Posts Tagged ‘tomaotes’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Ice Classic site:

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 7, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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