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thanksgiving-hike-2016

A snapshot of Thanksgiving 2016.

Ernesto’s cousin, Pablo, and his wife, Andrea, drove down from New York for the long weekend, and this year’s holiday was like a dream of Thanksgiving: The turkey obediently turned golden brown and was finished all the way through at the appointed hour, and every side dish from Greensboro, Chapel Hill, and Liberty was heated and on the table in proper order. Robin’s sweet potato casserole was a symphony; Holli’s mashed potatoes were a poem; my oyster dressing was warmly appreciated by a discerning few.

After the clean-up it was time for the annual Thanksgiving Day Hike, and ten (out of 14) people and five out of 5 dogs headed down the path toward the creek and up into the back field.

Ernesto and Pablo had devised a scheme for the Friday after Thanksgiving: They wished to cook a leg of pork in a hole in the ground, Cuban style. Ernesto and my dad dug the hole a week before, finding the spot where, ten years earlier, Ernesto had roasted a pork shoulder. Daddy had kept all of the items we had used on that occasion—the metal lid for the hole, the grate to hold the pork, and four long-handled hooks (probably coat hangers in a previous life) to help lift the grill in and out of the hole. We were ready.

On Friday morning, Andrea and I went to Food Lion to collect a few things for the side dishes, while Ernesto and Pablo drove straight to the farm to start the fire. There was some concern that we would be cooking deep into the night if we didn’t get it going fairly quickly. They started a second fire in the wood stove in Daddy’s shop, which could provide a continuous supply of fresh coals for the pit. What with one thing and another, it was nearly noon before the pork leg, lovingly marinated in lemon juice, garlic, and cumin, emerged from its cooler and was lowered into the pit. We were already about two hours behind schedule.

Imagine the next six and a half hours, if you possibly can. Well, I know that you can’t, so I will try to give you the flavor of them. The weather was unseasonably warm, nearly 70 degrees. Ernesto and Pablo settled into chairs around the pit, sweaters and jackets came off, the two big dogs stalked around the edges of the site. We had a digital remote meat thermometer, not meant for gauging the heat of a fire pit, but it was rather nice because we could poke the metal probe through a small hole in the metal lid over the pit and let it dangle down, while the temperature gauge on the other end told us how hot it was down there. Everyone thought that the temp would shoot up to 400 degrees when we first fed it down into the hole, and we were anxious when it only registered about 275. But it was early, and we remained hopeful.

Every 40 minutes or so, Ernesto and Pablo shuttled burning coals and chunks of wood from the wood stove to the pit. When the heat didn’t rise, they devised better ways of insulating the metal lid so that heat couldn’t escape. They used hoes to beat back small grass fires that occasionally erupted around the edges of the hole. They grew progressively smokier. During one of the intervals when the pork was lifted out so that coals could be added to the pit, I measured the leg’s internal temperature. It was 65 degrees. Clearly, we had a distance to go.

As anxiety rose, the bucket loads of burning embers from the wood stove grew larger and more fiery. The guys had been sharing one pair of heavy leather gardening gloves, but soon Pablo appeared wearing a pair of stout black rubber gloves.

“Where did you find those?” Daddy asked. Pablo said he’d seen them under the shelter, so he borrowed them.

“Well, don’t touch the meat with them,” Daddy warned. “Those are my dog-washing gloves.”

Andrea decided she would take a walk around some of the trails that we had missed the day before. The next thing time I turned around, she was holding a crude map that Daddy had drawn to show where all the trails were, and how they connected. I got out the fishing gear and headed for the pond. About 30 minutes later, I caught a bass on the artificial worm, and as word of my success reached the fire pit, Pablo and Andrea and Maggie, the black lab, joined me.

Pablo hooked a bass on the fly rod, but it spit the fly out before he could bring it home. I gave Andrea the artificial worm gear, and she worked her way around the entire pond, trying to find a fish that hungry. Maggie splashed around the edges of the pond with great energy, repeatedly. Pablo returned to his duties at the fire, and I caught a bass on the fly rod he abandoned.

As Andrea completed her circuit of the pond, I went back up to the fire to check on progress. I found Pablo gingerly brushing ashes off the pork leg, which was out of the pit during one of the periodic coal-fetchings.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh, we had an accident,” Ernesto said. “The leg rolled off during our maneuver.” He considered the pork thoughtfully, and added, “It was the sacramental anointing of the ashes.”

The big dogs, exhausted, lay in the cool shade by the shelter and fell asleep. Fishless, Andrea collected greens from Fred’s fall garden and snipped some of his rosemary. She spent the next hours in the kitchen, massaging kale and greens in lemon juice, then adding chopped apple and pomegranate seeds for salad; sautéing apples and onions for a compote; peeling potatoes and seasoning them with rosemary for roasting in the oven. Holli’s husband, Bobby, hung around the kitchen, no doubt wondering if he would ever be able to eat dinner and go home.

“Rosemary is my favorite herb,” Andrea told us. “It helps improve memory.”

“Really? One of my mom’s caregivers suggested that I get her a rosemary plant,” Bobby said.

“Now that’s what I call an excellent caregiver,” I said, but Bobby said she wasn’t around anymore, because he had fired the company she worked for and found a different one.

The rosemary potatoes went into the oven, and I put together a corn and cheddar casserole that was very similar to a macaroni and cheese only with corn instead of macaroni. Pablo came in periodically to instruct us on how to prepare tostones—twice-fried slices of green plantain, which between the first and second frying are smashed into round discs.

We joked that the meat might not be done until midnight (or possibly breakfast), but it came into the house around 6:30, and it was lovely. Pablo and Ernesto removed the charred and somewhat battered skin, regretting its loss. By the time the table was set and the side dishes assembled, it was ready to serve.

Holli donated her fluffy pink Jell-O salad, which had gone mostly untouched on Thanksgiving Day because it was forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.

We ate.

Afterwards, when the dishes were washed and the leftovers put away and the fluffy pink Jell-O stuff had been tasted and one or two slices of leftover pumpkin pie were consumed, we toasted the day, Thanksgiving, and each other with sparkling cider that Pablo and Andrea had brought as a hostess gift.

Thank goodness we had eaten a good deal of rosemary, so we can remember it all forever.

Still Life

still-life-2

The Sheraton in Clearwater Beach provides free copies of the Wall Street Journal, neatly stacked on a narrow table near the elevators. We were there in early September, and I picked up a copy of the WSJ Magazine that someone had discarded, as if it were a blow-in card that had fallen out of a catalog. This particular issue was built around a theme of “men’s style.” I flipped past ads for manly cologne and leather messenger bags with my lip curled, until I came to the very last page. Centered under the heading “Still Life” was a photograph of a table not unlike the one in the lobby of the Sheraton. The table contained a display of about a dozen objects—African art, masks, books—carefully arranged. I read that these were the favorite things chosen by a renowned photographer, who described her interests and enthusiasms in a few paragraphs of text beneath the photo.

I would require something more than a table to hold my personal Still Life. I would like something more along these lines:

After we had eaten, he took me up to a south-facing room that was thick with summer light, and there he opened the two pale-blue doors of a large wooden cabinet that stood against the back wall. It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising… in which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.

That’s a description of writer and art historian Peter Davidson’s collection of favorite things, as described by Robert MacFarlane in the book Landmarks. MacFarlane says that Davidson’s writing, like his cabinet of curiosities, is an attempt “to capture the moment, lost and yet preserved forever.”

The paragraphs of his essays, the verse of his poems: these act as what Thomas Browne in Urne-Buriall…beautifully calls a ‘conservatorie.’ Yet none of these ‘conservatories’ is quite reliable, none fully sealed. All leak a little light.

Davidson’s house and garden are extensions of the cabinet, filled with meaningful bits and collected pieces. “We have gathered things about us which are of the place where we live,” he told MacFarlane.

I have my own collection of jars; the urns in my conservatorie contain photos, postcards, pebbles and shells, all sorts of small reminders of people and places I love. My conservatorie leaks a great deal of light. One jar holds an e-mail that I received from Ernesto this August. I had sent him a message to let him know I planned to stop at the grocery store on my way home from work, and I asked if he needed anything. He responded with a sort of poetic still life:

Get some bananas and Potato chips.
Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.
More bacon and sausage for grilling on Saturday morning.

(Possibly my favorite line in the English language: “Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.” Like a snippet from a song, it runs through my head every time I turn the corner in our local Food Lion and walk past the frozen foods.)

But there are many marvelous things that are impossible to preserve. In August, I looked forward to the Perseid meteor shower with great anticipation, since this year’s shower was supposed to a really good one. On the first evening, I put my mini-trampoline (for low-impact running) on the back deck and tried to get comfortable with my upper body on it and my legs hanging off. Ernesto crammed onto the trampoline next to me, and we gazed upward. We counted three airplanes and two or three meteors. Ernesto wanted to talk the entire time, but his conversation failed to match my mood. I wanted shooting stars, a fathomless universe, mysteries and magic. He bounced his shoulders on the trampoline and said, “I smell the grill.”

We saw about five meteors that evening, and then we decided to get up and go to bed.

At our age, when you rise to your feet after lying pronish on a mini-trampoline with your head thrown back to look into limitless space, regaining one’s balance is a trick. We both staggered a bit, grabbing onto each other (unwise) and the grill and finally the back door doorknob. By the time we fell into the house we were weak with laughing and dizziness.

Not yet having had my fill of falling stars, I prepared more thoroughly for my second night of star-gazing. I own a heavy cotton area rug that I love but which has an unfortunate stain in the center. I situated it on the back deck, and then placed our heavy winter comforter on top. I pulled an old bedsheet from the linen closet to use as a sort of mosquito net and settled into my cozy nest with a pillow.

Ernesto had had enough of the Perseids and declined to join me. Well, he missed out, because it was lovely. The temperature had dropped into the 70s, with a light breeze, and the crickets and frogs made a pleasant sort of white noise. I saw the first meteor fairly quickly, but after the first there were long spells of quiet time. It was hypnotic, and wonderful. In fact it was very much like meditation and fishing, which I also love. After a long spell of quiet waiting, you get an electric moment of total delight—and then a return to more patient, quiet waiting.

That is not the type of life experience that can be preserved in a jar or displayed in a cabinet. I will conserve it here, instead, as a memory, a memory of lying back and looking up into the dark sky while the crickets fiddle, the entire world spins, stars are falling, and I alone am still.

 

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Iris and Rose, enjoying a quiet moment at home.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.

– Henry David Thoreau, in Walking

Anywhere else, I walk with speed and purpose. But here at home, I am a Saunterer. I amble from the house to the chicken coop to collect the eggs, or mosey out to the stable to brush the goats. I stroll to the clothesline to take down the laundry—at least I did, before a Mighty Wind last Sunday night snapped one of the clothesline poles; now we’re waiting for the concrete to set on the new post.

The margins of our five-acre property make it feel postage-stamp small, though I understand that from the seat of a lawnmower under a blazing sun the place seems mighty big. We have pasture, lawn, outbuildings (less one since the Mighty Wind), and a large chicken run with coop. There’s a fledgling orchard with two apple trees, a fig, and several blueberry bushes. We have a few raised garden beds, and one in-ground garden larger than an Olympic-sized pool. A fringe of woods marks our back survey line, and a deeper stand of woods across the road appears nearly impenetrable. We have hickory trees, cedars, a dogwood, and lots of redbud trees, but there aren’t any patches of actual, walkable woods that we own, so there are no cool forest paths.

Our house was originally wrested from the forest. We know this from the many times we step in holes and soft spots where long-time-gone stumps have crumbled to dust, leaving the top layer of ground as collapsible as pie crust. Our large, open front lawn appears deceptively smooth and tranquil, but we must step carefully to avoid holes. I am mindful of every step.

We also have some rather impressive rocks rising from the lawn in random places. Ernesto has removed numerous rocks from the yard and garden and built them into an inviting snake-pile at the edge of the woods behind us. Every time he plows the garden he turns up a fresh crop of rocks. Sometimes I go along behind the tractor, flinging rocks to the side. There’s a lot of quartz, and I’ve collected a bowlful of white and glassy chunks. After every rain there are new ones visible in the red dirt. It’s as if this place was at one time a crystal mountain, now worn down to fragments.

It’s a stump-holed, rocky patch, but it provides most of what we, the chickens, and the goats need—with plenty left over for visitors. This summer our visitors have included a pair of red-shouldered hawks. We see them in the yard enjoying a meal, sitting on the fence, and flying overhead. Even when they aren’t visible, I can hear them calling almost every morning.

On the other end of the bird spectrum, we have a tiny flock of hummingbirds. Hyped on nectar, they fight and chase and shove each other to get another fix at our feeders. One feeder hangs from the front porch, and the birds are almost invisible until they are on top of it. Going and coming, they appear like rips in the atmosphere, as if the veil of reality is torn as they pass. Needle-beaked, maybe they’re actually holding the fabric of life together as they dip and weave, repairing and embroidering the thin spots. If that’s their job, it’s a thankless one. We say, “Oh, aren’t they darling?” with no thought for how exhausted they must be, and how badly they need the sugar-water to stay aloft and alert.

If you squint, it’s an idyllic place we have here.

Which isn’t to say it’s complete. Ernesto wants to add a garage, especially now that the shelter we used to park under blew away, burst through ours and our neighbor’s clotheslines, and came to rest 100 yards away in the neighbor’s front yard. Yesterday he carried the scrap metal to the Liberty Recycling Center. It had been a large steel shelter, open on all sides with a red metal roof tall enough for a horse trailer or tractor. Every molecule of it blew with the wind, and it took two trips in the Ford Ranger to haul it away. Then Ernesto had to submit to a number of security measures to ensure that he was not selling stolen property (I guess): He had to show his driver’s license, have his picture taken next to each truckload, and sign an affidavit or something. All to collect $26.13.

We were talking about our possible new garage, and I asked about underground power lines. I know where the lines enter the house, but there are additional lines running to the stable and outbuildings. I wondered if those lines were buried deep, and securely. “If something were to hit one,” I asked, “would the person who hit it be hurt?”

“Electrocuted?” Ernesto shook his head. “No, but they might be dazzled.”

Being dazzled sounds rather pleasant, but I still think I’ll try not to dig holes anywhere in the back yard. Instead I’ll continue to saunter from coop to clothesline, from goat pen to garden. Because even without a woodland path of shade and moss, and even though the crystal mountain crumbled, the ground occasionally caves in, and things sometimes fly away in the night, this is holy land, and it is home.

In the book Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the heroine, Flora, is trying to decide what to do with her life. She’s hit a rough patch, and her prospects are bleak. A friend suggests that she start by listing what she likes. Flora says: “Having everything tidy and calm all around me, and not being bothered to do things, and laughing at the kind of joke other people didn’t think at all funny, and going for country walks….”

I like all those things, too, especially the first couple. And since listing things you like is cheering, I decided to fill out my own list of favorite things. One  of them is the photograph at the head of this post. Yes, hard times do require furious dancing, and these times we are in certainly seem to qualify. My other special likes: happy songs, having plenty of time to think things over, and vintage cookbooks.

Last week I was treated to exactly the type of happy song I love. My co-worker, Breanne, sent me a link to a fine performance of “If My Nose Was Running Money [I’d Blow It All on You].” Breanne said that she first heard that song at her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and since that made it an automatic family tradition, she sang it at her own wedding reception.

Breanne was inspired to share the nose song because I had sent her a link to one of my favorite music videos, and she was so pleased with it that she wanted to give me a song in return. The video is Finnish band Steve ′n′ Seagulls covering AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” You would swear those Finnish boys were from right here in North Carolina., especially when you see the guy driving up to the band’s back yard gig on a riding lawn mower while playing the accordion. It is not only a masterful version of the song, it is also visually delightful.

Goodness knows we need all the delight we can get.

Now about that second item on my list—having time to think things over. My most important source of inner peace is having the time and space to meditate at my leisure on life. I can do that a bit in the car on my daily commute, but I find that there is never enough time to fully untangle my mental knots. It’s a shame, because contemplation is key:

To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.

– Rowan Williams, in an address to the Roman Synod of Bishops (2012)

Obviously, if I had all the time I really need to meditate (or sit around with my mouth hanging open—same thing), I would be more honest and loving. It’s not my fault that I’m not.

Silent worship time at the Quaker Friends meeting is my weekly chance to contemplate without fear of interruption. Sometimes I glance idly through the pew Bible, if my own thoughts are unusually dull. I was doing so on a recent Sunday when I came across this verse: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” (Psalm 4:4b, NKJV)

I nearly laughed out loud and spoiled everyone else’s contemplation, because evidently that text is the bedrock, so to speak, of my mother’s spirituality. She enjoys sleeping, and she’s good at it. She arises from sleep reluctantly, and clings to it by recounting her dreams for us (especially the most bizarre ones). Probably I inherited this from her, because even though I am more of a morning person than she is, I love sleep and like to tell about my dreams, too.

My dad would probably agree that Psalm 4:4b belongs on a sampler above Mama’s recliner. A couple of years back we were about to be seated at a restaurant, and the hostess asked if we preferred a booth or a table. “A booth,” Mama said, real quick. Once we got settled in, she said, with great satisfaction, “I’d much rather sit in a booth than at a table.”

Daddy, having stowed her walker somewhere out of the way, heard this as he sat down and said, “Yes, and you’d much rather lay in the bed than sit in a booth.”

Finally, there are few things that make me happier than old cookbooks, especially from small Southern churches or country towns. I love the way they withhold crucial information: the size of the pan needed, the temperature of the oven, or a measurable amount of certain ingredients. And the names of the dishes! Coca-Cola Salad, Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick, Fancy Franks, and (this is true) Potatoes au Rotten. That one’s a classic, because although it’s a version of scalloped potatoes with cheese, it also calls for “a special barbecue sauce that I concoct myself.”  Oh, I see. There’s no possible way anyone else could use that recipe to make Potatoes au Rotten. Thanks for submitting it to Maury O’Dell’s Ask-Your-Neighbor Cookbook, Rufus! For you see, that particular recipe came from the kitchen of Rufus L. Edmisten, former Attorney General and later Secretary of State of North Carolina.

The first thing I look up in an old cookbook is usually cornbread. I have had many varieties of cornbread in my life, but I miss the type of cornbread that my grandmother used to make. It was not crumbly, like Jiffy cornbread, nor was it tall and cakelike. It was nearly flat, with a crispy crust and a dense center. About the closest thing I have found is the Crusty Soft-center Spoonbread recipe from The Joy of Cooking. But it’s not exactly right, either, and I have made it my life’s work to replicate that cornbread. (I did get the recipe from my grandmother some years back, but it has never turned out right for me and she and I never got together to figure out what I was doing wrong before she died.)

Her recipe began with softening biscuits in hot water, then adding cornmeal, salt, and milk. Without getting up and looking, I think that was it. About a year ago I found a recipe in an old cookbook at someone else’s house and jotted it down hastily on a piece of note paper. I gave it the name, “Cornbread Like Grandma’s?” but forgot to write down the name of the cookbook. Anyway, the recipe began with biscuits, which was what gave me hope that it might be the one. I have made it twice now, with slight variations, and it is very close to the cornbread I remember. If I play with the type of oil I use, I may finally have it.

I recently added to my vintage cookbook collection by picking up a copy of Beth Tartan’s North Carolina & Old Salem Cookery. I hoped it might have a cornbread recipe comparable to Grandma’s, but it doesn’t. Still, there is one cornbread variation called Aunt Dealy’s Corn Cakes that I may have to try. It involves combining 2 cups of corn meal, ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of soda, and 1½ cups of buttermilk. (Beth Tartan is very reliable when it comes to measurements.) The instructions read:

Make the stiff batter into round balls—rather small ones—and flatten into cakes about 1/2-inch thick. Have bacon grease or lard deep enough in the pan to run back and forth—but not too deep. Have the pan medium hot.

When the cakes are brown (it will not take long), turn. They should rise and be light and happy.

So should we all.

Poetry Fodder

Sheep pull toy, found at Worthpoint.com

Sheep pull toy, found at Worthpoint.com

Pablo Neruda’s essay, “Childhood and Poetry” tells the story of a gift that he remembered for the whole of his life:

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared — a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole, but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never seen a sheep like that either.

That exchange inspired Neruda to make a life of writing poetry, which is similar to leaving gifts for strangers. Authentic gifts, unique and from the heart.

I’m always looking for a hand to come through a fence and give me something amazing. Other times I’m watching the ground in hopes of finding an arrowhead or a bluebird feather. Watching the ground is not much fun, though, and the best surprise gift is a story that lights up the room, or a shared laugh that flattens the walls. Here are a few of the stories that lit up my world recently: 

  1. My friend J. attended a celebratory luncheon at a Mexican restaurant. The attendees, including 90ish-year-old Granny D, lined both sides of a long table, and at each place setting was an individual bowl of salsa. During the clatter and clang of conversation while waiting for the food to arrive, J. looked up to see Granny D. drinking salsa from her bowl with a straw.
  2. J., M., and I were driving to lunch on Friday, and J. said she wanted to get her nails done. “I need a pedicure,” I said, “because my feet are in bad shape.” M. snorted. “Do you both have all your toenails?” she asked. J. and I admitted that we did, in fact, have all our toenails. “Sexy ladies,” M. said. She said no more, other than to claim that only one of her toenails is currently missing.
  3. J. (whose story-cup has been running over this week) told of a time when she was going through security at the airport. I believe it was an emergency trip; she had packed in a big hurry, and threw her makeup case into the suitcase without checking it for bottles that held more than 3 ounces of liquid, etc. She was stopped by a TSA agent who discovered, within the makeup case, a pen made from a deer antler with a bullet for a tip. A bolt-action ink pen! The agent did not confiscate the pen, but he told her not to bring it back through the airport, ever. “Why was it in your makeup case?” I asked, but J. had no answer for that.

These bits and pieces–and the many others that enliven my world–often inspire me to write poetry, just as they might have inspired Neruda. Unfortunately, the best I can do is an occasional limerick. Here’s one now! I call it “Proverbs.”

A sheep toy with no wheels means it’s real hard to pull it.
Don’t board planes with a pen if the tip is a bullet.
And if you find you can’t draw

Your salsa through a straw,
Well, it wouldn’t affect your toenails, now would it?

 

2016-03-17 08.02.14

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

2016-03-17 08.01.51

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

— Mary Oliver, “A Dream of Trees”

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ice spike 1

A gleam in the gloaming.

In the dead of winter, the evenings are cold and dark and the mornings begin with a painfully slow return of the light. It’s as if the machinery that lifts the sun is a hand-cranked wooden device operated by an unnaturally decrepit wee person, whose tiny boots are lifted off the ground each time he reaches the top of the turn. On frosty mornings I can almost hear the creakings of the machine and the wee person’s bones.

This makes the early light more precious, and I look to the east each morning to catch the first signs of illumination. During January I was usually halfway to work before they appeared.

Maybe we have to endure the longer darkness of this season as a reminder of the importance of light and hope. Common wisdom in North Carolina is that it takes two bitterly cold months to annihilate all the fleas and ticks; perhaps it’s the same for people, and long spells of cold and dark eradicate some of our more toxic qualities and cause us to seek the light more purposefully.

In a winter-hammered landscape, the light creates a feeling of compassion…it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us. – Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, as quoted by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, Landscapes.

Even during the gray weeks of Lent there are signs of hope. One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

Finally I put on socks and a jacket over my pajamas and went to check it out. It was ice. (“I told you,” E. said.) The ice had grown out of the birdbath to form an inverted pyramid, about 1.5” tall and filled with water.

Ice Spike 2

I searched for “ice formation in birdbath” online and found the web pages of Dr. James R. Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Geography-Geology. Dr. Carter specializes in ice formations, and he has conducted many interesting experiments in his own yard:

To my surprise, one night at about 11:00 PM I found the water in one bottle cap formed into what is called an Ice Spike.  I had read about these but suddenly I had my own. I have been able to produce ice spikes on occasion but have not been able to do it consistently.   

Dr. Carter’s site features a picture of an ice pyramid similar to mine. It had been sent to him by someone like me who had found him through the magic of the Internet. Dr. Carter writes:

This triangular ice in the birdbath is not unique in the world. The Weatherwise explanation provides a link to a web page of a couple in Scotland where they show a number of such ice formations that they found in their garden. And I have received photos from other persons showing triangular wedges of ice growing in birdbaths.  I appreciate seeing such photos so please share them with me.

Well, of course I would share. I immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. Carter with a photo of our ice vase (that’s what Fred and Sarah, the couple in Scotland, call them). He wrote back straight away, telling me he’d never seen one with a four-sided top; they’re usually triangular. He added that he may post my photos to his website, but he made no firm promise, as he doesn’t update the pages very often.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

What a lovely thing to find by accident in one’s backyard. As Henry David Thoreau once said of snowflakes: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”

Star-like or not, in the grand scheme of things our ice vase—which melted in the afternoon sun—is hardly important. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a lot going on in the world right now. In America alone, politicians have been taken over by a sort of lunacy, every symptom of which is reported with great zeal. Instead of falling away, a stifling ignorance seems to be closing in on us. Why isn’t the cold and dark creating a feeling of compassion in the political arena, or at least killing off the hateful fleas and ticks? No wonder I want only to turn away, and look for light on the horizon—which happily comes a wee bit earlier every morning and lingers a tad bit longer every evening.

Anyway, E. B. White has given me permission to turn away:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.

I have always felt that way, too. So I’m taking care to preserve evidence of our item of enchantment here, in my virtual cabinet of curiosities. Maybe a portion of the light that it held for one winter morning will be preserved with it, for the betterment of us all.