Posts Tagged ‘summer’

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.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

July 18, 2010

What the Thunder Said

Summer is slipping by here in the Interior. Spring came early so that we itched to have our gardens planted before it was mid-May, even knowing that the last frost could still hit by the first of June. But it didn’t and we got our usual bright June weather in May, our hot July temperatures in June, and now, mid-July, August’s rain. Even our short summer seems to be speeding by so fast we don’t know how to keep up. There are blueberries for the picking on some hills; they’re green on others. Some gardens have zucchini, some only flowers. We’ve had days of rain between glorious dry heat—haying weather, if it lasts long enough.

Last weekend, we were out at Quists’ again, picking up three pickup loads of first cutting hay from the field. This hay was dry and bright and we only got enough to stack two layers in the hay barn so that each layer had one side exposed to air and could finish drying thoroughly. It rained fitfully after we finished loading the hay, but we grilled sausages and ate a salad from the garden sitting out on the deck while Mattie and Sam munched their new hay below us in the corral. At night, we could smell the sweet grass smell of the hay drying in the barn.

This weekend we were supposed to get more hay from the Mayos’ field, near the farm where Trish and I ride on Thursdays. By Thursday, however, the clouds had thickened, and by the start of the lesson we were spattered with warm rain that lasted the whole hour. I have been planning to ride in a small show next weekend with the Horsemasters and hoped to ride Sam this afternoon to start ramping up for the weekend. But, as I was raking manure from the corral, the clouds blew in and the rain rattled through the trees. Ira and Mike headed for the house, but I stayed behind, gathering up the tools and putting things away that might get wet.

I headed for the greenhouse. I’m still doing triage transplanting of tomatoes into larger pots, trying to get all the ones I can fit and can’t give away into kitty litter containers with holes drilled in the bottoms. The rest, I at least want to get into pots one size larger so that they thrive till I can find them homes. I never give up on plants I’ve started from seed. I had plenty to do while I waited out the rain.

I stayed in the greenhouse for a few hours, mixing manure and a purchased garden mix of peat and sand. I added fish bone meal and dolomite lime and mixed it all together with some of last year’s dirt to put in the pots. As I worked, up to my elbows in dirt, the rain stopped and the sun came out and sparkled on the tomato leaves where I had sprayed them with the hose. At one point, I stepped out to check the sky and the corral to see if I might still ride Sam on good footing. As I looked up at the ridge behind the house, I saw a bank of gray cloud sliding across the sky, dimming the light. Below the dark cloud were wisps of white cloud like a mist rising—except falling below the deeper gray. They were moving quickly, curling back on themselves, fraying apart, and skimming the top of the trees. There was a sound like falling gravel from up the hill; the leaves on the willows began to shiver; then the rain hit.

At first it was just hard enough to drive me back into the greenhouse. Then the rattle became harder and tiny bits of hail fell with the water. Then pebbles of white ice, fast and thick, the sound like a train clattering across the greenhouse roof. I leaned out the door to check some plants I had staged there, and I grabbed a small Sungold tomato to bring back inside. Sam stood in front of his shed, sideways to it, as close as he could get to shelter without being right under the racket. Mattie huddled back against the back wall of her side of the shed.

Lightning cracked the air. Thunder shook the ground. I stood in the doorway worried about my lettuce, peas, beans, shouting, “No fair! No fair!”

It went on for an hour or so, loud then soft then loud again. I planted all the heirloom tomatoes my friend Cindy gave me and a few of the Chianti Rose slicers—all in their square buckets for the rest of summer now. Then I went back to triage transplanting more Romas and Chiantis.

Then the sun broke through. The corral was deep in water and mud. The tall spruces on the hill dripped, and the air felt thick with moisture. The day was over by then; the opportunity to ride, gone. The horses came out and stood facing south, downhill, heads down. The storm had exhausted us, thrilled us, left us to rest up for tomorrow.

Poetry Challenge 51

July 9, 2010

This is the time of insects here in the Interior.   Here at Mattie’s Pillow, we hear the buzz of yellowjackets everywhere.  There’s a nest in the hay barn, one in the eaves above our grill (logical place, if you’re a yellowjacket), and one in the greenhouse.  They are in a perpetual state of agitation; any vibration or movement near the nest sets them off.

So, it’s time for a poem about an insect.  Have one crawl through the poem, or have it land on a line somewhere.  Be amazed at it, or be indifferent.  Let sound be part of the poem, the small peripheral sounds that you don’t notice at first, until they stop.

Here’s one.  Send me one of yours and I’ll post it here!


The Stink Bug on Joe’s Shirt

We talk in sun

then the sudden chill

of cumulus, stacked

high with moisture, then heat

at our backs, on our faces,

the scrubbed blue

sky.  You lean against

a lounge chair.  Your hair,


wild as the clouds,

curls with the charge

and buzz that fills

your blood.  We talk.

We watch your face.

The cloud passes, all

that roiling not yet

enough to loose sparks,

and the blue shadows,

your eyes.  A bug



a small bronze shield, totters

up your shirt, legs

like shaved whiskers,

bent to cling above

the “l” in “devil,”

climbing up the curled

tail toward your shoulder,

all it needs for a cliff.


Someone reaches

to flick it where it gleams.

Your prize:

the grown-back hair

the numbness gone

the sun in its place

and you striding

beneath it—one

bug suddenly flicked

away.  A stink.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

June 30, 2010

Rainy days now that the solstice is past.  We’re so greedy for light here in the Interior that we grumble about rain after three days of cloudy skies, even though the garden needs it and is drinking it up, transforming it into green.  We want sun in summer to make up for all the dark days of December and January.  We store up vitamin D—some sunny days I can feel it fizzing there under my skin, like a stockpile of caffeine saved for later.

But now it’s raining and gray.  Sam stands muddy in the corral, thinking up mischief.  He’s rolled and the freckles in his white coat blur beneath the gray mud crusted over his coat.  When the wind blows—or sometimes for no reason—he startles and bolts across the corral, while Mattie, on her side of the fence, breaks into the running walk, her fourth gait.

I’ve been in the greenhouse, transplanting tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers.  As they move from smaller pots to their final kitty litter buckets or five gallon buckets, the greenhouse first looks orderly, then crowded.  I’m giving away plants as fast as I can, but then another problem arises.  As I give away plants, I also give away dirt and I’m about to run out of last year’s potting soil, even mixed with this year’s composted manure.  Strange as it seems, I now need to buy potting soil to mix with the manure in order to have enough for all my plants.

Still, rainy afternoons in the greenhouse are pleasant, with their own rhythm.  I bring a go cup of hot tea with lemon and honey, then dig my arms up to the elbows in dirt, mixing last year’s soil, this year’s manure compost, some dolomite lime and fish bone meal.  All the while, I’m thinking of the meal it will provide the plants and how they, in turn, will provide meals for us.  In fact, in the greenhouse, separated from the phone, the radio, the computer—just the drip of rain on the fiberglass roof, and the sound of Sam walking by the corral fence, checking on what I’m up to—every part of this life makes sense.  I dig in the manure that Mattie and Sam produce from the hay we load out of our neighbors’ fields, thinking of tomatoes, so sweet and tart.  It’s not a perfect cycle—I have to buy more dirt after all, and I pay for the hay.  But it’s a cycle with its satisfactions.

And there are other satisfactions of life in the Interior.  Moments ago, I went to the back door, headed out to feed the horses, when I noticed something on the railing on the back stairs landing.  A Boreal owl, slatey brown, speckled with white.  It swiveled its head to look at me, yellow eyes that looked wide with surprise from the circle of feathers radiating out from each eye.  It didn’t move, but contemplated me, and I it.  Then it swiveled its head around, staring down at the wild strawberries that grow there.  I had time to find a camera and take one photo before it tilted its head down intently, fidgeted a little, then spread its wings to float down to land on a vole, nibbling on a strawberry.

I went out on the landing.  I could see the owl there behind the delphinium leaves, his head turned to look at me once again.  Then he gathered his wings and brushed the air and soared over to land on the cab of the truck.

I’ll keep an eye out for him again.  He’s too small to be a danger to my skittish new cat, but I’m glad for his help with the vole population.  Maybe I’ll get beets and carrots this year, not just the tops.

Poetry Challenge 50

June 22, 2010

In honor of the solstice and the delirious quantity of light we’re getting these days, write from a giddy place.  Think of a time or place or color of the clouds that made you feel silly and happy all at once.  For me, last night, it was a Midnight Sun Baseball Game that went 15 innings under the silvery light of Solstice night.  We sat in the stands and hollered and laughed as the sun slipped behind a row of hills, still sending a wash of yellow light into the arc of the sky.  Then as the last hit brought all the runners in, the light behind the hills brightened, the cirrus clouds turned fireweed pink and the sun slid back up again.  A perfect–if very long–solstice night.

Write about a moment of unexpected glee.  Use all five senses, of course.

Post it as a comment and I’ll post it here.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

June 12, 2010

Sam has been dusting off his hooves, preparing to type this post.  Sometimes I imagine that he’s smart enough that if I had a giant computer with hoof-sized keys and a Horse-English translator, he could write his life story.  And he might comment on what he really thinks of all of us.

We’ve been trailering out to Movin’ Free,  a local boarding stable where our Horsemasters group is taking lessons on Thursdays.   Last year, we got a beautiful ten-year-old slant-load trailer and an ugly clunker truck with issues.  This year, I’m getting over my anxiety about truck driving and learning to haul the horses.   Every week, it seems, I call my mechanic, Rick, the world’s best backyard mechanic, and we fix something else on the truck—pack the hubs, replace ball joints, trace down the short that blows out the turn signal fuses.  Next it will be the steering column.  Each week the truck gets better, and I get a bit more confident.  By the end of summer, I’ll have an ugly but workable truck, I hope.

And Mattie and Sam have been very patient with all the trailering.  Unlike some horse owners I’ve talked to, I give them plenty of hay in the trailer, so that they walk in eagerly and stand contentedly during the trip.  They are both experienced with trailers and it’s no big deal to them, it seems.  Sam is such a pro that he backs out of the trailer, even when I’ve swung the divider aside and he could turn and walk out head first.  It’s a funny sight, him carefully picking up each hind foot, feeling his way back to the step down at the back of the trailer.  At some point, he must have spent lots of time in trailers, I’m guessing.

This summer, Trish has been riding him, except for these three weeks when she is in the field (she’s a geologist) and Casey is riding him.  It’s been a steep learning curve for Trish.  She’s spent lots of time on horses in a camp situation, but this is her first time taking formal lessons on a horse as challenging as Sam can be.  Sam takes the measure of any rider who gets on him and will go just as far as he needs to to test the limits of their skills.  He’s not mean, just a trickster. Trish started out not being able to get him beyond a wandering walk until I got on him and showed her how firm she needed to be to convince him she knew enough that he should cooperate with a trot.  One day, I stood in the middle of the corral holding a driving whip pointed at his hip and he perked up and began to trot with her.  Now, riding with a bat, she’s able to get him to move out when she wants him to.

When an experienced rider like Casey gets on him, it raises the level of challenge.  At the lesson she rode the other day, he kept crow hopping when she tapped his hip with the bat.  He did settle into the exercise, but, in his Sam way, he seemed to be giving her a bit of payback for not having ridden him yet this summer.  I know this seems anthropomorphic, but Sam proves how smart he is over and over again.  And, from my perspective on Mattie’s back during the lesson, Sam looks great with his long mane and wavy tail, his neck curved into collection at the trot, his haunches providing the power of the gait.   He’s in better condition than he was last year this time, and it’s great to see.

Last weekend, the Horsemasters gathered for a weekend “camp” with Hannah Knaebel, a trainer from Vashon Island, WA.  During the weekend, an equine dentist who travels to Fairbanks from Arizona each summer, gave a talk on floating and aging a horse’s teeth.  She offered to look at our horses, so Trish and I brought Sam over, hoping she could give us something definite on his age.  She looked at the grooves in his teeth on one side and said, “This shows him as 18.”  The groove came down from the gumline but hadn’t disappeared from the top of the tooth yet.  This meant, however, that he had been 18 for the past five years, or, as I suspected, was getting younger each year.  Not likely.

Then she looked at the same tooth on the other side.  The groove had grown down the tooth leaving a smooth place at the top.  “Definitely over 20,” she said.

“That explains a lot,” I said.  He always seems younger than the age I’m guessing he must be.  She told us that sometimes the teeth wear irregularly so that the gum on one side came down over the top, smooth part, of the tooth, making it look younger.  The good news is that, except for the cracked tooth that we removed a couple of years ago, his teeth are in good shape.  She praised the floating job Colleen, my vet, had just done.  All good news for Sam.

It’s been interesting watching others ride Sam.  I’m careful who comes to work with him, knowing that he asks his riders to earn his trust.  He works better with consistent riding and, because I want to focus on Mattie, it’s better when I can count on someone to come bond with him and spend the summer learning what he has to teach.

In his Don Sam way, he condescends to offer us the challenges he spends all day in the corral dreaming up.  In our ignorant human way, we work through frustration to patience, to adjustment of our skills, to the ability to work together with him so we can tap into all that he really knows.

If I knew who originally trained him, I would thank them for the opportunity Sam has given me and the other riders who’ve spent their summers with him.   I’d ask Sam, but he’s not telling.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

May 26, 2010

We’ve made the transition from breakup to summer with a mere nod to spring.  Here in the Interior, we go from bleak to blossoms suddenly as the light increases every day.  Today I noticed purple wildflowers blooming along the road where there was nothing—not even a hint of green–yesterday.  On the bank behind the house, something yellow and lavish that I planted three years ago is blooming among the rocks.  By the horse barn, I saw the first bluebells, purple in the bud, then a sweet far-sky blue as they bloom.  The leaves are almost fully out and flashing in the sun.

And there are other signs of summer.  Mosquitoes buzz the horses during the night, sometimes annoying them so much that they begin to gallop around the corral.  I’ve taken to putting their mosquito mesh blankets on them at night.  And with the mosquitoes come those mosquito-eaters, yellowjackets.  Now the heavy queens hover in the willows, along the bank, in the eaves of the greenhouse, looking for a nesting place.  Now is the time to trap them and prevent the colonies to come, but the queens don’t seem interested in our elaborately baited traps, going, instead, for tomato plants, the manure pile, or the leaves of willows.   We will need to find the nests as they’re built and spray them down in the early morning or at night when it’s cool.  Except we no longer have real night until about 1AM, for an hour or two.  A few years ago, we had the worst infestation ever.  People all across the Interior were getting stung and having allergic reactions.  I hope that we don’t go through this again. A late frost or a week of heavy rain would knock them back, but those are things not to be desired.

Meanwhile, the greenhouse is filling with tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, squash.  I’ve started my cutting lettuce and zukes and crookneck squash, too, and the purple broccoli, which I’m a sucker for the idea of, though I’ve not yet gotten it through the growing season.

Sam and Mattie are sleek and glossy.  Mattie always looks like she’s made of polished metal at this point in the season.  Her coat is still nearly black and it shines.  Later in summer she will bleach out to dark bay with a few dark dapples along her sides.  She also has begun to get more flecks of gray, so that she may become a dark roan at some point.

I’m much tireder this year than last, coming off an intense school year feeling so behind in my gardening and having the sense already that summer could slip right through my fingers.  I have an ambitious riding schedule set for me and Mattie and Sam (with Trish or Casey, this year).  I hope we can do it all.

I have to admit, though, that events in the world shadow my joy at summer.  As I plan to trailer my horses around town in my clunker truck, I carry the image in my mind of oil gushing into the Gulf waters, unstoppable, all the beaches and bayous I spent time in during my years in Mississippi gunked up with oil.  I want to be responsible for my little corner, to not add to the troubles of the world, but in the troubles resulting from oil, we are all implicated.  And face compromises.  To have the horse manure that nourishes the gardens of many of my “green” friends, I have to drive to the hay field, pick up the hay that has been tended by a tractor, and drive it back.  Something as earth-bound as riding a horse is also implicated in the consequences we all face as a result of using oil.  The yellowjackets, warm, dry-weather-loving, may also be a consequence of a warming planet—or they could just be in a cycle.

I don’t know the answer to this, though I know scientists at the university who throw all their mental energy into finding out.  For me, adding composted manure to last year’s greenhouse dirt, transplanting tomatoes, turning manure into the raised garden beds, and planting the seeds that can grow directly in the ground is how I deal with it.  It’s all a symbiotic system—living things: horses, plants, people—support and benefit each other.  Each time I enter that system with all its beauties, I feel renewed, a small counter to the ugliness of what’s happening in the Gulf and elsewhere.

As I finish this, I hear rain on the metal roof.  I just came in from the deck, where I moved the deck chairs under the overhang of the roof.  Off to the east, there’s already a rose color in the high clouds, and the sky to the south is slatey blue.  I could see out across the river to the flats beyond, rich with green and darker green.  The air smells sharp with new rain.  A robin sings, perhaps one of the pair that has nested on the beam above our window.  The sound of the rain is soothing, even though I don’t yet have the garden planted—we’re still a week from the last frost date here.  I’m glad to be in the Interior in summer, yellowjackets notwithstanding.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

August 28, 2009

We’re into late summer weather here. Early fall, really. On the willows growing out of the side of the bank and along the roads and riverbanks, there are starting to be a few yellow leaves like bright commas among the dusty green.

Overhead, the sandhill cranes flock and circle, their wide-stretched wingspan, long necks, stick legs behind. Today, I walked to campus from the parking lot and a V of geese straggled overhead. They called to each other with that slightly desperate, questioning call they have, as if they are always lost: “Which way? I thought you knew? Now what?” The cranes sound like they are having more fun. They gargle out their call as if the air were delicious to them. I watched a group of them yesterday, circling on an eddy of air, revving themselves up for the long flight to Brownsville, where they overwinter in the fields and the Laguna Atascosa wildlife refuge. There were young ones among the flock and they seemed to be teasing each other, brushing wingtips and rolling away, then righting themselves and doing it all over again.

A friend once told me that when cranes fly over, it’s good luck. We’re out standing under cranes as much as we can right now, storing all the luck we can.

And we sure do seem to need it. I’m still reeling from the loss of my friend, mentor, and colleague, Roy Bird. And then there’s Teddy Kennedy, whose life in politics has been an ongoing presence in the political consciousness of a whole generation. And then there’s the rain, the cold, and, the true mark of the coming of fall in the Interior, dark nights. We mark the end of summer with the sighting of the first star. It usually coincides with first frost.

We’ve avoided frost here in the hills, but some friends have lost their gardens already. I still have red and green romaine, purple and orange carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, crookneck squash, broccoli, kale, potatoes, and, in the greenhouse coming ripe just in time, luscious Chianti Rose tomatoes.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a poem after a walk in Creamers’ Field among cranes, called, “We Tempt Our Luck”—the cranes, the first hint of winter chill, and the boy in the poem who was writing to save his luck all wove into the poem. It’s now the title poem of a chapbook of poems that is just out from Astounding Beauty Ruffian Press, in Virginia (see Writing Links for their website). Now, I’m thinking about how much hope it’s possible to have, cranes or no cranes—then thinking of Teddy, who was a committed optimist, or he wouldn’t have reached out to as many people or crossed as many party lines as he did. I’ll dedicate some of my back-to-school energy this fall to his memory and to Roy, who reminds me to speak truth to power and to do it from my most genuine self.

Yesterday, speaking of hope, I went out on the deck as the light was beginning to turn that watery gray it gets when it’s about to pour rain or when it’s serious that night will come soon. I could see an orange tinge to the sky, flat with clouds. Somewhere behind me the north-west setting sun skipped over the northern curve of the earth and shot a ray into the rusty gray sky, arcing a perfect rainbow across the sky. Because of the orange tint in the clouds, the blues and greens were tough to pick out. But the reds, yellows, oranges glowed. A strange beauty, after much gloomy rain.

Today, a scrubbed blue sky. And the cranes.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

August 21, 2009

It’s been rainy since I got back from New Jersey and yesterday was the first day the corral was dried out enough to ride in a small circle without danger of slipping. I went out to ride Sam, hoping to consolidate what I learned in New Jersey and to get Sam back in shape for horse camp in a week and a half.

While I was gone, I visited two dressage stables, Holly Tree Dressage, in Shamong, and Transitions Farms in Elmer. I’ve already written about my first visit to Holly Tree and my ride on Cindy the quarter horse. A few days later, on a Saturday, I headed south to visit Debbie Morrison at Transitions and ride her Hanoverian, Clovis. It was a hot day—in the upper 80s—but I left early in the morning for a 9AM ride. The traffic was light, and I only made two wrong turns, and caught them early enough that I was actually on time. As I drove south, away from the congestion of I-295, I saw a landscape I recognized from childhood—white barns with silos, flat-fronted houses facing the road, fields of corn and sorghum, vegetable stands. By the time I got to Debbie’s place, I could feel all the tension of the drive wash away. I could hear crickets.

Clovis is a 17-hand bay gelding, a silver medalist in USDF competition. When I first saw him, he was in cross-ties with his saddle on, looking gentlemanly and aloof. We walked him out to the covered arena and I got on the three-step mounting block, stepped in the stirrup and eased myself into the saddle. He began to walk and I could feel his long strides pushing me forward with each step. It’s hard to describe—it was as if every part of him were in motion, as if his joints were springs. Debbie talked to me about feeling the footfalls of the horse—I had them completely reversed; I imagined that his hind leg lifting raised my hip at the walk, but the hip lowers when the hoof comes off the ground.

We walked for a while, working on my asking for give in the neck, and then she asked me to trot. His trot was so big it threw me up off the saddle in a post. I couldn’t imagine sitting his trot. He grew a little frustrated at my signals. I’m left handed and riding Clovis really pointed out to me how left-sided I am. My right leg hardly made contact with his belly; my right arm drifted out from my side. And riding him was work—everything I didn’t do precisely caused him to do something else than what I thought I was asking. He shook his head as if I weren’t articulate enough, as if I were trying to talk with marbles in my mouth—I couldn’t speak his language or share his vocabulary. But it was worth the try.

I went out again the next day, and the trot went better, and we worked on canter cues. Finally, he began a rocking chair canter, and I sat right in the center of it. All that energy: the impulsion of the hind foot, the reach of the leading front foot, the rocking leap of the gait itself. It was hot, and both Clovis and I were sweating—as was Debbie, following us on the ground. The air was dense and damp, and dark clouds were rolling in. There were rumblings of thunder and the light dimmed. At one point, as we cantered near the open doorway of the indoor arena, thunder and a passing motorcycle sounded together, and Clovis did an unplanned sideways canter, then recovered and kept on going.

Finally, Debbie showed me the piaffe, impelling him on and half-halting him all at once, lifting each shoulder and hind leg in rhythm until he performed a stationary trot. I don’t know if I can remember it enough to try it on Sam, but I might someday.

Then the sky got dark with lightning scratching through it. The thunder rumbled and crashed and the rain began to fall so hard we thought it was hail. I dismounted, and Debbie led Clovis through he rain to the barn where we chatted as we untacked and hosed Clovis down. I gave him a few treats to remember me by , then, when the rain lifted, I drove back through the farmland to my brother’s suburban apartment.

So yesterday, I tried to apply what I had learned about seat and legs and hands, both from Debbie and from Cathy, when I rode Sam. Sam was a bit put out by being ridden after a long layoff—and through a muddy corral, at that. He didn’t seem to like riding in the small circle of dry ground, and, when I tried to keep nudging him into an energetic trot, he turned and gestured toward my foot, as if to confirm to himself that I really meant it. Clearly he was contemplating an annoyed nip, but thought better of it. After Clovis and wide-backed Cindy, Sam felt small and narrow. My legs could barely find his sides. It was a short ride, but we’ll do more tomorrow.

Today I rode Mattie, and she did respond well to the seat and leg aids. For the most part, she bent into collection easily and moved well. She’s wider, too, so that the leg aids made more sense. Her gaits are so smooth, a real contrast with Clovis. It felt good to be back riding both of them.

Next week, horse camp.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

August 7, 2009

Smoke, a Journey, and a Horse Named Cindy

A few weeks ago, my brother called and asked how I’d like to come to New Jersey in August. Having grown up in that part of the world, I told him that New Jersey in August was part of the reason I live in Alaska—the garden is ready to harvest, the horses are in shape, mostly, and summer is winding to a close. Still, he’s a quadriplegic and needed help for a week only, and as we were making plans for me to travel, the smoke from spreading wildfires settled across the Interior, dropping ashes on our cars, the garden, the horses’ coats, blocking the sun and making it difficult to breathe. Everyone in the household, including visiting dancers, seemed to have smoker’s cough.

So, I agreed, and now, here I am, in a condo in Voorhees, NJ.

As I flew out a few days ago, I could see a wide column of smoke from the plane window—perhaps the Murphy Dome fire or the Railbelt fire; it’s hard to tell direction from a jet. We passed by Denali and over along the Alaska Range and into Canada. All through the mountain ranges, we could see smoke drifting through the valleys. The peaks we flew over seemed brown and more bare of snow than usual. The snow itself looked dingy and smoke-tan; the glaciers streaked with dark rock. I was astonished at the extent of the smoke. Some was from smaller fires that we could see pluming up from the trees; the rest seemed to be blown along inland by the prevailing winds. I was reading an old collection of Alice Munro stories, Friend of My Youth, appropriately Canadian, given the land we were flying over. When I looked up again, we were over Minnesota: green squares of land bordered by rows of darker trees. No smoke.

So, now, New Jersey, a place I left long ago. To make the trip more interesting, I made appointments at two dressage stables: Holly Tree Dressage, and Transitions Farms, one to the northeast and one to the southeast of here. Yesterday, I drove to Holly Tree to take a lesson on Cindy the Quarterhorse.

Driving is not my favorite activity—I prefer riding. Here in Western New Jersey, the roads are often the remnants of old farm roads, widened a bit to accommodate urban sprawl. The names: White Horse Pike, Eveham Road, Old Indian Mills Road—have been the same for two or three centuries. But they intersect broad, fast “highways” built in the 50s and 60s and linked with traffic circles (known other places as roundabouts). And, as happens in other places, too, directions often depend on some prior knowledge of the place. So my first mistake was to assume that I had made a wrong turn when I seemed to be headed south even though I needed to go north. Fifteen miles the wrong way later, I was straightened out by a friendly woman in a gas station. I made it to my lesson an hour late and having covered more than twice the road I needed to. The way back was worse, since I reversed the directions I needed and kept turning the opposite way I should have.

But the ride was great. Cindy is a chestnut Quarterhorse, a well-trained lesson horse. I was warned she might throw a fit when she realized I wasn’t a total beginner, but it was mild. We worked on applying the leg (inside leg to outside rein—one of those sayings in riding that takes time to actually feel in the body), and on canter, then I cooled her off and let her graze on the lawn by their outdoor dressage arena.

The place was built in the late 60s/early 70s as a race horse training stable. The barn is long and made of cement blocks with an indoor track making up the aisles of the stable. While I was there, a girl with pink hair was riding a series of colts around the track, accustoming them to life under saddle. The colts, Thoroughbreds, were tall and long-legged with that muscular, knife-like quality that racehorses have. They were alert and curious, if a bit skeptical about the world of work they were being introduced to. A dark bay colt, with a crescent of white showing over his eye, dumped his rider into the dirt of the indoor track on his way past the barn door. Another girl caught the reins of the horse and everyone there rushed over to see how the rider was. She got up and brushed off, and the business of the stable went on. Outside the barn, the farrier had pulled up in his truck, and I later saw the colt standing fresh from a hosing down, having his shoes pulled and his feet trimmed. The rider, by then, was on another horse breezing along the outdoor track with another rider and her horse.

Cindy and I were in the grass by then. She seemed glad to have at the green stuff. Her back is far better muscled than Mattie and Sam’s—the advantage of a year-long riding season. Her coat was silky and still short, unlike Sam’s which has started to grow, anticipating fall. She went back willingly to her stall, but I guess she’d rather have stayed outside on grass or in turnout. I’ll ride her again on Monday. Tomorrow, I take a new set of directions to Elmer, NJ, to ride Clovis. Wish me luck!

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