow from his back. He was probably OK; just napping and watching the snow fall, but I put the blanket on him anyway and he seemed more relaxed. He’s still standing out in the snow, the white stuff filling the places where the blanket makes soft folds along his back. Underneath he’s dry and warm, ready to guard the place.

Frost said–I can’t guarantee I have it perfectly–he could “scare myself with my own desert places.” I’ve always taken this to mean the places within where we know the territory–it’s ours and in our imagination, after all–but we find a familiar terror there, anyway. This may be the unresolvable questions that we all carry with us, or the vast unknown that is our future. This is the time of year when these “desert places” open their vistas to us unexpectedly, just when we’re expecting to slip on into spring unscathed.

The snow is beautiful as it falls. There’s an uncharacteristic wind, sculpting it into drifts. The tracks from our cars in the unplowed driveway will be filled in by morning and the curves of drifts may spread across them. A good day for a morning of coffee with chocolate and ginger scones. I’ll sleep on that thought.

And the Horse

February 13, 2009

Excerpts from a work in progress:

from  Fear

So, does the horse somehow offer us courage? Is our attraction to the horse more than the size, the muscles, the flow of mane and tail? Children’s literature is full of stories of children, broken in some way: orphaned, injured, ignored–who find their strength through a horse. Take Walter Farley’s novels of Alec and the Black Stallion, a story that blends the most romantic images of the horse–the half-tamed stallion ridden by a small fatherless boy–with accurate details of the racing world in the 1950s. Alec loses his father in a shipwreck but gains the trust of the Black when they are marooned on desert island (OK. Romantic). When they arrive in New York, they partner up with a neighbor, a washed-up horse trainer, who retrains the Black for a career on the track. From there, except for the part were the Black wins every time, the details are accurate. Most of all, the details of how Alec learns courage, patience, determination, gentleness, and ingenuity from his life with the horse have moved children in the years since the books were published. And this lesson–when Alec was afraid, the Black lost trust in him; when he overcame his fear, the horse performed spectacularly–allowed children to contemplate their own relationship to fear.

Most riders don’t ride a horse like the Black, though most dream of it. Our fears are compounded by our history and by the life we live that doesn’t involve horses. Unless we raise a horse from a foal, we have no way of knowing what others have done or what accidents have torn the fabric of trust we hope will be woven between us and our horses. Those who work with horses are testing the limits of fear. We approach a new horse watchfully but not timidly. Will it kick? Bite? Shove us with head or hindquarters? We don’t want to be hurt, so we go slowly, watching for the first sign of anxiety in the horse, backing off, then trying again, until we have moved the boundaries of trust between us. The handler and the new horse need to prove to each other that each is trustworthy. The horse may see if we will back off, if it can call our bluff. The handler will test to see what’s bluff, what’s fear. Sam, my elderly horse, tries this on everyone he meets, though it’s clear to me that he means no harm by it–he’s even insulted if we give up and walk away. The goal is moving together like fish or birds do–one moves; the other moves with it in complementary motion, whether from the ground or as rider and horse

When a rider overcomes fear, that confidence may seem like folly to the non-horse person. Who would do the things a rider does? Lifting a horse’s feet, for example, or stopping it in its tracks with a raised hand, or longeing it at the end of a flimsy line while it bucks and crow hops after a long lay-off. Working with horses changes the measure of fear. We read our horses as minutely as they read us; if this holds to the rest of our lives, we are reading situations for their subtleties, knowing when to worry and when to keep grazing, when to trust the herd and when to be the one who sounds the alarm.

People want to visit my horses and I welcome them. Often, however, they are surprised at what they find. I try to teach them the simplest thing–hold a treat in an open palm and let the horse take it between its lips–a velvet kiss. This flies in the face of all the non-horse person’s fears. The large head of the horse lowers toward the hand, the breath of the horse warms the skin, the horse’s lips begin to flap in anticipation–and the person freezes, draws back, closes the hand. We try again. Mattie and Sam are patient, ritualistic about this. Then I can tell who has the courage of the horse in them. The horse’s lips on the palm are delicate, precise. They close on the treat and lift away like a large butterfly resting then rising from the palm. It’s a delicious feeling, and those who push aside their fears enough to experience it will want to offer the horse another treat.

And with horses and humans, that’s what defeats fear–the deliciousness of the whole enterprise. “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man (or woman)”, says (who? Washington?). We overcome our fears because what we gain is not just lack of fear, but an expanded sense of our selves, of possibility-the dream of the horse, and of shared enterprise, communication with another species whose history is linked with ours. Riding feels ancient and present at the same time. Standing next to a horse in a moment of stillness transcends time. Smelling a horse, lifting the mane and putting my nose in the shallow valley between neck and shoulder and inhaling, gives me courage to face whatever human catastrophes the day holds.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 4, 2009

Although it dipped back to 40 below in the valley along the river plains last night, it hovered around 25 below here–not quite blanketing temperatures for Mattie and Sam–and I promised myself I wouldn’t write about the cold. We’re tired of it here; tired of writing about it, tired of chopping wood, of worrying about ordering more fuel oil, of fiddling with cars that won’t start or run well.

Two days ago, Mike (who wanted me to mention him in this blog) went to start the truck and found that the engine block heater cord had melted at the plug. He first noticed some black soot on the ground under the truck, then followed the cord back to the melted plug and multiple outlet cord. I’m not sure I have all the technical terms right; it’s a thick yellow cord which has fan-shaped three-outlet end where cords to the engine block heater, the battery heater, and the oil pan heater plug in. The middle of this fan-shaped end, where the engine block heater cord plugs in, had melted, as had the plug. Lucky for us, they hadn’t melted through, or we would have discovered the truck in flames, as happened to a friend of ours a few years ago. She had parked her new-for-her car in the driveway one night, plugged in, and woke to find the charred and melted remains there in the morning.

Which brings me to why I live in Alaska. Thinking about groundhogs, lately, I remember that other places have less demanding seasons. Traveling to the East Coast to visit or for conferences, I always end up amazed at how tropical it seems–so many birds, deciduous trees, flowers, deer. When I remember the places I lived growing up–Eastern Shore Maryland, a barrier island in New Jersey, Southern Lancaster County Pennsylvania–I remember open spaces–fields, woods, stretches of winter beach–where I spent my time alone with my imagination. But each visit back there reminds me that those open spaces are gone or diminishing.

Two years ago, I went to New Jersey to visit my brother and rented a car to drive around the southern part of the state. He gave me directions to drive to a rural community to prove to me that there are still farms in Southern New Jersey. Caught in a line of cars on the highway, I ended up heading the wrong direction and took the next exit, hoping to get right back on and head the other way. I ended up in a little town with white frame houses and tree-lined streets, a town that hadn’t changed much in fifty years. I pulled into a gas station to ask directions. It was an old “service station” not a glass and metal chain self-serve. Inside, the office was dark from years of grease and cigarette smoke. A cluster of men sat there talking. They wore old ball caps and overalls, and had thick New Jersey accents-flat “a”s and broad round “o”s-sounds that had their roots in 17th century English of the early settlers, sounds I remember from childhood.

I asked for directions. They told me to just go down to the light and turn left; I’d get right back on the expressway. They didn’t tell me that the light was in the next town.

My brother was right. I found the farms and country roads, still narrow from the horse and buggy days, but clogged with cars going too fast. It was March, gloomy with rain mixed with snow. I couldn’t look anyplace without seeing people or buildings. Driving made me shake with anxiety, if only because nothing seemed automatic or familiar; I never knew where I was or if I would end up where I was intending to go.

Here, I look out my window and, on a clear day, see 150 miles to the Alaska Range: Mount Hess, Mount Hayes, Mount Deborah. Walking down the road from my house, I’m more likely to meet dog walkers than cars. Riding out on the horses in summer, I can see the Tanana River, braided and looping along its flood plain, gleaming among the dark spruce forests. In the week in late May/early June when we have our sudden spring, the birch and willow leaves uncurl into a glow of yellow-green, the pasque flowers appear on hillsides like fuzzy purple crocuses, the bluebells and wild roses bloom and the air is full of sweetness.

On her blog, Beyond Ester, Glow writes of the owl that landed in the spruce outside her window. We see foxes along the road and white snowshoe hares.  The brilliant light reflecting off the mid-day snow reminds us of the long light of summer.  Why would a small thing like cold make us want to leave this place?

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