Posts Tagged ‘40 below’

Poetry Challenge 76

January 22, 2012

The long cold drags on.  We were warned.  I read in the paper last summer that we were in a La Nina cycle, which would mean long cold spells and little snow.  Here in the Interior, we’ve missed the 18 feet of snow they’ve had in Cordova on the coast.  What we get is the fine, dry stuff, the moisture freezing out of the air and falling in a thick mist over the backs of horses, fenceposts, car windshields and anything else that’s out there.

But it’s warmed a bit and today I spent a couple of hours raking and shoveling manure out of the corral, stockpiling for the summer’s compost.  And the light lingers longer, too, well past 4pm; after all, we’re a month past solstice, the darkest day of the year.  And I’ve already looked at seed catalogs online–tomatoes so plump and red, the lovely ruffles of mesclun lettuce–and I’m studying plans for swallow boxes to go up on the hill behind the house.  A little fantasy vacation to the summer to come.

It will be cold again this week–40 below at night–and the blankets are airing out, ready to go back on the horses.  We have plenty of chocolate and split birch wood.

So here’s the challenge: write about the days ahead, referring to the details of the day you’re in.  What is in flux?  What red tomato image holds you steady through this post-solstice time.  Use a vegetable in the poem.

————————

Karen from KD’s Bookblog sent this:

Trimming Leeks

Goodness lies
in cutting away
leathery greens,
lopping off rootlets
like idle talk.

What’s left recalls
a roll of white paper.
The leek master
chops it, wilts it
in sizzling butter. Adds
broth, slivered potato, cream.
Purees, seasons, serves
her soup with thick slices
of sourdough.

The empty bowl
cradles the spoon and
a whisper of lost parts.
In the dark kitchen
discarded stems
decay like new bones
in an old casket.

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Poetry Challenge 75

January 10, 2012

Deep cold lingers here–our second long bout of it since November.  Coming out of the drowsy holiday season, we’re restless and sluggish, both.  Heading down the dark morning road, fine snow and exhaust swirling behind the cars ahead of us, obscuring the red of tail lights, it feels like we’re tunneling out of a cozy winter den into a rougher outer world.

But then there’s the light, a dusky blue that hangs in the air and lightens gradually as the earth rotates toward the sun.  We’re tilted away from it here in the sub-arctic, as if shy of it and the intensity it brings us at other times of the year.  But we long for it and turn daily toward the spot it dipped below yesterday, hoping that it will linger longer above the Alaska Range, and that we will be alert enough to be outside to see it when it does.  It always stays a bit longer now–three more minutes–and soon we’ll have an hour more of light than we did at solstice.

But we don’t feel it yet, half hibernating in our layers of clothes, still sleepy from the dark.  So write about what hibernates within or what you hibernate within.  What draws you out of your winter cocoon?

Post your poem in the comments here and I’ll add it to this post.

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

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

February 14, 2011

Yukon Quest

The leaders of the Yukon Quest are a day away from their finish in Fairbanks, after a long week and a half on the trail from White Horse, Yukon Territory.  When they left White Horse, the weather was balmy for the Interior in February–temperatures above zero, clear skies.  But in the last day or two temperatures in Fairbanks have dropped to thirty below, and for the mushers along the trail now between Dawson and Circle, strung out along the frozen Yukon or attempting Eagle Summit, it is even colder–in some spots nearly fifty below.

What started as a glorious race, the front-runners in high spirits about their dogs and their abilities, takes a perilous turn at about this point.  One musher, a multiple Quest winner, Hans Ghatt, broke through overflow–where water breaks over thick ice above  a stream–and became wet to his shoulders.  When  the next musher came upon him, he was going into hypothermia, and heard the musher approach as in a dream.  The second musher helped him back to the checkpoint, where he learned that he had frozen a couple of fingers, and, knowing when to accept the luck he had, he scratched from the race.

The leader, Hugh Neff, seemed to be burning up the trail, hours ahead of the others, but the cold and a storm on Eagle Summit stalled him and a second musher, who caught up with him and stalled as well.  A third musher came and helped Neff’s team up the hill, but near the summit, they turned and retreated back down the hill.  Now, the leaders have switched positions, and Neff may or may not get back on the trail again.

Whenever I have a good reason to, I have my students read London’s story, “To Build A Fire,” which has special significance to them if they’ve been here a few winters or have grown up anywhere in Alaska.  In the story, the man is condemned by his insistence that reason is more reliable than the instincts of a dog.  Anyone who has followed the Quest knows differently.  The Quest dogs are hearts with legs and tails; they will do anything for their mushers, who, in turn, will do anything for their dogs.  One rookie musher sleeps in the hay along with her dogs when she camps at night.  Any Quest musher–even the toughest–gets teary eyed when talking about the dogs in the team.

So it’s tough on everyone when dogs die in the race, and they do.  Usually, after necropsy,it’s clear there’s a reason–an undetected weakness in a blood vessel, for example–but often the cause is unclear.  Like endurance horses or race horses, these dogs get constant veterinary care when they are at rest.  If there is any chance that a dog is ill or unfit, they are pulled from the race.  No mistreatment of dogs is tolerated by mushers or by race officials.  Still, the race itself is a risk,with long stretches of solitude, away from human contact.  Things happen.

The race is an elemental test of human and animal spirit–not for everyone.  And it’s starkly beautiful.  Photos of the teams running along the flat white highway of the Yukon against the backdrop of the river bluffs are dramatic and compelling.  There are few challenges that match it, even for an armchair follower like me.

Outside it’s dropping down below twenty below here on the ridge.  Mattie and Sam have long late-winter coats that keep them well-insulated, and I’ll head out before bedtime to take them another flake of hay.  I’ll look up at the waxing gibbous moon, if it’s still above the ridgeline behind the house, and think of those mushers on the trail, running and resting in the soft gray light, thinking of the hamburgers waiting for them at Angel Creek and of the flags on the Cushman Street bridge in Fairbanks, rising over the Chena River, the finish, and a well-deserved rest.  Any time they get there, someone will be there, cheering the dogs for a few more yards, welcoming them all home.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

December 21, 2010

Dark of the Year/Dark of the Moon

Tonight, Winter Solstice, a day when the energy seems sapped from the waking hours by the cold and the infringing dark.  Today, I glanced out a window at three in the afternoon and, from inside the lighted building,  it looked and felt like midnight.  Usually, I manage to be home around this day of the year–usually perched on a hard chair, coffee in hand, a stack of papers in front of me.  My eyes get blurry after a long session of this–a day or two, depending on the class load–and morning and night begin to merge.  But today, I was up and about, putting in a few hours on campus, advising students.   I was inside for the brief hours of sunlight.

Then, tonight, a shadow dented the moon, then spread over it till it was fully rusty.  We turned off all the lights in the house and went on the deck to watch the last bit of bright moon slip into shadow.   Across the hill, people turned off their lights–even the string of blue Christmas lights we can usually see high on the ridge across the road went dark.  From time to time, somewhere on the dark hillside, a camera flash lit up.

I stood in the twenty below air, in my Muck Boots, down vest, and wool sweater, very still, hands thrust in pockets for warmth.  As the moon darkened, the stars brightened, and gradually the sky seemed dusted with them, crisp against the black curve of space.  For a few moments, I could feel the depth of the galaxy, the universe, as if the strange darkening of the moon cast it all into perspective and I could sense clearly the way we’re falling through that infinite liquid emptiness.  Strangely, it’s a comforting feeling–as if I were reminded of a long journey we’re all on or brought back to focus on the long-way-to-go destination of it rather than the minutiae of getting there, such as waiting, ungraded papers.

Standing there in the unlit night, bareheaded in the cold, my hands deep in the pockets of my down vest, it seemed like a good time to reflect, re-evaluate, refocus on things that truly matter.   Meanwhile, Sam, in the corral, pushed his food dish around like a dog, wanting to get at the last crumbs.  He’s never lost sight of  what matters, as far as he’s concerned.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, we’ll be easing back into the light, making our resolutions, thinking of the first seed catalogs to come.  Tonight is the turning point, and the psyche curls into  a hibernating ball, then stirs to stretch out into another year.

 

Poetry Challenge 60

December 18, 2010

Days away from solstice now.  The light is slaty blue in the deep afternoon–sundown around 3:30 and losing a minute and a half of daylight each day.  Temperatures hovering at around thirty below.  Things that don’t seem to belong together merge: the cold of metal feels hot to the touch; hands turn to flippers in  layers of gloves topped with mittens; the darkness holds light reflected in all directions by the white snow; the ice on the roads gains friction as the temperature drops; and deep in our drowsing psyches, some wild energy stirs, gives us dreams, reminds us of the extravagance of spring months away.  Someone asked what the brief time between sunrise and sunset should be called and I suggested “dawnset,” the state of daylight for us in the Interior this time of year.

So write about opposites merging, their energy, their resolution into a whole.  Or write a complaint about the deep bitter cold.

 

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 9, 2010

Sam hasn’t posted for a while.  He’s been busy this winter growing a magnificent coat of white fur, which he is now in the process of shedding out.  But now, he’s ready for an update.

Sam, in spite of being an Andalusian gentleman whose ancestors are from a much warmer climate than Interior Alaska, grows a coat that is nearly four inches long by the time shedding season comes in April.  All winter, he looks like he’s half polar bear, and as the sun returns to the corral, the longer outer hairs gleam so that he looks haloed in the morning sun.  Mattie’s hair is not nearly as long or thick, though she seems to grow more of an undercoat.  Now that they are shedding, the corral is littered with clumps of their hair, especially in spots where they are standing to be groomed.

Today, Trish, from our horse club came over to see Sam.  She is considering being one of two riders (besides me) to ride him in lessons and clinics this summer.  We have an ambitious schedule planned and now that the ice is nearly melted from the corral, we can start getting the horses fit in earnest.  We stood for nearly a half hour in the sun grooming out his shedding coat with the shedding blade—a metal strip with a serrated side that rakes the loose hairs from his coat.  We were nearly ankle deep in white hair when we were done.  We tacked Sam up in the longeing cavesson and surcingle and got him going in circles at the trot and a bit of canter.

All the clicker training I’ve done—however sporadically—has paid off, it seems.  He stands to be groomed now—not as much inching back to the end of the lead rope then “panicking” at the feel of the halter pulling on his head.  He stood still as we worked on him, dozing in the last sun of the day.  He was—well mostly—polite as Trish walked him then sent him out to the end of the longe line to work.  He seemed happy to be working and comfortable with what we were asking of him.

Afterward, we went to work with Mattie, too.  After the last incident I reported a few weeks ago, I’ve been working with her on moving her shoulders away from me, tapping on her shoulders till she takes a step sideways away from me, then rewarding her by letting off the pressure, then trying again.  The idea (which I found on a John Lyons trainer’s blog) is to teach her to move away from the whip so that, eventually, I can just point the tip of the whip at her shoulder or hip and she will move out to the end of the line, instead of turning to face me.  Things have been better with Mattie, too.

It’s gratifying to have new people come up and see Mattie and Sam, for it gives me a better perspective on how far we all have come.  I’m less timid about pushing the horses a little now—though I always watch Mattie carefully for signs that she feels threatened—and they know more of what I expect: good behavior.  In all, it makes for pleasanter times with them, and I think of the behaviors I’m trying to shape in them as horse survival skills.  Just like teaching Jeter, the poodle, to sit at the side of the road when he hears a car coming rather than revving up to chase it, teaching Mattie and Sam to be calm and responsive to humans could save their lives if they ever have to be cared for by some other humans less crazy about them than I am.

In the book Black Beauty, Anna Sewell writes that horses’ lives are a story of changing hands, going from person to person.  Unlike dogs, who often live with one person for their shorter lives, horses move from owner to owner throughout their sometimes forty-year lives.  Girls grow up and go to college and their beloved horses are sold to a new owner, or a divorce or illness happens and the owner can’t keep the horse, or a rider is in a long search for the right horse for the purpose and goes through several in the span of years.  Recently, the endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, a half-Arab flea-bitten gray (like Sam) died at 38 with his life-long owner at his side.  He has the record for the most lifetime miles in competition of any horse in that sport—and he competed in his last race this past fall.  He is the exception, to have lived so long with one owner.  I hope to counter this trend with Mattie and Sam—but want them to have reasonable manners just in case.  Besides, they both have psychological and behavioral baggage from their pasts; I want them to feel secure with me.

The corral is mostly down to dirt, now.  This weekend, if the temperatures go back above freezing, we’ll get a crew together and rake and scoop as much of the manure as we can off the packed and frozen sand below.  By next weekend—if it doesn’t snow or rain and freeze (knock on wood)—we could be getting out the saddles.  I have two more lessons on Stormy in the indoor arena, then Mattie and Sam get my full attention, with the help of Trish and Casey.

There are tiny tomato and cucumber plants under my shop light and in the window during the day.  I’m beginning to clear out the greenhouse to prepare it for this summer’s plants.  The ground is brown with dead grass and leaves; the trees are a web of bare twigs.  The Tanana below us is still white with a widening gray swath that shows where the ice is thinning, thawing, and refreezing.  Anything can happen—snow, forty below, a quick melt and breakup.  We’re holding our breath.  We have our Nenana Ice Classic tickets in the can.  One day we’ll see pale green like a haze in the hills.  Then, then, spring.

Poetry Challenge 40

February 21, 2010

The Thaw

Here in the Interior, temperatures are sneaking above freezing at mid-day.  The snow is melting away on south-facing hills, birds are darting wildly through the air as if they think they missed the beginning of mating season, and the roads are slick and treacherous from the melting ice over still-frozen pavement.   People are shedding coats, eyeing the greenhouse, ordering seeds, walking out in the sun and thinking of summer plans.  All the while, we know our folly, for we are not yet out of February and not yet into March.  At the back of our minds, we hear the old song, “When It’s Springtime in Alaska, It’s Forty Below.”  Really.  We’re restless, joyful, yet preparing for this respite from winter to be snatched away from us by deep cold and more snow.

So, here’s the challenge–write about a thaw of some kind: an old grudge melts away, an intractable animal becomes gentle, a place that seemed ugly suddenly looks beautiful, or an actual thaw complete with mud, green things, dripping water.   Post it in the comments section and I’ll add it here.  All of us in the Interior are waiting.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

December 22, 2009

The solstice has turned—now, incrementally, we’re heading to brighter days. It has been a tough fall in the Interior. Each of us has experienced it in different ways that have accumulated gradually, but definitely, so that any two of us meeting at Fred Meyers near the mesh bags of tiny oranges, would find ourselves saying, “It’s been a rough fall,” and nodding, saying nothing for a beat, then moving the conversation along to the turning year.

I’m not sure where the run of bad luck started for me. Was it returning from two weeks in New Jersey to find an old friend and ally struck down in his dining room—the true meaning of stroke—and getting there in time to attend his cremation ceremony? Was it the day I knew the whole stack of hay had molded? Was it learning that my dancer son had been sucker punched while doing a good deed? Was it the other deaths and illnesses that seemed to accumulate as we head into the dark time of year?

Living in the Interior makes us survivors. We think nothing of going out and living our lives at twenty, thirty, forty below. We layer up and plug in our cars. We leave no skin exposed. Walking out to feed the horses in the dark of morning at twenty below, I begin to judge temperature by what freezes. Nose hairs: twenty below, eyelashes: thirty below, scarf to face, including nose and eyelashes: forty below. We know how far we can go without danger of hypothermia. We know how long our fingers can manipulate the metal hooks on the horse blanket before we have to run for the warmth of the house to warm hands and gloves, so we can go out and blanket another horse.

It makes a difference to my attitude to spend time outside. Though I rarely see Mattie and Sam in daylight as the fall semester winds down, there are those moments in the morning when I trudge out sleepy-eyed, yawning in the cold air, and watch the light spread on the southern horizon over the fold of the Alaska Range. It’s just past night at 9:30 or 10, on the days I can sleep that late, and the horizon is a deep smoky orange, the sky nearly black.

Today, the last day of grading final papers, I woke even later, still tired from finals week and the near constant reading of student writing. As I walked out, there was a blue-gray light in the sky, just enough to see without turning on the floodlights. Jeter, the still-adolescent poodle, went bounding on ahead as I got Mattie and Sam’s morning armfuls of hay. The air had warmed to nearly zero, and I could feel the returning moisture in the air. Mattie’s back was covered with frost and shavings as she waited for me to toss her hay.

After I threw the hay to each of them, I ducked under the fence, dog in the lead, and walked over to scratch Sam on the neck under his mane. His coat is out to my second knuckle now, dense and warm. I took a flake of hay and divided it into two parts to tuck in two old tires in the corral. They like to eat from the tires, then flip them in the air, looking for scraps of hay. As I walked back into Mattie’s side of the corral, I heard a sharp “Caw” and sensed motion above me. I looked up to see a half dozen ravens circling in the air.

The sky was lightening, the ravens dark against the gray sky. They circled on an eddy of air, catching up to and tumbling around each other. It seemed like one raven led the circling—a choreographer of air—as they glided and flapped and glided again, all in a slow gyre above my head.

Later, I read a poem by Yeats that used that word, “gyre,” his word for the order or was it disorder inherent in the world. These ravens didn’t seem to be playing, though they didn’t seem dreary or even to be hunting. They almost seemed to be circling me and the horses and the dog, as if we were an audience for their art, and all they wanted was to be seen by us. It was as if they were caught in the eddy at the heart of the turning year and were dramatizing it—the essence of solstice—right above my corral.

Or maybe they were waiting for us to leave so they could snack on manure. In any case, a happy solstice to you: the return of light, the slow draining out of darkness from the coming new year.


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