Little trees, big trees, baby trees, mother trees…
I’m grateful that Stellar’s so agreeable. “Which way do we go? Which way do we go?!” He’s eager for anything we do together, but especially a walk.
“Do you want breakfast?” I ask him. “Oh, okay.“
“Do you want to come inside?” “Do you want dinner?” “Oh, okay.”
“Do you want to lie down?” “Do you want to get up?” “Do you want to go outside?” “Oh, okay.”
“Do you want to go for a walk?” “Where?! When? Now? Yesyesyesyes! Arooooo!”
Peaceable kingdom. “You pretend I don’t exist, and I’ll pretend you don’t exist.” We walk right through them, with barely a ripple, sometimes. Other times they scatter and flee. Who knows why?
Topaz walks with us every afternoon these days, up the driveway and back through the woods. This evening she walked all the way up beyond the top gate, the farthest she’s ever come. Usually she lags far behind and waits for our return. Show showers swept like walking rain along the south flank of Grand Mesa, driven by bracing west wind, some grazing the ground, some just snow virga not touching down. Do I need to take a picture of every cloud? Kinda.
Today I’m grateful, as I have been most Sundays since last summer, for my newfound, longlost cousins on my mother’s side. Cousin Jack initiated a weekly zoom call among his siblings and their mother, and kindly included me, Auntie, and Auntie’s daughter in his invitation. It’s been heart-filling to be back in touch with these four boys and two girls with whom I spent many special occasions through our growing up years. Sometimes my brother shows up, sometimes some of their grown children show up, and even young grandchildren. In each session, their mother Clara is there at 93 with tech assistance from granddaughter Amanda or one of her visiting children. In the first couple of months, Auntie Rita was able to attend also, even though for half of those times she struggled with the effects of her stroke.
But she was there fully for a few sessions before the stroke diminished her capabilities, and it was delightful to observe her and Aunt Clara speak together, sharing their thoughts and lives, their concern for each other, much as they had for around seventy years as sisters-in-law. Remarkably, these two women were born on the same day of the same year. And it was wonderful that Auntie was able to see many of her nieces, nephews, and grand-nieces and -nephews a few times before she died, and they her. For me, it’s been a real gift to feel connected to family again as I haven’t since my mother died. And I hadn’t felt connected to these grown cousins for decades before that, as we all went our separate grownup ways, and because I’d been branded a black sheep by their father, my Uncle the General: for my radically compassionate philosophy he considered me a communist, and said so, which is how I know.
Oh well! We don’t all ~ or even many of us ~ share the same political views, which has been a little challenging for me. But the camaraderie, the teasing, the humor and affection that we shared as children chasing each other around the grounds of the Distaff Hall, playing hide and seek in the Knoll House, sharing holiday dinners at one another’s homes, feels stronger than it ever did as we have all lived through enough of life to be tender and accepting with one another. The three siblings ~ a father and two mothers ~ that bind us as family have all died; only Clara remains, one mother among us, and they are kind enough to share. I’m protective of my time these days, but our Cousins’ Zoom is an event I prioritize each weekend, because it brings me such joy, and a feeling of connection I realize I have longed for since long before The Time of the Virus.
This little girl lives across the country. I’ve never met her, nor her mother, in person. But her mother is one of a number of friends I’ve made virtually along the mindfulness path I embarked upon in earnest five years ago. She and I have met almost monthly with a small sangha on zoom for that whole time – even pre-Coronaverse, a new world in which I’ve become friends with a number of other people on the path this past year. I’m grateful for all of these dear people who’ve come into my life online, and hope to meet some of them in person eventually.
Little R will be three in June. Her mom texted me this picture with the caption, Look what R found in her drawer and wanted to wear. Still fits!! She’s wearing a bunting I knitted for her ‘welcome to the world’ present, which she received when she probably could have fit inside one sleeve. I’m grateful my hours of knitting are still keeping this little girl warm, that she wanted to wear it, and I’m grateful her mom made my day with this surprise picture. My joy in this simple text and all it conveys brings tears to my eyes.
I’m grateful again today, as always, for waking up alive, and finding my dear Stellar alive downstairs in his bed. It still breaks my heart that he can no longer climb the stairs to sleep with me, but he seems content in his own bed. And I’m grateful that he feels so good these days that he eagerly strays from the trail. For most of last year, he was so feeble that he could only plod along ahead of me, head down. Nowadays, he’s always following his nose out into the trees, and sometimes gets so far ahead of me I can’t see him. I’m grateful that he always stops and waits for me. From our walk this morning – he’s blurry in most of them, that’s how well he’s moving!
I’m grateful for the sense of smell. I know several people who have lost it to Covid, some temporarily, others for longer, going on six months. One friend is always hungry; another is gaining weight in constant search of flavor. Sautéing onions this evening for Mushroom & Beet Green Panisse, I savored their aroma, and thought with sadness of all those who have lost this vital sense for short or long term.
I know some other people who have lost their sense of smell for years at a time from other unusual ailments. It saps them. Scent is so essential in our nourishment, our sense of taste. So I’m grateful for the sense of smell, for frying onions, baking bread (saved by the scent from burning this morning as I dove again into Apple tech purgatory for a few more hours); grateful for all the aromas of cooking and the flavors they enhance. Once again grateful for recipes online: just type in what you’ve got and get some ideas. I’m grateful I had mushrooms, beet greens, and chickpea flour in fridge and pantry. Grateful for supportive friends and community.
Gratitude practice today begins with SNOW, for obvious reasons. Western Colorado is among the regions hardest hit by climate chaos in the Lower 48. We are in Exceptional Drought, the driest, most dangerous category, expected to suffer both short (agriculture) and longterm (hydrology, ecology) drought. The state has activated its municipal drought response for second time ever. Any moisture is good moisture, and snow is the best. Our fundamental water reservoirs are snow-capped mountains.
I’m celebrating the biggest snow of the year, a really big snow! Compared, anyway, to past years. This morning’s accumulation measured only 5.2 inches, with .38 inch moisture content. I’m grateful for CoCoRaHS, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, a citizen-science initiative that began with a few weather geeks at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in 1998. Now thousands of regular folks (also, I guess, we are all weather geeks) report daily precipitation from our own backyard weather stations across the Northern Hemisphere.
And I’m grateful for Julia Kamari-Drapkin, who started a now-global interactive climate change platform called I See Change in the North Fork Valley in 2015, in collaboration with KVNF and NASA. As part of her yearlong residence here, exploring climate change through the eyes of local ranchers, farmers, beekeepers, and weather geeks, Julia invited Nolan Doeskin, then Colorado State Climatologist, to do a little workshop at the radio station, where I got turned onto CoCoRaHS and started daily precipitation measurements with an inexpensive rain gauge and special snow ruler. I’m grateful to weather geeks the world over for their citizen science, and for that matter to birders, too, who are in the midst of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, for their contributions to global climate research.
So much to be grateful for today! Among other things like chocolate, soap, a functional woodstove, and the propane truck that got stuck for awhile in plow drifts at the bottom of the driveway, I’m grateful to Deb for calling me on my dark side in a conversation yesterday, which allowed me to see something clearly and ultimately laugh at my silliness, before I did any harm. Grateful for daily mindfulness practice, which enables me to live each day in better alignment with my core values.
Finger-combing. I love it. I love the word, and I love doing it in the garden. I can’t remember when I first learned the concept. I’m sure it had to do with hair, finger-combing hair when a brush or comb was not at hand. I learned years ago it’s the best way to freshen lambs’ ears in the garden, and it’s so much fun! With loose wrists and spread fingers you just sweep through the old dead leaves and they fly off the plant and scatter around it, revealing the tough-though-tender-looking new green leaves. I’ve always waited until spring to “cut back” the lambs’ ears so that I can finger-comb them instead of try to trim them with clippers.
One advantage to leaving most of the fall cleanup until spring is it turns out there are a lot of other plants you can finger-comb instead of clip, because the dry stalks or stems have softened just enough to break off easily. So you save your arthritic thumbs the work of squeezing clippers, and engage your whole hand, both of them in fact, in the more tactile experience of finger-combing. Other plants that respond well to finger-combing are partridge-feather, silver horehound, all those low-growing fuzzy-leaved plants similar to lambs’ ears, and anything else whose stems aren’t too woody. I spent much of my gardening time this week finger-combing grasses, gallardia, poppy mallow, and even the pond plants.
I am inordinately fond of my goldfish. I may have mentioned this before. Five years ago I bought eight feeder-fish for 28 cents each at the pet store, and settled them into the pond. Four of them died within the first week, but the other four have thrived, and founded a colony of generations of spawn. I named the originals, Snowfish, Lou (after the saleslady who kindly let me pick each of the eight), Finn (also white but with an orange spot at the base of his tail fin), and AmytheFish, the little red-haired girl, after my childhood friend who told me the fastest way to kill a goldfish was to name it. AmytheFish has defied the odds, as have her companions. Snowfish is the first of these originals to meet her demise, but she leaves Snowfish Junior and a handful of other snow-white fish behind to take her place.
At least one new generation a year shows up first as tiny grey fry an inch or less long. Many of these feed frogs or snakes or salamanders, or indeed even their progenitors, but always a few survive. Over a period of time, the grey fry grow into their colors, mostly orange, but some white, some black and orange (the Halloweens, which usually lose their black eventually), and some orange and white, like Snout, and Snout Junior, who each are all orange with a white, of course, snout. This year, I think a couple of the Halloweens may keep their black, also, and add a new variety to the gene pool, as they’ve exceeded the size when most of them lose their black. Ridiculous, I say, that I should be so invested in these little creatures. But I am, and so I was sad yesterday to see Snowfish lying on her side when I finger-combed the rushes. Then this afternoon, when I went to the pond to meditate, I noticed that Lou, Finn, Snout, and dozens of smaller fish, were all hovering over Snowfish, as though sitting vigil with her as she transitioned. It was very moving. Despite the possibility that I instantly recognized that they might just be waiting for her to die so they could begin feasting on her flesh. Oh well. Either way, an interesting phenomenon.
All the bees I’ve photographed so far this spring have been new bees, evidenced by their pristine unbattered wings. Back in early February, there was a great buzz of activity around the hive door which I noticed in passing. This was during the worst of my dizzy-head, and so I didn’t pay too much attention. It never occurred to me that they might be swarming that early. I’ve since learned that indeed they could have swarmed in February, and I wonder if they did. The line they constructed might have been an indicator for the new bees, much like the mound these bees built when they first arrived in the hive nearly two years ago; I noticed then that they crawled over the mound and spent some time on it leaving and returning to the hive. Then after awhile, some bees did that while others zoomed straight out and straight in. Presumably as the bees became familiar with the hive and the course in and out they no longer needed the marker mound. I think this line served the same purpose. Within a few days after removing the winter panels, the bees had removed the line, and are now using the corner of the door again. Amazing.
Yes, winter will stick around overlapping with spring as it always does, but March has come like the lamb to us despite its leonine attacks on other parts of the country. Our walk through the woods this morning is chilly, but through the course of it the grey clouds part and blue sky returns with dappled sunshine. The lichens and mosses of Buck Canyon glow in their incandescent glory, lush from snowmelt, rain, and slightly warmer temperatures, from the littlest patches to the biggest.
Last week, before the big melting, when walks even midday were crisp and cold, I walked routes through the woods I would never otherwise traverse, wandering on and off trails, crossing on top of crusted pillows of snow, over prickly pear cactus slumbering in vast patches underneath, over fragile cryptobiotic soils where a footprint at the wrong time of year could last a hundred more. Bright green mosses also pillowed the north sides of many trees, lime, chartreuse, in dappled sun, vigorous with snowmelt nourishing their minute single-celled leaves.
With more snow melted this week, more mosses and lichens revealed, the forest is a riot of color I wish I could wear. Walking last summer through the woods with a friend, he said when he sees those pillows of moss he just wants to go curl up on them and sleep. I can see that. But now, when they’re so vivid, I just want to make them my wardrobe.
Enticed by lichens I crept to the canyon’s edge despite this vestigial imbalance, so improved that I walked today with a single walking stick instead of ski poles. Bending to catch a particular shot, the stick slipped from my hand and dropped through the crevice to the ground below the rim. Navigating my way down unstable stone steps to the scree slope, I groped along the layered cliff thirty or forty feet back to retrieve the stick, and looked up at the outcrop where the dogs often stand and I have stood only once or twice before.
It’s a different world down there, but I’ll delve into those mysteries when I have more time to spend there. Unsteady as I was I chose to pick up the stick and return to my proper level atop the rim. But I climbed back up slowly, smitten with all the gleaming lichens along the way, all revealed by the melting and thriving with this nourishing rain, all so muted when they’re dry.
(Wednesday: It’s been a week of slow and busy healing. It’s been a busy week for the garden itself which is throwing up iris leaves and bulb sprouts and tiny green rosettes of all kinds of flowers and weeds. And for me, despite continued dizziness, my ability to function is improving and the temptation of warm sunny days, the beckoning cleanup from last fall left undone before the snowfall, and the hint of more snow to come tomorrow has kept me pushing my limits, of mobility, balance and focus.
The redwing blackbirds sing in the trees around the pond. Ornamental clump grasses, green from inside, it’s time to cut back all of last years stalks and seed heads and scatter them where I hope to see more grow. New green grass stems are already so tall in the dry stalks I’ll have to cut them too; it would be best to cut these grasses back before new shoots have started, maybe in January. But in January they were buried!
I burned a slash pile started last fall and tarped, though wet and smoky, has burned nearly down. I’ve scavenged the yard for more loose brush, stems, and still not satisfied I started to prune small, dead, thick and tangled twigs and branches from the last untamed juniper in the yard. It’s taken a long time for me to get motivated to burn this pile, but today is the perfect day; a mild intermittent breeze, snow or rain expected tomorrow, ground wet or frozen all around, peach tree and squawbush nearby not yet wakened into bud.
Smoke floating across the yard and through the woods, filtering between the trees below the tops of junipers might look alarming to the neighbors, but they know, most of them, this time of year, such smoke is most likely exactly what this is, and not a house afire.
Once I start burning I can’t stop. It’s like the next unknown curve in the trail, just one more! I’ll turn around after the next curve… no, after the next curve. Just one more handful of dried sagebrush, just one more cutback herb, just one or two more limbs of this juniper. Those burn down, I throw on another handful, another. Finally, I’ve had enough of staggering around the yard, bending, standing, dodging smoke. Finally, I let the pile burn down to a smolder and walk away, confident that the moisture in the landscape will quickly absorb any tiny spark that might blow away. Between snows in winter is definitely the time to burn.)
I came in this morning after our mossy, lichenous walk, renewed and content, breakfasted, meditated, and stepped outside again for a breath of fresh sunshiny air to check on the garden. At last! The bees have been out scouting on warm days for weeks, and so far no flowers for them to feed on. But this morning, their intrepid explorations have been rewarded at last! The tiny crocus patch, half overgrown with lambs’ ear, is buzzing, and so is the cluster of miniature purple iris, one, three, five bees at once exploring the corollas, flinging pollen everywhere, delirious in their satisfaction, and so am I. I broke out the big camera: my season has begun.
All that week it was two days forward in my healing and one day back. Friday, the 21st, I stumbled through a step-back day, sweeping and cleaning counters, preparing dinner for the Pilots Club. I’d put it off twice already because of the dizzies, and ran out of time. John and Connie were practically packed for their big move out of our valley after twenty years. I met them shortly after they moved here, while I was building my adobe house and they were planning theirs, in a synchronicitous way. The story of our friendship is too big and long to tell all of, but some years ago I thought it would be fun to gather the three pilots I knew for dinner: Robert, a single neighbor, and John and Jeff, with their wives my dear friends. The six of us have enjoyed dinners or cocktails a couple of times a year since then, and I was determined to fit in a farewell dinner before Connie and John moved away.
I roasted one of Pamela’s extremely local free-range organic chickens from my new freezer, stewed down the last of the red potatoes from my garden with onions, turmeric, fresh ginger, cumin, dry mustard, coriander, and a little balsamic vinegar, and tossed a big green salad with some homemade shiitake dressing. Connie brought her famous smoked salmon spread and some hummus for hors d’oeuvres, Robert brought bottles of wine and rye and the best vanilla ice cream, and Ruth brought another bottle of wine and the last apple pie of their 2013 harvest. Though I was staggering like a drunk when they arrived just from the infection in my head, I allowed myself a few sips of red wine with appetizers, a few more sips with dinner. In the warm light of the dark house, the fire in the wood stove, the laughter and chatter of friends, the vitality of the food we ate for dinner, the gift of the last apples, something shifted. I sat back after dinner and watched my friends tell stories and laugh; Ruth took one of my feet and gave it a good strong massage, then the other. By the time everyone left I felt the best I had in three weeks. Everything about the evening was healing.
The next few days I ventured regularly into the woods. Despite my best efforts to nourish myself and keep going, the dizziness just wouldn’t let go. I trudged through the woods day after day more for the dogs than for me, though I did appreciate the greening forest. Still balancing with ski poles, still crossing big pillows of snow, dodging patches of mud, I noticed more and more green on the forest floor.
Ice Canyon began to melt as the days gradually warmed.
I walked farther one day than I have in a long while, wandering more or less around the medium loop, finding joy again in photographing trees. I stopped to rest in the Lounge Tree. This beautiful juniper with its extravagantly twisting limbs provides a comfortable seat for the weary traveler, offers a different perspective:
While shooting this lovely split tree, zooming in and out with my feet, caressing up and down the trunk with my camera, I caught sight of a bald eagle high in the distance. She did show in some of the shots, but she was even smaller than some of the artful specks of this imaginary lens, so I won’t try to persuade you she’s here. Step by unsteady step I walk steadily back into my life.