Sunday, December 29, 2013

snow: a diary

Christmas Day
Snow falls thickly, traveling on a light west wind. At almost 15 degrees, it feels mild. I strap on the snowshoes and head to the river. Over a foot of snow on the ground, and fresh snow falling nearly every day.

I measure the snow by guessing how much is piled up on this table.

The path to the river is but a slight indent, a wrinkle, a suggestion, buried as it is under today’s feathery stuff. The snow is like feathers: clean, white feathers. A world thick with feathers. Piled up everywhere, here, there, and especially on the branches of the fir trees, in seemingly odd spots, on the end of branches, sometimes in the middle or wrapped like a cowl around the upper tip of the trunk while other branches and other parts of branches are left unadorned. The snow gathers up in huge balls that look like bulbous mushrooms or ten-gallon hats or rising dough with too much yeast. Thick, feathery scarves wrapped around skinny necks. The snow flurries past me in ebbs and waves, falling in real time, natural time, a rhythm all its own, a rhythm that is true. It swirls around me feeling fresh and clean.

This little guy got a turtleneck for Christmas.

The Next Day, Thursday
I was thinking the other day about snowflakes, about how they say each is unique, that no two are alike. Now how do they know that? I could look it up, and it’s possible I’ve already read about it as I once had a book called “Snow,” and that was all it was about. Snow. So certainly this no-two-are-alike thing was dealt with in that book, was explained, but I don’t remember. I do remember “Snow,” by Ruth Kirk. Three syllables. OK, four.

But that was a digression, for what I’ve been thinking about is this: If each snowflake is different from the next, isn’t it interesting how uniform snow looks once fallen and massed together.


The headline for the nation’s weather forecast this morning on is “Tranquil Weather Will Continue … ” The map looks relativity calm with only isolated spots of color indicating advisories and warnings. One such spot includes my locale, which is under a Lake Effect Snow Warning, but that mostly lies to the north, covering the Keweenaw Peninsula and then down along the U.P.’s western shore. When I head out tomorrow morning I will go west, then south, and as I eyeball the whole length of my route to California all I see is an absence of threatening colors. Except in Oklahoma, where there is a deep blue-green Freezing Fog Advisory. And way over there, covering Los Angeles and Co., is a Red Flag Warning. The hot and dry Santa Ana winds are blowing.

Queen Anne’s lace in snow.

Then Came Friday
The tracks in the snow remind me of all the visitors I have here at the farm. Coyote and deer cross the fields and make ample use of the plowed driveway. Rabbits hop around the house and garage. Mice and voles pop up here and there, their tracks like zippers, sometimes with a snag. Eagles have touched down, have left tracks of wingtips in the snow. I suppose it could be the feathery marks of a hawk or an owl or a turkey vulture, but mostly it is bald eagles that circle the fields, surveying for plunder. They sit singly or in small groups in the trees above the bend in the river. I can see them from the front porch and from the kitchen window, as I do dishes, and I will miss them.

The nation’s weather map is once again benign with a forecast of tranquility. There are some splotches of beige and salmon spilling across my route, warning of things to come, but I should be past those drab splotches before they brighten, or darken, as it were.

Snowman impaled on fir tree.

Waking up in Faribault, Minnesota, checking the weather, which yesterday was, indeed, tranquil. All afternoon, from Duluth to Faribault, I drove straight into the sun. Today in Faribault the high is to be 41; tomorrow’s high is to be -1. But I am on my way to Ottawa, Kansas, where today’s high is forecast at 55. Tomorrow, 18. As it says over at “ ... the Tranquil Weather Pattern Begins to Change ... ”

Ah. How I will miss the patterns of snow.

Later, now, in Ottawa, where it is sunny and nearly 60 degrees. There is no snow except for a few small, grungy, blackened scraps tucked deep into shady corners and creases. The last of the snow, I was told, melted today. Tomorrow, I head to Oklahoma and Texas on the edge of an arctic wind.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

too big for the harness: Steinbeck, love, winter and snowballs, but will Elliott survive?

It is indicative of Elliott’s size that the one-size-fits-all cat harness that I bought for him to wear while traveling across country does not fit him. It is too small. I adjusted to its greatest length the strap that goes behind the front legs and did manage to get it around him and buckled, but then when he lay there on his back, apparently unable to move, eyes wide and tongue sticking out between his teeth, looking all the world like a cinched-up balloon about to pop, I worried. I unbuckled the strap, Elliott rolled away, found his feet, dashed up to the loft.

Later, Elliott tried to fit in this box, which had arrived
from California with a stash of catnip from Cousin Frankie.

It didn’t quite fit either.

Planning for this trip west is proving haphazard at best, and there is no reason not to blame the weather. I admit, the cold did let up a bit toward the end of the week as inserted into the forecast amidst “snow” and “snow showers” was “patchy freezing drizzle,” but nonetheless extreme cold has been no stranger, and not only does it harden water and suck moisture from every pore, by logical extrapolation it also slows brain synapses and motor reflexes, the latter also being severely affected by the rolls and rolls of material we swathe our bodies in, the layers and layers of cotton and wool and flannel and polyester and nylon and rayon and Spandex and fur and faux fur and microfleece and leather and what have you, all these modern, super-age materials designed to keep out the cold or keep in the warmth, all the while “wicking away moisture” as if the cold doesn’t do that well enough on its own, and the more new materials they make, the more we put on.

Yes, winter is playing with my head.

I am obsessed with the temperature. A number of times each day I check the temperature online, and why I do that, I don’t know. The weather is right there, outside the door, and in here, wherever I am. But I look online and see: current temperature 28 degrees. Say what?!? Where’d that blast of warm air come from? I look lower on the screen at the little squares of forecast and see: today’s high 16 degrees. What?!? I look at my thermometer outside there hanging on the edge of the porch and see 10 degrees or 10 below or five or zero or two or one, but never, ever, 28. Maybe 16.

So has the official temperature recorder brought the official thermometer inside to warm up? Or is he (or she) just hittin’ the sauce? Maybe that explains “patchy freezing drizzle.”

It messes with my head.

All this griping—from a person who loves winter! Let me tell you, I love winter. Yes, I did get cranky on a 10 below morning—and another thing, it is mid-December, after all, and the days are narrowing, closing like the curtains of an upper window in a spooky old house where you’ve caught the glimpse of a shadowy figure with a slow, spooky smile, but she (or he) is just an apparition slowly pulling tattered cloth across milky glass  ...—when I had to get up at 4 a.m. because once again the cabin was so cold. I got the fire going, sat next to it covered in blankets and Elliott. A few hours later I decided to head up to Houghton for shopping, and as I traveled north on the icy road I was smacked up the side of my head by the beauty of it all. Along with the cold there has been continual snow—big flakes, small flakes, flurries, showers, driving, gentle, wind-blown, and swirly—and it now lies heavy on branches, rooftops, and power lines (somebody should look at those power lines). It hangs off the roofs of houses, barns, sheds, trailers, and wood huts in massive dips and curls. You wonder how it does hang on, hangs so low, stretches so far.

Discovered out in the field: Snowball trees.

This drive to Houghton is through woods and farmland and one small town with one small grocery, a restaurant, a ballfield, and an abandoned brick schoolhouse. It usually takes 20 or 25 minutes to get from here to there, but on this day, on this ice-covered, washboard road, it took a bit longer, just about long enough to witness a slow December sunrise. As I headed out I noticed behind me, low and to the right, a rippling sheet of lipstick red cloud spreading across the sky. The cloud softened to pink and then became a strange kind of orange. The snow-covered fields and trees and rooftops off to the west and northwest took on hints of pale icy pink with undertones of watery blue. The shift of light and scenery was slow, rhythmic, and, at times, dramatic. When the road turned east for a stretch I looked south across a field, past a barn, and there sat the sun, balanced on the horizon all blazing orange, doing its best to convince us of day.

Winter can be beautiful.

Anywhere can be beautiful.

But somehow to me this here seems uncommonly beautiful.

Thinking about the pending trip and feeling a certain frustration with getting down to the actual planning of it, the details of it, I turned to “Travels with Charley,” which I found, of course, on my Steinbeck shelf. My copy of the book is a hardcover published in 1962. Its dust jacket is yellowed and torn. The book once belonged to Alida V. Forsyth, as best I can make out, as that is the name scrawled in pencil across the top of the inside cover, which displays an illustrated map of the United States. A wobbly line and several small drawings indicate the path that Steinbeck and his dog, Charley, took as they traversed America from New York to California and back in a pick-up truck topped with a camper. Steinbeck named the camper Rocinante.

Here it is. The illustration is by Don Freeman.

I settled into bed and began reading. With the very first page I found relief from some of the reticence and other assorted nonsense that had begun to crop up in my head in relation to my trip.

Steinbeck was 58 when he hatched his plan to travel America, and later, writing about it, he begins by describing a wanderlust that he had yet to outgrow. Now, wanderlust is not the impetus for my trip, though the trip itself might stir up some, and I’m planning nothing like Steinbeck’s several months on the road in a camper, staying in this or that farmer’s field at night (and, when in Chicago, at the Ambassador East Hotel)—heck, I’m just driving to California to spend time with family—but that Steinbeck began his cross-country trek by stating that he was not too old for it, and by doing so admitting, of course, that one might think 58 too old, well, that immediately bolstered me. Because I had, earlier that day, standing at the kitchen sink, thought, I am too old for this, I really should just stay put, just let things be.

“I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself,” Steinbeck wrote.

It’s funny how certain things resonate whether you’re 16 or 56. I have a vague recollection of being a teen-ager reading “Travels with Charley” while sitting out on the patio behind the house where I grew up and falling in love with John Steinbeck and falling in love with writing. While some loves move through us and disappear, others stay. Whether we know it or not.

Along toward the middle of the book, Steinbeck writes about aloneness. It must be a word after all, and I found it then, not in my usual dictionary, the one kept by my chair and consulted last week, but in the larger one, the one that resides in a bookcase up in the loft. Buried deep within the definition of alone, I found: —a·lone′ness, n.

Now I am getting to the details of my trip. I am leaving, maybe, by the end of the week, and Mason City, Iowa, will be my first stop. My mother was born in a farmhouse just a tad northeast of Mason City, near Nora Springs, and that was just about 94 years ago. My mom didn’t care much for the farm. In 1931, the family moved to a house in the town of Aledo, Illinois, and my mom later wrote: “It looked good to me—indoor plumbing and hardwood floors.” Plus, Elliott now has an ID tag. The harness I will exchange for a larger one, perhaps one to fit a small beagle. Or maybe I’ll just get a collar.

I do, of course, relish the dwindling days brought on by winter. The absence of light, the softness of light. This week it has been easy to go up to bed early, but long after dark, to open a book and settle into wanderlust. To head down a road with a poodle and a camper, with love and curiosity.

Yikes. I sure hope that curiosity doesn’t kill the cat.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

the trip long time coming

The hardest day by far was the one that started in the middle of the night in the middle of the week when I got up because it was so darn cold and the fire needed wood and I found the pipes were frozen so I had no water but for a few mason jarfuls that I had gathered from the tap behind the post office, where there’s an artesian well, the last time the pipes were frozen. It was about eight below zero with an unmentionable wind chill and this after days and days of a thermometer creeping up and down within degrees of zero, staying so close to zero it was like a courtship, like a long Fred-and-Ginger dance ending in a swoop and a swirl and a cigarette—if only it would end. I spent much of the morning in the crawlspace, my heat gun aimed at the water pipe that runs along the west wall just underneath the floor. There’s some insulation I jammed up there, not that it does much good, and when I started smelling singed denim (the insulation is made from old ground up and spewed out jeans), I realized I had better be careful and thought of one of my first winters here in the U.P., when the pipes in that house froze. A plumber was called. He took care of it. Later that day I heard a story on the news about a guy who had burned down his house trying to thaw out his water pipes with a heat gun or blowtorch or something and I felt bad for the guy but thought: What an idiot.

In two weeks or so I am leaving the U.P., driving to California with Elliott, my cat, to spend some time with my mother and my sisters. Since my mother moved to California a few years back, I have flown out there for brief visits, but I have not spent more than a few days here and there, now and then. This trip now with no firm timetable is a long time coming.

I first thought of hitting the open road around 2004 or 5 or 6, when events left me alone in this adventure of moving to and living in the U.P. There were times when heading to California, heading to family, seemed the practical thing to do. There was no one and nothing to keep me here, and although it is wild and lovely it can also be rather empty and desolate. My family—my sisters—would have welcomed me. They would have opened their homes, shared their families, shared their friends, just as they do each time I visit.

But I stayed put, and a funny thing happened. I became attached to this place. Sometimes I wonder about the attachment, wonder if I am here because I want to be here or because I have grown attached to this story that I was abandoned in the U.P., made a go of it anyway; have grown attached to the detail of my then-husband leaving one week after arriving, his going back to Chicago, his telling me not to come with him. And lately there is this story of me still being here, living in a cabin on 18 acres of abandoned farmland with a wild, beautiful river running alongside it, a river full of trout and dreams, hovered over by eagles, visited by deer and coyote and wolf. A river that in spring surges so with snowmelt that its banks become redefined, and a river that in summer settles to a gentle meandering flow. A river that now, in winter, freezes over, closing up like a zipper.

Are any of these stories true? None is the whole story (truth and whole stories being hard to know, let alone tell). And the vague difference between action and reaction bothers me. I’m not always sure which I am doing, and somehow it makes a difference, doesn’t it?

During my first few years here, I looked for clues, finding some in quotations, and here’s one I kept, attributed to Hubert Humphrey.
It’s not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left.
What I had was a house, two dogs, and a cat, some cash in the bank, and the remnants of a dream. I decided to stay put, to become a medical transcriptionist. I would live, I thought, on my own, a quiet life in the woods, self-sufficient with an honest job that required nothing but sitting at a computer, listening carefully, getting the words right. I signed up for an online course and began studying.

I loved the books I received—they seemed so official, so clear-cut, so devoid of nonsense—and I enjoyed studying the language of medicine. (If I could recall a bit of it, I would insert here.) I learned there was a logic to the words and that medical mumbo-jumbo was really not mumbo-jumbo, but real words with real meaning. (Again, if I could recall any of it … give you an example … I am trying to recall the word for a droopy eyelid, as that is one I really liked … why does “ptosis” come to mind? Aha! That’s it!) But when it came to listening to the recorded voices of doctors—some with sniffles, some with bits of ham stuck between their teeth—and trying not only to understand the gist of what they were saying but the exact words, well, therein lies the skill. Is it “a” or “the”? “Hyper” or “hypo”? “An” or “and”? I don’t even want to talk about the nit-pickin’ punctuation, which mostly had to do with commas. Wayward slips of punctuation tanked my test scores, and I found it most irritating. Eventually, I quit, as I would the next plan, which was to live a quiet, contented life in the woods as a tax preparer.

One early spring, before my mom moved from Chicago to California, I decided to move back to Chicago. I would find an apartment, I thought, live close by my mom, help her out now that my dad was gone. I would return to my secretarial days at the university and give up on whatever the heck I was trying to do in the U.P. So one lovely day I drove down to look at an apartment, found that the leasing agent I had been corresponding with had lied to me about pets being allowed, and then the dogs and I had a really bad picnic at a Cook County Forest Preserve. It was layered in goose crap. (Canada geese congregate in great hordes throughout the Chicago area, enjoying large, mowed, grassy areas like parks and ballfields and picnic grounds. If the grassy expanse is near water, look out—goose bonanza. There is no getting rid of them, though people were giving border collies a try the last I heard, years ago. Of course border collies love to chase and round up things like sheep and cats and kids and, I guess, Canada geese.) That same day I drove back to the U.P., knowing there I would stay. I had to go through this, I thought, in order to start fresh in my mind, this time with no misconception: I am living in the U.P. and I am on my own.

It disheartens me that I so often end up with this aloneness. Hester had her “A”; must I also have mine? Hers was imposed by others; mine is self-inflicted. Hers was punishment for a crime against Puritan morals; mine is a punishment for … crime perceived? Of course, it is partly my nature. I am capable of spending a great deal of time alone without complaint. But “aloneness” is different, and, apparently, not really a word …

I almost made this trip to California in the spring of 2012, shortly after I moved into the cabin. My mother had had a small stroke, and it changed her life. She had been living independently in an apartment in a senior community that provides for different levels of care, and, at 92, she was enjoying Scrabble tournaments, bridge games, art class, balance class—an array of activities managed on her own. Then, the stroke. Questions arose. Could she continue on her own? Would she need help? What kind of help? Should she move in with one of my sisters? Should she move to an assisted-living unit? What exactly were her capabilities, mentally and physically? Where would she be happiest? Where would she be safest? What would be best? Should I drop everything, go to California, be a part of the assessment and decision-making? Provide hands-on help? Or I should I stay put, not necessarily uninvolved, but certainly nowhere near as involved as my sisters who were right there, always.

An open-ended, cross-country trip was tempting. I would look at Buster, my old dog, the last surviving pet from the good old Chicago days, and imagine us taking off together, finally embarking on this California sojourn, Buster on his last legs, me on an angelic mission, the two of us living for a month or two or maybe even through the summer in a camper by the ocean, enjoying foggy mornings full of salty air, and I would help to take care of my mom during what we all thought were her last, waning days. But the facts. Buster was fairly blind, deaf, and had very weird continence issues that were most prevalent during travel. And I did not want to close up and abandon this cabin. And I did not want to shut down and abandon the beeswax business. So I flew out to California for a week, flew back, and the old dog and I stayed put.

From the start, this trip has scared me, and my fear has been that if I travel across country with animals in tow, maybe I do not come back. It seems a strange fear, perhaps brought on by the romantic notion that traveling an open road can change one, can lead to new ideas, new dreams, to the resurrection of old dreams with new twists. There were times I wanted that these past few years, but I could not leave where I had been left. By staying here, by digging in, I thought I was determining my own future, taking control, but control is, after all, at some point, an illusion.

The time for this trip has come. In a couple of weeks, Elliott and I will drive off in the old, rusty van. We’ll cross snowy plains and mountains, rivers and streams, desert and concrete wasteland. I’ll be thinking of Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat-Moon. I’ll be thinking of my mom, I’ll be thinking of my family. Maybe we’ll stop in the desert, see Louis and Finn. Who knows when we’ll be back, and who knows what stories we’ll find.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

winding down an icy road with 113 pine cones, a few owls, and yes, that’s my beeswax

Back in November, or maybe it was October, somebody put the little beeswax pine cone candle I make in an Etsy treasury. Etsy, of course, is the online sales site I use, and treasuries of items gathered from all around the site are put together by Etsy members, usually with a theme and always with a name. (The one treasury I put together had the theme “bones,” and it was called “bones.”)

My shop on Etsy has been around since July of 2012, and in that time a few of my items have been treasured. But not the pine cone. That is, not until November. The pine cone is now in 38 treasuries, which is really not much by some standards, but this is my life, so these are my standards. The pine cone is in everything from “Jingle Bells” to “vintage” to “Planning the Menu.” Treasuries are fun to look at, and, if you see an item you like, you can click through for a better look. This of course results in more “views” for those items, and—one can only hope—sales.

The treasured beeswax (+ cinnamon!) pine cone.

Indeed, I have sold quite a few little pine cones lately. So many that at one point I let the listing lag as I contemplated how to stay on top of things. Overall in November orders increased 1200 percent over last November. This caught me off guard. Then I realized something. This is my business. I can do what I want. So I increased the price of the little pine cone from $2.50 to $2.75 and relisted it. Am I brilliant or what? It continues to sell.

No, I am not brilliant. I know that. But I do know, if I am reading my stats correctly, and I may not be—these are shop stats provided by Etsy—that in November there were 50 clicks through to the pine cone from one treasury or another. Overall, the pine cone listing was viewed 1,163 times, making it the most viewed page in my shop. (Hmmm, so … ?) On Etsy, people can “favorite” a listing by clicking a button (yes yes, the way of the online world, I know, you “like” me and I “like” you and let’s be “friends” and do the hokey pokey). In November, I picked up 895 “favorites”—606 for the pine cone alone. And, since I am nosing around my stats in more than just a precursory way for the first time ever, I see that in November I sold exactly 113 pine cones. Now, if I had been charging $2.75 all along, that’s $28.25 more in my coffers. Well, not really. Etsy takes a little bit and PayPal, if used, gets a cut. But still.

After the pine cone, in November the page most often viewed in my shop was the shop page (think people browsing in front of an old-fashioned shop window, bundled up against the cold, pointing at this item, that item, snowflakes falling, should they go into the shop? Take a closer look? ... ). The shop page came in at 949 views. After that—hold on to your hats—there is a precipitous drop. The little bear candle comes in third with a mere 139 views. What does it all mean?

And only one treasury listing? Seriously???

Math (which I assume is the core of statistics) has always been somewhat of a struggle for me (I had to consult with someone to get that 1200 percent figure). I prefer anecdotes over numbers. Such as, the little pine cone is so popular I am getting phone calls from Iowa wondering if I could ship some out today … Okay, that just happened once, this past week, but it illustrates my point just as well as 606 “favorites,” doesn’t it? I also got an order this week over the phone from a local customer, not for pine cones, so maybe I am mixing apples and oranges here, but we now know, thanks to the hedge apple and its parent, the Osage orange tree, that apples and oranges do mix, at least in nature, so maybe not so contrary as we think, and all this has nothing to do with Etsy, but I like this story about the guy who orders in bulk the bee-motif pillar candle and lights them, one at a time, while meditating. Last time he ordered he also got some of the beeswax sheets I make for rolled candles, and he is now rolling his own, softening the sheets in a toaster oven. He shared photos.

A beeswax moment captured by S. Benkarski.

Statistics are interesting, and if I could figure out how to use them, I am sure they would be even more interesting. But, as I said, I like stories. For instance, it was a dark and stormy night. Freezing rain pelted the little cabin, infiltrated drifts of snow. The wind howled. Things rumbled and clanked and I wondered if panels of the roof were about to blow off. Late the next morning, I drove to the post office. A woman in Iowa needed pine cone candles. My wheels spun and churned in the driveway even though it had just been plowed, even though my tires are designed for snow. I barely got out. Perhaps it was the consistency of the frozen-rain-soaked snow. Out on the road, ice. By the looks of it, underneath sprays of sand and salt, about an inch of ice. I drove carefully, 25 miles an hour, noticing, along the way, a bright magenta pick-up truck scraping snow from a drive; and the apples yet hanging on the apple trees were shriveled and brown beneath dreadlocks of snow; and the howling wind, where was it? There was a stark quiet and stillness. Then the van was pelted with snow and ice pellets thrown up by someone’s snowblower.

Alternatively, the stats: High of 34, low of 14 with a wind chill of -5. High wind speed of 35 mph with gusts of up to 47 mph. No precipitation. (All that freezing rain must have happened before midnight.)

Drupes and droops of snow circa December 2013.

Meanwhile, over at Walmart, I dwell upon their seasonal come-on, plastered on signs and bins all around the store. It goes something like: Get more Christmas for your money. As if Christmas could be bought. As if you can get more Christmas by buying more things. At Walmart. Well, of course. That’s what we do, isn’t it. So apparently that’s what we believe. That Christmas can be bought. Really? Is that what we believe? I wonder what the ratio is. (Is that the right term?) I mean, exactly how much more Christmas can you get for your dollar at Walmart?

Well, perhaps I should stick to beeswax and pine cones. And now owls. Since Friday, 10 of 16 orders have either been solely for or included a cinnamon owl. (That’s 62.5 percent, right?) I have nosed around my shop stats seeking a reason for this sudden uptick in owls, but all I come up with is this: Late last week owls entered the consciousness of many, and therefore for owls they searched, and for a lucky few my cinnamon-beeswax owl they found. Which reminds me ...
If Owl has oriented on you, you can be certain that an aspect of your life is going to change, in a big way. Some people believe that Owl only comes to those things that are about to die. Do not fear, though, for this does not mean physical death as much as it means the letting go of some part of you that is not serving you. … Thank Owl for its willingness to guide you through its shadowy realm.
I quoted that passage from “Animal Energiesback on August 11, too.

Who? Me?

For the record, at this moment, 6:45 a.m. 12/8/2013, the outside thermometer reads -5. According to the National Weather Service, the temperature is -2 , there is a 9 mph south wind, and the wind chill is -18. Light snow is predicted.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

early winter, a wayward ash bucket, and them dogs in a shed: a diary from the upper peninsula

Now this week, here. Enveloped in snow and cold. This morning hearing the wind. The very sound and wail of cold as it wraps around the cabin seeking a way in. Winter falls like a shroud with deep folds. It is dark here, only dim light coming through. It takes a minute or two to get used to, then the comfort of the shroud takes hold. The quiet of it, the stillness of it, the way it eases the eye. The wind has stripped all but the evergreens, and the snow has buried the duff. Now only bones and needles. And, surprisingly enough, apples.

There is nothing better for solitude than early winter. I used to think solitude romantic, but I have been made aware that I see many things that perhaps I should not through a romantic lens, so sometimes I try to take a step back, try to see things in other ways, and I have thought of solitude as scary, mysterious, natural, unnatural, precious, impossible, unattainable, a prison, a freedom, a luxury. Yesterday I thought of solitude as a need as simple as water. When there is thirst, you drink.

More snow overnight.

Looking out.

This morning I need my ash bucket—the ash in the woodstove is a few inches thick—but it is not where I thought it would be. I thought I was ready for this cold and snow. The water pipes froze Saturday because I left open a vent in the crawlspace, a vent that is directly in front of a pipe. But I didn’t know that until Sunday when I was on the phone with a plumber and he asked if any vents in my crawlspace were open. I said no, I closed them a month ago. Then I went down to the crawlspace and looked. I thought I was ready for winter. Maybe once I find that ash bucket, I will be.

Thursday - Thanksgiving
Yesterday a morning of bright, unpredicted sunshine. It helped to warm the cabin, which started out icy cold. I got a number of candle orders out to the post office and dropped the van at Jerry’s for an oil change and a change of tires. As I was loading my snow tires into the van, old spring mud rubbed off on my jacket.

Alien landscape, northern style.

This morning I awoke with a rhyme in my head.
I am thankful for my head and my feet,
I am thankful for the food I eat.
I am thankful for my nose and my tail,
I am thankful for the U.S. mail.
I am thankful for each hair on my head,
I am thankful for a nice warm bed.
I am thankful for each day as it dawns,
I am thankful for my nightly yawns.
It needs a little work. It could go on and on.

Mid-morning I walked to Jerry’s to pick up my van. Halfway there, I heard a dog crying. The noise was coming from a shed at the end of a short driveway that I was passing. Last year two draft horses were removed from this place, and the horses now live at Starry Skies Equine Rescue and Sanctuary. The guy who lives here, who had the horses, was fined $10,000 and told he could no longer keep horses. The case was in court last month. There was a story about it in the local paper.

There were no cars or trucks in the driveway, just tire tracks. I hesitated. The dog yowled. A neighbor came from across the road and together we went into the shed, which was open on one side. In the shed were two dogs, I think sled dogs, Alaskan huskies, which are popular here in the U.P. One was on a leash attached to the north wall, and the other, the yelping one, was on a leash that was attached to a pole that the dog had circled two or three times, her leash now wound tight around the pole, giving her a tether of about 6 inches. This did not stop her from leaping and jumping as I approached. I grabbed on to her and held her close, trying to contain her movement. Both dogs had bowls of food, but neither had water, and the crying one, in her wound up state, could not reach her food. A small cow, maybe a calf, stood quietly in a pen in the northeast corner.

The neighbor got some water and brought it to the dogs. A car pulled into the driveway and the person in the car began yelling at us, telling us to get off the property. This was not the owner of the dogs. I had never met this person. But my neighbor knew this person, and I was quickly reminded that this is a small place with big, long relationships. A shouting match was not going to help those dogs in the shed, so I left and walked on up the road to my van. Once back home, I called the sheriff’s office to tell them about the two dogs tied up in a shed without water at this place where last year two horses had been neglected and starved. The officer I talked to said he would tell the animal control officer. In a few days, or maybe tomorrow or Saturday, I will call again to follow up.

Many years ago, on a particularly hot Fourth of July, another woman and I removed a dog from a bad situation. This dog was guarding a construction site, but he had been left alone over a long holiday weekend without food and water, and when we offered both he became wiggly as a pup. The dog was confined in a space that was becoming increasingly dirty. We cased the joint for a day or two, keeping the dog fed and hydrated, considering our options, and then, in an operation reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel, we got that dog out of there. What a pussycat. The hardest thing about moving him was that he weighed 200 pounds and only wanted to sit in your lap. But he settled nicely into the local shelter, eventually got adopted, reportedly became a couch potato. And you know, nobody ever came looking for that dog.

Long icicles hang from the front porch, dripping. I found the ash bucket out by the wood, which was not a bad place for it to be.

Looking back.

No thoughts. Just plans. Two below zero and not a breath of wind.

I called the sheriff’s office and was told the dogs’ owner had returned from Wisconsin and therefore the dogs are being cared for. Also, the owner is threatening charges of trespass. Remember Alfred E. Neumann of Mad Magazine?

Except, maybe I am worried about them dogs.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

gambling in the valley of fire, star trek, a severe weather alert, tom jones, shooting deer, and frozen water pipes, or ... it’s not unusual

Last weekend was not the first time I was in Vegas. About 35 years ago I was there, stopping briefly while traveling across country from Chicago to Santa Barbara with my sister and her husband and two cats in a dusty, old, white station wagon, hauling a trailer full of stuff. They were moving to their first house; I was headed to a term of study in Mexico. In a message to me before my trip last weekend, my sister said:
Remember when we drove through there ... We went in one of the casinos and you put in one coin and hit the jackpot and walked out.
My memory is slightly different. As I recall, my sister allowed Jim and I exactly 30 minutes in Vegas, and yes, my sister runs a pretty tight ship. The whole trip was well organized with snacks consisting of saltines and sardines (or were those our meals?). We changed drivers every two to three hours to stay fresh. It was August, and Elvis was all over the radio.

Meanwhile, Id like to share this picture from the Valley of Fire
State Park, which is just outside of Vegas. See Picasso?

I remember it was dusk as we drove into Vegas, coming down out of some mountains, the city a beckoning glow in the middle of a darkening, flat expanse, like a pat of neon margarine in the middle of a burnt pancake. The only life at the end of a bleak highway. Beyond the glow, shadows and more dark, and beyond that a pale thin sunset stretching for miles.

And here we see a funky monkey head, right?

My brother-in-law and I were excited to try our luck on The Strip, and with exactly one half hour to play, the pressure was on. The pressure felt good. Like a challenge. I traded a dollar bill or maybe two for a cupful of nickels and settled into the slot machines, dropping coins, pulling levers, anticipating the clinkety-clink and clackety-clack and … nothing. Repeat. Then, in the twenty-ninth minute on my last nickel a racket of proverbial silver came tumbling out of my machine, and it made me panic, and it made me smile. I gathered up my coins, carted them over to the cashier, got me a twenty-dollar bill.

So which story is true? Did I win on the first nickel or the last? My sister’s story turned prophetic, for last Friday I was in a casino (anywhere you go in Vegas is a casino, from the gas station to the sushi bar), and Louis gave me a dollar to play. (Note: This casino was nowhere near as freaky as the one that looked like Paris. As a matter of fact, I liked this casino just fine.) I picked a machine—are they still called slot machines?—and sat down. I addressed the machine in a subdued yet Nortonesque-like manner, inserted the dollar bill, pulled the lever. Things whirled and spun and a chip of paper spit out, like the parking stub you get at the airport. Eventually, with a little help, I figured out I had won five dollars. The cashier turned out to be another machine, and with reluctance I let that machine suck away the stub of paper that proclaimed my winnings. When the machine spit out a five dollar bill, I relaxed. Okay. I get it. I gave the five back to the machine in exchange for five ones, paid Louis back his dollar, and went on my merry way, done with gambling for another 35 years.

Back on the home front, one of my favorite things popped up Thursday. A Severe Weather Alert.
Friday was sunny and mild, but along about 5:30, I saw this severe weather lurking behind the trees.

Soon it came rolling in.

By Saturday morning, with barely 10 degrees on the thermometer, a strong northwest wind, and an inch of snow by the door, Elliott’s paws were making a quick crunch crunch crunch as he dashed out. By Saturday night, the water pipes were frozen.

The Valley of Fire and the Vegas Strip are oddly similar. Both are testaments to creativity in the School of Non-Subtlety. The School of How Odd Can You Get. The School of How Grand Can It Be. At the Valley of Fire, the woman in the gift shop asked if we were Star Trek fans, then told us that Capt. Kirk’s death scene had been filmed just up the road in the Canyon of Fire. I searched for this death scene on YouTube, which you are free to watch, and found another scene filmed in the Valley of Fire. (Yes, I’m just guessing, but pretty sure). It’s a lot funnier than Kirk’s demise, especially along about 2:37.

If you are interested in a more serious look at the Valley, but not without its aliens, watch this video. The videographer walks to Mouse’s Tank, which is also what Louis and Finn and I did.

By now, with all this audiovisual, I am wondering if there is such a thing as The Vegas Influence. A lingering Las Vegas sensation. Perhaps Vegas is why I chose to play my Tom Jones DVD while working on candles the other day. I recently bought a portable DVD player / CD player / radio / TV (if only I could get a station) that fits nicely on top of my refrigerator.

See? There’s Tom. In my cabin.

My appreciation for Tom Jones came late in life—which may be the only way it does come—and the inclination, of course, is to share a video of him in his bow tie and ruffled shirt, dancing to beat the band and the ladies, but I decided on this clip instead.

The DVD set I have is a compilation of segments from Tom Jones’ TV show from the late sixties and early seventies, and on it are some of the duets he did with his guests. He sang not only with Burt Bacharach, but with Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Joe Cocker, and Janis Joplin. (The best duet by far is with Janis.)

I suppose the fact that I like Tom Jones indicates that there is, indeed, a little Vegas in my soul. And just as Vegas is more than The Strip, so is Tom Jones more than, well, whatever you might think.

Due to the Severe Weather Alert, I had decided Friday to skip the Saturday market in Marquette. Instead, Saturday morning I lollygagged about the cabin and took my usual walk to the river. The thermometer remained just south of ten degrees, but the wind was not bad and the snow had paused at a depth of about three inches. A number of deer and coyote tracks crossed my trail, and, as usual, I got gaga over the Queen Anne’s lace, now sporting jaunty caps of snow.

Heading back to the cabin, I heard a shot. Then another, and another. Five in all, close together, and closer to me than I’d ever heard before. From each I could feel a slight reverberation. It’s not unusual this time of year to hear shots. People have gone into the woods, climbed up into trees, hid behind blinds, are shooting deer.

And did I mention my pipes are frozen?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

the big two-parted week

Part One (earlier in the week)
Up early on a morning that is darker than night. The waxing moon has set; its light no longer reflects off the snow, no longer lightens the windows. Like an old Kleenex, I nestle into this pocket of time that seems to be neither day nor night, just somewhere between where I take refuge. It is cold, frightfully cold for November, and a fire struggles to find its warmth.

Boxes stacked by the door, packages destined for thither and yon. “Thither and yon” reminding me of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, but which one? “Thither and yon.” Was it Fred’s funny little valet who said it? Perhaps. I should watch all those movies again, see if that valet says “thither and yon.”  Maybe watch the movies this winter as the cold settles in.

Prior to being boxed up for thither and yon.

All day the thermometer hovers just above 20 degrees. An occasional blast from the west wind. A bit of snow, but not much. Once in a while drifting clouds break apart. A startling sun. An eagle hunkered down in the snowy branches over the bend in the river, by the island.

Thither the eagle.

Elliott had thought he was going to spend the night out but in the middle of the night I got up and called him in. In the morning I see his pawprints making a straight line through the snow from garage to front door.

Part Two (later in the week)
I am in Nevada at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on the outskirts of Las Vegas. I am walking through a canyon with Louis. Sun fills the whole huge sky and a light, dusty wind blows cool in the shadows. Underfoot a rocky trail and rocks all around. Loose rock, jutting rock, soaring rock. Rocks that fold and rocks that jag. Rocks that form crevasses and caves with mysterious hidden interiors. Bold, bald-faced rocks streaked with earthy colors that shift with each movement of the sun. When my foot slips across loose rock my attention is drawn down, but with each new step new vistas appear and rocks also draw my attention up.

Thither and yon, another new vista.

Along the jagged outline of a ridge to our south, two desert bighorn sheep. They stand still, posing. We stand still, take pictures. We walk on, looking up occasionally, keeping track of the sheep, and eventually they move down the face of a boulder, disappear.

Over yon stood bighorn sheep.

Saturday I walk into a casino. Overhead a pale blue sky smudged with thin white clouds seems to go on forever. It takes me a moment to realize that the sky is actually a ceiling. I am enclosed in a mock rendering of the streets of Paris. I am enclosed in a Las Vegas casino. I see a bronze (or bronze-like) statue of a frumpily jacketed man caught in mid-stride as he stoops slightly over a push broom collecting ahead of him a pile of dust and debris. Is this the first thing I see? Even before the pale blue painted sky? I am not sure. Surely it is unimportant, but it is the only thing in the whole immense, cacophonous enclosure designed and built to look like Paris that I do remember clearly. That statue and the blue painted sky and the bathroom. (There was a ladies room so big I walked through two broad rooms of sinks before getting to more rooms lined with hundreds of stalls. I was the only one there. The only person in this immense bathroom. An oasis echoing with emptiness. Everyone else outside, on the streets of Paris.) I keep thinking about that statue, cannot figure out why one bronze, life-size sculpture of a street sweeper. On the streets of Paris.

Sometimes, high levels of noise and visual sensation freeze my brain, scoop the life right out of me, and such was the effect of the Paris casino. Later, still somewhat numb, I felt sure that no time soon would I find that pocket I always seem to need in order to clear my head and make sense of things. That no time soon would I find space in which to sift through it all and pick out the few words that could maybe wrap my week up into a neat little package, no matter how clumsily tied.

Is where I find peace so immalleable? Must these pockets I take refuge in be of such specific time and space? Can they not happen in a desert?

But I know nothing is immalleable.

I was listening to Louis talk about Vegas and Nevada and canyons and casinos, about his story and some of the steps and stumbles that have moved him through his life and to this place. It was somewhat of a ramble, but maybe more pointed, but my listening did ramble, and I came to a place I did not expect. I came to a comfortable pocket where I found one sentence. Sometimes, I thought, it simply helps to listen to another person’s story.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

the incredible saga of hedge apples and fear

Saturday about four a.m. and a cold November rain drums on the cabin’s metal roof. A log has flared in the woodstove and firelight dances across the chestnut-stained wood ceiling. Either one or both of these things has awakened me, and I listen and watch as hedge apples and fear run through my mind. They seem to be like apples and oranges. No relation. And that brings up one thing about hedge apples: If the fruit of the Osage orange can be called an apple, how different can apples and oranges be?

The fear from earlier in the week has passed, so I focus on the hedge apple. The funky fruit that is neither an apple nor an orange has been on my mind as an old friend from the Chicago area has been writing about them in his near-daily online “ramble.” These rambles bring together Dale’s morning walk and his rambling mind, and a couple of months ago hedge apples started falling and scattering across his path, something they have been doing, apparently, all his life. Dale and hedge apples have a history, and Dale’s wife believes in hedge apple magic.

So my old friend has been writing about hedge apples. He tells us how many he sees and where he sees them and what shape they are in. He tells us what this might indicate about the weather and the state of the world (though with that last I might be exaggerating), and he provides the occasional hedge apple snapshot. He informs us that every time he picks up a hedge apple to take home to his wife this makes her happy. That, in turn, will make him happy. And we have read tales of hedge apple bowling, which is a fine outdoor activity for kids. What interested me most, though, was the hedge apple’s reputation for repelling household pests. And I wondered: Could hedge apples rid my cabin of cluster flies?

It was, indeed, the dawn of a new cluster fly season when Dale started writing about these magic apples from the orange tree, and even though I had already taken the drastic measure of using poison to kill the flies, there were yet some die-hards creeping in and clustering on the windows, mostly, I noted, between one and five in the afternoon. I thought Dale might send me some hedge apples through the mail so I could experiment with their repellent capabilities, but alas. Some fear of the post office was expressed, of possibly breaking rules, and the hedge apples never arrived. I resigned myself to not experimenting with hedge apples vs. cluster flies and merely continued to enjoy Dale’s reporting on the millions and thousands of hedge apples that he was seeing, that I would never see, could never see, not up here, not so far north, not where the Osage orange does not grow.

Then, all of a sudden, bam. Last Saturday. Hedge apples atop the muffin case. In Babycakes. On Washington Street. In Marquette. Two glowing green hedge apples just sitting there like radiated brains. Where did they come from? How did they get there?

“Hey, did you see these hedge apples?!?”

I had stopped at Babycakes to get a cup of Earl Greyer tea to go. Babycakes is a warm, spit-and-polished-wood-type place with overflowing muffins and scones in a glass case and teas and coffees from around the world displayed behind the counter—the very same counter that has those homemade dog biscuits in a glass jar by the register. Babycakes smells of baked apples, cinnamon, and dark roast, and it always sounds soft and murmury as folks relax at a few small tables and sip and eat and chat and read or stare at electronic devices. Lately when I stop at Babycakes I am so focused on my mission of getting that cup of Earl Greyer to go that I take little notice of all this—except for that one time, that incident with the dog treats—and then, last Saturday, there were the hedge apples, all convoluted and bright appley green sitting on top of the muffin case next to one of those raised cake display things in which, if I remember correctly, there was some kind of pie.

I was standing in a short line and two fellows fell in behind me so I started talking hedge apples. One said he needed some fresh hedge apples as the spiders in his basement were beginning to build up, and the other said he had noticed hedge apples for sale a month or so ago at Econo, a local grocery store.

Say what? Hedge apples at Econo?

So everybody already seems to know all about hedge apples, and you can get them anywhere and everywhere—Econo, Amazon, eBay, and For all I know, Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have been busy prescribing hedge apples to cure all ills, personal and societal, and Martha Stewart has taken it a step further and shown us how to make centerpieces and wreaths and candle molds from this marvelously textured fruit.

I didn’t have time right then to race over to Econo to see if they still had hedge apples for sale, but later in the week I stopped at the Econo up in my area, in Houghton. I did not see any hedgies. A couple of days later I called the Marquette Econo and spoke with a guy in produce.

“Do you have hedge apples?”


“Hedge apples. I heard that a while back you had hedge apples.”

“You mean hedge balls?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“We have hedge balls, for the spiders.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. They’re kind of green and bumpy.”

“Yeah. OK. Hedge apples, hedge balls, what’s the difference. How much are they?”

“Ninety-nine cents each.”

“Do you know where they come from? I mean, they don’t grow around here, do they?”

“I don’t know. I think maybe they come from Indiana. Somewhere down there.”

“And you have them now?”

“Yeah. I’m looking at, oh, about three dozen or so right now.”

“Wow. Great. Thank you.”

So on my way to the Winter Market I stop at Econo to get some hedge apples, I mean hedge balls. It is about 9 a.m., and as I take pictures I notice an Econo staffer eyeing me. I ask her about the laminated sign that rests on top of the hedge balls, wanting to know who wrote it because it is written, at least in part, in first person and weaves a tail of “Old-timers in Iowa” and how with toothpicks “us children” would make animals out of hedge balls before “mom” put them around the house to banish spiders. The staffer said she didn’t know who wrote the sign, but she did know that Econo sells a lot of hedge balls. I said I was interested to see if they kept flies away and she said yeah, that would be great. Flies and wasps. Her boyfriend, she said, had got stung by a wasp last night in bed.

I bought six hedge balls and took them to the market with me. They are a little ripe, which is how this woman at Econo described them, but they have a nice citrusy smell with a touch of fresh apple. At the market, some folks knew all about the apples and their anti-spidery qualities; others were hedge ball neophytes. I was happy to share what I knew about hedge apple balls, making sure to clarify that it was all just rumor and innuendo. As far as I know, the effectiveness of these apples in any capacity has not been scientifically tested, and, as we all know, if it ain’t scientifically tested, it just ain’t so.

Now, if you are any kind of regular reader of this journal, you know I have a book called Animal Energies that describes the habits and ways of various animals and extrapolates meaning from those habits and ways that humans might well pay attention to, especially if such-and-such an animal has entered your life in some way. Oh! If only there were a book called Funky Fruit & Vegetable Energies. If there were, I would be looking up Hedge Apple and reading:

If Hedge Apple has entered your life …

Because, as I said, hedge apples and fear were the concurrent thoughts in my head at 4 a.m. and most of the week. The fear passed, and no, it had nothing to do with spiders. It was not nearly so concrete. It was more a state of mind that manifested as fear, grabbing onto bits and snippets of the past, the future, and the right now, and basically sticking to whatever it could to give itself substance. To make it real. And it was astoundingly successful.

If Hedge Apple has entered your life …

Hedge Apple did not banish Fear. If anything, Fear banished Hedge Apple. Fear distracted me, kept me at bay, kept me working hard to work around it, delayed me, pissed me off.

If Hedge Apple has entered your life …

But I couldn’t do anything about it. The fear.

But I did share it.

And that made it better.

But ultimately, I believe, it just righted itself.

If Hedge Apple has entered your life …

Oh. I know what Dale would say.

If Hedge Apple has entered your life, perhaps it is time to see the dichotomy that is inherent to all life and welcome the tension it brings as well as the magic it can create.

Though Dale, I suspect, would say it in far fewer words.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

just another pea picklin’ week, but i’m calling it an international photojournal with drops of water

Late Thursday afternoon Elliott and I walked to the river and down along its near stretch. It was drizzling, as it had been all day, though perhaps misting is a better word. At times there was an honest-to-goodness, no-nonsense rain, at other times nothing, but most often just this little bit of something and a steady fog. A heady aroma of cedar and spruce steeped in the moisture, and drops of water hung from bare branches and old berries.

Drops of water #1.

These drops caught my eye, I suppose, because they did not drop, after all, but rather hung there in suspense, not moving a whit. They must have dropped eventually, but I did not see it.

Drops of water #2.

Elliott had spent most of the day in his nest of coats, the fleece coats that used to belong to Buster. This nest, which includes a few other things, such as a pair of my socks neatly rolled and tucked, developed a while back, shortly after Buster died. I piled his things in the middle of the floor intending to get rid of them, but then couldn’t, so shoved the pile in a corner. Elliott did the rest, and for quite a while this past spring it is where he slept. But Elliott likes to move around a bit, a bit like Goldilocks, only not so quick to judge, and after favoring one nest for a month or so he moves on to another, say the laundry basket or the corner of the sofa. But now he’s back in Buster’s old coats, and that makes me happy.

Wednesday night I heard wolves howling. I was snuggled under my covers and the wolves were somewhere out there in the woods, maybe along the river, and at first I thought coyotes, as usual, but the howling stayed pure, no yipping, no barking, no vast array of vocalization and jocularity as there always seems to be with those coyotes. Wednesday night it was just a howl starting low and deep and rising up hollow-like but full, too, spreading out all the way to the moon and stars, whatever little sliver of moon there was beyond the beads of fog. The door was open a crack to let in the air, and in came the howl, too. Then another, and another. The next night and the night after it was just those crazy coyotes bouncing their jokes around, hamming it up.

Earlier in the week, an early morning of about 15 degrees. The dew was caught off guard. It froze solid to dead flowers and grass. Though if the flower heads hold seeds, how can they be dead? And if their roots are alive, well.

Drops of water #3.

And much earlier in the week a flurry of photos came in from America’s Great Southwest and from Italy. The photos seemed to arrive all at once, like a cascade. Many were of signs, like this one.

Photo by L.P. Gallucci

Many were of dogs, like this little guy.

Photo by J. Williams

And some were of graffiti.

“The beautiful things in my life are not things.”
Photo by P.T. Allen

Receiving all these photos made me feel as if something was happening, as if maybe I too was elsewhere. All these other elsewheres with blue skies and rattlesnakes and funny dogs and leaning towers and buildings with blank walls that people scribble upon. But clearly that was not the case. Clearly I was just here and it was just another ordinary week of candlemaking, of walking with Elliott to the river, of noticing lingering raindrops, and of thinking hey, maybe I’ll write about this.

Photo by P.T. Allen