Category Archives: Work

Transitions

I haven’t written in a while. It’s been months, in fact, months of upheaval and transition. When I wrote last, I lived in a small apartment in Missoula, Montana, was surrounded by an abundance of dear friends, and worked several part-time jobs, none of them enough to make ends meet. The last time I had a chance to think, the lilacs were heavy and purple in my backyard, and I stared at them from my yellow couch, which at the time sat on the porch before moving to a new home. The late spring sun soaked into me, and I let it roast my shoulders, imagining that this was all the summer I would get.

Since then, I have moved out of my apartment of five years, packed away most of my belongings, said too many goodbyes, drugged my cat, and driven 2,000 miles (cat in car) from Montana to interior Alaska. I don’t know when I will return to Montana. I drove north into winter, from flurries in Jasper the first night, up into the high mountains of British Columbia, to cold nights and frost heaves in the Yukon, and into a blizzard and two feet of snow in Denali. I have moved into a dry cabin, purchased my first car, and started two jobs. I have watched the snow recede from around my cabin into deep yellow puddles as the weather went from twenty degrees to seventy-five. From icy wind whistling through the cracks in our log cabin, we’ve seen an influx of mosquitoes and flies. In the last two weeks, the aspen have greened with sticky buds, and the puddles have soaked into the tundra, and flowers have exploded everywhere. On a hike recently, we found rich purple Pasque flowers – harbingers of spring! – wind flowers, rock jasmine, alp lily, the beginnings of Lapland diapensia, pink wooly lousewort, mountain avens, low-bush cranberry blooms. Even better than the flowers, though, more fitting with my mood, was a large mound of coyote scat, white with hair and chipped bones. I leaned over the scat and poked at it with a stick, touched the hard ivory fragments of bone.

Now I sit at my table and stare out at white spruce and my outhouse and green aspen. I sip wine and try to think about transitions. But there is something indigestible about the move I just made, something that sticks in my throat. I swallowed this move whole, both the parts that I needed, and the parts that claw me on the inside until I bleed. It is wrong to leave friends I love, friends who sustain and nurture me. It is impossible to turn my back on the low golden hills of Missoula, the towering cumulus clouds, the easy camaraderie of knowing a place well. I hug Alaska friends in greeting, but the goodbyes are still too fresh, and I tear up though I should be joyful. Oversized mosquitoes buzz my head at night and I curse their blood-lust, though my brief pain is their sustenance.

So here I am. Still reeling. Trying to figure out where I want and need to be.

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Filed under Denali National Park, Home, Montana, Nature, Seasonal Life, Self, Uncategorized, Work

Holy

This morning I went for a run up in the foothills of the Bitterroots above Hamilton, up toward Blodgett Canyon. It was a gray morning, with wet clouds hanging low over the mountains, and occasional droplets that misted against my face. Snow lined the road in slushy strips. I ran past paw prints, grouse tracks like little dinosaurs, and some sort of small pattering animal prints that skittered around on the shoulder before darting off into the woods. I saw bigger prints, obscured by melting snow. I imagined a mountain lion pacing along the road at dawn when the snow was fresh several days earlier. The jagged rock slabs of the canyon above me slid into the mist.

When I ran back toward my friends’ home, the neighbors were burning piles of brush beside the road. The flames leapt up at the sky and I caught a whiff of the smoke, sharp and pine sweet. All of a sudden, with that remarkable transporting mechanism that scent works on our brains, I was in Cairo, in a Coptic church, watching the priest walk up the aisle in his rounded hat, incense thick in the air. I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, I was in the tiny Palestinian Roman Catholic church in the village, and the priests walked through the high dim stone buildings, twirling incensors back and forth, walking through fragrant puffs of white smoke.

The wood smoke I ran through gave me a similar feeling, of being somewhere holy. But absent was the sense that I had to be proper, or exhibit the right amount of piety or reverence. Out there I could leap in the air like a leggy colt if the spirit moved me, and no one would care. Out there it was just me in my mismatched running clothes and the old guy in the rubber boots who tossed branches on the flames. The deer stood looking at me from the meadows, and I could feel the eyes of small animals and birds hidden away in the shrubs as I passed. The trees arched over the dirt road, creating an airy sanctuary. Small streams ran clear with a bright sound.

I didn’t feel the exclusion that I sometimes felt in human holy places, that I didn’t belong, that I didn’t understand the rites or the language or the belief behind each precise choreographed movement. Instead, I felt that in my limited human way, I could partake in this place. I felt a kinship with the man I saw moving through the latticed brushwork as he tended the fire. The careful way he tossed armfuls of branches into the flames. The quiet morning, the gentle crackle of twigs in the fire. This was his place, and he was a part of it, the wood smoke and the wild turkeys and the tangled undergrowth.

I ran on past him. The rain was on my face, the smoke perfumed my hair. I was just another animal leaving its tracks in the snow.

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Filed under Montana, Nature, Work

Choppin’ Wood

Rain drips in syncopated streams from the roof of the wooden shed. Out in the yard, disconsolate donkeys stand in soft mud, large heads nosing towards the ground. They have thin brown stripes across their shoulders and down their backs, and their manes stand up like little red mohawks. Their ears are stiff folded velvet, and swivel to create a variety of expressions. Little Eeyores, Britta calls them. I love their dusty fawn gray hair and their patient thoughtful expressions as I scratch between their ears. I feel my heart open up and it is painful and sweet. I imagine a life with donkeys in it, their sweet affectionate presence in my yard, the way we’d go on walks together, the way they would come to meet me and recognize my smell. We’d have a special bond, these donkeys and I.

Perhaps I am guilty of a fairly typical romanticizing of rural life to which we urbanites are prone. The longing for connection to animals, to feel from them some kind of meaningful response to our presence. The idealization of life out here in the crisp air, picturing the smell of wood smoke and skipping over the blisters and sore shoulders that result from chopping wood.

I leave the damp chewed wooden fence, where the donkeys come to meet their admirers. They lift their lips and let out soft brays, watch our retreating forms with wet black eyes.

Back under the shed, Yvonne and Adam and Craig are chopping wood with mauls. A maul is a large heavy axe used for splitting wood. Lindsay has gathered several cords worth of rounds, and she has invited us over for a lumberjack party, to assist her in splitting the rounds into smaller burnable chunks of wood. This is her heat for the winter, which looms closer and closer. It snowed up here in Butler Creek last night, though it has since melted off, leaving muddy roads and cold wet grass, pocked with remnant lumps of snow.

I have a confession to make. I have never chopped wood before. In Montana, I feel that this admission is a major faux pas, which brands you indelibly and makes people look at you differently. As if your hands are as soft as a donkey’s nose. Like you don’t know how to take care of your basic needs. Which is fairly true, in my case.

I’ve lived in Alaska, summers, and have now been a denizen of Missoula for almost five years. I feel that Alaska and Montana give me some cred. I now go backcountry camping and can my own tomatoes, and have had bear encounters, and can identify some plants and birds. Though really, I’m still the same city girl that the Olsons took under their wing, many years ago when I was growing up in rural Minnesota.

“You’ve never been FISHING?” they asked in alarm, their Norwegian souls cringing at the thought.

So, they took me fishing. “Here, help row the boat,” they told me. I grabbed the oars and enthusiastically slapped them into the lake with a splash. The oars skipped over the surface of the water and the force of my pull made me fall backward off the seat, oars flying akimbo in the air. I can still see Gary’s face above me in the boat, reddened by sun and laughter, big shoulders shaking in silent paroxysms.

Not to be remiss about any part of my education, they also took me snowmobiling, bundling me up in old boots, slapping a helmet on my head, and schooling me in the important differences between Arctic Cats and Skidoos. “Don’t fall off,” they instructed after we climbed onto the sled. I would grip the waist of whichever Olson sat in front of me, they gunned the machine, and we zoomed away in a flurry of ice crystals. Did they hit the bumps on purpose to see if I’d fall off? To this day I’m not sure, but fall off I did, over and over, in a tumbled snow crusted heap. I would lay there and listen to the receding roar of the snowmobile as it circled around to pick me up, and look up at the glittering Minnesota night sky.

I could go on, about the time we shot clay pigeons, and eating shit-on-a-shingle, and the many other ways that the Olsons educated me. We both enjoyed our respective roles, I think: I as the ignorant yet enthusiastic novice, and they as the seasoned outdoors-people.

I think of the Olsons as I reach for the yellow handle of the maul. I eye the round of wood and imagine what advice they would offer. “Just don’t hit your foot.” Deep breath, raise the maul over my head (my lord is it heavy!) and swing it down toward the block. Where it dings feebly and chips a tiny quarter inch deep into wood. “Aim for the crack,” onlookers call helpfully. Aim? Ha! I heft the maul again and swing, trying not to picture an axe wound in my leg.

And miraculously find the crack! The round splits in two and falls off the block. I shout in triumph, and lean the maul against the block, wipe my brow, and reach for my whiskey, grateful that my comfort this winter does not depend on my skill with a maul.

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Filed under Minnesota, Nature, Work

Of Rosehips, Scrumping, and Bear Shit

I wake up in a log house in the mountains, surrounded by aspen and ponderosa. After a leisurely morning of reading in companionable silence, sipping coffee and watching the wind harry the golden aspen leaves outside, some friends and I set off into the woods around the house. Above us tower the Bitterroot Mountains and Blodgett Canyon. Blocked by pines and just out of sight below stretches Hamilton, and across the valley the Sapphires are dusted with snow.

First we check on some century old half-wild apple trees, to see if there are any apples left for us. Nary a fruit is to be found, but I do step in an enormous pile of bear shit, orange-brown, with the appearance and texture of apple butter. It is late October, and the bears must be well into hyperphagia. I can’t begrudge them the apples.

For we human creatures, harvesting apples is a way to connect to our place, to make use of what grows here, and an excuse to be outside under blue skies and golden leaves. We are teetering on the edge of winter here, and for the bears the apples could mean survival. This land is managed by humans, but is so close to wilderness that it is more than half wild itself. Turkeys, deer, and of course bears wander through, drawn to the apples and birdfeeders, unaware of property lines.

This can be a problem in town. Missoula often has bears who stake out fruit trees in the Rattlesnake. They come for the apples and plums, but return for the garbage cans, lined up like tempting all-you-can-eat buffets along the alleys. I can’t really begrudge them this either. Just like us, they are trying to get by. However, bear-human interactions like these usually end badly for the bears.

A number of different groups in Missoula work to remove apples from trees, so that bears won’t be drawn into potential conflict. Earlier this fall, Britta and I went scrumping, a delightful word and practice. To scrump is to glean apples from trees. Glean, or steal. Permission is not always asked of the apple tree’s owner. Bears, then, are inveterate scrumpers. We, however, did ask permission before we stretched tarps under the weighted boughs, then scrambled into the tree to shake the limbs. Apples pattered to the ground, bouncing and rolling away as if they were trying to escape their destiny, which is to ferment in our closet and end up as hard apple cider.

Photo credit: Britta Baker

As I chased apples, the air perfumed with the sweet scent of bruised apples, I imagined that humans had probably been scrumping for thousands of years.  The technology hasn’t changed much over the centuries. We used about the same tools as our ancestors did: tarps and long “panking poles” to shake the hard to reach limbs. I thought about how the work we did resulted in something tangible and useful: jars of apple butter and jelly in rows on the shelf, bottles of hard cider in the fridge. My back twinged and my muscles after lifting heavy boxes of apples, but it felt like purposeful pain. I felt that my time had been worth something. The same is not always the case after a long day of writing or grading papers. My back is hunched and cramped, and I wonder if the students will even read the comments I labor over. I look out the window at the golden trees and blue sky and my soul hurts just a little before I turn back to the computer screen.

This morning, after checking the apple trees, we head across a meadow. No apples? Fine, we’ll try another harvest. We swish through long curled grasses, white and sere. Huge gauzy clouds drift across the bright sky, and sun heats our shoulders. I strip off my hat and vest but slip on my work gloves as we approach our destination, a massive overgrown rosebush that could rival Sleeping Beauty’s. Festooning the barbed branches are thousands of crimson rosehips, bobbing against the blue sky. It feels festive. We get to work.

As I pluck fruit from branches, I note the compressed grass around the rosebush, the neat piles of shiny brown pellets. I imagine warm bodies tucked under the rosebush at nights, the shelter this tangled tree offers. A thorn snags the soft skin on my wrist and I yelp. But the bright red rosehips pile up in the paper bag, and I picture steaming cups of tea while snow falls outside. Three rosehips have as much vitamin C as one whole orange. And roses grow wild on the mountains, nurtured by the Montana sun and rain.

We sit in the sun for a while after picking rosehips. I extricate stickers from my skin, examine the long red scratches across my knuckles and arms. They are a map of the day’s activities, along with the brown splotches on my boots. They show where I’ve been, what work I’ve done today.

Photo credit: Britta Baker

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Filed under Nature, Work