Raging Spring

Dramatic weather on the national news: record heat in the Northeast. Katie reports it was 91 in New Hampshire, Julie said 86 in New Brunswick. This afternoon I sawed a large limb off the wild plum, once the snow had dropped off it. Last night late, when I let the dogs out for midnight whiz, I was staggered by the weight of snow on all the trees and shrubs in the yard. With all their spring leaves on, their fading blossoms and baby fruits, they’ve so much more surface to hold the snow.

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A twelve-foot tall New Mexico foresteria outside the front door, flattened by snow. Behind it, that white mound between two junipers is the Amur Maple, easily a fifteen-foot tall sapling, limbs bent to the ground.

This was an especially dense wet snow. Limbs were down all over town.

I’ve felt particularly useless all day. Some national and some extremely local politics have drained me. I woke up anxious, felt like a fish out of water all day. My head is full of spaghetti. I am uncharacteristically dark; or perhaps I am cyclically dark. I gather this is the kind of matrix that causes spring’s swelling suicide rates. Winter has gone and things remain the same; snow returns with vigor. This too will change.

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The wild plum tree, broken under melting snow. Below, the same tree forty days ago…

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The massive pink honeysuckle, its fragrant blooms just opened days ago and covered in bees, bent this morning under a thick blanket.

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The flowers were resilient. Irises so recently in bloom I’ve haven’t begun to photograph them, bowed but not broken, standing nearly straight by afternoon, after everything melted. Before it started snowing again.

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Everything all gorgeous last weekend when I started planting annuals in pots, bringing out herbs and dahlias, potting up tomatoes, sprouting peppers.

Tonight I find surprising relief in watching the Weather Channel. Powerful storms rage across the central plains. Twelve tornadoes so far today, again. The winds this spring and last have been planetary. The atmosphere whips itself into a frenzy. We see only a small segment of the world’s weather on our television, maybe it’s different in other countries. We only see, for the most part, the weather over the continental US.

I might have been driving across the continental US this very day. If so, I’d have been glued to the Weather Channel, on TV if I could get it, or on my laptop, if I could get internet wherever I was hunkered down for the night, at whatever state park or back road hotel. Many’s the night I’ve fallen asleep to the weather, having memorized my place on the map, what county I was in so I’d know the name if I heard it under a tornado watch or warning, knowing the nearest towns in each direction, my exact location on the weather map as it flashed on the screen so I could track the radar at night.

There was a thrilling sense of aliveness on those treks across the country; knowing how near I was camped to a train track, so I would know if I heard a freight-train that it might actually be a train and not a tornado; knowing whether I was above or below a nearby dam, in case it blew; taking my chances having weighed all factors I could conceive of, always having an exit plan. I let myself escape the frustrations of today, my own harsh judgments, in the shiver of excitement watching weather. Feet of snow in the Rockies. Trailer park flattened in Kansas, tornado vortex signature in Missouri, spectacular lightning in Oklahoma. I might have been any one of those places today, but I’m not.

I inhale deeply, and exhale, my first relaxed breath of the day: I could have been there, driving my dogs and camper across the country to be with my dear auntie next week for her ninetieth birthday. I had planned to be on the way. But I decided a couple of months ago not to go, and I could not be more grateful. I did something right today, anyway: I stayed home.

Love and Heartache

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Just a couple more jars of apricot jam left from last summer… savoring every single morsel since the harvest looks bleak this year. Neighbor Fred taught me how to tell if the fruit has frozen, and it sure looks like I won’t have many, if any, apricots this year. 

But the good news is, so far, as the radio DJ said a couple of weeks ago, Looks like we’ll have fruit this year, folks. Our valley’s abundant fruit crops, cherries peaches pears apples nectarines, apparently survive, a boon to all the fruit farmers, thus far. Who knows what the next day will bring? We’ll know more later!

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Keeping up with the tulips: The gorgeous red tulips I thought were toast after the first spring snow rebounded dramatically and lasted another week or two.

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It’s been warm sun interspersed with rain, hail and snow the past few weeks, and the four varieties of naturalizing tulips in the south border keep going strong, opening sequentially, including Tulipa tarda, Tulipa batalinii, Tulipa linifolia above, and one I can’t decipher on my map.

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I found the old map from when I first planted this border years ago, naming all the varieties of tulip, iris, grape hyacinth, and groundcovers. Too bad I abbreviated some, and can’t read others. Special jonquils and red species tulips, above; More tulips, and Biko the leopard tortoise keeping down weeds, below.

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And talk about tulips! The tulips at Deb’s house on Easter were glorious.

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The tattooed girl brought violet syrup and fresh violet blossoms for our Easter Dinner cocktail, violet martinis, and an hors d’oeuvre featuring the complicated green endive that she grew, below.

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A true friend comprehends the importance of an uncontaminated cheese knife.

The flowering trees are almost done, and may or may not produce fruit. Blossoms on both apples look dingy today after three inches of snow last night and a low of 28. Whatever survived that could drop tomorrow if it reaches the predicted low of 21. All spring it has been like this. The trees started weeks earlier than usual, so we all knew it was an iffy season. I’ve been making the most of their beauty, hanging out with each tree as it began to bloom, following it through its fullness ~ full of blossoms, full of bees ~ and into its flower-fading leafing out.

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The wild plum buzzed with clouds of bees punctuated by a couple of red admiral butterflies alighting here and there, now and then, in the manner of butterflies. The plum tree grew from the root stock of the almond, a huge sucker that came up in the first or second spring, too vital to destroy. I dug it up, transplanted it, watered it. It thrives. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t start something wonderful from root stock.

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Mourning Cloaks also migrated through for a few days.

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Bee flies have been buzzing the trees and especially the Nepeta (catmint), as have bumblebees.

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I don’t profess to know flies, but these cute ones were all over the wild plum, too, everybody doing their spring thing.

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This female sweat bee fought off swarms of males while mating with one on the wild plum.

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The peach tree flowered next, tiny pink blossoms that didn’t attract too many bees…

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… but there were some!

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Next came the crabapple, growing more dazzling every day.

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Just not as many bees as I expected on the crabapple, though there were some sweat bees, honeybees, a few bumblebees, and some digger bees like this Centris. Note the distinctive giant eyes of this genus.

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The heirloom apple just a few days ago, as this round of storms began to materialize.

Meanwhile in the woods this month, wallflowers and paintbrush, cactus and mustards, Astragalus and TownsendiaPhasaria and more all seemed to bloom earlier than usual.

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Indian paintbrush blossomed a couple of weeks early, and hummingbirds arrived shortly after. But not very many…

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Puccoon is like that old friend that you see once a year if you’re lucky, for just a few days over spring break, and you’re so delighted and you pick up right where you left off laughing and talking and catching up; only when you see puccoon, you’re just happy and you both laugh and there’s no need for conversation.

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We haven’t spent much time on the canyon rim this spring, once we figured out that the growing nest in the cottonwood just off from the bench belonged to a skittish pair of redtail hawks. Here she’s sitting, but not setting. Once her eggs were laid she hasn’t spooked off the nest; she lies flat on top, just the round of her head and her beak giving away her presence as she incubates her precious eggs. Philip says they haven’t seen near the usual number of redtails on their side of the valley, but there’s been a pair of harriers over the fields.

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Six kinds of carrots, last year’s seeds, sowed early. Maybe they’ll make it, maybe not. More seeds on order just in case, or for a second crop.

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These people I live among, we celebrate tulips, bee trees, planting seeds, and redtail hawks, the rites of spring. We celebrate the wild life, the fruits and fields and feasts of our valleys, the stars in the sky. We honor the land and cherish our relationships with it. What else can we do?

We write our Representatives, march with millions, endeavor to make change. It’s an uphill battle, that’s for sure, against greed and corruption, against entropy. It’s a sense not just of personal mortality, but of planetary mortality, the sweetness to this spring.

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While friends march in cities for the Peoples Climate March, I stay home and repair myself. Though I made a sign, my back has been too tender to take to the streets.

It’s been a brutal month for a sensitive person. It’s so hard to keep up with the dreadful actions coming from the government, the crimes against nature and humanity. The pronouncements, executive orders, earth-killing life-stealing human-rights-smashing bills and deregulations, the assault on American public lands that belong to us the people and not to multi-national corporations bent on extraction. Not just once or twice a week, but a pile of them every single day, day after day. Mutterings of war, deep worries for the future. It’s sickening, is what it is, more and more often literally.

I worry far less now for my own life than I do for the lives of all the other living things I share this place with: first of course the bees, honeys and bumbles, diggers and long-horned and sweat; also the trees and flowers and shrubs, the deer and bears, and the mountain lions here; and lions far away, all the magnificent wild felines of the world: snow leopard, clouded leopard, the jaguar sentenced to be fenced out of expanding her range northward as she needs to with climate change… Any single thought leads in a dozen different desperate directions.

Every living creature on the planet is at risk with this Kleptocracy, in the hands of a madman dedicated to further eroding the planet herself and the lives of all beings. It’s encouraging today to see thousands of people on the streets, and listen to legislators and activists around the country. Fighting the sense of overwhelm, I write letters, make calls, support friends; cherishing the life and beauty around me, I prune trees, plant seeds, pull weeds, and let my love for Nature grow along with my heartache. What else can I do?

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Tracking Tulips

IMG_3396It’s been an amazing month. Spring has sprung like a flower from a clown’s buttonhole, boing!! On my days of rest I’m exhausted. But the other days are like a carnival, one ride after another, both sequentially: a carousel of tulips, the apricot tree’s long flowering waterfall: after a short climb to full blossom a burgeoning of bloom then a whoosh to done the past few days, weeds emerging like a lush jungle ride faster and thicker than I ever remember; and in layers: all at the same time, each tree, shrub or part of the garden following its own trajectory, with its own protean pace and colorful convolutions. Like gardening inside a Picasso.

European pasque flower popped up near the front door in a place I suspect I transplanted it to last year, and I inadvertently started tracking it in photos. While it’s one of the earliest blooms, showing up shortly after crocuses, it doesn’t attract many bees. It’s behavior through the years has charmed me. From the same deep rhizome it sends up sequential purple bell-flowers. As each old flower sheds petals and unfurls its silky seedheads, a new bud grows from the root.

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This sequence will continue for weeks, until eventually buds will cease forming and seedheads will grow tall and topple, sowing themselves in a circle around the original rhizome. That plant will expand each year, dropping more and more concentric rings of seeds, growing new little pasque sprouts. An ingenious propagation adaptation, in my estimation.

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Because I know what I’m seeing in this largely unhelpful image, I can count at least 17 young plants at varying distances from the mother plant. Let’s keep an eye on this growing family, in the crabapple bed down north by the pond, as summer progresses.

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Each year this red tulip group morphs and grows. I divided it last year and spread some of its stray bulbs down the bed. For a few weeks in spring, it’s a punctuation mark in my yard that everyone remarks upon. Some years ago I planted a handful of standard red tulip bulbs that I bought on impulse at the Farm and Home store in town. Deer ate them the first few years, but somehow over time I think they hybridized with the hardy little naturalizing tulips (which the deer largely ignore) growing shorter and clumpier.

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And this morning, after the 19 degree night, they woke tattered and frost-covered. I touched them: frozen solid. I really thought that was the end of them…

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…but by this afternoon they had perked up remarkably.

The little wild tulip, Tulipa tarda, originally from central Asia, has been in commercial cultivation since the 16th century. In my yard, it’s grown for around fifteen years, following the red tulips in bloom. They’ll stay closed all day in clouds and rain, but give them a few hours of full sun and they’ll pop open. Below, a cluster the other day at 12:45, and the same shot two hours later. I lay on my belly and watched them for about an hour, counting it as meditation, and actually slowed myself down enough to see micro-incremental movements of petals.

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Spring as Sure as Anything

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Brief glory Iris reticulata varieties, budding and blooming between the challenges of single digit nights, blowing snow, and someone biting their little heads off.

The big winds we had Sunday and Monday must have blown open the mechanical room door. I hardly went outside the whole 48 blustery hours, after battening down (almost) all the hatches in the hours before the “wind event” started. Once the clouds cleared the night dropped to nine degrees, and the water pipe between the pump and the pressure tank froze. When I woke yesterday morning all I knew was that there was no water in the house.

Here is an instance where I can recognize the benefits of daily meditation. I said Oh, and was glad I had filled the pitcher the night before, poured some for the cats and the coffee kettle. I broke the thin ice on the pond to bring up a bucket of water to flush the toilet. Suddenly the orchids I forgot to water the previous two days were in desperate need. I left a faucet open while I meditated, and when it began to trickle I ran all the faucets one by one. Once they were all primed I felt competently satisfied. A little later I heard a strange sound: out in the room with pump, water heaters, solar controllers and batteries: a geyser shooting at the north wall!

I flipped the pump breaker and shut the valve to the house. I realized later I could have run inside and run water into the sinks to help empty the pressure tank, cutting down the flood in the mechanical room. But I never felt the frustration and blame I once would have in this situation. I called my regular plumber. He was swamped, but said he’d come at the end of the day if I couldn’t find someone else. I called a number of plumbers, spoke to several pleasant people, and found one happy to come by around four. Then went back to work. All with remarkable calm.

I knew I washed my hands a lot during a day; I was more amused than frustrated to note just how many times I reached for the faucet or wished I could. Oh the sweet relief of hot water and soap! I felt so grateful to be able to wash the dishes. I had a lovely day despite the in-house drought. And I filled the pitcher and watering cans just in case last night.

This morning I was still thrilled to have running water! I tried out this turmeric lemonade recipe: 4 c. cold water, 2 T powdered turmeric, 4T maple syrup, and the juice of one lemon. Eh. I added the juice of one whole lime and a splash of cayenne, all in a quart jar, shook and chilled it and shook before drinking. Yum, finally! I’ve tried the capsules, but can’t even remember my regular vitamins half the time; I’ve tried the golden milk but don’t want to mess with that at bedtime and don’t really care for the flavor. This will be a great tonic to sip on throughout a hot summer day when I’m in and out gardening.

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Turmeric lemonade, anti-inflammatory and touted anti-depressant.

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Little yellow irises were just getting ready to open when a late February snow buried them. They waited just so for a week before it was warm enough to open. Below, the purples at ten am, and an hour later. 

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OK, this happened in December, but it sure felt like this when snow blew in while the buds were trying to bloom. Then perhaps this same doe came and ate their tops off.

In between editing audio meditations and video yoga, I’ve been getting outside to dabble in the garden again, on mild days for the past month. The first slow flat stretch of the roller coaster has begun. Cutting back dried stems, mindful of possible preying mantis or other egg cases; raking winter windfall leaves and snowbreak stalks, pruning broken limbs, trimming thymes, pulling off old iris leaves where new green tips stick up. Clearing the early-spring bulb bed. These first splashes of color signal the end of winter. We’ll see more snows, maybe some big snows, but they’ll melt within a few days and the flowers will appreciate the moisture. As sure as anything, there’s no stopping their reach for the sun.

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The Right Tools for the Job.

 

A Quarter Century

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, an International Dark Sky Park, just down the road from home.

Sirius the Dog Star is dazzling again. The night sky is more full of stars than I have seen it for years. I live in one of the best places in the country for stargazing. Nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2015. Though my new bionic eyes aren’t yet completely healed, I stood outside tonight and cried because I can see Orion’s bow again; I had forgotten it.

I used to sit on the roof of my trailer and watch the sky, as storms passed by to the west and east, as the sun came up in a fan of blue and white stripes or set amid blankets of orange and violet clouds, as stars appeared one by one and five by ten to fill the sky. I don’t spend as much time outside at night now that I live in a snug house full of other things to do. And also, I think, because in recent years the stars have been disappearing, the sky darkening with my deepening cataracts. Stargazing was making me sad. No more!

The night sky is just one reason I love this place. I was horrified a few years ago when I looked out from my bed and saw two bright orange lights across the valley. There aren’t many lights on at night around here. What kind of idiot needs that kind of security light in this bucolic landscape?

The Bad Dogs drove home from here one night and scoped out the source of this dreadful sight. Once we discovered it, my irritation evaporated. The lambing lights came on again a few weeks ago, and now I welcome them, knowing that they’re temporary, and signal the coming of spring. About the same time the first crocus shoots appeared in the mud as the snow began to melt. Their first blooms opened this morning.

Nearly all the winter’s snow has melted, except on north facing slopes and in deep shadows. Last week the nurse at the Health Fair asked me, as she was drawing my blood, “Are you over the mud?” She had just moved here from Kentucky. I pondered, over it? “I’m over being bothered by it, if that’s what you mean,” I said. “You adapt. It’s just another season. Mud season. Comes between winter and spring, and then again sometimes between fall and winter.”

When I drove to town that morning it was cold. On the way home an hour later, mist rose along the hill road from the south-facing slope of a deep arroyo just now catching the sun. Up on Stewart Mesa the mountains were shrouded in clouds and sun blazed down on a golden field full of cows. A bald eagle sat on a power pole in the dobies. That half-hour drive never gets old.

I’ve been making that drive now for twenty-five years, nearly half my life. Cynthia and I got the giggles today trying to figure out how old I’ll be when it has been half my life. The math was too much for me. “You’ll never get there,” she posited. “I have to get there!” I insisted. We finally figured it out: when I’m 66 I will have lived here 33 years. After all our calculations I realized I could have just doubled the age I was when I moved here. Sheesh! I’d been tumbling it around for weeks, ever since I woke up on February second and marveled that I’ve lived here for a quarter of a century.

 

In the years after I left home at 18, I’ve walked away from more past lives than I can count. (But then, I’m not that good with numbers.) I’ve moved for jobs, schools, or whims every year or two or three. I left two states to escape relationships gone bad. When I landed here I knew I’d found my soul’s home. Planting myself here, I’ve softened. In a community this size, you can’t walk away; you can’t let anger or resentment sever ties. I’ve tried. Someone hurts you and you swear you’ll never speak to her again, and a decade later you run into her at your best friend’s party. Or a week later you meet her in the grocery aisle. You have to learn to let go.

As the lambing lights come and go, and the crocuses, and the mud, so I have settled in to the rolling seasons, ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows and a bottomless skyful of stars. When I bought this land, I was seeking peace of mind. After a quarter century, some days I think I’ve almost found it.

 

And the Sun Shines Again

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Raven on leash restriction for a few weeks after her annual New Year’s veterinary emergency, and happy Stellar bounding up the driveway on a rare sunny break between snowstorms.

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Most days looked like this when we all walked up the driveway, two dogs, two cats, and me.

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The garden in winter. Lots of shoveling.

It’s been a pretty good month, despite various personal, climatological, and political frustrations. Raven’s annual New Year’s veterinary emergency wasn’t too bad or too expensive, just ripped the annular ligament, separating her little toe on her front foot, and nothing to be done about it but time and rest. Lots of health challenges for me, but all turned out well, including my new bionic eyes, two cataract surgeries in the past three weeks. I can see the dirt and dust bunnies in the house so much better, and also the wrinkles on this almost-60 face. But also, read the computer and see the mountains without glasses. How white the snow is!

Things look brighter than ever this morning, and that’s partly due to the new eyes and partly because the sun is full on shining for the second day in a row. That’s only the fifth time so far this year we’ve had any sunshine, which poses challenges for anyone living off the grid on solar power. I was sick over my birthday and all my festivities got cancelled; but Dawn dropped off cake with candles and designer cupcakes along with a magnificent puzzle, Cynthia dropped off homemade ice-cream cake, and Kristian brought lunch and genuine pound cake. Deb had me up for dinner later that week and gave me Godiva truffles, and Suzi left bacon and sausage gift-wrapped in my freezer. So it was a great birthday after all.

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My own private birthday party.

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Van Gogh’s flower trio on loan from Karen, to make my enforced quarantine bearable.

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While friends across the country marched in cities large and small, I provided pussyhats to some of the women from our valley who went to Denver. This photo from my goddaughter Melody in DC.

Girlfriends wore the pussyhats I knitted to the Women’s March in Denver, and the spectacular turnout in support of “women’s rights are human rights” in large and small cities across the globe kept tears of joy and hope streaming for two full days. Last night I used some of the Christmas money Uncle Charles sent to order a new Liberty puzzle, On the Ngare Ndare River, one I’ve been unable to get out of my head since last puzzle season. Then I got reacquainted with my literary crush of last January, David Foster Wallace, reading a gift from John, the philosophical treatise All Things Shining, which devotes Chapter Two to discussion of Wallace’s genius.

I’ve taken in small bites reports of the disaster in DC that is our new president, presciently predicted twenty years ago in Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest. But the fear, anger, and helplessness swirling through me and many who love this planet and revere all life on it took root in my subconscious. I’m told it’s tedious to tell people your dreams, so I’ve served last night’s up another place. When I awoke this morning to the warm bodies of dogs, and the black cat nuzzling my armpit, it took awhile to get enough air, but each gulp was a little epiphany.

This is real. This bed, this house, this glass of water; these animals, those mountains out the window, this breathing feeling body, this breath. And this breath. These neighbors, this snow-covered yard, this wonderful life. Despite the nightmare, and because of it, I climbed out of bed this morning with more energy and joy than I have had in a long time.

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Stellar is nine years old today. My new eyes allow me to see the white hairs showing up in the fur around his big brown eyes. He is such a remarkable animal; each year that he lives is a tremendous gift. Nine is getting up there for such a big dog, well over half his life expectancy. We haven’t gotten out much this month, with all the snow, the cold (minus five yesterday morning, but also the head cold I had for two weeks), the eye surgeries. I promised him a big walk today, so after coffee (mine) and breakfast (theirs) I strapped on snowshoes and took the dogs on a long ramble to the canyon.

Cottontail and jackrabbit tracks criss-crossed elk and deer prints through the sagebrush. The red fox left a tell-tale trail across the snow. Juniper limbs bent to the ground under heavy snow. The dogs bounded and punched through while I crunched along the top of the crust. At the canyon a redtail hawk soared from the top of a piñon snag. A few songbirds called through the crisp air. When I reached the bench I sat in splendid silence for a long while, feet resting in the built-in footstool of upright snowshoes.

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A brilliant day full of gratitude and hope for all the gifts of this year so far.

Evolution of a Jigsaw Puzzle Addict

This essay first appeared in the Montrose Mirror in 2013. I’ve been addicted now for almost four years, and I still can’t wait to start the next one. 

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The challenging pepper puzzle in Ajo, $2.50 from Dollar General, starts my slide down the slippery slope from passing interest to obsession.

Jigsaw puzzles, I’ve heard, are good exercise for your brain. I hadn’t had much experience with them since I was a child, when I could get absorbed in them for hours at a time on vacation at Virginia Beach or in the Blue Ridge Mountains; in my adult life I haven’t considered them worth the time. But on a recent trip across the country they popped up everywhere. Admittedly, after the first two, they did not appear spontaneously; I sought them.

The night after I arrived at a friend’s house in Ajo, Arizona, she pulled out a dollar store jigsaw puzzle. Diagonally striped fields of many colored tulips converged at a windmill against a blue sky.

“If we finish this in…let’s say, two hours, we get a million dollars,” she announced to her sweetie and me. This was, for me, a new approach to solving a puzzle. I played along. It was something they liked to do for their own reasons, among them that this was her family tradition.

At first I wasn’t comfortable with it. I felt rushed, and distracted by my sense of incompetence, as she fitted sections together one after another and I sat there dazed by her alacrity. I couldn’t see as fast as she did, or I couldn’t discern the specific relationships among colors and shapes as quickly. Eventually, I let go of that resistance and settled into my own pace. After all, what did it matter? The two million was imaginary anyway. I was pretty sure I’d get another cocktail whether we made it in time or not.

The next day we agreed to start another puzzle on the condition that there be no deadline; we’d leave it up and drop in together or alone to work on it at our leisure. This was the tradition I grew up with. I ran out to Dollar General and spent seven dollars on five more puzzles to choose from. I told my aunt on the phone about my renewed interest in puzzles, and my bargain purchase.

“Mary Pat loaned me a puzzle that cost a hundred dollars,” she said. I was incredulous. “We can do it when you come.”

That evening in Ajo, we ceremoniously disassembled the Netherlands landscape. Before we took it apart, each of us said a few words of appreciation about the puzzle, and what it meant to us.

 

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Ritual disassembly of the Windmill puzzle.

“I’m grateful to this puzzle…” began my friend, and as she continued with heartfelt sentiments we began to giggle, then to chuckle. Our improvised tributes built one upon the other until, by the time the three of us had each had our say, we couldn’t stop laughing. We rocked in our chairs and doubled over, gasped and squeaked, tried to catch our breath and laughed again, practically wet our pants, in one of those exhilarating, exhausting fits of uncontrollable mirth that only happen when you’re completely at ease with your companions, or sometimes when you watch America’s Funniest Home Videos.

We cast secret votes to choose which puzzle to start next. I confess to voter fraud— I cast an extra ballot—I couldn’t choose between the peppers and the jellybeans. Both were 1000 pieces and looked devilishly challenging. The peppers won.

Three days later it was time for me to hit the road, and we weren’t halfway done. But we were having fun with it, and I could feel my brain getting in shape. I asked for photo updates as I drove across the continent to Virginia to visit my aunt.

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My first wooden jigsaw puzzle since I was six years old opened a new door to art and obsession.

The day after I arrived at Auntie’s, she produced the hundred dollar puzzle, a “Classic Wooden Jigsaw” from Liberty Puzzles, 506 pieces, and just over 12×18 inches. The image was appealing enough, an antique print of an American Express Train smoking through an imaginative landscape, but I couldn’t see the point of paying all that cash for a puzzle that small just because it was made of wood and came in a nice box with tissue paper.

As we started unpacking pieces and sorting out edges, I became enchanted. The pieces felt good, in the first place. Then, instead of the standard innie and outie pieces in a few basic shapes, we found intricate representations of couples dancing, cowboys on horseback, ballerinas, mermaids, shooting stars, bison, birds, pinwheels, horse-drawn carriages and more, and connecting pieces of complex curves and squiggles; every piece was unique.

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Whimsy pieces include starbursts, people, animals and other recognizable things, often related to the puzzle image.

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A whole new aesthetic world had just opened its door. I looked on Amazon, just out of curiosity, to see what wooden puzzles I could find. I never intended to buy one. But when I found a print of hummingbirds (actual, astonishing, and some extinct) by Ernst Haeckel, the nineteenth century polymath who coined the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” I succumbed despite the price tag. I know this puzzle will be assembled many times by many friends, and more than pay for itself in entertainment value.

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Liberty Puzzles arrive prettily packed and continue to please from there.

The big day arrived! We saved the puzzle til happy hour, then sorted the edges. There weren’t enough edges! Amazingly, there weren’t even any corner pieces. We had advanced to another level of challenge. Auntie held up the box top, with its small image, and said, “Take a good look.” Then she whisked it away. What! This was the tradition of her friend
Seymour, who let you have one long look at the box top then took it away for good. I put my foot down.

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Edge pieces don’t look like edges, and corners don’t look like corners. More than one puzzle to this puzzle.

With this puzzle, my brain really kicked in. We had it close to complete before we could even finish the edge; many edge pieces simply came to a point between two others. We reveled in the assembly every spare minute for three and a half days. We were building art. The last night we worked til we were falling over sleepy. We didn’t want to finish, yet we couldn’t stop. As you get close to the end of any jigsaw puzzle, pieces find their places faster, the tempo picks up; we forced ourselves to quit til morning. Then, sleepy-headed in pajamas, we dove back in and finished. The satisfaction of completion only slightly outweighed the longing for another wooden puzzle.

I looked up Liberty Puzzles online, and found a small business in Boulder, Colorado, that offers hundreds of wooden puzzles, with hand-drawn whimsy pieces and puzzle-cut patterns. For a little more money, you can get your own image turned into a custom puzzle. (Uh-oh.) From their website:

“Before the advent of cardboard puzzles, almost all jigsaw puzzles were made of real wood and cut by hand. The United States has seen two prolonged jigsaw puzzle crazes, one in the early 1900s, and the next in the late 1920s and early 30s during the Great Depression. Jigsaw puzzle collectors prize old wooden jigsaw puzzles for their intricacy, craftsmanship, and the “heft” of the pieces. For the serious jigsaw puzzler, there is nothing quite as satisfying as plunking a wooden piece into place.”

And it’s true. Searching the table for a particular color and shape, then finding one that doesn’t look anything like you expected, and dropping it into the perfect spot, does feel pretty great.

Also from the website: “Traditionally, jigsaw puzzles came without a picture of the puzzle image on the box. Most simply had a title to tease the puzzler about what the image could possibly be.” I guess Seymour was on to something. Liberty offers customers the option of no image on the box.

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Artist/naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s print becomes a stunning, difficult, and gratifying puzzle.

Of all the adventures I anticipated in crossing the continent, developing a jigsaw puzzle obsession was not one of them. Yet it has been one of the more gratifying results of this journey. I’ve broadened my horizons, learning different styles of puzzles and puzzle doing; I’ve resurrected the pleasure of conversing and laughing over a puzzle with dear friends and family. Collaborating on puzzles has not only sharpened my brain, it’s also helped me to cultivate generosity and patience. I can’t wait to start the next one.