Posts Tagged ‘wood stove’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 6, 2012

The New Year

I had great plans for the winter break.

After the mad scramble to pull Christmas together—cutting the spruce tree from beside the horse trailer, baking three types of pie and marinating and roasting a fresh ham, decorating the tree, and wrapping then opening presents—we had a delightful dinner and sat around playing Apples to Apples till midnight Christmas night.

My plan was to spend the daylight part of each day, between 11:30 and 3, working with the horses, a reminder to them and to me that we had a partnership, that they weren’t just going feral for the rest of the winter.  But, instead, a mass of cold air descended on the Interior and we hunkered down under 30 to 40 below temperatures, stoking the woodstove, eating leftover pie, watching movies, and sleeping a lot.  Out in the corral, Mattie and Sam hung out in their run-in shed, snug in their heavyweight blankets and fresh shavings.  We brought them extra hay during the day, and I added brome pellets soaked in warm water to their usual dinner of soaked beet pellets and supplements.

My great plans melted into a dozy, slow time, interrupted by visits with friends and the occasional fiddling with cars to be sure they kept running.  When we ventured to town, everything seemed quiet except the coffee shop, filled with the people who hadn’t left town for the holidays, all a bit overheated from their layers of clothes, and talking rapidly from the caffeine.   Saturday night, New Year’s Eve, we went to the University fireworks display and stood in the 35 below air, watching the sparks boom and spray above our heads.  In the deep cold, the sound is magnified by the density of the air and the loud rocket bursts tingled our cheeks—all that was exposed—and vibrated the snow beneath us.  We stood, but some well-bundled folks lay back against a snow berm and watched the fireworks blossom in the dark sky above them.  Later, standing around a bonfire, we set off fire balloons or fire lanterns, and I thought of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Armadillo,” which has the lines:

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars —
planets, that is — the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars…

Something in this dark, cold time keeps turning my mind back to old familiar poems.  Later, when a fine light snow fell through the cold, drifting onto the horses’ blankets, and catching the porch light, speckling the night, I thought of Frost’s “Desert Places,” which starts with the lines “Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast, ” and ends with

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars–on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

 I’m not usually one who makes a list of New Year resolutions.  As usual, I’ll make an effort to get back to my dance classes and winter indoor riding—what passes for an exercise routine—to work off the after effects of two weeks of pie eating.  And, in the weeks to come, as the afternoon lengthens and we have the promise of above zero temperatures, I’ll make the usual plans to get Mattie and Sam fit for summer riding.  The first day of class for the semester is still two weeks away, but I’ve taken on a new responsibility in my department—my resolution there is not to let it overpower the things I love about my life—and to do what I can to solve problems along the way.  And, for the most part, to keep that part of my life out of these posts—which are, after all, about the things that sustain me—horses, poetry, dance, gardening, and the things of the psyche.

Today it warmed up a bit.  It was only 10 below when I fed the horses tonight and we all—me, the horses, the poodle—felt a bit lighter-spirited because of it.  The forecast is for 40 below by the weekend, so I’m keeping the horses’ blankets on for now, keeping the fire going in the stove, getting a little more hunkering down done.   We’ve turned the year.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 17, 2011

The Cruelest Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 16, 2011

Quest Finish

Still cold in the Interior.  The temperatures here on the ridge hovered around twenty below all day, slightly warmer than yesterday, but still cold to be out on the Chena River moving at a blazing five miles an hour behind a team of tired dogs.  As I went about my day of meetings and classes, phone calls and e-mails, part of my mind was always on the progress of mushers on the Quest trail.

At the end of the day, I logged back into the Quest site to discover that there was a new leader, Dallas Seavey, a twenty-three-year-old rookie who planned on using the Quest as a training race for the Iditarod.   Rookies usually run this tough race a few years before they end up in the top four, but  Seavey isn’t a real rookie.  His father, Mitch, has been running long-distance dogs for years, and he is following the family tradition.   His bio says he’s been training dogs his whole life and this flawless run shows it.

But this race has been like a novel with its interwoven threads of drama.  I keep thinking of Jack London, a writer too often overlooked in the American literary canon, perhaps because his work–at least the Northern stories–seems so romanticized.  The relationships between men and dogs in White Fang and Call of the Wild seemed romantic to me before I lived in Alaska in their suggestion of  deep attachment between human and dog, yet that attachment is what a long race like the Quest is all about.  There’s also the race between mushers and their ultimate enemy, the cold.   Even the strongest musher can become slow-moving and slow-witted if some accident of the trail leaves him or her chilled.  Ghatt’s plunge into overflow, Neff’s delay by a blizzard at the most daunting summit of the trail, these are the accidents of the North, the luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We follow the Quest because it reminds us of our own fragile peace with the cold and dark of winter.  The race comes at the first return of light in February, when we start to consider the return of spring.  But winter hasn’t let go yet, as the temperatures of the last few days show.  I drove home today in dimming afternoon.  Behind me to the east, towards Canada and the path the mushers were on, the sky was slaty blue, darkening quickly.  Ahead of me, to the west there was a watery pale light lingering over the ridge.  I had plans of building a fire in the stove, feeding Mattie and Sam, eating a bit, then heading down to the river to see the first place winner come gliding in toward the finish.

But luck has its own ways.  The house was cold and it took me a while to realize that we were out of fuel oil and needed to make a run back to town for a gas can full to tide us over till the truck can come out tomorrow.  On the way down the hill, we saw what looked like a house fire on the flats–floodlights and smoke and flashing red and blue lights.  Like the mushers, we need to pay attention to what’s around us, to the details of survival that keep us going.

We came home and got the boiler going again.  The window in the woodstove is flickering with birch flames; the house is heating slowly.  Phoebe, the cat, is curled under my arm as I type, one paw resting on the laptop, purring slowly.  The remaining mushers on the trail will continue to come in over the next few days, including the handful of women on the trail, who I’ll write more about tomorrow.

Till then, congratulations to Dallas and to Sebastien, who followed him in short order.  Congratulations and a scratch on the ears for all good dogs who pay attention to the trail and lead us on.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 18, 2010

I’m sitting in Ed’s chair by the woodstove, listening to it ticking as the fire dies down; the Christmas tree is lit again.  The little spruce with the twist in the trunk that we cut from behind the run-in shed on Christmas Eve is still green and drawing water in its five gallon bucket filled with rocks.  I’m glad, for I cut my holiday season short for the trip to New Jersey.   Now, with just five days to go before the first class of spring semester, I’m grateful for the tree, the ornaments, the lights, for they’re letting me feel celebratory for a few days more.  Besides, in my family, growing up, we had a tradition that the tree stayed up till my mother’s birthday, January 18.

The time in New Jersey gave me lots to think about.  At first, the situation seemed desperate—my brave and stoic brother needed someone there throughout the day while he was/is on bedrest.  If he dropped the phone, he wouldn’t be able to call out in an emergency; if he dropped the remote—as he did when I visited in the summer—he could fall asleep watching soccer and wake up watching a telenovella.  And, worse, if no one were set up to come in during the day after I left,  how would he eat, stay hydrated, deal with the personal but essential tasks that take up a good part of his caregiving.  But, day by day, there was good news until I was able to leave knowing that he has care and will soon be in rehab to get back in shape to be in his chair—back to normal for him.

My brother has been a quadriplegic for more than twenty years.  If his accident happened now, he might have more use of his arms than he does.  With stem cell research and other newer procedures, young people facing a C-5/C-6 injury can retain more function than he was able to at the time.  But he’s done well, stayed independent, gotten a law degree, played Quad Rugby (Murderball)—in short, I didn’t worry about him until this pressure sore developed.   But this has been a wake-up call for all of us.

He could be anyone—we are all vulnerable, as scenes of devastation in Haiti and other places in the world remind us.  His vulnerability is part of his life’s normalcy—in his chair he can cook, drive, bathe, go to restaurants and malls—do most of the things anyone else can do, except get himself into and out of bed.  Being around him has reminded me not only of how much I love him, my baby brother who I cared for as a child, but of how valuable each of our lives is and what we can mean to each other.

Remarkable things happened.  I met caregivers and social workers who made extra efforts to help his situation get resolved.  I met a woman online who advocates for those in the quad community, and who called my brother just to chat—and I heard him laugh and knew that his spirits were lifting and that he would heal.  I met a remarkable group of Quakers at Cropwell Friends Meeting, who felt led to form a group to come visit my brother and just chat and check in.  There was the woman in the coffee shop who remembered me when I came in for a break from the apartment, the lady at Smoothie King who kept my debit card for three days when I absent-mindedly left it on the counter, the cousin of a friend who called and gave advice even though she didn’t live near enough to come by.  It seems like community can happen anywhere, I now see.

But here’s the thing—while my brother’s is an extreme case, it’s an example of how much the system that seems to be in place—health care and beyond—is  broken and stretched to the point of dysfunction, underfunded and understaffed.  When my brother knew the woman living with him would be moving out and that I could come for a couple of weeks to help out, it was Thanksgiving. He began calling and filling out paperwork and getting visits from social workers.  But by two days after Christmas, he was still being told he would have a 4-6 week wait.  Those who told him that were polite, but clearly overworked and could offer no suggestions to help.  They would see me there and assume that I would fill in.

All this while the “debate” on health care rolls on in DC.  But what is there to debate?  To me, now, the question is simple—how do we care for those among us who are least able to care for themselves?   And how do we care for each other and provide for the well-being of all in our community or nation, knowing that any of us could suddenly have the level of need my brother has or more?

I’m slowly recovering from jet lag and the emotional stress of the trip.   Morning and night, I’m out in the corral while Mattie and Sam are chewing hay, leaning against their shaggy shoulders, breathing in their earthy smell.   I’m glad to breathe the sharp cold air and see the orange light in the southern sky spread into day.

I tend to be an optimist.  I believe that it’s worth the effort it took to bring some things together for my brother in order to restore him to a normal, engaged life.  I’ll continue to work with him on this.  I also believe that in a good society, we would all want this for all of us.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 12, 2009

This morning, I was finishing throwing hay to the horses and spending a few minutes scratching their necks under their manes and inhaling their earthy, yeasty smell when the corral, the yard, the snow on the spruce trees began to glow with a copper light. It’s lighter every day now. The change is significant, the day extending by as much as an hour a week. The return of the light starts a fizz of energy in my stomach–or that place in the center of the body that the Chinese call chi. I look at the cutbank behind the house where I have been trying to get wildflowers to grow for the past six years. This year, I think, I’ll find a way.

Then the sun slipped up behind the clouds that spread across all the rest of the sky and the light dulled. Still, to the southern horizon there was a peachy band of light above the silhouettes of the mountains, then thick, flat grey.

I heard Obama’s speech the other night; like everyone else, I’ve been thinking of the economic situation, flattening the mood of delight I felt at the inauguration. I read about places where, already by last summer, people were abandoning horses in forests, in farmers’ fields, in empty horse trailers at horse shows or auctions. I even heard of horses found shot by owners who couldn’t keep them. Here in Alaska, we tend to feel the economic trends on a different cycle than the lower 48–sometimes by as much as five years. Still, we know it will impact us. We live in a place where extravagant living is unsustainable. In rural Alaska, the situation is more grim, as fuel prices went up in the fall just as rural communities needed to put in their winter supply. Some villages, like Emmonak, are in dire straits, but have found a way to make their plight–needing fuel and food–known and some relief has reached them.

I think about how things might go for us–including horse lovers and those working in the arts. We will keep on as long as we can, knowing that the things that sustain us are not all material or financial. Writing is an inexpensive art–though I’m writing on a laptop now, I could convert to pen and paper. Dance only takes the body and a sense of rhythm, though the production of a performance takes a whole lot more. Riding horses takes, well, the horse–and that’s more challenging here in the North than it might be in some more temperate place. It’s when we what to share our arts that the economy affects us the most. As the “recovery package” goes out around the country, I’m listening hard for reference to the arts, knowing that we will be dealing with some bread-and-butter issues first–but still, I’m listening.

I’m finishing this at night, the full moon of last night shaved a bit thinner now, and covered by the clouds still spread across the sky. The wood stove warms the room. The dog sleeps, a mound of brown fur.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 23, 2009

Last night, a visit from my friend Joe Enzweiler (see the link to his website) to talk about poetry, life, and the writer’s discipline. Joe recently had a poem read on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and we talked about how this might affect his work. Joe is a cabin-dwelling poet, not quite off the grid. He lives in a spruce log cabin he built himself 30 years ago, tucked away in a stand of birches. He has a rotary phone and a manual typewriter, though he was recently given a laptop and has become curious about the internet. But mostly he’s a pen-and-paper writer.

I’ve known Joe since I arrived in Fairbanks from the Pacific Northwest in the late seventies. I joined a writer’s workshop at the university, all young hotshots with big ideas and some gift with language. Joe and I have stayed friends since then, and he has dedicated himself to the writer’s life more profoundly than anyone I know who doesn’t have a university writing program job. Every morning, he rises with the sun (around 10 am, these days) makes tea, and sits by the window and writes. His Manx cat, Little Man hops on his lap to watch the redpolls and chickadees feed outside the window. He gets up from time to time to stoke the wood stove, his main source of heat. At some point, he leaves the house and takes his bow saw and clears small trees from the woods around his house. He cuts the wood into fireplace lengths and hauls it back to his house where he stacks it under his porch. All around the house there’s a mosaic of alder, spruce, birch, and willow stacked with the round ends out. Small wood, but good kindling and plenty to keep him warm and writing all winter.

In the summer, Joe builds things–decks, saunas, sheds, fences–as meticulously as he stacks wood or crafts poems. He loves to stack stone and has built stone walls for his brother in Kentucky and for many friends here.

In the winter we meet for Poetry Thursdays. They keep me focused on the task at hand and give him an audience for his current projects. He’s agreed to let me post a poem on the Poem of the Day page.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 6, 2009

I’m sitting in my living room near the woodstove balancing the laptop on my lap. The stove we bought when we moved here has a window at the front, so we can see curls of light from the flame as the wood burns. These days, we’re burning only birch, those lovely trees with their white bark that peels like sunburnt skin in summer. We’ve stacked the split wood on the stove to warm  to room temperature from 40 below; I admire the clean whiteness of the bark, the dense grain of the wood itself.

In Interior Alaska, birch is the hardwood we have. It gives off more heat than other available wood such as spruce, cottonwood/poplar, or willow. The wood curves as it grows so that the trunks of birch trees look like giant legs or hips. Interior artists such as Kes Woodward or David Mollet have made much of this quality.

Today, I have been clearing out a physical space downstairs to write–a room and a desk that has been burdened by boxes, years of graded papers, old bills, a bicycle, yoga mats, sleeping bags–all the things that needed a generic place to stage when we needed to move them from someplace else. Now there is a path to the desk by the window with a statue of the Buddha, a long-suffering plant, some rocks from various places, and, on days with no ice fog, a view of the Alaska Range. I have a sabbatical semester starting today; my plan is to finish the chapters of a book of meditations n the horse, working title And the Horse, and to continue a practice I started last winter of setting a daily poetry challenge in hopes of completing a chapbook. I will post drafts of the horse book as I complete chapters and will post poetry challenges for myself and any readers who want to take them up.

As for Mattie’s Pillow, I am growing into the blogging process. All two of my readers have given me good feedback so far, and the look and content of this blog may change in the next few days. For now, while I am still mostly inside by the fire, gazing out at Mattie and Sam themselves, so handsome in their blankets and frosty manes, I will be exploring how this virtual space can parallel the one I have imagined and how I can begin to make connections between people I care about and others who care about the things I do.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 4, 2009

Here on the Ridge, it’s thirty below zero. Down in the valley, it hovers between forty and fifty below and the ice fog sits thick along the roads, riverbanks, neighborhoods.

This fall, with the high oil prices, people who hadn’t used their wood stoves in years dusted them off, went out to the wood cutting areas, and began burning unseasoned wood. We were lucky enough to have had several large spruce trees fall in the last couple of years and were able to harvest a downed birch and buy some two-year old birch logs over the summer. But in some areas, the extra smoke and water vapor released  from burning green wood or coal has been hanging in the air for months. Now that we’re in a period of deep cold, this smoke and vapor hangs frozen into ice fog–hard on living beings.

We are in the last days of the winter break between semesters. We’re down to one working car, but we’re holed up in our living room, dozy as hibernating bears, stoking the wood stove, watching the Christmas tree lights flicker, watching the skyline pale from orange to watery green to dusky blue. For a few weeks, as we begin the slow return toward the sun, our part of the Ridge will be in shadow. A few houses down our road, they get a couple or hours of sun each day, but we are at the head of a deep bowl of land, so it will be while before the sun reaches pver the rim of the Ridge to us.

Outside, the horses stand, blanketed, dreaming of grass. Mattie likes to hang out in the shed, sulking. Sam, the guard horse, stands by the fence, looking down at anyone driving or walking by on the road below. Their coats are thick and long: Mattie gets an undercoat like a dog; Sam’s is dense with close-growing hairs like a caribou.

I’m still learning about blogs. I’ve visited other blogs to see how they format their pages, who their audience is.

I have two main purposes for this blog at this point. First, I want a concrete way to develop ideas for a literal Mattie’s Pillow–a place with buildings, people, etc.  I’m starting this by posting links to poets, artists, horse and dog and gardenig sites–anything that fits the image I have of Mattie’s Pillow.  Second–though I’m doing this first–I want a way to share the work I do on my current sabbatical: poems for a chapbook and chapters for a book of essays on the horse.

What I’m not clear on now  is who my audience is. This may take some time. I don’t  yet know who you are, but it may be you.


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