Saturday, June 27, 2009

June, on a Saturday

Long, shaggy grass, going to
green, and so many tints
changing with the sun moving up so high ---
the mower
roars as it cuts new paths.

Dew, drying, in early summer
air becoming hotter, drier
until sweat begins to
_____________ roll.

Weeds, some sprayed and soon curling
others, long roots, pulled into the air
out of the soil, beginning to

Dust, and sweat
and bits of grass cut
smeared across face and arm,
warm and earthy in my nose ---
jeans now dusty, grass, well worn
shirt sweat, picking up this morning's
____________ story.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Celebrating Father's Day

Dear Son:

Today is Father's Day, though I celebrate fatherhood every day.

I have not given you my genes, my DNA. Yet, in deeper ways than the ways of biology, we are father and son. We have shared in your experiences of being raised up to be a man, to find your way in this complicated world. And, I celebrate who you are, and who you have become. I celebrate and honor your journey into manhood. You have done yourself proud. And, I applaud you, every single day. Well done.

Having you in my life has raised me up so I can fully be a father, and fully be aware of my gifts, and my struggles to completely experience my father-ness.

And, in doing that, I am more complete, I am more whole.

I am more of a man, and more of a human be-ing.

Without you in my life, I could not have lived and be living a life so rich and complete. Without you, I would have missed some of the best parts of my journey in life so far.

So, I celebrate fatherhood not just this day, but every day, in every waking moment. And, in doing so, I celebrate and treasure having you in my life.

Without you, I would not be who I am today.

With all my love,


Monday, June 15, 2009

An Evening in Elgin

I take in, deeply, the silence of the place. Staying the night in a bed and breakfast, in the top floor of once was a hospital in the 1800s, I hear nothing but the quiet. It is Sunday night.

The old house, originally the town’s hospital, creaks quietly. The fourth step on the stairs moans the loudest as my fingers lightly touch the old oak railing as I ascend to my room. I am the only guest tonight, and I have the claw foot tub and the upstairs bedrooms all to myself.

Last week, the entire group of dulcimer players claimed the place, resting up after their performance at the town’s Victorian opera house. Tomorrow, the regional engineer from the highway department moves in, staying for two weeks so he can survey a big road project. But, tonight is my night. Tonight is for me, my book, my wine, and my soon to be bare feet.

The rocker moves quietly on the carpet, and the cool night air ruffles a page or two in my book. The last of the June sunset and the light bouncing off of the Victorian lampshade are the only lights in the house.

It is so quiet that the noise in the room comes from my breathing, and the turning of a page now and then.

The 140 year old oak rocker calls my name, and I soon toss my shoes into the corner and my bare feet touches the carpet. I open my bottle of wine, and pour my first glass, and crack my book. I’d opened the window a bit, in order to sniff the air, still cool and damp from the afternoon thundershower, and my ear catches the distant sound of a dog barking and children riding their bikes along the street, calling to each other. The main road from town to the nearby pass runs along this side of the house, but no one is rushing off to Walla Walla tonight. No need to go; everything you’d want is right here.

The owners, my hosts, are gone. I’ll learn tomorrow at breakfast they went to a “shop party”, to celebrate a grandchild’s birthday. It is the beginning of summer, and people are gathered outside, enjoying a bonfire, music, and birthday cake. I guess a “shop party” is a house party that just starts out too big and needs to be outside. After a long winter here in the midst of these great mountains, time to be outside is to be savored, yes, cherished with friends and family.

Long after I close my eyes, a couple of drunks staggering home from the local tavern will awaken me and the neighborhood dogs, as one cowboy loudly rattles fences and tries to imitate the dogs. I wonder how he’ll make it through a full day of work tomorrow after having a bellyful of beer. But, that experience lies ahead, when I am in my dream world, sleeping soundly on lace trimmed pillowcases and under the quilt, as the night chill moves into the room a bit deeper. I’ll chuckle at the drunks’ foolishness and soon slip back into my deep sleep.

For now, I lose myself in my book, and the second glass of wine. I slip back a century, when an evening of reading in the quiet was the norm. My ear yearns for the clip clop of a buggy or a noisier carriage, but proper Elginites would be home at this hour of the evening, resting after the morning church service and the family Sunday dinner. Tomorrow, I’d take the steam train back to LaGrande and maybe even on to Portland. Or maybe continue my journey and ride the club car to the end of the tracks in Enterprise, my suitcase, steamer trunk, and my traveling easel and paint box eager for a week or maybe the whole summer at the lake. It would be a good place to study the summer light and the evening alpenglow on the craggy mountains above the lake.

It would be a worthwhile summer long project, with plenty of time to read and enjoy the quiet. And, at the end of the season, I’d pack my paintings and ship them back to Portland, ready for the fall season at my gallery. I’d brag to my friends about the light at the end of the lake, and the oils would be fresh and rich, glowing in the new electric light of the main show room.

An hour or so later, a truck runs noisily along the road, spewing diesel and the amplified thump of a country western bass line, and it’s not 1909 anymore. Still, the oaky creak of the rocking chair and the delicate flowers of the wallpaper and the claw foot tub at the end of the hall hold me back in time.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Kibble

Sparky had had the run of the place, entertaining his humans, and living the good life. That is, until the humans' puppy came. They called it “Baby” and a lot of other names, making funny faces as they mouthed the words, so he knew they were words meaning they loved the human puppy more than they loved him. They’d used some of those words and made faces at him when he first came to the house, but not nearly as much as now, with their new hairless and smelly human puppy.

He’d sulked and moped a bit the first few weeks of “Baby’s” intrusion into his world. At first, the big humans watched Sparky, afraid he’d hurt their new puppy. But, after a while, after looking at what the new human puppy did, and didn’t do, Sparky nearly lost interest in it. All it seemed to do was drink from the strange bottles the female human gave him, make horrendously smelly piles of poop (which the humans seemed to hoard in various containers around the house, before throwing them out in the trash can in the alley), and cry loudly and often, mostly in the night.

Still, Sparky didn’t feel too put out. He still got his food twice a day, and all the scratches behind the ears and the pets he wanted. The humans still took him out on walks to his favorite places to smell and pee. They’d tried to make him sleep on the floor in the kitchen, but after a couple of nights of whining and yelping, he’d wormed his way back to his favorite place on the foot of the masters’ bed. Sparky early on had mastered his technique of looking sad and pitiful when the masters tried to change his routine, or didn’t give him enough of his treats. He’d gotten them trained early on and they still responded to his commands.

In fact, since “Baby’s” arrival a month ago, Sparky had managed to score a significant increase in the number and amount of treats he got every day, mostly by looking especially sad and pitiful when the masters were holding the baby, trying to keep it from crying all night long. Still, he wondered why they kept the thing around. It didn’t do any useful task, and couldn’t even fetch a ball or alert the masters that there was a tom cat roaming the alley at night. All it did was eat, poop, cry, and sleep. There was no purpose to this new thing, but he’d long ago given up trying to make sense of most things his masters did. As long as they kept his food bowl full and took him out on walks every day, he’d be content to put up with most of their odd ways.

Unlike any of the puppies he’d known in his life, even back in the big place he was born, where there were lots of puppies and big dogs, this “Baby” was so dumb. It didn’t seem to even figure out where the food was. Instead of feeding itself from the food bowl, it would just lie there, crying and yelling, at any hour of the day, wanting food. Even a new puppy soon figured out how to fill its empty belly, and would scamper around the house until it found its mama’s swollen teat or the bowl of food that was always filled up by humans, every single day. And, any self respecting dog would quickly figure out how to whine and look pathetic and hungry, in order to get a human to open up the treat sack and give the dog a treat. And, it wasn’t much more of a stretch to convince more than one human that treats were needed, even though another human had given them a handful just a few minutes before.

But this human puppy, it was just worthless.

Sparky couldn’t take its stupidity or laziness any longer. After filling his belly at the food bowl, he took a lone kibble in his lips and brought it over to the “Baby”. It was doing its usual stupid trick of lying on its back and waving all of its paws in the air, making odd cooing and gurgling noises. Sparky hoped that if he put the kibble down by the baby, it might even figure out that there was food in the house, and all it had to do was get its pudgy self over to the bowl, and it wouldn’t have to cry or howl anymore, just to fill its belly. He dropped the kibble by the “Baby’s” head; narrowly avoiding getting his ears grabbed by the “Baby’s” front paw, and stepped away. The “Baby” just looked at him and at the kibble, drool pouring out of its mouth, and it just babbled on.

“I give up”, Sparky thought. “This thing is dumber than I’d thought. It can’t even figure out how to feed itself when there’s a full bowl of food just across the room.”


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Finding My Peace In A Far Away Place

Three hundred some miles from home and I am standing in a desert, looking out into a pond filled with birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are staying for the summer, and others are just moving through.

It is the end of May and it already feels like summer in southeastern Oregon. Hot and dry. Dry enough that I feel the water escape into the air from my skin, my nose, even my throat when I say a few words about the birds to my friend. The sky is summer brilliant blue, and already, in the mid morning, a few white clouds are growing, promising to be thunderheads, heavy and black, by mid afternoon. The air is rich with juniper, sagebrush, and the funky wet smell of the pond and the nearby slow moving river. It is the Blitzen, German for lightning, which will come this afternoon. Already, thunder rolls from a black cloud growing high over the mountains, carried on the wind to the pond, promising a cooler, sultry afternoon and maybe even rain.

This is the Malheur wildlife refuge, which takes in Malheur Lake and the rivers that feed into it, from the north and the south. Malheur is French for "misfortune" or “bad hour” and probably some other not so literal translations. The lake lacks an outlet to the sea, and is alkali and, especially in low water years such as this year, a bit thick with minerals and the skanky algae that thrives in brackish water.

Yet, this is not "misfortune" or a “bad hour” here. The river runs with fresh snowmelt from the nearby Steens Mountain, a nearly 10,000 foot fault block that runs for twenty some miles. The mountain robs almost all of the rain out of the prevailing westerly winds, making the land east of the summit a true desert, where brittle alkali and borax run ten miles, paralleling the summit.

White snowfields shine bright even from my low vantage point, and the marshes are thick with cattails, willows, sedges, and thick grasses growing fast in the wet and the heat of the May runoff. In the middle of this desert, life explodes here. Birds eat fast and furious, fueling up as they build nests and raise their young, or pause to refuel in the midst of their migration. Alaska and Patagonia are not unknown destinations here, for many of these birds. "Misfortune" or “bad hour” is a place of good times, and every year, they keep coming back.

Birdsong fills the marshes and the river, and the flights of ducks, Arctic swans, white pelicans, red wing blackbirds and the rarer yellow headed blackbirds offer the viewer a constant show. As we drive along the now dusty gravel road that runs for forty miles down to Frenchglen, flocks of graceful avocets burst up from the ditches and the river grass, their arched beaks a shiny black, their backs a shiny coppery armor, and the upper side of their wings a subtle black green. If you see them in their normal pose, hunched over, their beaks working a muddy shallow, they look rusty, almost bronze. But now, in startled flight, the greens and the copper red give this bird more complexity than I’d noticed before.

And that is the message today. Out here in what looks like a dull, lifeless, sun-baked desert, there is complexity and richness that lies just below the surface, just a few minutes of patience before one answers the call of the road, before we move on. If one waits, then the Arctic tern will suddenly dive bomb into the pond, snatching a small fish or even a frog. Mr. Jackrabbit will bound out of the brush, looking startled with his big brown eyes, and giant ears turning to catch the latest news of the marsh.

In all this noise, this music of the birds and the slowly moving water, seeping north from the snowfields, through the reeds and warm mud, there is quiet. There is time to think, without the distractions of home, of city life and traffic. Here, there is hot sunlight, building clouds, and life. We are all visitors here, the birds and I just flying through, on our separate journeys. Even the jackrabbit and the ginkos are on the move. In a really dry year, this pond may not fill, and will lie fallow, the reeds sleeping out the season, hoping for more snow and rain next winter. Or, the biologists may close a gate, directing Lightning River to another field, another pond.

All of this country was once a series of ranches, homesteaded by hardworking immigrants, families who had moved West hoping for a bright future. They brushed up against Peter French, an entrepreneur who thrived on building the biggest ranch in Oregon, supplying California with beef. The other ranchers stood in his way, and he wasn’t much for honoring land claims and fences. He left his mark on the area. The Round Barn, the Long Barn, and the town of Frenchglen remain tributes to his legacy. He was famously murdered, and not all of his neighbors had regrets.

Then, later, the government took a stand, and began to protect the birds and the lake, and to manage the meager water supplies from the rivers, and the wildlife refuge grew. The ranchers and the biologists seemed to have little in common, until they realized they all loved the land, but just showed their love in different ways. Peace came slowly to this area; everyone finding that fighting over what they all needed wasn’t a good plan, not when they needed each other, just to survive.

And, now the great grandchildren of the first ranchers run the hotels and the visitors centers and the cafes where the birders come and spend their money. And cattle still graze and water still flows, and the antelope graze in the alfalfa. And, the birds still come every year, and feed in the fields and the marshes, and nibble a bit on the long rolls of hay kept by the ranchers in the open fields. And, the birders eat the steaks from the ranchers and the water grows the alfalfa and protects the nesting sites for the ducks. And, no one seems to have time to argue about any of that anymore.

I think of all this, running through my brain, as I gaze out into the marsh, taking in the richness of life here. And, in all of this, I find a bit of myself, and a bit of peace. At least in this far away corner of the world, life makes sense.