Equinox and Happiness

The book is Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life by Diane Durston. This morning I opened it at random as I sometimes do, and this is what I read– “I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for body and mind.” Albert Einstein said that. On the opposite page is a quote from the Dalai Lama–“If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. Having few desires, feeling satisfied with what you have, is very vital: satisfaction with just enough food, clothing, and shelter to protect yourself from the elements. And finally, there is intense delight in abandoning faulty states of mind and in cultivating helpful ones in meditation.”

Wow. And then during my morning internet reading session came the news that today is the International Day of Happiness. I had no idea there was such a thing. It’s already a good day, being the vernal equinox and my birthday–the one day of the year when I feel I can be most self-indulgent. To contemplate happiness on top of that makes for a potent combination.

If I have a philosophy of life, it would have to be described as wabi-sabi. It’s an untranslatable Japanese term, an aesthetic notion that evolved with the tea ceremony. It has come to refer to that which is imperfect and unfinished, maybe tarnished with age and a little melancholy, like the sound of geese flying over in the autumn. Wabi-sabi prefers the natural and organic, so anything that is made by human hands should reflect the natural world. Wabi-sabi has time; it is the opposite of hurrying. Wabi-sabi pays attention to the small and insignificant. Wabi-sabi does not differentiate between the material and the spiritual. This approach is a source of contentment as I go about my life. The secret to happiness was revealed to me in a flash of insight a couple years ago when I realized that all I had to do was abandon faulty states of mind. I could be happy simply by making up my mind that I am happy.

There are plenty of things in the world to be unhappy about. Ignorance, greed and injustice are not reasons to rejoice. However, enough snow has melted to reveal snowdrops. I am happy to see them. They remind me of my gramma, who urged me to dig a clump of the bulbs from her garden. A sad poignancy rises in my chest to remember her–she was one of my greatest friends and teachers. But I also remember the unassuming simplicity of her life and her generosity, and I aspire to live the same way. So I cherish the snowdrops. It is spring and I have everything I need.

Whom To Revile

These are immigrants. The photo was taken around 1888 at a new house built in a German community near Puyallup, Washington. The young boy with his hand on his father’s arm was the father of my grandfather.

They came from a place called Stöckse, Neidersachsen which is in the northwest corner of Germany near the border with the Netherlands. My great-great grandfather was a forester for a Saxon baron and cared for the trees on a large estate. Because of this, he was recruited to work on for a German sugar company in Hawaii (then a sovereign kingdom). They were looking to improve sugar cane production with irrigation, and the idea was that trees would hold the water from the rain and release it slowly. The family made the decision to move. The fact that boys could be conscripted into the army at age 14 certainly was a consideration. With three sons, it was likely that some or all of them would be cannon fodder in Kaiser Wilhelm’s wars. Also, the story goes, an old aunt advised them that they would never have anything in Germany so they might as well leave. They could also never have anything in Hawaii since haoles couldn’t own land, but the west coast of the United States was not far away. There was hope of building a new life there.

So in 1881, several German families departed Hamburg on the small barkentine Ceder to sail halfway around the world to Kauai. My great-grandfather was six months old, and his diapers were washed in salt water for many weeks. The passage around Cape Horn was rough, and the Pacific Ocean is wide and empty. By the time the people disembarked at Lihue, Kauai, they were weak from lack of food and water and perhaps loss of hope.

The family of Friederich Mueller stayed seven years. They helped build a small community on a hill adjacent to the cane fields and a Lutheran church reminiscent of the ones they had left in Saxony. Then the eldest son was sent to Washington Territory to buy land and build a house. When this was done, the rest of the family came. They became naturalized citizens of the United States. A strong German community existed into the early 20th century, where people spoke their language, attended their church, kept their customs, intermarried, and slowly wove their lives into the fabric of America.

When World War One broke out, there was deep distrust of Germans. Slurs and vandalism were directed at German Americans. Some were suspected of being spies and collaborators. I can imagine that the immigrants wanted to mind their own business and get on with their lives in a new land–after all, that’s why they came here. But they were reviled anyway. Same thing happened during World War Two. When the government came for my great-grandfather, he was shocked to learn that he was not a naturalized citizen, having come when he was so young. He immediately applied for citizenship and it was granted. My Grampa said that it was one of the proudest days of his father’s life, when he officially became an American.

There are millions of family stories like this in our country if you go back far enough and look. And there has been plenty of reviling of immigrants, and discrimination. No Irish Need Apply. No Jews. No Catholics. Yellow Peril. Some immigrants came here unwillingly and were put to work for masters who thought they were less than human. For every American immigrant success story, there is also one about cruelty and misunderstanding. There is a slur for every race, every nationality.

I am writing this because I have trouble swallowing hypocrisy. America for Americans? And who are the Americans? Perhaps they are the ones who were here first, even though anthropologists tell us that they also emigrated here. Do you have to be descended from the families that crossed on the Mayflower? Fought in the Revolutionary or Civil wars? Or perhaps those who fled famine in Ireland or pogroms in Europe? Do you have to be white? All of us come from families that came to this continent from another place, with the hope of creating a better life, living in a world where children can grow up to be whatever they want, where there is freedom of worship and freedom from oppression.

History is a lens, which can be clear or distorted. We can look at history to identify patterns and pitfalls, with the hope that we can avoid repeating mistakes and injustices. The stories we tell ourselves as a nation can help or harm. These days I hear a lot of harm coming from the mouths of people who should know better, and from the people who listen to them and hear what they want to hear. I see mistakes and injustices repeating.

Looking at my German heritage is humbling. I cannot imagine having to submit to the aristocracy, or have no hope of bettering myself. I cannot imagine months on a cold wet ship or stumbling out onto a tropical island feeling a hell of a long way from home. I cannot imagine being called horrible names because of who I am. While I may long to know more about the German culture that produced me, I understand the need to assimilate and get along. I understand the part of me that was taught to be German–hard-working, stubborn, sober, competent with my hands, connected to the land. I also understand the part of me that is American, that longs to be different from what I’ve always thought of as a narrow point of view. I’ve always been curious about other countries and cultures. The sameness of being a white person in a white community, of growing up on meat and potatoes, of a Protestant work ethic–boring! For me, entry into other cultures is through food. When I was young, I thought tacos were exotic. Spaghetti was Italian food. I never had Chinese food till I was a teenager. I loved all of it! Curiosity about food leads to an interest in the culture that creates it, the history, the language, the arts. Now I live in a place where I can find Mexican food cooked by Mexicans, and delicious aromatic Thai dishes cooked by an Asian woman. The internet brings me recipes from around the world, and one of my favorite winter soups comes from a traditional African dish. While potatoes, sauerkraut and sausage is still my German comfort food, I will never go back to straight meat and potatoes.

I find that I am unable to revile immigrants. I find nothing to fear from them. A woman I know left Cambodia as a child. When the family was running from the Khmer Rouge, she remembers hunting for frogs to eat. Or having nothing to eat at all. I have always had enough to eat–why would I deny that to anyone based on our differences? Under our skin, we are all human. And that is the thing about the United States–even though we are told stories about scarcity, they are not true. There is great wealth here, in spite of the uneven distribution and incredible waste. We can afford to be generous and open to other human beings.

Spaghetti is American food. Hummus and naan and sushi are too. I want to hear more helpful stories.

Locked In

flockedMarch 1st–here in the lowland (1900 feet above sea level) the wind is blowing, a sure sign of spring along the east slope of the Cascades. The sun emerged this morning and shone brightly. While there is still plenty of snow on the ground, it is thawing and settling during the day and freezing at night. The solstice is twenty days away, and a person begins to feel hopeful that the season is changing.

Not so at 6500 feet above sea level, on top of a mountain that creates its own weather. Winter is still locked in place. Pushed upward by the terrain, the air gives up its moisture which freezes onto any surface. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “rime” as :  an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog and built out against the wind. Understanding the reason for the phenomenon takes nothing away from the wonder and fascination I feel whenever I travel through this cold fog and see the trees. “Magical,” I think to myself. Beneath the thick coating of rime the conifers are alive, just barely photosynthesizing above ground. Below ground their roots mingle with each other and other organisms busy with processes of high-elevation life in winter. Some conifers are well-adapted to living in cold harsh places, which to me is the greatest magic of all.

It will be late May or early June when spring comes to this place, when the snow finally melts, wildflowers bloom and insects throng the meadows. Summer in the subalpine zone is one of the rewards for lasting through the long cold winter. Sometimes people ask me why I stay here if I find winter so long and difficult. It’s hard to explain and there probably isn’t a reasonable reason.For one thing, when I get out on the snow and away from the human-built world my soul soaks up the deep silence of winter. It seems right that much of life is at rest. For another thing, spring always comes and it is an energizing season. I can’t imagine living in a place that doesn’t change radically with the turning of the earth. And lastly, it is because I so dearly love those subalpine places with the brief summers. It’s enough.

Visiting Old Friends

pinetree

Sometimes I get a hankering to go see them. I’ve been thinking of them, how nice it would be to spend some time in their company. These particular friends never come to see me–I always have to go see them. And that’s OK. It pleases me to know that they are just fine at home.

It’s a short ski from Highway 97 to where they live. The day I went, it was cold enough to keep the snow from settling and sticking. My skis pushed through the powder almost without effort. Occasionally a few flakes would swirl down from the sky, but there were moments of blue sky as the clouds wafted apart. Before long, I had found my way to the meadow where my friends make their home. The forest is dense all around there, one of those “unhealthy” forests that we hear about from land managers trying to justify ecosystem intervention. The original intervention was 100 years of fire suppression. Without frequent low-intensity fires, ground fuels built up and many small trees fill the spaces in the understory. Mother Nature is creative, and sent defoliating insects to thin the forest since fire wasn’t allowed. Fire came anyway in 2012, and humans scampered through the stand with a light underburn intended to slow the big Table Mountain fire. Since then, the budworms have died off and many of the smaller dead trees are falling down.

None of this has affected my friends. They live in the open, and even if a low-intensity ground fire came along, their thick bark would smolder and likely withstand the flames. Their branches are high overhead, so fire would have to climb up to them.

My friends are much older and wiser than I. They were probably adults when the botanical collector David Douglas came to this part of the world and named their kin Pinus ponderosa. Ponderous pines. Slow-growing, patient, tough as nails. Yet also filled with character as they age, taking on a sway or a lean. Symmetry is not as important to them as it is for true firs or spruce. One or two heavy branches can droop toward the ground, giving them a lopsided demeanor.

The color of their bark reminds me of cinnamon, and the flaky shapes are like puzzle pieces. The shallow furrows in the bark are darker. When I look closely, I can see the dingy sulfur yellow powder of last year’s pollen collected in cracks. Maybe a spider web here or there. Perhaps some dried pitch, hardened and amber. Some people say the bark smells like vanilla, but I swear I have never smelled this. When the sun shines on them, the only scent is warm ponderosa pine. Nothing like it.

I hang out with my friends in their meadow, happy to be with them after a long absence. I snuggle up as close as I can without taking my off my skis and stare up into the crown and out at the sky. Then look past the trunk to neighbors. I’m happy to be there.

Much has been discovered recently about how plants live. What they sense, how they communicate, how they help each other. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia has done ground-breaking work on how forest trees collaborate communally through their roots. I’ve always had an affinity for trees, but all these discoveries have increased my sense of wonder and appreciation of trees as co-inhabitants of the world. They are much more than inert towers of wood that drop needles and cones into my yard and provide perches for birds. Trees are mysterious.

It is unfashionable to be anthropomorphic, but standing next to the pine tree I wonder if it has any awareness of my presence, any inkling of me exuding joy, goodwill and dare I say it, love? Are trees sentient? Not in any animal intelligent way of course, but are they aware of other creatures, we short-lived rapidly-vibrating warm-blooded mobile things like birds and squirrels and humans? I would like to think so, but I truly do not know and am unlikely ever to know.

And that’s OK too. As long as I can visit them–these pines below Tronsen Ridge, the big doug-firs along the Pete Lake trail, those few hemlocks along Spinola Creek, a particular larch tree on the way to Haney Meadow…things will be right in my world. We all rely on old friends to help us keep our perspective, and I’m beyond grateful to all of my old friends.

For more amazing stuff, check out What A Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Suzanne Simard’s TED talk, linked above.

Clarity

cathwinter2

We snowmobiled 9 or 10 miles. I was in the lead and came around the corner to see the spire of Cathedral Peak gleaming in the midday sun. It wasn’t till later, on the way back, that I turned and snapped this photo. By then the sun had dropped toward the ridge and a thin layer of cloud filtered the brightness.

One of my favorite places to be is this wide glacial valley near the Cascade crest. The Cle Elum River is slow here, meandering through flat meadows fringed with dark firs and spruces. I’ve seen this place in the drizzling rain, in the hot sun through wave after wave of whining mosquitoes, in the brief colorful autumn of deep shadows and bugling elk. And in winter, when the trees appear to be brushed in ink against the pale meadows and flat sky. Today we ate lunch on the porch of the old cabin, basking in the warmth. I remarked on the silence, savoring the absence of any human clamor. Those moments must be treasured.

I’ve been thinking a lot about clarity these days, observing those rare times when the cold winter air snaps away any fuzziness. The sky and mountains seem to be especially clear and light, and the air seems to contain more oxygen. Lately the valley bottoms have been socked in with a dank penetrating fog, the kind of cold air that sinks and persists for days. It can be a week or two before I see the ridge on the other side of town. There is a blurry heavy feel to every day life, and the world outside the fog feels far away. Everything is obfuscated.

Like many people, I’ve been working through a procession of emotions and thoughts since the election in November. I’ve been shocked, despairing, unsettled, disbelieving, outraged, and occasionally amused into raucous laughter. American politics have been fraught with tension since the beginning of the republic, and the more I read of history, the more I believe it so. Tension between the interests of the individual and the greater good. Tension between the kinds of economy we could have. Tension between Puritans and the wild west. Tension between our values and those of other ideologies. I am a child of the Cold War and the protests of the 60s and 70s. I have witnessed turbulent times as well as relative peace and plenty. I understand that those in power will lie and prevaricate in order to stay in power, whether they believe their own lies or not. After September 11, 2001 the lies coalesced into a semi-cohesive version of reality. I remember laughing with my friends that “facts don’t matter”. Some people will insist that the earth is flat, that the Iraquis had weapons of mass destruction, that rape can be “legitimate”, that climate change can’t exist. It was easy to ridicule such ideas.

I’m not laughing any more. “Alternate facts” is another way of obfuscating, blurring, lying, creating a delusional reality. Besides obscuring the view of the big picture, settled fog has a way of stagnating the air and making it impossible for pollutants to escape. Pretty soon the air itself is toxic. It takes a major shift in the weather, a big storm to shove the fog and bad air out of the valleys. Then clarity returns for awhile.

In the meantime, we all need days like today. Days when we climb up out of the fog and emerge into brilliant light and clear air. Days when we can see, when it’s so quiet we can hear ourselves think, and when we can connect with a truth bigger than our own ruckus.

May you find clarity where you are.

A New Year

snowflakesmall
The problem with not posting for a long time is that the writer gets out of the habit of posting. The next blog entry is somewhat further down the list of priorities, and not as prominent in the tangle of things to pay attention to. I think about writing, but usually when I am doing something else. I believe that is called procrastination.

Anyway, the year has turned. It has never made sense to me to start a new year in the middle of winter. I am resigned to an arbitrary calendar, where days and months are made to fit into boxes. For me, the year really begins in spring, when living things wake up from winter’s rest. My sense of time runs along with the seasons.

I never make New Year’s resolutions. Such great ideas lose their luster after a couple of weeks, and the whole business falls through the cracks of life. Why set myself up for failure? If I feel the need to make changes, it’s often because something in my life feels out of whack. And I want to be in whack, in balance. Balance is a moving target, attained only to be knocked off kilter again. It helps me to think of balance as asymmetrical, rather than a relationship between two equal parts. This is a visual art analogy. One focal point may be balanced by several smaller elements elsewhere in the composition. The important thing is to keep the eye moving throughout the whole. It’s about the flow, rather than about the subject matter. For example, my day job is the weighty element in my life right now. Most of my waking hours are spent navigating through the shifting tasks and relationships associated with managing the field operations of a winter recreation program. This weight is balanced by little things like seeing the bright stars in the predawn sky, watching narcissi and hyacinth bulbs grow on a windowsill, preparing small tasty meals for myself, sleeping warm and well through the long nights after being in the cold outdoors. The activity and stillness in my days flows along in a seasonal rhythm. Home is for nesting and hibernation in January. I’ll consider being ambitious when the days are longer.

It is -6 degrees and snowing this night, dry sparkling crystals falling from the black of outer space. The world outside is quiet for the moment. Savor it. And Happy New Year.

New and Improved!

Long-suffering readers will notice a change. I’m sure there are questions. Here are a few answers.
Where have you been?!! Why haven’t you been writing?

I haven’t gone anywhere. I had surgery to repair a loose ankle ligament in March. By mid-September I was able to hike again, and returned to my place on the trail crew. Then I was busy catching up on all the things that had fallen by the wayside while I was gimping around. Now I’m ready to write again.

You’ve changed the name of the blog. What’s up with that?

It’s been on my mind for a long time to change the look of the blog to make it easier to read. When I started posting in 2007, I called it “Fieldwork” in order to tell stories about my adventures with the US Forestry Department (name of agency has been changed to distance my online presence from it). Over time, I found myself writing about all sorts of observations and reflections. The stories were more about my whole life than just about my job. So I decided to call the new improved blog “Ramekin Cottage”, after my home. It is here that all adventures begin and end, whether I’m out on the trail somewhere or chasing my hens around the yard.

Ramekin Cottage??!!!

Yup. Some friends insist that homes should be named. So in the past, I have lived at Filbert Park. Those friends live at the Spud Ranch. When I moved here, they asked what I was going to call the place. For a long time I didn’t know. The word “ramekin” popped up in conversation, and I thought That’s it! A ramekin is a small dish for baking individual servings of creme brulee, Greek potatoes or whatever. It’s apropos of nothing, therefore perfect for my house. And as for the cottage part, it’s not overly charming just small.

Are you still going to write about working in the woods?

Yes. But don’t be surprised to read about an assortment of other topics such as my experiments in micro-homesteading, books, art and other projects, feminism, growing older, the weather, memories, etc. Life is all of a piece, woven into a connected whole. I intend to write about whatever presents itself as a topic for consideration. I’m glad to have the company of readers–it’s always good to know what captures my attention may be of interest to others.

I’m looking forward to getting back into the routine of writing blog posts. I have missed the kind of focus and depth that comes from writing about the world. We’ll see where this goes. Continue reading “New and Improved!”