Posts Tagged ‘winter’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 1, 2013

Being Resolute

After a break of many months, I’ve decided to return to this blog. This isn’t a New Year’s resolution, exactly, but it something I’ve been holding in my mind for some time now, waiting for when it seemed right to start again. Now, with the New Year and with a bit more than a week of Winter Break behind me and a week more to go, it seems like a good time.

My goal is to shift the direction of the blog a bit. Over the last few years, I found myself writing too much about friends who had died, and part of my silence here has been to take a break from that element of the blog. More than that, I am at a point when I’m looking at a major change of life—still a couple of years out, but closing fast—and I needed some time to feel right about writing about that change—retirement from my long years of teaching developmental writing and beginning a new venture, which I hope includes all the elements of this blog: horses, gardens, dance, poetry, the psyche. To write about this, I need to be more willing than in the past to admit to a few facts about myself, including how I feel about reaching a “certain age.”

So, in this time of resolutions, here’s a new start for Mattie’s Pillow: an exploration of how to change one particular life (dragging a few others along in the process) in a way that what lies ahead draws on all the things I love to do and do well. This may include the purchase of land for enterprises involving horses and gardens; it may involve some retooling and reorienting towards a new profession; and it will definitely include musings on simplification of this complicated busy life into a more sustainable one. I look forward to hearing from those of you who read this blog about how you have approached the process of life changes at any age and about helpful hints along the way.

In the meantime, things putter along here at Mattie’s Pillow. Mattie and Sam and I came through the summer happy with weekly lessons with Colleen in her new facility, Drouin Springs. In spite of his trickster nature, I was able to get a full summer’s worth of riding on Sam, no lameness, and he never managed to buck me off—not for want of trying. Mattie has developed more looseness in her stifle joint—the equivalent of our knee joint in her hind leg—which means that her left hind leg twists as she walks. In June, Tom put shoes on her hind feet that extended out from the hoof on the outside to make her balance her stance better and had a jar caulk on the inside—a weapon of a bar welded to the bottom of the shoe to dig into the ground and keep her from sliding her hoof or twisting it on the ground. She seems more stable with the shoes, though she’s always been a barefoot girl and hates the process of nailing them on. By the end of summer, she seemed stronger than ever and far more stable in her gaits.

Now, they’re on break and shaggy and bored. The last few days, the temperatures have risen to near freezing, and I’ve been able to spend time with them, longeing and grooming, and having their feet trimmed. As spring comes and the light returns, I’ll be getting them ready for another summer. Can’t wait!

The days are short now. We have several hours of lingering sunrise and sunset with three hours of sun above the horizon. It sounds so dreary to write this, but it’s actually lovely—the light on the snow reflects in shades of blue. The sky is streaked with orange and purple morning and night. The snow sits in puffs along the branches of the spruce and birch and willows, and redpolls and chickadees flit here and there. A deep peace settles in the woods here on the ridge, and I wouldn’t trade it for a night in Times Square, New Year’s or no.

To all of you who read this, may you go forward into the new year with confidence and hope of joy. We’ve survived an election, some storms, an apocalypse, and that cliff thing. Some sorrow, some joy. We continue on.

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The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 15, 2012

The Ides of February

Just past Valentine’s Day, and we’re still relishing mild temperatures, sometimes in the thirties. We now have eight hours and some odd minutes of daylight and it’s beginning to feel like spring; n fact, we were warmer than Orlando over the weekend. After the long weeks of below twenty below weather—with a string of days where it hit fifty below in the lower spots in the Interior—we’re all a bit giddy and, groundhog of not, ready for spring.

I just read an entry I wrote last year at this time, though, and the temperatures had dipped to thirty below again. I am forewarned.

It’s a time of year when we are all a bit groundhoggish, sticking our figurative noses up out of our hibernation of spirit to test the air and see if we can really hope for warmer days—even summer—ahead. Last weekend a group of us came out of hibernation to gather at a the Four Winds Foundation for a day of writing and sharing, guided by poet, and my long-time mentor, John Morgan. I don’t usually go to these retreats, but I went because John and my friend Jean Anderson, who writes marvelous stories of the inner life, were going to be there. It was delightful and comforting to be in their presence, to be writing after this season of not much writing, and to be hearing the work of other writers, some of whom I didn’t know. At the first prompt, I wrote three drafts of poems, then continued to write several more, some of which I’ll keep. It was a good start to the weekend which ended with an afternoon of intense corral cleaning, making up for weeks of neglect when it was just too cold at thirty below to grip a rake and shovel.

I’m feeling my energy returning, but it will take a while—sticking with my dance schedule and starting riding lessons again—for my sluggish body to shed the deep lethargy it’s sunk into this winter. As I talk to people around campus, I hear the same story—a sleepy inertia bordering, for some, on depression, set in during the time between Thanksgiving when we had the first bout of deep cold, and, well about a week ago when the cold broke. This may have something to do with the lack of entries here, come to think about it.

Mattie and Sam made it through the cold well, with their thick coats and the warm quilted blankets I’ve collected for them over the years. We went through a bit of hay, but mostly I supplemented their night feeding with brome pellets soaked in warm water to add to their hay intake. They are still on a bit of lay off till my schedule settles down and the light lingers a bit longer in the evening. By next week I should be able to get home and still have enough light to groom and longe them in the afternoon.

Today, as I pulled into the driveway, I heard what sounded like gunshots, but was really someone shooting off rocket fireworks nearby. Sam and Mattie began trotting around their sides of the corral; I could see the colored sparks rise and fall in the air above the corral. Even after the noise stopped, the horses kept trotting, cantering, generally larking around as if the noise were merely a convenient excuse for a bit of play.

We’re all ready for the spark of an excuse; spring is somewhere at the end of another month or two (or three) of winter, but we can feel the first nudgings of it now.

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.

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.

Nutcracker Season

December 3, 2011

There are three more chances to see the North Star Ballet’s Nutcracker this weekend.  Today at 2 and 8 and tomorrow (Sunday) at 2 in Hering Auditorium.

 

I have been watching the dancers of North Star Ballet for twenty-five years, since the afternoon my son, then seven, insisted that he go to the audition, and Norman, then and still artistic director, looked at him and said, “Well, you’re kind of small but we can find a place for you,” and assigned him the role of boy cherub, trailing behind the Sugar Plum Fairy as she made her entrance onstage.

 

I’ll be going tonight and tomorrow afternoon, watching another set of girls swoop through the beautiful snow scene or dance crisply through the Marzipan.  Nutcracker season is when those who follow our ballet can see the developing potential in the North Star dancers.  A girl who was a gawky soldier one year becomes a graceful snowflake the next.  The girls in Marzipan sparkle their way to Snow Fairy or Dew Drop.  And always, there’s the dazzling Sugar Plum, the one whose dance characterizes the ballet and forms an apotheosis in her pas de deux with her Cavalier.

 

We’ve been having Nutcracker weather, too, the past few days—a warming trend bringing fat flakes of snow falling like pillow down through the dark light.  We’re heading to the darkest days: sunrise at 10:19 and sunset at 3:01 yesterday, the morning and afternoon a long twilight, tinged with pinks and oranges, and a slaty light in the evening sky.   We’re eating more chocolate and oranges now, and driving at slower speeds.  If it weren’t for the toad, work, as Phillip Larkin once said, we’d all be sleeping most of the time, or sitting in a comfy chair curled around warm coffee or tea.

 

Except for small community that forms around the ballet every fall—a hundred parents and volunteers bustling backstage painting on Mouse and Soldier makeup, tying Cherub pinafores and Party Boy ties.  The older dancers are lining up on stage for warmup as I write this, stretching on the barre, getting ready for plies and tendus, stripping away sweats and leg warmers as their muscles begin to loosen under the stage lights.  There will be notes after warmup, then they will bustle off to the crowded dressing room to be ready to be Party Parents, or Snowflakes in the first act.

 

I never get enough of it.  Sitting in the dark auditorium with my neighbors and friends and all the four-year-olds with tiaras on their heads and dazzled eyes and all that luscious music filling the space around us, I can feel the year turn and a sweet nostalgia for each minute that passes. The dancers are so beautiful on stage, so mature in the gesture and posture of the dance; the moments are so fleeting, like Clara’s childhood entering the Land of Sweets.  I don’t even try to fight the tears that always come.

 

After this weekend, I’ll be ready for the season, the deep dark, the warmth that endures through friendships and holiday meals shared, the slowly returning light, just a few weeks away.

 

 

Poetry Challenge 72

August 17, 2011

Chores

Still August, here, but that means we’re in the limbo time, the pause between summer’s intensity and fall’s quick drop to cool days and dark nights.  There have been sightings of patches of yellow leaves on the birch trees, and there’s definitely a dark period at night.  Tomorrow, the public school kids begin their school year and the university starts two weeks later.   It’s time to get the chores done that we’ve been putting off all summer.

So, yesterday, we dug a new hole for a railroad tie post to replace a broken four by four that made up part of a pass-through along the fence line next to the horse water tank.  Today, we dug a trench for electrical conduit out to the horse shed–no more “winter” electric cord trailing out to the water tank heater.  Tomorrow, splitting and stacking wood.  Soon, back to the hay fields for the last of the hay for winter.

Write about essential chores where you are.  What are the sounds and smells of them?  What ache do they bring on–in the muscles and in the heart?  What lies beyond?

Post your poem as a comment and I’ll add it here.

Poetry Challenge 64

February 21, 2011

Winter Storm Advisory

Today I woke to small fast flakes falling straight down.  Out in the corral, the bottom rail of fence had disappeared under the top surface of the snow, and the wind swirled the falling and the accumulated snow from spruce branches into a gray mist above the impatient backs of the hungry horses.  When Jeter and I went out to feed them, we sank deep in it, fluffy and granular at once.  Out in the driveway, my car sat in snow up to the wheel wells.   Every step I took felt slowed-down and heavy, walking through all that knee-deep snow.  Jeter leapt from spot to spot rather than trying to walk in the stuff.

So, what should have been an ordinary Monday changed into a day spent shoveling snow, pushing it off the side of the driveway with snow scoops, then digging out the car and truck.   By late afternoon, we were done and sprawled out on the couch for a nap.

So, write about how the weather surprised you today–a small detail or an overwhelming one.  Write about the way that surprise changed a day, a moment, a thought.  See if a dog wanders through the poem.

—————

Here’s a response from Tim, a different take on snow:

 

I Jokes

I imagined that I chose to walk this morning
and found an old friend along the trail.
The frost bit our knuckles
when we each bared a right hand to shake
and ask “how’s the day?”
Snow fell down my collar, when I ducked
a branch so that we could walk side by side,
my breath taken for a moment.
Small things mattered: moose droppings on clean snow,
a weasel darting, angular and quick,
raven like a shade over our heads,
and the jokes we told, each trying
to insult the other: “how’s your wife,
and my kids?” nothing was sacred
except mothers.
For a long time we were loud and alive,
plumes of frosty laughter fogging the trail,
mukluks crunching crystals into hard pack,
pushing and pulling each other into diamond-hard willows
trying to win the day. Then the trail broke
into an open field; we had never walked this path.
Sun reflected off of the dust- soft snow,
so thick you knew it held the sound
of every small noise made in the night;
it was as if the light itself was noise
and the blanket of winter wanted the earth
to continue sleeping. Out of instinct, we tiptoed the periphery,
and told no jokes.

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.


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