Making The Rounds


 

 

 

 

I was making the rounds on a quiet Sunday morning.  A heavy mist was falling, almost floating down.  A Scotsman would call it a smirr, heavier than a fret.  My raincoat soon failed at its task and my shirt turned as cold and clammy as the grass I was stepping through.

 

A cold front was moving in from Alaska, promising to bring snow to the hills tonight, and yesterday’s warm, still day with filtered sunshine was just a memory. The calendar says that it is spring, yet, the mornings come with either bits of hail on the sidewalk, or frost on the lawn.  The daffodils, brave as they were, are fading away in this cold weather. Every other spring flower is still hunkered down in the ground, waiting.

 

I check out the greenhouse, where I am the eternal optimist.  Cuttings of geraniums and other summer delights are doing well, even sending out new growth, and an occasional flower.  I’ve potted them up, urging them to grow strong, as May is coming, and I promise to put them outside where they can flourish.  Yet, my words ring hollow, as the stiff wind from the north and the scattering of hail on the greenhouse roof contradicts my sermon on the coming of spring.

 

I plant some seeds in my seed flats, hoping it is warm and bright enough for them to start making their way in this world. I promise them sunny days and warm dirt, if they can just get started and join me in waiting for the coming good days.  I marvel at the variety of all the different seeds, and how they can quickly spring to life and change the world.

 

I’m drawn to magic and witchcraft, though, or at least alchemy.  Turning lead into gold, or planting seeds, it seems like the same kind of idea.  Planting seeds is a sign of eternal optimism and miracle making, I think.  Seeds look pathetic, dry, hard, looking nothing like something that contains life.  Yet, put them in some dirt and add some water, and sunlight, and they turn into green plants growing leaps and bounds, is nothing short of miraculous, or alchemy.  Gardeners might want to think they are biologists, or at least practitioners of good husbandry, yet I really think we are alchemists and magicians at heart.

 

Outside, I take census of the land and what is going on.  A small flock of geese flies overhead, the leader calling to the others, as they make their morning rounds to the river and then back.  Soon, they will be nesting and raising the next generation of what has become a small flock of geese who have taken up permanent residence here.  Perhaps they have tired of the annual commute to California and Alaska, preferring to endure our wet winter and mild summer in return for not having to deal with all that travel.

 

The calls of the small flock are a welcome sound in my day.  The flock has grown over the years, from a pair, to four, and now to about a dozen.  I’ve always called a group of geese either a flock, or a gaggle.  Yet, the other day, reading an English author, I learned that true Brits call a group of geese an argument.  The steady, persistent “honk, honk”, is, perhaps, best described as an argument.  It certainly sounds more poetic than the boring “flock” or even the melodic “gaggle”.

 

The neighborhood crows jump in, their raspy, throaty “caws”, grate against my nerves, as they give their own commentary on the day’s activities.  A group of crows is a “murder” and that seems to match their persistent and annoying conversations.

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The morning task is to stake and fertilize the young trees I’ve planted. My neighbor, the forester, gave me several dozen year old seedlings a few weeks ago, and I found room for them on the far end of our property.  They will be good windbreaks, and also a good buffer against the other neighbor, the one whose kid can ride his dirt bike around and around, revving the motor and overcoming the call of the neighborhood band of geese making their rounds.  Even the red-tailed hawks soar away to more peaceful hunting grounds when the kid decides to get out his dirt bike and go for a spin.

 

I’ve always enjoyed planting young trees, helping my dad out as we replanted a hill above our cabin, part of the Tillamook Burn. A few years later, the trees were growing well, and I could see that we had recreated a forest.  It seemed magical, and ever since, I’ve taken delight in helping Mother Nature growing a forest.

 

The recent cold rains have helped settle the young trees into the ground, and the fertilizer I’m adding is giving them a healthy start in their first year in their new home.  The neighborhood deer and elk aren’t much interested in my little corner of the neighborhood, so I’ve dispensed with putting up the wire and plastic cages to protect young trees from their appetites for young and tasty evergreens.

 

I add a bamboo stake next to each seedling, so I don’t lose track of it as the grass and blackberries grow this spring and summer, and they don’t get shaded out or suffocated by everything else that wants to grow here.

 

I’ve planted cedars, Western Red to be precise.  Native Americans called it a medicine tree, using bark for making cloth, the trunks for canoes and elaborate enormous lodges, even totem poles.  The leaves were used as tonics and poultices to heal.   Now, we know that the essences of the cedar roots are good for salmon in the rivers, and help to restore the ancient qualities of the water, helping salmon to find their way home and purify the rivers.

 

It is doing my small part to heal and restore the watershed where I live and make this small part of the planet just a little bit healthier.

 

Now, chilled to the bone, my sweatshirt cold and damp in the morning mist turning to rain, I finish my tasks and pull off my now cold gloves, and slip off my boots.  I close the garage door to the morning chill, and head inside, eager for my cup of tea and a good book.

 

 

—Neal Lemery, 4/21/2018

 

 

Honoring Earth Day


 

Every day is Earth Day, because this is my home, and I breathe the air, drink the water, feed my body, and co-exist with all of the other beings and lives on this planet. I live here and I am a steward of this place, the only place I have in the universe.
This week, I planted seeds, pruned, weeded, mowed, watered, fertilized, and tended, in both the biological sense and the social sense. We are in this life together and should care for ourselves, each other and our home.
Being in places of great beauty and abundant life, I watched, I learned, I appreciated, I connected.
I tended and cared and nurtured. I tried to act with kindness and compassion, being a good neighbor, a good member of family, a good citizen of this earth.
Hopefully, what I do in my life helps others grow, find peace, and be comfortable with their own place in this world. Hopefully, I am a force of constructive growth and love.
And, hopefully, what I do, and what I choose not to do, and act, and be, will make a positive difference in this world, and make it a better place.
Honoring the earth, caring for it, being a good steward, is a spiritual calling, and is being in harmony with all that is around me.
Honoring the earth is a sacred duty.

–Neal Lemery, April 22, 2017

A Day Without Time


A Day Without Time

Almost summer, and the early June morning breathes cool on my face. I amble through the remnants of this old ranching town, really more of a wide spot in the road, taking in the ruins of the old store, a few weathered barns and outbuildings, a single house, long past its prime.

Back in the day, 35 people called this place home, and today, only five. Or so the old weathered sign says.

The dance hall now lacks a roof, and the last sale in the mercantile was a mere sixty years distant. Even the newest building, now a wood shed adorned with deer and elk antlers, is getting old. We share a birth year, and have both turned gray.

Down the road a mile, the one room school finished the year last week. There was a community picnic honoring all three of the students. Next year, two are off to boarding school, but there’s two first graders coming in.

At dinner, the innkeeper spoke their names, and of their plans for the future, and the names of the ranches where they were raised. Good people here, I thought, people keeping track of what’s important around here, what’s important in life.

Near perfect silence fills the air, interrupted by some crows, a chattering redwing blackbird, a far off rooster, and mosquitoes buzzing around me, wanting me for their breakfast. In a few minutes, they will chase me back to the hotel at the end of the only side street in this place, for coffee and breakfast with the other travelers who have come here to find their own peace.

The cattle in the field are quiet, busy enjoying the green grass of June, and promises of next week’s move to the higher pastures. So far, it’s been a good grass year, that’s what the locals are saying.

A hundred and twenty years ago, the new hotel opened, welcoming the three times a week stage, travelers and ranchers mingling, much like they do today, around the big tables by the kitchen. The conversation hasn’t changed much, I suspect: the weather, where we’re from, where we are going, the price of cattle, where’s the best birding, the hottest fishing. The coffee’s still strong, the food’s homemade, and the fresh cobbler hot out of the oven is still delicious.

The screen door slams one last time, as we load up the pickup and head out for our day’s adventures, the sun starting its climb into the blue sky of the day. We’ll stop for lunch, overlooking the valley, binoculars up, spotting a few hawks and an eagle catching thermals, silhouetted against the distant mountain still covered with snow.

Ten, maybe twenty, thirty thousand years ago, this valley was an inland sea, waves lapping against that ridge, leaving a beach we can still see, a pebbled ribbon halfway up the hillside. It lies below the rimrock left by a forgotten volcano, stark against the gray and green of the sagebrush and the junipers. Even now, the ancient voices of that era, the Pleistocene age, fill the meadow as we stop to watch the baby quail, and the avocets staking out their nests, pairs of mallards and grebes and tundra swans sailing on the pond, the last remnant of that long ago sea.

Pronghorn sheep, coyotes, and even a few sandhill cranes ready to take flight for their Siberian nesting areas look at us, the newcomers in this land.

“What time is it?” my traveling partner wonders.

I glance at my cell phone, rather than look at where the sun shines in the sky two weeks before its Equinox dance with the earth. I’m so removed from the astronomical rhythms here that I would be clueless without my twenty first century gadgets. The generations before me, hunters in this valley, would think of me as lost, worthless as the tribe goes about its daily tasks.

Our plans for the day don’t seem to require much precision or attention to my digital data. We’re on vacation, out for an adventure, and our only task is to check in for dinner at the only other old hotel around, at the other end of the valley. Our bellies are our timekeepers today, and the sun in the sky will remind us to be on our way. Perhaps, after a few weeks here, I could regain my Pleistocene manhood skills and be welcomed around the evening fire.

We laugh, chuckling over the thought of time, and hours and why that might matter to some folks. That idea of time, it’s important to me, at least modern life tells me. Today, we’re on Pleistocene time, where the migration of the birds, this spring’s snowmelt in the river, June flowers bursting into bloom rule the day.

The birds here, and the mule deer we spot don’t seem to care. My gadgets don’t go that far back, maybe forty thousand years, to Pleistocene time, when every living thing around us, except for the cattle and we tourists in our pickup, was already here, enjoying the early summer morning, in the near silence of this sacred place.

The rest of the day passes in a different rhythm, my cell phone turned off, put away so that I can perhaps gain some feeling of the ancestors, of Pleistocene man, and all the beauty of this quiet place.

We came here searching for something we needed. Some “thing” we thought. We are, after all, Americans, consumers of all those “things”. Yet at the end of the day, what we found instead was the absence of “things”, the trappings and noise of modern life. We discovered the quiet of the summer afternoon, the sight of a swan teaching its goslings to swim, and a pair of baby owls perched on a limb, waiting for their mama’s next hunting lesson.

We lived a day without “breaking news”, and the din of “news feeds” and instant communications.

“Silence” we said.

It was the quiet we wanted, what we had truly come here to find. We spotted soaring vultures, the red flash of a blackbird’s wing, and tuned our ears to the rustle of a snake in drying grass. Our Pleistocene selves came alive again, and we became a part of another time. Our voices quieted, respectful of this great cathedral we’d found in this desert valley, so close to the divine.

–Neal Lemery June 23, 2016

Taking A Moment To Be Still


It was unusual for me, just sitting there in my garden, being still and looking around.

I’d had a long session with the trowel, the weed eater, and my hand pruners, attacking the weeds, setting out some plants, and generally tidying up my shade garden. Sweaty, dirty and tired, I found a chair and a bottle of water and decided to catch my breath.

At first, I looked at what I’d done, and what I needed to do, mentally composing additions to my “to do” list.

This is becoming a job, I thought. Gardening is a lot of work, and I’m tired.

Maybe I should just take a moment and enjoy all of this, my own quiet corner of the world. I could let the sweat dry, thinking its OK that I just take a break.

Lately, when I’ve been reading about gardening, I’m nose deep into the science and the methodologies about how to grow the best of whatever is involved in my latest garden project.

In the midst of research on an interesting new plant, I’d come across a quote about gardening and my soul.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
― Ray Bradbury

Take a moment, take a breath, and enjoy the garden for what it is, I reminded myself. Too often, my time here becomes an obligation, a project. Hurry up, get it done, and move on to the next task.

But, I am a gardener, not a laborer. Gardening really is nurturing, and being IN the garden. It is a time to nurture this place and my soul, to find peace, to let my mind be still and just BE. After all, I am a human being, not a human doing.

And, so I became still, and sat there. A swallow was building a nest in the new birdhouse, a hummingbird was enjoying the honeysuckle in bloom, sunlight played on the rhododendron bursting out in full glory. I breathed in the fresh air, and all the smells of spring.

In the distance, a neighbor was mowing her lawn, and a farmer was tilling his field. Off in the forest, a logger’s chainsaw provided the bass line for the house finch’s serenade in the snowball bush.

The real beauty in the garden, I realized, was not all the work I’d done, though I certainly had provided some tidying up and structure to this little piece of paradise. But, I realized, the real joy in this place is all the creatures and plants that make this their home.

I’m only the host, and I only add a few of the finishing touches.

And, I realized, the most important part of my job here, as a gardener, is to sit in a chair, and just be here, finding my own peace, and be part of this magnificent paradise, to simply be in this moment.
5/16/16

Snow Geese and Spring


A friend sent me a photo today, the return of snow geese to Harney County, Oregon. There, the ground is still icy, and winter keeps its grip on the high desert of southeastern Oregon. Yet, as they have done for tens of thousands of years, the snow geese have returned, right on time.

In flocks of ten, twenty thousand, they swirl through the air; choreography by an unnamed master, above the still frozen marshes and the sagebrush stage of nature’s annual show.

Showers of hail blow through my yard, plunking my raincoat with pea-sized kernels of ice, fresh off a 70 mph storm roaring in from the Pacific. Still, the buds on the lilacs are swollen, and the daffodils and forsythia bravely show their colors.

I want to plant my new fig tree, just in from California. Yet, its new, tender leaves look too fragile for the remnants of this latest storm, and I tuck the tree next to the house on the porch.

“In a few days,” I tell it. “It’s supposed to warm up, and then I’ll plant you in your new home.”

I’m not sure I even believe what I’m saying. The calendar says spring comes next week, but the hills are white with late winter snow that has fallen in the last week or two. The wind cuts through my sweatshirt and raincoat, reminding me “not yet”.

Still, the robins are here now, racing around the lawn when the sun comes out, adding their song to the familiar tunes of their feathered relatives, who have endured this winter, keeping me busy filling up the bird feeder with their favorite sunflower seeds and suet cakes.

The cold wind has found my bones, and it’s time for my chair and a cup of tea.

“The snow geese are back,” I sing.

Another gust blows in, and I dance in my mud boots across the lawn, just ahead of the next deluge of ice falling from the latest black cloud; images of snow geese clouds swooping and circling in my head, me joining in their ballet over the frozen sage.

–Neal Lemery 3/13/2016

Love Tour


by Karen Keltz, author of Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade, and an award winning poet. Read more about her at Karen Keltz’s website and blog

THE LOVE TOUR

January is a most depressing month, and February follows right on its heels. Here on the coast everything is dripping wet, soggy and marshlike. The prominent color of the sky is some variation of Payne’s gray, from “dark ominous” to “continual dusk” to “shiny steel.”

Lest you think growing things are all dead, though, when you see brown, slime, and mold, I’m here to tell you plenty is going on underneath the leaves, twigs, branches and mulch.

The same is true if you are also a writer. You sit at your desk, uninspired, staring at the rain pouring past your window, pummeling your roof. You rail at the Muse for playing hide and seek. Your story refuses to go forward. And yet, things are also happening there, down in your subconscious, which will begin to make connections.

Even if it’s spitting rain, I suggest you take a hopeful walk around your garden. What you see will rev up your creative brain. Make what I call the Love Tour.

Today, I asked myself, “What can I see that I love?” I started out from the front door, where our porch is decorated with primroses my husband bought at the store, with the joy of their color in mind. We love seeing them every time we go in or out of our home. We didn’t grow them, but I think they count anyway.

–I thought about how others choose to do good deeds with our happiness in mind or how we choose to do the same. The why of that decision-making and subsequent action makes an excellent essay topic Why do the characters in your story do what they do?

Next, I noticed all the nubbins—bulbs arising in either sidewalk bed. Some early daffodils are ready to bloom, but the later bulbs are slowly undressing. Besides daffodils, I saw the arms of narcissus, crocus, snowbells, hyacinth, muscari, tulips and Scilla siberica, all reaching for the light.

–We humans know what is worth reaching for, what really matters in our lives, if we are in touch with our souls. What does your character truly desire or does that change from beginning to end of your story?

Around the corner, two clumps of heather are in bloom. I love the happy pinks. If I clip some stems, they fit perfectly in a teeny blue glass vase and will dry and retain their color for a couple of months on a counter or table.

Some yarrow is greening, promising its work as a bouquet filler and a medicinal in herbal concoctions. The rose campion and foxglove rosettes haven’t frozen and neither has the hollyhock, which means we may have their colorful blooms earlier than usual. I love that!

The rosemary is green and blooming. I squeeze and rub the leaves and smell my hand. Heavenly!

Green ferns are out of the ground. So is the German chamomile. More green.

–There are moments for all of us where right and beautiful things are present to fill our hearts and make us glad to be alive. Often they stand out starkly in the ugliest of times. What are those moments for your characters?

The red-twigged dogwood pops color where there are no blooms. I saw buds on the lilacs, forsythia, flowering quince, and pussy willow. I love seeing their promise!

–What gives your characters hope during their bleakest hours?

Without leaves blocking the view, I noticed the structural elements I put in place last summer, such as the graveled patio space I dug and laid for the red table and chairs, and the paving stone foundation for the red bench. I love that it’s all ready when the time comes. I also made a list of the places that need work and the pruning that needs done as soon as the weather is more forgiving, because right now they are more noticeable.

–Same with writing. You’ve made your storyboard or outline, the structure that keeps a reader turning the page. When you’ve finished filling it with specific details, then you begin anew to prune what doesn’t work and enhance what does.

After my circuit of our house through the flower beds, looking for things I love, I reached my front porch in a much happier frame of mind, grateful for nature and my connection to it.

Something special for my eyes translates by comparison into new story ideas or character motivations, or whatever I need to make my work move forward. I’ve given my brain a treat, and if I’ve paid attention and asked myself the right questions, my brain will reciprocate.

We can’t always get away to sunnier climes, but we can always take ten minutes out of our day to make the Love Tour. I recommend it.