Posts Tagged ‘Fairbanks’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 28, 2010

Spring Update

Yesterday, driving down the road to the ridge, looking up at the hill ahead, I saw what I first took for snow in the trees–a hazy white area running along the side of the ridge, a softening in the dull brown of the bare branches there.  It took me a moment to realize that what I was looking at was a swath of willows growing on the side of the hill, their catkins fully bloomed from pussy willows to open thumb-sized “blossoms” of fluff and pollen.  As I drove, I noticed these patches all along the hills, and as I rounded the curve heading up the ridge, I saw the trees, their open tops hazy with fluff.  It’s not the flamboyant pinks or whites of cherry or apple blossoms; just a silvery fluff, but it will do.

And the mosquitoes are out in force, dotting Mattie and Sam’s faces, in spite of the repellent I wipe on them.  Again, this year I’ll look for a better solution for bugs, the down side of summer.

As of last night, the ice was getting punchy near the tripod in Nenana, with leads open by the river bank, but no news of the tripod moving yet.  We’re into the range of dates we picked for it to go out this year.  More on this in a later post.

School has two weeks to go.  Students and faculty alike are getting restless with our long warm spell.  My tomato seedlings wait by the window to be transplanted and to move to the greenhouse.   The horses are nearly done with shedding and are ready for something more interesting to do.

This Saturday, the Kentucky Derby, then my long-time friend Jean Anderson and I will give a reading at the Arts Association.  Somewhere in the mail, my new book from Salmon Press makes its way to me from Ireland.

There’s a lot happening–more than this, even–but for now, for the next couple of weeks, we move through the end of winter and all it means, ready to pop one day into green up, into summer, into the time that makes the Interior worth it all.

Poetry Challenge 40

February 21, 2010

The Thaw

Here in the Interior, temperatures are sneaking above freezing at mid-day.  The snow is melting away on south-facing hills, birds are darting wildly through the air as if they think they missed the beginning of mating season, and the roads are slick and treacherous from the melting ice over still-frozen pavement.   People are shedding coats, eyeing the greenhouse, ordering seeds, walking out in the sun and thinking of summer plans.  All the while, we know our folly, for we are not yet out of February and not yet into March.  At the back of our minds, we hear the old song, “When It’s Springtime in Alaska, It’s Forty Below.”  Really.  We’re restless, joyful, yet preparing for this respite from winter to be snatched away from us by deep cold and more snow.

So, here’s the challenge–write about a thaw of some kind: an old grudge melts away, an intractable animal becomes gentle, a place that seemed ugly suddenly looks beautiful, or an actual thaw complete with mud, green things, dripping water.   Post it in the comments section and I’ll add it here.  All of us in the Interior are waiting.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 13, 2010

Warmer days here—up around zero. For those of you reading this in the Lower 48, that may not seem warm, but with the increasing sunlight, dry air, and low snow cover, it feels like spring is on its way. On campus, walking between buildings at lunch or between classes, people seem animated, smiling, holding doors open for each other in order to have a chance to say, ”Isn’t the weather great today? Isn’t the light amazing?”

In the corral, Mattie and Sam position themselves in the sun, dozing. This morning, Mattie stood with her head half lowered, while Sam curled up on the packed snow of his favorite rolling spot. Some birds, perhaps juncos, swooped long arcs in the air above us. The light spread across the snow, up the hill to the trunks of the spruce trees, and tangled in the red-gray twigs at the end of the birch branches, delicate looking, but waiting for the right mix of light and warmth to start sucking sap out to the buds like sugar water through a soda straw. Astonishingly fragile pale green leaves will unfurl from those dry-looking sticks one day in May, and we’ll be into the mad rush of summer.

But I get ahead of myself. Today, I’m heading out with brushes, mane and tail detangler, and a “waterless” shampoo to get their coats ready for shedding season. They look like long-legged bears, their coats are so long and thick. And I’ve been so caught up with work that I come home too tired and the late afternoon is still too dark to spend much time with them daily, except for the usual scratch on the neck and good visual once-over.

Today, too, I’ll go back to the seed catalog on line to look at the gorgeous photos of carrots, lettuce, tomatoes and the difficult things: eggplant, peppers, melons, and try to finalize my seed order so that I can start indoor planting soon. I remember that, last year as I started this blog, I was in the midst of my sabbatical and that my personal goal (as opposed to the professional) was to get a sense of how else I could spend my life other than the way I do at work. Here’s what I’m concluding: fewer meetings, fewer obligations other than ones I can concentrate my energies on to do well, more horse time, more time with my hands in dirt, more writing. The question is how to do this in a self-sustaining way, without fully “retiring.” I watch friends of mine who’ve retired in disgust at the intensity of their work life, but haven’t substituted anything else for it. This works out badly for them.

For now, I’ll juggle both, knowing that the academic calendar gives me freedom when I need it most for my “real” life—the months of May-August. And as the light grows stronger and lingers longer in the evening, I’ll have more time and energy (light equals energy after all) to prepare my semi-feral critters for all that I have planned for them this summer.

If you are on the East Coast—enjoy the snow before it melts. Send us some for our dog races and to shelter the roots of our plants as the frost line works its way down through our soil in the spring. When spring actually comes for you—crocuses and daffodils—we’ll still be basking in the dazzle of light reflecting back off snow. Send photos and poems!

Update:  I spent an hour with Sam, detangling his mane and tail.  The sun gleamed off the long hairs of his coat and he stood dozing while I worked.  After that, we did a little clicker work, training him to touch his red ball to the word “touch”.  We had done this with other objects before, so he picked it up quickly.  I wish I knew how to cue all the tricks he already knows, but I’m guessing the cues are rather confused for him at this point.  Sometimes I’m sure what looks at first like bad behavior is a trick he’s been cued to–but I may never know his history.

One more thing.  When I got out to the corral, I checked the water tank to see if it was low enough to clean out the scuzz that accumulates at the bottom: shavings, hay, a feather or two.  When I looked in the tank, there was a whole bird, a chickadee, perched nervously on the red plastic that joins the heating element to the cord on the outside of the tank.  He was just above the water line and he eyed me suspiciously as I peered over the edge. I could see that his tail feathers were wet and scraggly; he must have tried to drink and gotten wet and was now too heavy to fly up out of the high-sided tank.  I put the grooming tools down on the fence rail and reached in gently with my gloved hand to give him a boost.  He flew up high enough to get over the tank rim then perched on the stall divider on Mattie’s side.  She walked over with her nose down, sniffing him cautiously.  He flew up again, over  tank to Sam’s side, where he perched on the salt block and ruffled his feathers.  As I worked with Sam, I checked back on him from time to time, sitting there on the rust-colored salt in the sun.  The run-in shed faces south, so he was in sun with no breeze–the perfect place to dry out.  From time to time he would call out “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee” a hoarse call, perhaps warning other birds away from the treacherous water tank.  Finally, when I went to check again, he was gone, feathers dried, dignity restored.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

December 31, 2009

A New Year

And I’m ready.  This has been a year of great promise: on the national scene, a new president who represents a true turning point in American politics; on the local scene, a new mayor, a growing interest in gardening and energy efficiency, and a turn toward inventiveness and ingenuity in dealing with living well and close to the earth in our difficult climate.

But on the ground here in the Interior and at Mattie’s Pillow, it was a year that gradually accumulated small disappointments, local disasters, and a bushel of griefs.  On this blog, I’ve focused on the beauty of life in the Interior and on the challenges those of us who live here face.  In general, I’m an optimist—and living with horses, an exuberantly fun-loving dog, a garden, and all the wild and human creatures that surround us here gives me a lift and a bounce back to the optimistic when  things get rough.

But each fall, as we begin the slide into the dark days of winter, we look at those around us and wonder who will be with us in the light of spring.  Already some have slipped away: Roy Bird, Marjorie Cole—and others have taken a more dire route off the planet, something which leaves those of us who knew them still tumbled in their wake.   And, since I mentioned politics in the first paragraph, the politics has been surreal, both nationally and in-state.  But I’ll leave that to other blogs to detail.  Check the Missing Links section for more on this.

Now, on New Year’s Eve, I’m once again in New Jersey assisting my brother.  It feels odd to be far from Fairbanks.  On New Year’s, we usually go to the fireworks on campus, standing out in the cold, bundled, booted, mittened, scarved, and even wrapped in sleeping bags, lying back warm in the snow and below zero air as the fireworks sizz and burst and sparkle above us and shake the ground beneath us.  Then we spend the evening with friends in the Farmer’s Loop valley, sitting around a bonfire and watching the neighbors’ fireworks light up each hour’s passing of the year in some time zone.  I miss it, but we’re planning a red beans and rice dinner with sparkling cranberry juice, some balloons, and some poppers.

Though I miss my usual celebration, it feels right that I start the year doing some good—such as it is—for my oh-so-stoic brother, helping him get his life back after a long healing that’s not quite over yet.  Perhaps this beginning foreshadows a better year ahead.  Perhaps, instead of the euphoric celebration of (and projection onto) the election of Obama we experienced last year, this year we should each do what Obama knew he needed to do all along: roll up our sleeves, wade in, and do the dirty, tiring, sometimes thankless work of making our world, or the part of it in which we live, a better place than we found it.

I’m starting with my brother’s kitchen.  What about you?

Happy New Year to all of you who read this blog.  Thanks for your readership, your comments and poems, your willingness to stop by from time to time.  I’ll be back to Mattie and Sam in the next entry.

Poetry Challenge 35

December 22, 2009

In honor of the turning of the year–past the solstice and heading for a new year and new decade, go back to something you wrote long ago and look at it again.  Find something you like about it and give it a fresh start–either rewriting from the seed of the old material,  or just dusting it off and reading it with new eyes, as my old friend Larry Laraby did with this poem:

The Light Waits (a winter solstice poem)

The inexorable movement of darkness
Slow accumulation of night
We gather the multitude of dark hours
And cast them to the sun
Light waits behind the closed
Doors of winter
Light that waits to dance
That waits to sing
The sun’s day
In that immense moment
The earth stops its turning
And we celebrate
The retreating night.

(Thanks, Larry!)


A Response from Glow:

“At dawn she went to the ridge to wait.”

For years, I have wondered
why she waited
and for what?
Did her wait turn fruitful?
Did she come, did the letter arrive, was the child born?
The news arrive? The medicine turn up? The mystery solved?

There is a drawing,
the title is the mystery phrase:
at dawn she went to the ridge to wait.
butch dyke in a woman’s cloak
a stout walking stick held before her
a tiny grassland village hunched on the ridge
folded into the valley below her.

For me the mystery is double.
I both wrote the title and drew the drawing.
I do not know what either mean.
Only that I, too, will eventually recognize
the ridge in the drawing
it will manifest into reality some dawn
I will grasp my sturdy walking stick
climb up the hill in the early twilight
and wait.

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.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

November 28, 2009

The day after Thanksgiving.  The weather has warmed so that going outside is comfortable again, though the paths and roads are slick.  All day yesterday, we could hear the snow sliding off the roof.   We sat and ate turkey and pie and talked about the sorrows that have come into our community lately—too soon in winter for so much inexplicable pain.

It’s hard to write about, so here’s a poem.

The way “November”

settles in the mouth:

the dark “n” and “v”, the chilly

“b” and “r”, the hum of “m”

at the heart.  The name of the month

rumbles through our days,

dragging the shadowed season

with it.  Snow falls and packs

beneath our feet.   The moon hangs

half-hearted in the dark afternoon

sky; the night a tunnel we

plunge into with hope

that when daylight comes,

we all wake from darkness

to morning, rich with coffee,

the air tart with cut oranges,

with deep umber light

spreading to pink in the sky.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

October 25, 2009

Lingering fall.  Yesterday, driving home on a long westward stretch of road, I saw a half moon, burnt orange, resting on the mountains at the horizon, as if too reluctant or too tired to slip down below the rim to what lay beyond.  As I drove the road’s few turns, the moon seemed to duck out of sight then reappear through the spruces, as if it were playing with me as I drove through the deep darkness of a snowless fall night.  This reluctant moon, the lingering fall, all set an odd tone for the end of October here.

It’s global warming, perhaps.  We’ve seen other effects here in the Interior: the million-acre wildfires and the smoke that settles across the valley and flats in summer; the spruce-bark beetle and leaf miners that feed on our native trees; the early planting and late harvest; and on the Arctic Coast, the melting ice pack, stranding seals, walrus, polar bears.  Much of this is in the range of normal.  For every, “This is strange weather,” there’s a sourdough, “I remember when…” to top it all.  Those of us who have lived in Interior Alaska for many years, hesitate to generalize about the weather here, except to say that there’s no predicting one year by the other.

And we’re not complaining, really—even the dog mushers and skiers.  The skies are clear and sunny by day, warming to the high 30s and 40s, which is warm enough to take off gloves and hats to work with horses.  And though we have less light every day, it’s still light enough at 6:30 or 7 to do a few outdoor things, like groom a horse or roll up the hose for the second time this fall.

Today, I went out to work with Mattie, to reinforce the progress we made with longeing this summer.  She went out on the line fine, then stopped and turned towards me, ears back.  She no longer intimidates me with this–perhaps because I’ve learned to read when to back off with her.  We tried a few more starts in that direction, and I turned her to trot to the other direction.  She went a little, but I let us end with walk and whoa and stand and back, things she does automatically.  I haven’t worked with her much in the past two weeks—teaching and all that goes into it fills my days, and the weekends pass so quickly.  But it was good to run a brush and my bare hands over the deepening plush of her coat and to walk alongside her as she walked and trotted, however reluctantly.  Like the moon.

We are reluctant to give up what’s left of good weather, but we know we’re on borrowed time.  There are still green blades of grass, and a few hardy plants on the hillside perk up again at mid day.  The first real snow will be a sharp wake up to winter for us, but perhaps not so bad, because we’ve had so much time to prepare.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

October 12, 2009

Thinking of the Beatles’ song with the words, “marmalade skies”. As I head out mornings to feed the horses, I step out of the house to face the sunrise over the hills beyond the corral. The other day, the clouds were orange, smudged with a smoky purple, and the light in the sky shaded from a deep yellow below the clouds to a watery aqua where the sky met the hills of the Alaska Range. I searched for a word for what I was seeing and thought of marmalade—my favorite on toast—then remembered and understood the words to the song.

We are having an unusually warm October. The last bit of tomato vine abandoned in the greenhouse when we had the hard frost weeks ago is still alive, though a bit pale in its five-gallon planter. The pansies have started blooming again, and even the small white petunias, the bells, are putting out new white flowers. I want to re-plant the garden, but it’s an illusion. Night comes on earlier each day, and with the clear weather we’re having, there’s a splash of Milky Way across the black sky, with occasional meteorites streaking down. The moon’s a thumbnail now, a shaving of its former self. It rises later and spends more time at the horizon, flame colored through the dense air.

We spent the weekend pulling out moldy bales from our hay pile. I did some research on line and found that we had the perfect conjunction of events to make our pile mold—a later cutting with more sugars in the leaf; cut and cured on ground that had had lots of rain previously, taking more time to dry; baled as the weather was getting cooler, which meant not enough hot sun to dry thoroughly; then our hay crew stacking the bales too tightly in our barn; then the unexpectedly long warm spell so that the mold kept on spreading. The mold is already on the grass leaf. One source I found said that the mold counteracts bacteria on the living plant, but grows and spreads on the cut and wilting leaf, which is why the best hay weather is hot and dry so the hay dries before the mold can start growing. We found a cow farmer who could feed the hay to his cows—cows don’t get respiratory diseases from mold, it seems, and they have all those stomachs and tongues long enough to lick their own noses.

It could have been an unpleasant task, and the discovery of the mold and figuring out what to do were no fun. But my son and I and Peter from our horse club (and his mother Marina) and the two sons of our Nepali friend put on dust masks and went at it. The weather was clear and warm, the company pleasant and playful, and we had three trucks to carry the load. Mattie grabbed a few mouthfuls as we maneuvered the trucks past the corral fence, and it was gone. Now there’s a big empty space to fill—another puzzle, as the haying season is over here—and I’m getting plenty of suggestions from horse friends about where to find replacement hay. As for me, I’m mostly relieved not to be risking giving Mattie and Sam hay that’s a noseful of spores. We didn’t lose as many bales as I at first feared.

The weather won’t last, but no one’s complaining except the skiers. Even the dog mushers are enjoying exercising their teams harnessed to four-wheelers, running down the trails. The leaves are nearly all gone, though. It won’t be long.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

September 7, 2009

A lovely evening tonight.

Around 10pm, I went out to take a bag of spruce shavings to the horses to bed down their run-in shed. The air was cooling enough that I wore my horse club hoodie, but I still wore shorts. The sky was still clear—had been clear since Thursday—and there was a deep aqua light in the northwest sky, fading to cobalt to the south. It was deep dusk, but I could see well enough to drag the black plastic bag of shavings under the fence to the run-in shed and divide it between the two stalls. As I walked back to the corral, I could see Sam’s coat gleam in the fading light where he nibbled the last of his evening’s hay. Mattie, in her side of the corral, was a blacker spot in the deepening darkness. Above the southeast horizon floated an egg-shaped gibbous moon, pale orange, as if about to hatch more of the deep yellow birch and aspen leaves that we’re seeing increase each day. As I walked past Sam, back to the house, it felt like a pause in time, as if the season had hit a balance, a perfect pose like the moment a dancer poses in arabesque on pointe and we catch our breath and believe she can stay in that balance forever. I could stay in this season forever if it would delay what is to come.

We were haying all weekend. Yesterday we went out to the Quist farm at the end of Rosie Creek Road, the fields spread out green on a rolling bench of land along the Tanana River. To get there, we drive along a pot-holed dirt road through spruce and birch, past five-acre “homesteads,” then suddenly there’s the farm, the green fields striped with darker raked hay or dotted with squares of ten bales that tip out of the small trailer towed by the baler. Yesterday, the hay was still too wet, so today we gathered up another crew: Mike, Ira, Tobin, Peter, me, and rattled through the dust and potholes to the farm, then filled the trucks one-by-one with brome hay. The bales were still a bit heavy but dry enough that they (I hope) won’t start to mold before freeze up.

It was nearly seventy—not too hot, but warm and dry enough to dry the hay. We took turns tossing and stacking, and those of us not driving a particular truck, sat on the bales as we drove along the field from square to square. Rufus the farm dog came running up to check on us sometimes, and at the end of the field, a flock of a half dozen sandhill cranes moved slowly over the cut grass, their necks snaked down to find insects in the dirt.

When we showed up in our yard with truckloads of hay, Sam whinnied. He’s in the front side of the corral today, though I’ve been switching them about once a week to keep them entertained. When Mattie’s in the front and hay arrives, she leans into the fence and stretches her neck as long as she can to grab a mouthful as the truck backs up to the hay barn. Sam stood and watched intently, waiting for us to bring some to him. This says a lot about the difference between the two.

After we stacked the hay—the harder part of the job. I made a big bowl of penne pasta with tomato and Italian sausage sauce and carrots and purple and yellow cauliflower from the garden as finger food. We sat on the deck in the gathering dark, looking out across the river at the Tanana flats—gold patches of bright birch and aspen, dark streaks of spruce—the gold and dark green together are especially dramatic now. I said, “Sometimes I wish it could stay like this for a whole season.” Usually these colors fade in a week or two, usually with the first September rains. Then I realized that if the yellow were around long enough, we’d get tired of it and long for snow—or, as I am now, for spring again.

Robert Frost knew about yellow things: “Nothing gold can stay,” he says in his tiny poem about early spring leaves, dawn, and the sweet melancholy of transitions. For now we revel in the gold of our leaves–like the sun reflecting back to us twice—and we store it up to get us through the dark winter days ahead.

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