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

Home #1 – Making Mahshi

Another series, this one about home.

Tonight, after a long day of grading geosciences essays, I wander into the kitchen and uncork a bottle of wine. The sun fades behind a lattice of trees outside the window. I pour wine into a small green glass and my headache starts to dissipate.

I rummage in the fridge and pull out eggplants and ground beef, then dip into the cupboard for some rice and spices. I slide a jar of tomatoes from the shelf and set all the ingredients on the counter together to admire. Mahshi time.

Mahshi is a traditional Middle Eastern dish that literally means “stuffed.” Which is approximately how you feel after you eat it. You can stuff almost anything; zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, turnips, grape or cabbage leaves, or eggplants. I ate it often when I lived in Palestine. Tonight, I will stuff three slightly wrinkled eggplants purchased at last Saturday’s farmer’s market.

First, slice off the stems and heft the eggplant in your palm. Hollow out the insides with a good sharp scooping tool. Feel the weight of the shiny purple eggplant lighten as the pile of guts grows on the chopping board. Dip the empty eggplants into a bowl of salt water, then set aside.

Mix rice, ground beef, butter, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper. Don’t pay attention to amounts. Tonight you are an Arab cook. Shake in just enough until it looks right. Roll up your sleeves and mix it together by hand. Let the hard grains of rice grit against your skin, feel the soft red beef give beneath your palm. The spices might temporarily overwhelm you with homesickness, but that is ok. Lean against the counter, close your eyes. Remember.

To be in a place is to touch it, to inhale and consume it. It becomes you. You become it. This is not an exaggeration.

Inside of you grow olive trees, back-lit by a hot sun. You contain shimmering blue Palestinian skies and dusty rutted roads. In your corners, you still find dust that settles on skin, on leaves, on tomatoes. The tunjara on the stove is full of mahshi, steam rising from its silver sides. Your dear friend stands by the stove in her flowered house-dress and slippers. She showed you how to shape the lozenges of rice and meat, how to poke them into the hollowed vegetables. Leave an inch of room for the rice to expand as it cooks. No matter how many times you cook mahshi, you will never get that practiced capable twist of your fingers that she was born with.

Lay the stuffed eggplants into a pot, and cover them with crushed tomatoes and water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Lift the lid occasionally to poke the eggplants, and breathe in the aromas.

When the rice is cooked and the eggplant parts readily beneath a knife, serve heaping dishes to your loved ones. Sit together, jostle elbows as you cut into the mahshi, spilling rice into the tomato sauce. Breathe deep, take that first bite. Now. You are home.

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Filed under Cooking, Home, Palestine

How to Say Goodbye

1.
You always know when to say goodbye, in Denali. When the aspen leaves turn to crisp gold coins and flutter on the sides of the road. When you watch the snowline sagging lower and lower on the mountains. When you can’t seem to shake that headache and you realize you are hung over, yet again. When your heart is weary from too much living. You bow out, make your exit as gracefully as you can, and head south.

Seasonal life comes with a set of parameters. You are here for one brief season. One season to absorb what you will, be it place, people, or alcohol. You live in this community of vagabonds and seekers, each drawn to this northern place by the promise of jobs or perhaps something more elusive. The spongy promise of tundra, the bite of glacial fed rivers, the sense that here, something is still whole. Maybe it’s you.

You come here as a kid in your twenties. Adult summer camp, you hear, and your ears perk up. A place to party, to drink with abandon, to dance around the solstice fire like a pagan, as cold rain baptizes you into something bigger.

You keep coming back, summer after summer, to work in the coffee house. You forgo a tan, stay winter white all year, because the place is magnetic. You start to feel a part of the community, recognizable, one of the returners. “She’s one of the coffee girls!” you hear on top of Mt Healy, and you secretly thrill. When you are pulled over on the park road for speeding, the ranger recognizes you too, and lets you off with a warning. “Slow down! You are here to see stuff, not just pass through,” she tells you.

You return each year to the same place, the airstrip with the tiny green cabins where you live. The coffee shop with the cool local vibe where you work. The cookshack where Wiley presides, cook and emperor and demigod. Where you drink with him by nights, and Sailor Jerry sets sail to a sea of prophecies and omens. Wiley is bawdy and irreverent, wicked and sweet. He turns up the music with a fierce flick of the remote. “Don’t Cha” throbs through the logs of the cookshack, and some nights, you can’t help but get up and dance. You feel it deep in your hips. Outside the spruce trees scratch with clawed fingers at the windows. Inside, you are home.

Night by night, it grows colder and darker. Paths you learned in the early summer light, you now have to trace by memory, by foot-feel, in the dark. Sometimes you trip and tangle in the spruce. You know that soon, it’s time to go.

2.
I am leaving tomorrow, but tonight I dance like this is it. Hair wild, rollicking into strangers and friends alike as the band plays under the yellow spotlights. The singer smiles at me; I make her lattes every day. Higher up, the stars spin. I orbit between here and there, not really anywhere.

Kantishna: the end of the road in Denali National Park. Literally. An old mining town, now inhabited by tourist companies and lodges. And home to the best damn music festival ever.

Earlier, we crowded into the Skyline lodge, pressed together hip to hip, Carhartts and fleeces, Sitka slippers stacked by the door next to hiking boots. Folk musicians charm us from the stage below; they have traveled from across Alaska to be here tonight.

The music twitches in my toes, taps in my fingers. I am surrounded by friends. And I’m leaving. I watch faces, I lean into shoulders, I memorize the profile of spruces out the window. I memorize the feel of wildness all around me.

And before I slip up the mud-slick road to the tent, under black spruce silhouettes, under the possibility of aurora, I am drawn to a circle of glowing faces. A large white paper sphere is lit on fire and gently let go to drift up into the night. It is illuminated, it eats itself alive and sheds sparks as it fades into night. It lights the way for us as we leave.

3.
Leaving a place you love is a kind of death. It changes while you’re gone in ways you can’t imagine or want.

Wiley died last weekend, flipped us all one last bird and left us behind. I remember his skin warm against mine as we sat in the cookshack holding hands. I remember his voice as he sang in the bathroom. I remember him sleeping in the armchair by the door.

Wiley, I hope it’s better than we can imagine. I hope you are without pain. I hope you know how much we love you. Goodbye.

Wiley, by Wendi Sims Schupbach

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Filed under Grief, Nature, Seasonal Life

Snapshot #1 – Minnesota winter

My life has been a string of love affairs with place. As I’ve considered how to write about these places, I’ve been inspired by my friend Lauren, who is an excellent, thoughtful writer and blogs here. Lately she’s been writing postcards: brief lyrical essays accompanied by an image. I am intrigued by this idea, and have started thinking of the places I’ve loved in terms of a series of snapshots, which I define as image-ridden, slightly longer lyrical essays that tell some kind of story.

This series is also a shout-out to Alaska writing night folks. For those of you who don’t know about writing night, imagine you are sitting in a cozy RV, sipping a generous glass of red wine. Outside, cold rain patters on the roof and drips into the willows. A moose might wander by with a calf or two. Tonight, the theme of writing night is “snapshots,” interpreted loosely. We lean over our notebooks and write.

 Snapshot #1 – Minnesota Winter

Many winters, the snow drifts and piles up while we sit in classrooms under buzzing flourescents and watch the dark sky out the windows. School often lets out early, and we straggle out, scrape off cars or pile into humid buses, and disappear along the road. Highway 19 connects Winthrop, Gibbon, and Fairfax, three points on a straight east-west line on the Minnesota state map. Fairfax is home, Gibbon is the drive-through town of only eight hundred people, and Winthrop is church and high school.

Dad teaches at the high school, so rather than sit on the bus with my peers, I often wait and catch a ride with him. In the winters it is dark outside by the time he locks the physics classroom with its curled yellow posters of the periodic table on the walls and its smell of dust and chemicals. We trudge out through feet of snow to the car.

This particular ride home, before pulling away from the curb outside the school, we have to break through the deep drifts around the wheel wells. The car rocks forward, backward, slides on the packed snow. We need momentum to break free.

With a whine of the engine and final spin of the tires, we lurch up and over the mound of snow and find the churned snow and deep tire tracks which indicate the road.

On the road out of town, it is dark all around . Snow particles race past broken beams of light. I want nothing more than to lift off, away from this straight edged road, to soar away from the tiny farms and patchwork fields, and see what else is out there. I imagine I am going into hyperspeed, that we fly past stars and ringed planets and long-armed galaxies and into the vastness of space.

WCCO lists off counties with winter storm warnings and school district closures. “Renville… Sibley… Brown… Nicollet… Le Seuer…” Everything around us is closed in by the storm.

The road is slick and ridged with sculpted drifts. We don’t meet any cars. We slow to forty-five, edge to the center where the lines flick by, barely visible. The car shudders as the tires hit the wind-packed drifts. The windows fog.

Several miles past Gibbon, the road disappears.

Before the searching headlights, all is snow, swept rounded shoulders and ambiguous humped elephant shapes. Two, three feet deep in places. No tire tracks show the way or give us anything to follow. The car bucks and rocks like a ship through the drifts. Thick snow falls, presses heavy and wet on the windshield. Dad slows the car to a crawl, then stops. He rolls the window down, cranes his head out. Flakes flutter in, fall in a lush layer on the car seat, on his corduroy pants. His glasses are wet and fogged when he comes back into the car, his nose red and scrunched up as he tries to see. He opens the car door, sticks his foot out, sweeps it back and forth to find the road underneath.

We stop, open the door, locate the road, inch forward. Ten, fifteen feet at a time. This is how we find home, hours later.

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Filed under Home, Minnesota, Snapshots

Vocabulary of Venery

Over the weekend, far to the north, a backpacker was mauled and killed by a grizzly bear in Denali National Park. This was the first human killed by a bear in the ninety years since the park was established. Up till now, as Britta and I set out for backpacking trips into various park units, it was a way I reassured myself. People here die from falling or exposure, not from bear attacks. Not here. In Yellowstone maybe, where people seem to think they are in a giant wilderness theme park, and walk right up to animals to get photos. In Denali though, so few people get off the bus and step foot on tundra, that the number of possible human-animal interactions are limited. Denali park service has also instituted a mandatory bear aware training required for a backcountry camping permit.

I’d been intending to write a post for several days now, and have had several nice ideas buzzing around my head. Ideas about how humans are fascinated by animals and how they experience the world, and how we crave meaningful interactions with them. Ideas about how perhaps people too have a tiny piece of wild buried somewhere deep, and it responds to the wildness of animals, provoking us in unexpected ways. I wanted to combine these reflections with some thoughts about vocabulary of venery, or collective animal names, which seemed to be one way people respond to animals, in brief poetic descriptions.

I first became aware of vocabulary of venery on a bus driving through Denali National Park, in 2008 or 2009. John Allen, bus driver extraordinaire, was entertaining an audience of tourists with his poetry. People around me listened half-heartedly, napped, or stared out the windows at the rain-blurred tundra. Britta and I were rapt, hanging on John’s every word. After he recited several poems, his big white mustache barely moving, he started talking about animal group names, and listing off examples. A charm of goldfinches. A tower of giraffes. An exultation of larks. A shiver of sharks. A tiding of magpies. I love the way the word that describes the animals has a twist, like a good metaphor, that sheds light on some aspect of the animal. Magpies, for instance, a member of the corvid family that also includes crows and ravens, are known for their loquacious chatter.

Of course this is anthropomorphic, but then, how can we avoid it? We come at the world from a human-centered perspective. We can’t quite shake ourselves loose from our logical brains and experience the world with our long-buried animal senses. We stare at skeins of geese winging high above us and feel something in us take flight. We gaze at bright-tailed foxes who stare back, and glimpse their canny animal sense. If we are very lucky, we watch bears grazing in meadows, and wonder at the mystery of their animal lives.

And as I am thinking about sleuths of bears, and tidings of magpies, I imagine the hiker’s last moments. I can’t help it. The tiny figure, alone on the vast bouldered plain of the west branch of the Toklat River. The braided river shines like molten silver before him. I haven’t been exactly where this hiker stood, but last summer I camped on the east branch of the Toklat, just around the other side of Divide Mountain.

East branch of the west fork of the Toklat river
Photo credit: Britta Baker

I know how easy it is to feel tiny and far away from anything human. I know the heart racheting startle at the sight of a large golden bear, partially obscured by the willow shrubs. But this is where my knowledge diverges from the hiker’s. When I see a bear that is too close, I back away. I get the hell out of there, for my safety and for the bear’s. According to the time stamps of photos found on the hiker’s digital camera, he stood for at least eight minutes, snapping photo after photo of the bear grazing in the willows. I don’t know what happened after that, aside from the brutal end, of both the hiker and the bear, who was shot by rangers the next day as he guarded his food cache.

As I’m mulling over animals and the words we use to describe them, and imagining this story that happened in a place I love so well, I’m discovering an internal shift. The shift has to do with the ways we sometimes perceive animals, the ways we can reduce and flatten them. We want so much to make them into pretty images or poetic words. We try to make them what we want them to be: a good story to tell to friends back home. A souvenir of a place. But when animals respond to our presence according to their own unwritten laws, laws we only partially understand, we kill them. One of the meanings of the word “venery” is, after all, the sport of hunting.

It strikes me that if we wish to have meaningful interactions with animals, if we want to go beyond tapping at the greasy glass at zoos and venture to the few remaining places where animals still live in their natural habitats, then we are opening ourselves up to new experiences, on terms not always dictated by us.  They don’t always hold still for the camera.

Photo credit: Britta Baker

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Filed under Denali National Park, Nature

Of Meteor Showers and Dogs

A spark of light fizzed across the night sky.

“Oooh,” we chorused. I lay on the grass by the sidewalk outside my friends’ house at 11:30pm, staring upward, a large black dog’s head on my stomach.

This was both quite ordinary – I have been known to lie flat on the ground to get a better view of the sky – and way out of the ordinary. I am NOT a dog person. However, at supper club several months ago, my friend Cheryl had waited till I was well into my third glass of wine to ask me, “Could you dog-sit for us?”

So there I was, watching the sky with Jenny, who took an instant liking to me (who doesn’t love the person who shows up for the sole purpose of feeding and walking them?), sprawled by my side, her breath warming my face. Her affection was hard to resist, and I became a sucker for her appealing brown eyes.  Plus, I’ve found that during periods of unemployment, the dependence of another creature, be it a cat, a sister, or a dog, can give you the will to keep going. Especially if that creature leaps in the air with excitement every time you unlock the front door.

When some friends and I trooped out to look for meteors, Jenny pushed through the door and followed, no doubt expecting a walk or a splash in the nearby ditch. Nope, we spread out on the lawn not fifteen feet from the house and stared up. With a sigh, Jenny collapsed beside me, plopped her head on my belly, and resigned herself to yet another strange human activity.

There is a certain knack to watching meteor showers. It requires a drifting alertness, eyes slightly unfocused, and a patient lack of expectation. Eyes constantly scanning the vast reaches of the visible night sky. You must be patient, knowing that you may not see any meteors. You may be idly tracing the irregular ‘w’ outline of Casseiopia with your eyes, when a meteor flits across Orion’s trapezoidal chest. Your friends will “oooh” and you will kick yourself, then return to star gazing with heightened vigilance, determined to see the next one.

Meteors are not “falling stars.” They are the dust and small particles that have rattled loose from comets and strung out in a cloud along the comet’s orbit. As they hit the earth’s mesosphere at high speeds, fifty miles above us, they burn up as a result of air friction. Flaming space rubble. An estimated thousand to ten thousand tons of meteoric dust and debris falls on earth every day. You may be covered with a fine invisible layer of micrometeors as you read this.

Another meteor blazed across the sky, leaving a faint trail of smoke behind. This was the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, which is created by the Swift-Tuttle comet. People have been watching the Perseids for over two thousand years. People pausing, over the centuries, staring up, and oohing as the night was streaked with fire.

Grass prickled my bare arms and legs. I shivered with cold. It felt like a distinctly human activity: this gazing upward with expectation and wonder. Jenny licked my face, and I was brought back to earth.

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Filed under Nature