Monday, April 19, 2010

Spring rhapsody

It’s easy for me to gush about spring. As mentioned before, it might have something to do with my birthday. Celebrating your personal holiday at the same time winter grey morphs into budding green across hillsides is not something to be trivialized. I find this season change a well grounded source of grace that I still marvel at in this, my sixtieth year of witnessing it.

Power is afoot out there.

This year’s considered miracles:

So much is going on. The columbine has reseeded itself plentiful, now covering over one third of the front flowerbed. Hosta have awakened in their new home for the first spring following last year’s major transplant. They seem healthy and strong with room to spread their legs. Daffodils are gone, though I did see one yellow survivor yet this morning, head held high into the sun. A few natural dutchmen’s britches remain. A few mertensia survived their journey into new soil last spring. Good for them. Good for them all.

The pond was drained, cleaned, and refilled today, giving pause to the myriad larvae observed swimming there last night. The aerator is pumping again, hopefully keeping life and a semblance of comfort in balance. The birdbath dripper is back in action, too, splashing water onto a liberated Lake MacDonald rock that intends to assist honey bees and their kin to a sweet sip. Before today’s rock installation, I found one dead bee floating. Those kids had a hard enough time this winter, losing between 50 and 70% of their communities. Take a more comfortable seat at this water bar, my friends!

When we departed for Denver a couple of weeks ago, I wondered which floral openings would be most dynamic upon our return. On the road, it was redbud. Hands down.

But when we turned down our street, the pink dogwood just jumped out at us. Goodness. This critter absolutely amazes me. I’ve transplanted a few dogwoods just where they want to be -- forest floor, well drained, moderate sun -- and all have perished. This one gets full sun and has to have a portion of its roots under the driveway. Too much sun, not enough water -- and it does just great. Such a competitor!

Second most impressive upon our return, I would say, are the ferns. Don’t know their exact name, but they have migrated around the corner of the back of the house over the last fifteen years. I’ve cut back lots of bushes to give them more room. I wasn’t even thinking of them before I left. When I got home, less than two weeks later, they were up 18 inches. Such tenacity!

Birds have been beautiful, too. Nothing too special. I can’t say I saw a wood thrush at the birdbath lately. Still, there’s plenty of cardinal song outside our windows. Call. Response. Family responsibility. And titmouse. And Carolina wren. Red bellied woodpecker. American crow. Chickadee-dee-dee.

All Earthly travelers. All Nature’s people. All singing about another coming alive -- singing another life cycle -- another turn on the mandala.

But this rotation they will experience like no other. This time is not for the ancestors. It is not for those who come next. It is about here and now. These blossoms. These birds. These leaves. These flying and rooted and living things.

It is their breath. It is their lives. It is their turn. As a fellow traveler, I wish them well.

Today’s elder idea:

Nap on a granite slab

half in shade, you can never hear enough

sound of wind in the pines

Gary Snyder

from Danger on Peaks (2004)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rocky Mountain high

From Kansas City:

We left the mountains this morning. Looked like it was raining up there. Probably snowing. Yesterday Cindy counted 85 elk in Horseshoe Park. Then we saw a dozen or so turkeys while driving up the Bear Lake Road. And a mountain bluebird, and chickadee, and white breasted nuthatch. The lake was still under heavy snow. The visit and the pictures were necessary for me. Every few years I need a fix. Rocky Mountain National Park -- that spectacle of such grace -- is one of those special places that gives it to me.

I fell in love with the Rockies in my twenty-seventh year. I’m not sure I was exactly coming home to a place I’d never been before, but it was coming home to a place that met some need I still don’t know how to explain. The last couple of days I found myself weeping standing at places fraught with memories, hearing music laden with family history, and retelling stories of a young dad, his brave and loyal wife, and their precious little four year-old daughter.

He had dreamed of finding a beautiful place in Nature where humans were only visitors. Places that rivaled the beautiful pictures of the Rockies on calendars and in National Geographic. Living out some experiences of John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain High.’ The acting out of some quest to find that something lost that belongs in the soul. Something you have to travel to. Something that binds a family closer together.

We crossed the country in my fourth car, the Nova I had to buy to replace my Pinto so the kid would be better protected in her back seat perch. And here I was, crossing the high plains in a car that couldn’t do more than 50 on that hot July day because the heat light would come on. The radiator just couldn’t handle it. Entering Colorado at five thousand feet, the car just quit, and there I was stranded in the middle of nowhere with a wife and child who trusted me. At least I hoped so.

But then the officer came by and offered that it was probably just vapor lock. Let the carburetor cool down, he said, then try to start her up again. We did and it did. The car performed flawlessly the rest of the trip.

My goal for the family at Rocky Mountain National Park was to spend a night in Estes Park, camping and getting our gear together. On our two-day, six-mile ascent to Lawn Lake, Jenny would carry only a couple of toys and her Raggedy Ann. I would take the tent, a couple of sleeping bags, the cooking gear, and as much other stuff as I could while Chris would take the rest.

What an amazing trip it was. Except for my nasty altitude headache the second afternoon, all three of us did great. It turned out that Jennifer’s favorite toy became a cast aside liquid detergent bottle she found at our first campsite. She filled in up repeatedly in the Roaring River and went around camp earnestly squirting everything for some reason only she knew. We all laughed. We all had a good time. And upon our descent and our pulling away from the parking lot, I popped John Denver in the tape player. I looked at Chris and she looked at me. We both wept. And JD just kept on singing.

It would be many years before I returned to the Lawn Lake trailhead in Horseshoe Park. In the interim, we were stunned to hear of the flood in 1982 when the manmade dam at Lawn Lake breeched that July after days and days of rain. The town of Estes Park and campers at the national park were warned of the impending flood.

It happened. The dam broke and the flood came. The only humans lost were a couple of backpackers who knew better but still camped along the Roaring River even after the warning. They were swept away and never found. The town got three feet of muddy water as the valley that held the river was scoured and gouged to expose boulders the size of pick-up trucks.

Jenni and I returned to Rocky Mountain National Park and Lawn Lake the summer before she started high school. She came along with me as a participant in a geology field study the high school at which I taught, not hers, offered to the West, culminating at RMNP. I don’t remember talking to her much about our first trip on a trail up the mountain, now sculpted so differently than when we first came. She walked ahead and chatted with her new friends.

And we made it. Again. I don’t know what it meant to her. She doesn’t talk to me much these days. It’s just the way it is.

But it meant a lot to me. Sunday evening I stopped a young pregnant woman on the bridge spanning the alluvial fan, where the exposed rocks seemed the biggest, and told her of my taking my four year old up that trail before the flood. I was proud to tell the story.

I had to tell it again to the woman in the print shop who sold me my newest Ansel Adams image, framed oh so beautifully and ready to take a place in my gallery at home. Long’s Peak it is titled. It was part of the Mural Project Adams did for the Interior Department in 1941-42. I’d never seen it before.

Then I told her I had two -- count ‘em: TWO -- postcards from Ansel Adams -- addressed to me, signed by the man. She pulled back a bit, gave me closer look, and said how she hoped I had them well protected. I assured her I did. Proudly.

The Rockies own a part of me. Lovely Cindy finally knows. She sees it in my face and hears it in my voice. It’s like her being on a beach in Florida. The girl just flowers. She comes alive under the sun. She knows I do the same thing in the mountains. I’m glad she knows. It will be easier for us to come back.

Today’s elder idea: He was born in the summer of his 27th year / coming home to place he’d never been before. He left yesterday behind him / you could say he was born again. / You could say he found a key to every door.

John Denver

from ‘Rocky Mountain High’ (1973 -- the year Jennifer was born)

Friday, April 9, 2010


I’m a bit late getting this week’s blog in because of travel. Cindy Lou was good enough to gift me with registration to the American Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference which is being held this week in Denver. The event is an annual gathering of university types, both faculty and student wanna’ be PhDs. The event lasts three days with many, many sessions on everything literary from poetry readings to fiction discussions to tributes to writers with impressive publishing credentials. It’s currently late afternoon on day two. It’s been good so far.

My hope this week was to sit in on some sessions that might help me with my own writing. Yesterday I went to a reading of Anhinga Press’s The Poet’s Guide to Birds and another session on putting together a writer’s first book of poetry. Today was a session on writing with a sense of place and another on a writer’s voice in middle school and young adult literature. I ended my morning thinking how cool it would be if Cindy Lou and I could write a YA novel celebrating our grandkids. A guy can dream.

I also hoped to see some important writers in the flesh. This morning I got to see, hear, and greet Pattiann Rogers, a poet I first heard at another literary conference in Montana years ago. She was as good as ever, and I think she was really pleased to hear how her work has informed my own. Tonight we hear environmental poet Gary Snyder and tomorrow former national poet laureate Robert Hass. There appears to be a heavy hitter around every corner.

I’ve been through Denver plenty of times on I-70, but never stayed here. Well, one night years ago out in a distant suburb, but that hardly counts. This time I’m just south of downtown for a five-night stay -- within walking distance of the convention center where the AWP event is being held. Such a town this is.

I suppose John Denver hooked me on both the mountains and Colorado years ago when I was a young dad. I was, in fact, in my 27th year when I first came to the high plains and the mountains just beyond, as was he wrote and sang about in Rocky Mountain High.

As was the case with many red-blooded Americans, during that trip I touched upon some chord within that lit up when I came West. Historians and philosophers have opined for years that the idea of the West is part of a unique American character. A couple centuries ago, the West was the Ohio frontier. After that was settled and Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, the West moved, well, further west. Denver celebrates so much of that unique character in its art and architecture.

But Denver is really just the foothills of the Rockies. From our hotel window, just beyond the hospital, I can see snow capped peaks. That’s where I need to go before heading back to my safe and sound home in the East. And that’s where we’re headed Sunday morning: north to Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, for our last two days in Colorado.

Cindy’s never been. Boy, am I looking forward to showing it to her.

Today’s elder idea: from ‘This Little Glade, Remember’

When lying beneath a ponderosa

pine, looking up through layers

of branches, mazes of leaf-spikes

and cones—contemplation grows

receptive to complexity,

the pleasant temptation of pine-

scented tangle. Sky as proposition

is willingly divided and spliced

into a thesis of weaves and hallows.

Name them something else

if you wish, but needled shadow

and substance are, in this hour,

an architecture of philosophy.

Pattiann Rogers