A couple weeks ago I snapped a nice photo of a purple crocus. I grow them in pots on the windowsill and enjoy blooms in winter. The sun was shining strongly and outside the finch birds were twittering in that way they have when spring is not too far off. It began to seem as if the season might shift a little early.
But then it all changed, as weather is wont to do. Cold air from the Rockies seeped westward, pulled by the warmth of the Pacific Ocean. When moist air hit the cold air, snow fell. And fell and fell. Dry powdery fine snow fell for days and nights. I love snowstorms because the world goes quiet and still. People have to slow down. Our perception of what’s important shifts to the basics. Shelter, warmth, food, water, companionship.
I’ve been shoveling snow, keeping my chickens fed and watered, playing with watercolors in the studio, hanging out with the cats. I’ve sown a few seeds indoors, which really is an act of faith when it’s 15 degrees outside. I’m keeping the bird feeder full of sunflower seeds, and the finch birds are still tweedling along. A group of eight varied thrushes have eaten all the berries from my viburnum hedge.
Valentine’s Day means that the vernal equinox is five weeks away. It may look and feel like winter, but the lengthening days and brighter light mean otherwise. We are tipping toward spring.
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal as I follow the
news about the government shutdown. As a federal employee, I am incensed by the
callous disregard for my individual livelihood, for the missions that I and my
fellow public servants dedicate our working hours to, and the general
disruption of many aspects of life. As a citizen, I am angered but not
surprised as I watch the ongoing power struggle in the other Washington. On the
surface, the intransigence is over one issue, but the undercurrent is all about
who controls the direction of the country; whose version of reality wins.
What popped into my head as I pondered government was an image I first encountered in art history class. The Allegory of Good and Bad Government was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1338 and 1339. The frescoes were placed in the council hall of the Republic of Siena, to remind elected officials of the consequences of their decisions. Good Government is symbolized by Justice and Wisdom (who receive their authority from God), and the virtues are personified as Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, and Temperance. Under these figures, the city is filled with commerce, smoothly-flowing traffic, people working at trades, and happy dancers. The fresco of Bad Government shows the figure of Justice tied up and surrounded by Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, War, Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. Not to mention the horned and fanged figure of Tyranny. The city is in ruins, the streets are empty.
Medieval art often was a substitute for literacy. The images
spelled things out in black and white. The difference between good and evil was
clear—no one needed a long explanation about choosing between God and the
Fast forward to the end of the 17th century and
the Enlightenment. After decades of religious wars, the thinkers of Europe
turned toward a secular point of view. The rise of science led to God in his
heaven taking a step back. Once he set creation in motion as if it were some
sort of clockwork, he didn’t intervene. It was up to man and his thinking brain
to take charge of his own destiny. Kings no longer ruled by divine right. Men
consented to be governed, and demanded a voice in making the rules.
The American experiment in democracy was the first government
to incorporate ideas from the Age of Reason. Our Declaration of Independence
and Constitution are filled with the language of 18th century
philosophy. The Preamble of the Constitution states that the purpose of the
federal government is to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,
provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the
Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Well. How hard can that be?
Pretty hard, it turns out. The truths held to be self-evident
in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence are not that self-evident at
all, since they apparently do not apply to women and persons of color and
others who are different from the dominant class. My Rights and the Pursuit of
Happiness might infringe upon your Rights and Pursuit of Happiness. Our system is full of flaws and
inherent conflicts. The Founding Fathers of our nation had a lot of faith in
mens’ ability to reason and overcome human nature—all those nasty things like
Pride, Avarice, Cruelty, etc. depicted in Lorenzetti’s frescoes.
The purpose of government is to create a structure in which
we might live together more or less harmoniously, decide how our economy is to
be run, provide infrastructure and other aspects of the common good, including
defending ourselves from hostile invaders. Our system was set up to be
participatory, with citizens serving on school boards and city councils on up
through county, state and federal offices. A country as large and diverse as
ours necessarily has developed a bureaucracy to implement legislation that has
been passed by our representatives. The people employed by these bureaucracies
are us—the city worker who reads your water meter, the firefighter who responds
to your 911 call, the inspector who ensures that you are not sold tainted meat,
the forest ranger who answers your questions when you are out hiking. These are
members of our community and fellow citizens who provide a service for the
common welfare of us all.
To some people, the Government (they mean the federal
government) is a shadowy monolith, a boogeyman that conspires to take away
their rights and freedoms. I work for the government, and I have first-hand
knowledge that many agencies lack the leadership and vision to pull off such a
conspiracy. There are laws and processes to ensure that citizens have a say in
decisions made by federal agencies. And it is the job of Congress to provide
oversight and demand accountability. Government is not monolithic—there are
many points of view and approaches within agencies. Many government employees
are mission-driven and service-oriented. We care about something larger than
our own self-interest.
What I fear are idealogues who so despise the notion of
government that they are willing to dismantle it. These are the people who
reduce funding so that agencies begin to crumble from within, and then point
out the failure of government to carry out its mission. They give conflicting
messages and directives so that work is paralyzed, and again point at failure.
They play favorites with some agencies and give them more money than they need.
They hand out lucrative contracts to their buddies. They exploit public
resources for personal gain. I could go on.
As a federal employee I am held to certain standards of ethics
and conduct. I cannot even appear to misuse my position. It baffles me that
those in positions of power are allowed to do so.
American democracy is still an experiment, a work in progress. It feels gangrenous right now. We can let it die or we can go through the painful process of debriding the rotting flesh and let the healing begin. We can turn away from the deceitful manipulators of information who want to fill us with fear. We can reject the marketplace that has turned us into consumers instead of citizens. We can overcome apathy and participate in social structures meant to contribute to the common good. We can seek out opportunities to give public comment. We can find common ground with neighbors who may hold different opinions. We can demand equity and justice. We can insist upon fair elections (wouldn’t it be great to have shorter campaigns?). We can plan and prepare for the future by talking about how we want our country to look and behave. We don’t have to agree, but we could improve our civic discourse.
Our rights come with responsibilities. Because we are busy
with our lives, too often we hand over our duties as citizens to elected
officials and the government bureaucracy. Whatever’s wrong, we want the government
to just fix it so we can get on with whatever we’re doing.
Now the government is broken, and the world feels a bit out
of kilter. We humans need some kind of certainty to feel safe. There is no
certainty about how this conflict will be resolved, or when. It’s tempting boil
it down to a simple dichotomy of Good and Bad Government, good and evil, but
that doesn’t describe the whole picture. We are no longer living in the Age of
Reason, but our form of governing ourselves depends on some kind of rationality
and ability to compromise.
Yesterday I got up in the hushed morning twilight and raised the blind to see falling snow. As daylight crept further over the horizon, I heard them. They made faint whistling calls, like the rusty whisper of a rarely used voice. I recognized the sound at once, knowing it for a mere shadow of their summertime echoing trills that fill the overstory of the conifer forest.
Varied thrushes have come to town. There is quite a contingent in my neighborhood, joining the mixed flock that flies from tree to tree, hunkers in the brush, and visits the feeder where I put out sunflower seeds. They are striking birds the size of a robin, with orange-y breasts, bellies and eyebrows, a black collar and face mask. They land in the lilac and viburnum bushes then launch again, springing away from the snow-laden branches which unburden themselves in a shower of white. Later in the day, they disappear and go quiet. They are morning birds, just as they are in summer. I may hear a few small mutters from them in the afternoon when the daylight drains away.
Several kinds of thrushes inhabit the Pacific Northwest, but most of them are not year-round residents. The American robin is the most common and well-known, as well as the least furtive of our native thrushes. You are lucky to see the neotropical migrant Swainson’s and hermit thrushes that fill the woods with song in late May until early July. Another name for the varied thrush is Alaska robin, as its breeding territory extends as far north as the Arctic Circle. Perhaps some of these far northern thrushes are wintering here in the Cascades.
I went scrounging through old sketchbooks because this bird is a subject I have returned to many times. The trouble with drawing birds from life is that they won’t hold still. When I had access to the natural history collections at Central Washington University a few years ago, I took the opportunity to find the thrush study skins and look at details. The trouble with drawing dead birds is that they are dead, lying in a flat drawer with mothballs. The cured skins are stuffed with cotton, feathers have lost the sheen of the living, while the legs and feet appear mummified. Yet there is enough remaining to see the essence of the bird, enough to remember my own encounters in the wild and imagine the bright eye and rapid wingbeats. And that buzzy echoing trill lingers.
Always the challenge with depicting birds is to animate them, because it is easy to make them stiff and flat, a la John James Audubon’s less successful paintings. That is the reason to study the dead ones, because what you learn can be used to articulate that hot spark of life on a two-dimensional surface. I’m still trying to get it right.
To be surrounded by thrushes in the middle of winter is a small delight and my heart lifts when I catch sight of one out of the corner of my eye. And when I hear them speaking quietly amongst themselves first thing in the morning. I’m glad I planted a native viburnum hedge, which holds vermillion berries on drooping twigs, since thrushes eat berries and insects. In a couple months they will move back up to the deeper forest and their songs will ring out across the fir and hemlock canopy.
The National Weather Service forecast was for “wintry mix”, which means there are some interesting things going on in the atmosphere. Plain old rain and snow are straightforward forms of precipitation, forming in the clouds and falling through air at temperatures that do not alter their form on the way down. When frozen precipitation falls through warmer air and hits cold air near the surface, it turns into sleet–which is rain that refreezes before hitting the ground; or freezing rain–which is rain that freezes to the cold surface of whatever it lands on.
It has been cold here–at least below freezing. So when a warm front slid over the mountains, freezing rain fell, coating every surface in ice. I went out into the garden to examine silvered twigs, dripping leaves and red viburnum berries encased in a frozen shell. This is a rare event here, and feels slightly ominous. My imagination ranges out to the forest where ice may build up on trees until some limbs reach a breaking point. If a wind follows, some top-heavy trees will snap and fall. Roads and trails will be scattered with tree remains, stuck and buried in snow. I think also of animals, especially deer and elk on their winter range. A thick crust on top of the snow will make it hard for them to dig down to forage below. After winters like this, it is not uncommon to find remains after snowmelt, stripped down to skin and bones.
Winter can be hard, which may be perceived as cruel and merciless. In flippant moments, I used to say that winter weeds out the wimps. But it also finds the stupid and unlucky. Wild creatures try to survive. Humans have a choice to travel in challenging conditions, but may find themselves in a survival situation whether they wanted to or not.
I respect winter. I imagine trying to make a living outside during the cold dark months and am beyond grateful for my little house and its comforts. I choose the days I go out, and don’t mind turning back if conditions turn for the worse. It is Day 13 of the government shutdown. I am furloughed but Cabin Fever has not set in yet. Freezing rain is an excellent reason to stay home and cook soup.
By the way, the folks at the National Weather Service deserve recognition for accomplishing their mission with reliability and professionalism. Listen to The Coming Storm by Michael Lewis https://www.amazon.com/The-Coming-Storm/dp/B07FHLQ2DD to learn how this agency is under threat under the current administration.
What you can’t see in this photo is the feathery blobs of snow that were falling when I stepped out the back door to snap this photo of my neighbor’s pine trees. They fell…lazily? Certainly they were not hurtling down from the clouds, shoved by a cold wind. No. They were light, drifting down as if gravity didn’t matter very much. There’s no wind. The temperature is just below freezing so the snow on the ground is wet and heavy, perfect for packing into snowballs or snowmen. But in the air, this snow is unhurried, fluffy, and fresh.
I always marvel at the first real snowfall of winter, how it changes the light coming into the house, how it adds a frosty filigree to the trees and covers up the shambles that is my autumn garden.
A quick online search answers my question about the many Eskimo words for snow. The anthropologist Franz Boas reported in 1911 that Inuit speakers have dozens, maybe hundreds of words for snow. This sparked debate but it is now known that all the Arctic peoples (Yupik, Sami, and others) have many words to describe snow and ice based on attention to conditions. Their language reflects a close relationship with their environment that we English speakers do not have. We only have “snow”. It could be argued that we have a few more: graupel (which is actually German) describes soft pellets that form when supercooled water droplets form on snowflakes so that they take on the consistency of styrofoam; corn snow which is the coarse grainy stuff that forms in the snowpack when there is repeated warming and refreezing; powder, which is dry and fine and light. But rather than many words for the snow itself, we have adjectives such as wet, heavy, fluffy, dry.
Being from the Pacific Northwest, I’ve had the thought that I’d like to compile a list of words for rain: drizzle, downpour, cloudburst, virga…maybe someday. English feels like a blunt instrument sometimes, but that’s no reason to give up.
In the meantime, as I’ve been writing this, the snow has slackened. A few flakes continue to drift down and I’m watching clumps fall from tree boughs while slabs slide from metal roofs. Perhaps the air is warming. Perhaps the snow will turn to rain. I’ve had my daily dose of magic, sitting in my warm house while the first significant snow fell. Inside of me lives a little kid who will always marvel at falling snow, even when there is also an adult who will be tired of it in a couple months. I may tell myself that I don’t like winter, but it’s not true. That little kid refuses to give up on me.
It’s also that little kid who won’t let me give up on writing. I stopped the blog for awhile, a couple years really. I was doing Other Things and wouldn’t make the time, except for daily journaling. But writing for readers? What is there to say? Sometimes a fallow period is required. I call it creative composting–taking the scraps of life and letting them cook and ferment together. Live, observe, reflect. When it’s time, the words and images will come. I always worry during a fallow period. I should be trying harder, I should be doing more, what if the words are gone for good? Worry doesn’t help. It’s just noise. The difficulty is in sitting down, making the commitment. The ideas themselves are transient. Words are transient. They come like snowflakes and melt if conditions aren’t right. I don’t believe they are meant to stay. As soon as they land, they begin to transform and bind with other snowflakes to create an entire snowpack. The snowpack is always in transition too and eventually transforms into water which cycles back through the atmosphere. It may be the same with stories, narratives, descriptions, metaphors and similes. they come together as thoughts, then words, then stories and transform as soon as they land on the eye or ear. As a kid, I learned to read quickly and loved stories. I was always making up stories and drawing pictures. Even now, reading is one of my great delights and I respond to supple language and well-constructed sentences. My imagination needs the exercise.
So I circle back to writing. This blog has value to me as a writer and thinker, and I hope that the latest drought is ending. No promises, but I want to see if I can get myself in the writing chair more often.
The snow has stopped. I hear ravens in the trees and tires rolling through the slush.
It has been nearly two months since I issued the Wonder Challenge to myself. I can report moderate progress. The observing muscles are flexing as I spend more time outdoors. Sometimes I feel a little squirt of delight when I realize I have heard the first hermit thrush of the year or nearly stepped on the first calypso orchid blooming under a cedar tree. These moments are recorded in the journal I keep, writing every morning without fail.
But as far as pulling out the camera to snap a photo or post on the blog, I haven’t been so disciplined. Instead I let the moment pass and go back to my task. Or, I go out to work in the garden. An online friend recently observed that her garden is greedy for time, and I agree. So is mine. All of a sudden it’s time to get seeds in the soil if I am to have vegetables and flowers. And the weeds flourish in the benign weather. I am perpetually behind, from the perspective of having a completely tended and kempt garden. It will never be so…there is only one of me, and I continually balance priorities against distractions. I accept the imperfection of the garden, and of myself.
This photo is from a couple weeks ago, when John and I went out to inspect a campground for trees that pose a hazard to campers. We moved steadily, but were always aware of the noise of melting snow rushing downriver. He marveled at the power of water, and I paused to take a look. How the color of the water reflects the sky! How the shape of Cone Mountain is so familiar, how I immediately recall of the trail that passes below it. The years that we have both lived and worked in this landscape make up a significant portion of our lives, yet the woods and rivers and mountains continue to surprise, delight, and frighten us. We belong to this place. To pull up roots and go somewhere else is almost unthinkable but at times we both long to go.
Back to work. As we moved from tree to tree, we noticed insects emerging from pock marks in the sandy soil. When we stopped to look, I thought they were bees with their striped and slightly furry bodies. But they couldn’t be. They only had two wings, so must be flies that mimic bees. Never saw that before.
It occurs to me that there are at least two kinds of wonder. One is the surprise at witnessing something you’ve never experienced before—which I hope continues to happen for me. But the second kind of wonder is for the familiar, what we know that still has the power to bring joy and curiosity. It’s a wonder to be friends with someone for over 25 years, to have walked miles together, to have been distant then greet each other after an absence. And to still wish the best for them, to watch them struggle and learn and grow and know they are doing the same for you. How is it that people connect—to each other or a place—and maintain the connection? We humans need this, but it remains a mystery. If it was easy, that mystery would have been solved. I wonder about it, but am content for the mystery to remain.
So wonder is alive and well. The challenge is to write and post more, to transform wonder into images and words that may be shared. May this be of benefit—to me, and to readers.
My usual pattern is to start waking up sometime in late February. What seemed like a warm cozy shelter in December now feels stagnant, stale, cluttered and claustrophobic. Outside is still cold, gray, and snowy. It would be a perfect time to take a vacation but I never do. Instead I put my head down and trudge through my work routine until winter is officially over. As I store my winter clothing and gear, I cast a critical eye over things and clear away what no longer serves. It can feel quite ruthless but also liberating. On a rainy April afternoon I was sorting through a box of papers in the studio and came across this old sketchbook with a drawing of a Nashville warbler. I looked out the window and saw that the pussywillow catkins were in this exact state of flowering. I wondered…had I seen or heard the warblers this year? They are transient, moving through town rapidly on their way to their breeding habitat higher in the mountains. It’s possible they had come through and I didn’t notice. They are insectivores and the pussywillows are clouded with bugs when they bloom.
But this year has been different. A warm spell in mid-February brought the catkins out early. They held static while winter returned for a few weeks and then just recently progressed to the pollen stage. Then it was warm enough for the bees to emerge from the hive and the air was filled with their gentle buzzing. But I never heard or saw the warblers.
No one can say what “normal” weather is any more. Neotropical migrants like warblers must figure out the timing of their journey. If it’s too cold when they’re on the move, their food won’t have emerged and they won’t have the energy to stay warm. Maybe this year the birds are holed up somewhere south of here waiting for the right conditions.
Finding the sketchbook and thinking about warblers was one direction of wondering. The other direction of wondering was the date of the drawing. In 2011 it was not uncommon for me to pick up a sketchbook and record a moment in the garden. In 2018 I never do. What has changed? I have always been burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and northern European Protestant work ethic. Work before play. And try as I might to change my mind, art is play. So the paycheck must be earned and the laundry must be done before I go play. All work and no play make Debra a dull girl, which is what I have become. Even before I found the sketchbook, I was aware of wanting to reconnect with wonder and joy. Writing and drawing and walking are all part of that.
As I make my way through clutter and untidiness in my house, I am also spring cleaning my mind. As much as I have resisted, I have what I call the “digital attention span”. In order to engage with the human world around me, I use many of the tools that everyone else uses. It is so handy to text and email, so handy to pay my bills online. And so seductive to look things up without opening a physical dictionary or encyclopedia or map, to listen to an audiobook or read on the screen or snap a photo with the iPad. Without knowing how it happened, I find myself spending more and more of my time looking at a screen (including right now). The digital attention span speeds me up, makes me impatient, keeps me from using all my senses and my hands. It is numbing and exhausting to disconnect myself from the tangible world, and all the more disconcerting to try to reconnect.
Yet the world is right here. Physical things exist. The earth turns on its axis just as it did yesterday and will tomorrow. Spring is advancing. The white-crowned sparrows’ call is more insistent every day. The buds on the deciduous trees are a little more swollen each day. The Nashville warblers are out there somewhere, I hope. This is what I want to be attending to in spite of my knowledge of the warming planet, human hubris, folly, and cruelty. Where my attention goes, so goes my life. The necessity of a good spring cleaning is more apparent. Time to sort my thoughts about work and play, about what matters and how to spend the time I have left. Someone once told me that it’s best to live life without regrets, but it’s too late for that. The question now is to decide whether I will let them add to the clutter.