Far, Far Away

flag

I rounded the southwest corner of the house on my way to some chore but screeched to a halt when this caught my eye. Last week I wrote about how certain plants in my garden connect me to friends and family, and I’m going to do it again this week.

This is Iris tenax, or wild flag as my Gramma Davis called it. My trusty but disintegrating copy of Washington Wildflowers (Seattle Audubon Society, 1974) has this to say:”Flowers lavender, purple, or blue; rarely white, pinkish or yellowish. West. Wash.; open sunny areas, such as pastures, roadsides, meadows, logged land, and forest clearings; entirely in lowlands. Spring to early summer.”

I remember walking along the gravel driveway with Gramma Davis–we were headed to the mailbox out on Brown Road. To our right was a hayfield, and to our left were towering Douglas-firs. Couldn’t see very far into the trees through a tangle of salal and rotting high stumps. That chunk of forest was a big dark presence on the left-hand side of the driveway. Not Davis land, so we didn’t poke around in there. But on the margin of the trees, in the open sunny areas, clumps of these irises bloomed. I couldn’t help myself from going for a closer look, kneeling down to sniff and admire the colors and fine dark lines leading to the center. They were perfect.

Year pass. Gramma and Grampa Davis are gone. My dad is gone. With deep regret, my siblings and I sold the homestead where we spent so many days as children. What could else could we do, having inherited a crumbling farm at the beginning of our adult lives?

More years pass. I still have grandparents, my mom’s folks. They also have a farm in southwest Washington, where my sibs and cousins and I did a bunch of growing up. Nearly every inch of the place is as familiar as the smiles on my grandparents’ aging faces. Grampa Mueller died in 2001. Gramma held on for eleven more years. It was another crumbling farm, and every time I visited she urged me to dig something up–for each plant she could tell a story of origin. She was a great digger-up and could coax a slip of something green into flowering. The honeysuckle she got from Mrs. Henry up the road. The peonies and Lenten rose came from the Benthien Brothers nursery in Puyallup. She also transplanted wild things into her garden–yellow stream violets that she called johnny-jump-ups; bleeding hearts, trilliums. The trilliums and stream violets in my garden came from her.

And the wild flag…when Gramma could no longer walk back across the creek with me, even clinging to my arm going slow, I would go on my own and report back to her. “The spring beauties by the cedar patch are blooming. The trilliums will be along soon…” On one of these solo trips I took a shovel and a bag and collected a sword fern and clump of wild iris to plant in my current garden.

The sword fern is happy on the north side of the house in the shade, but the iris had nothing to say for a long time. Every spring I expect to look for it and not find it. But it surprises me with a few sharp blades poking from the earth. These grow into grass-like leaves and merge with the only partially-tamed jumble of geraniums and polemoniums. And then I round the corner of the house to find

flowers of my childhood. Delicate, cheery, open to the sun, impervious to the wind that bashes from the west. I hear Gramma Davis’ voice, telling me the names of things as someone once told her. I feel the warmth of a long-ago sun, the benevolent air, the absolute security of being in a grandparent’s company. Wonder and beauty flood into me–the world is there to be discovered.

Today is Father’s Day, and of course I think of my dad. I think of the Davis place, which I have never gone back to. In my mind, Dad is stuck at 46 years old and I’m 20, the two of us just beginning to get reacquainted after years of estrangement. We recognize ourselves in each other–it’s awkward, but it feels possible to become friends given enough time.

We were not given time. My brother and sister and I have been fatherless for 34 years. I’m not sure we have ever recovered from the suddenness of his going. Over the years, I suppose we have learned to father ourselves with the remnants of himself that he was able to give us. Dad feels far far away. Childhood feels far far away.

Yet I stop in my tracks to kneel by the wild irises that decided to bloom this year, just as I kneeled 45 years ago. Here’s a little piece of the far far away world that I came from. I see how swiftly they unfurled, and shone for a couple days before the edges of the petals begin to shrivel and curl. Oh, please stay awhile longer, I want to tell them. But they are on their own schedule, not mine.

That’s the thing with flowers: so transient, so beautiful. Life is always changing, never holding still. Sprout, grow, bloom, set seed, die, rest, sprout again. Children grow into adults and maybe become grandparents themselves.

Maybe we are all flowers–so transient, so beautiful, able to touch the far far away and still be here.

99 Daffodils

She grew daffodils. At first, she dug up bulbs from old homesteads nearby. Later, when the Breck’s catalogs came in the mail she would order some. They had names like ‘King Alfred’, ‘Rosy Cloud’, ‘Mrs. R.O. Backhouse’. In time the flowers multiplied, surrounding the house with clumps and drifts of daffodils. After the long dreary winters in southwest Washington, the yellow interspersed with cream and orange was a cheerful sight. Neighbors passing on the road would honk and wave when they saw what was going on at Dorothy’s house. Everyone enjoyed the daffodils, including me. Most years I tried to visit my grandparents during rainy blustery March, and I always came away with an arm-filling bouquet.

After Grampa died, Gramma’s zest for gardening declined. She wasn’t physically able to tend the domestic landscape she had tinkered with for years. Daffodils don’t need much care, so they came up every spring and she looked forward to that. I was instructed to dig up a bunch to plant at my house. They haven’t thrived here, and I don’t know why. Daffodils usually grow happily and multiply. For me, they straggle along slowly after the snow has melted. There are never enough of them that I feel I can bring any into the house. They are best enjoyed outside.

But I’m trying again. Gramma departed from this world in August at the age of 99. Today I finished planting the last of the 99 daffodil bulbs in her memory. I sent for a bag of 100 from Van Engelen, and was delighted at how big and robust the bulbs were. The collection is called “Sparkling Spring Mixture”, which reminded me of Gramma. I dug holes along the west side of my house between viburnum and ocean spray bushes. The shovel clanked on rocks left here by a retreating glacier. I picked some out and nestled seven or eight bulbs in each hole. Then I sprinkled the dirt back into the holes, and hoped for the best. Maybe there will be a long row of sparkling spring daffodils next March and April.

The hundredth daffodil bulb I tucked into a corner in another part of the garden. It’s a sentimental place, my garden. Like my gramma, I dig plants up from elsewhere. Some are from her place–the honeysuckle, peonies, phlox, goatsbeard, ferns, hop vine, Christmas rose. The latter is a start she got from the Benthien Brothers Nursery near Orting in the 1940s or 50s–my grampa’s maternal family (Benthiens) had a horticultural bent. That must come down through blood and bone, because I am certainly not the only gardener among my relatives. I’m trying to think of a single one of them who doesn’t have at least a partial green thumb or appreciation for plants.

The garden is tucked in. The leaves have been raked and piled for composting. Beds have been composted, the last lanky plants cut back. Garlic has been planted, and two plastic tunnels protect kale and other greens. I even tacked black tar paper to three sides of the beehive, to help the bees stay a little warmer this winter. A few staggered out when I swiped a little bit of honeycomb from them–both boxes are nearly full, so they should eat well till spring. The ground is frozen an inch deep, and a few flakes fell as I finished the chores. Even under snow, I can see the structure of my garden and remember how it looks when it’s growing. For now though, it rests.

Silences

To plug in the pagan tree lights, I reach behind some books. One of the books on the shelf fell into my hands, and this morning I opened it. There on the title page is the handwriting of my first literary mentor.

The book is Silences by Tillie Olsen, published in 1978 (the year I completed high school). My friend was John MacDonald Ludlow, known as Don John. We met when I was nineteen, and he was in his early to mid-seventies. He had known Tillie Olsen in San Fransisco when they were young radicals and writers in the 1930s. She went on to write, teach and speak with a sharp wisdom during the feminist movement of the 1970s. Silences is a collection of essays about why writers don’t write. She starts by looking at the reasons women in particular have not had the social and economic freedoms to completely fulfill themselves as writers, but then investigates more broadly. Men too have struggled with their writing lives, due to both internal and external circumstances.

Don John and I attended the same writer’s group in Leavenworth, Washington in 1979. I had heard of him, of course. And there he was, somewhat stooped with a magnificent shock of white hair swept away from his forehead, a bushy white beard, and incredible wizard eyebrows. He had crystalline blue eyes that could droop mournfully or twinkle with mischief. Later I learned that he was on good behavior at these gatherings. He sat silently while someone read an earnest poem about watching a chipmunk. We all wanted him to say pithy things about our writing, and sometimes he did after careful consideration. It was always useful criticism. Once in awhile he would read his own work. His specialty was well-crafted short stories, and he had a real gift for irreverent bits of doggerel.

Don John always brought the wine–a gallon jug of some cheap white wine with the silhouette of an old Italian on the label. “Dirty Old Man” wine, he called it. He rolled his own cigarettes with Zigzag papers, which I had known up till then as what people made joints with. He would shake the tobacco from the pouch slowly and deliberately, arrange the flakes and roll the paper. He licked to seal it, then set the cigarette between his lips and lit it with a match. The smokes were stubby, and he let much of them burn between his yellowed fingers as he talked.

There was a spark between us. “By God, you can write!” he said to me one time after I had read a description of a menial job I’d had. I was very much an innocent adrift, not sure what I was doing with my life. I was creative, hard-working, and willing to try things. I had found this community of writers, musicians, and artists and became part of it. Soon I was dropping by Don John’s house to borrow books and talk. He didn’t much care for chipmunk poetry.

Oh, how we talked. He loved to talk late into the night with a glass of Dirty Old Man wine and cigarettes. His wife Lonny would be cooking or washing dishes or watching Lawrence Welk on television. She was a sweet woman, his fourth wife, and hard of hearing. She rarely felt the need to participate in the intellectual discussions taking place at the kitchen table. Lonny had grown up on a fruit ranch in northern Washington, caring for brothers and parents until Don John showed up to sweep her off her feet. She was in her forties, an old maid. He had red hair.

I was adopted as a Ludlow semi-daughter. John and Lonny had no children of their own, but created family around them. Young women were invited to stay in a small apartment in the top of the funky old house. No money changed hands except for portions of the utility bills. The apartment dweller’s job was to mow the lawn, shovel snow, and talk to Don John.

I moved in a few months after my dad died in 1980. It was my first apartment, and I carried a couple boxes of mismatched dishes from my gramma up there. My stereo and a pile of vinyl albums. Books, clothes, journals. A rocking chair. The bathroom was papered with New Yorker covers, with a clawfoot tub tucked under a low part of the roof. My own place and I loved it. I would come home from my first Forest Service job and find a note on my table: “To My Golden-haired Loveress…” and there would be a message about some minor fixit he had done. The note would be signed “From Your Secret Lover”.

He adored the company of women. He was a shameless flirt–Lonny just laughed at him. For him it was about beauty and brains. He delighted in pushing feminist buttons, to make women huffy and call him a chauvinist pig. One time I came home from work with filthy clothes. “You’re a woman, not a working stiff!”, he said indignantly. I looked him in the eye, and said “I am.” He cackled joyfully. I always felt accepted and treasured by Don John. He was proud of his semi-daughters making their way in the world.

What happened to me was what happened to most of us. I met a man and moved out. The little apartment that had been home for awhile was too small to be a love nest. And there was a glowering protective old man downstairs. I would go for visits without the boyfriend, and the kitchen table was once again privy to gossip, stories, politics. Ronald Reagan was “that reactionary bastard!” When I left for north Idaho, the correspondence began between the Golden-haired Loveress and her Secret Lover. His letters got shorter. When he wrote “Your life is too exciting for me,” I knew it was time to go see him.

He was bedridden and skinny. His sight had been going for years, and was finally gone. All his life he had loved reading, and was now listening to books on tape when he wasn’t sleeping. We didn’t talk much. We sat there holding hands, loving each other through that touch. I remembered his stories of growing up in the Dakotas, near a large encampment of Sioux people. His best friend was an Indian boy and they loved horses. At sixteen, Don John lied about his age to join the Army, and went to Mexico to chase Pancho Villa. He wandered and adventured, and was recognized for his writing in the 30s. In the 40s, he was staying in a cabin in the California mountains. Steinbeck was across the canyon in another cabin writing the Grapes of Wrath while Don John laid on his bunk trying to write but succeeding only at taking potshots at rats with a pistol as they ran along the rafters. We had talked of death, how preferable it is to die in the mountains and have the coyotes come piss on your bones.

I wish with all my heart that’s what would have happened. But it didn’t. He was in bed when he let go of life, and a friend wrote to tell me. I was given a manila envelope of his writings and his old black Underwood typewriter. I also have his ancient bamboo fly rod and reel, as well as the Olsen book. The sound of his laugh can yet ring in my memory, and I can still see the incredible eyebrows and lascivious looks. But what I hold closest to my heart is his belief in me and my abilities.

What he wrote on the title page of Silences is this Langston Hughes poem:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

I hear you, Don John. There was more writing in you that for some reason didn’t come out. It burned bright in you, and many of us were touched by the glow. Silence is no way to live.

So I write on, old friend.

Whiff

“Mmm, smell that?” asks Mikki as we walk together. Yeah, I got a whiff right at the same time she did. “I love our pine trees,” she declares.

There is nothing like the scent of warm sun hitting the bark of ponderosa pines. Some people say it smells like vanilla, but to my nose it does not. First of all, it’s sweet but hasn’t entirely given up its piney essence. Not really resinous or sharp, but not sugary either. It’s complex. The young trees don’t give off the aroma as well as the big old trees whose trunks have begun to sway and bow. The big pines self-prune, meaning that as they grow, the lower branches retreat further up the bole. So a person can walk right up and put her nose to the cinnamon-colored bark without getting poked by a limb. Sometimes it’s possible to find a solid chunk of cloudy amber pitch to take home and smell later.

Smell and memory are both processed in the deep limbic system of the brain. That’s why certain smells bring back memories so clearly. It sure worked for Mikki and me today, as we remembered being out on trails in the woods in the sun. It means summer is coming.

Boistfort Valley

This barn was built by A.O. Rayton in about 1902, along Black Creek, which flows into the South Fork of the Chehalis River. He was my great-grandfather. The field in front of the barn used to be old growth forest. After the trees were cut, he used a team of horses to pull the logs and stumps out. It became a hayfield. A.O. Rayton’s daughter is my maternal grandmother, and she has spent most of her long life living along Black Creek, near a settlement called Wildwood. It no longer exists, except as the name of the county road.

I went to see my grandma on a beautiful September weekend, and took my nieces (9 and 15). “I love Granny’s place,” sighed the younger one.

Me too. Always have. To have grandparents is a great gift, especially when they give you, your siblings and cousins the run of the place. So many adventures in the woods and the rain, with animals and tools. So much learned from adults who had patience, rock-solid values, and all the skills needed to thrive on a stump farm far from town.

When I go back to the Boistfort Valley now, I see it as it is, but the present lies on top of layers of memory. The years are stacked on top of each other like layers of sediment, yet they are all visible at once. Fields that used to be fallow are now being farmed again. Old houses have rotted back into the soil. The hills have everchanging shapes as they are logged and reforested. When I was a kid, they reminded me of the grade school principal’s flattop haircut, but now they look punk rockers. In one clearcut I remember seeing from the backseat of the car, the trees are now tall enough to allow light down through the canopy.

Things change, but some things change so slowly as to not be very noticeable. I wandered in the orchard. All the trees are old now, but two Gravenstein trees are original to the place. They are truly hoary and venerable. One has neat rows of sapsucker holes drilled into the trunk and every branch. This is a good year for them, and I picked up lots of windfalls and plucked some fruit from the trees. Thought about the taste of the applesauce and pies Granny used to make. Remembered planting one of the last trees that Grampa grafted. He couldn’t dig any more, so he watched me. He leaned on a cane he made for himself out of electrical conduit, a raggedy jacket hanging from his gaunt frame. His blue eyes were still sharp underneath a grease-stained faded red felt crusher hat. “Throw a handful of bonemeal in the hole, Bug,” he instructed. (You know you are loved when you still have the nickname you had as a toddler, and you don’t mind.) He told me to mix it in with the dirt, then gently spread the roots and backfill. The root collar had to be at just the right level.

That tree is still there. It’s a Gravenstein. It has fruit on it.

Open hearts and smiles all around as the girls and I hugged Granny goodbye. We left an apple for her on the kitchen counter.

I’m home again, and thinking that even though I’ve chosen to live east of the mountains, the Boistfort Valley will always be a place of deep roots. How could I not feel the pull of connection to family and a piece of land? How could I not still have some rainwater in my veins, and some Chehalis River silt in my memory?

Today is for making applesauce.

The Downhill Side of Summer

This is one of those years when summer has never really settled into the mountains. The season feels fleeting and tenuous. The days are shortening (already…), and the weather has cooled. The weekend was misty up on the crest.

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) grows all over the West. It finds its way to disturbed areas after logging, fires, avalanches, and volcanic eruptions. Seems like I have always known it, growing up as I did among the clearcuts of southwest Washington. The hot pink spires of fireweed meant that it was almost time to go back to school. Fireweed means the downhill side of summer.

I have known fireweed in north Idaho, when I was a young forestry technician measuring young trees in recently logged and planted clearcuts. Fireweed is a pioneer plant, growing profusely in the scraped bare soil. Sometimes it grew taller than me. We had to push through it, and the slightest touch caused the seed pods to burst. The seeds are silky and fluffy, like dandelions, only bigger. There are so many of them that the air fills with fluff, making it impossible to not breathe them in.

I have known fireweed in Yellowstone National Park. After the wildfires of 1988, acres of burned landscape turned pink. I visited ten years later to attend a painting workshop, and was able to spend time closely examining the flowers. Many of the dead trees had turned silver and fallen. Fireweed and young lodgepole pines came up through the weathered down logs. The whole place was silver and black and green and pink.

Today’s fireweed was photographed during a hike up Gold Creek. I found it in the tumbled boulders and alder brush of a slide path. I walked up to look at a recent avalanche that left hundreds of trees across the trail. Again, there was fireweed reaching for the sun after a change. I stopped to look at it–that assertive pinkness, the droplets of last night’s rain on the petals. Remembered being a kid not wanting to go back to school. Remembered the tickle of fluff in my nose. Remembered all the places I have walked after a fire.

If things never changed, how could there be fireweed?

Honeysuckle

I’ve been waiting for this, watching the buds develop. And now they are open, releasing their scent.

As with lilacs, honeysuckle evokes memory. The plant on my arbor came from Gramma’s house, where several of them vined up into trees, and over the garden house. She got a start from her neighbor, Mrs. Edith Henry. I remember–teenage years in the 70s. Staying with Gramma and Grampa at their place in the Boistfort Valley in summer. My two older cousins Matt and Andy were often there too. In the mornings we would get up, and after Grampa got in from milking the cow, we sat down to breakfast. Always fruit, then stacks of buckwheat or sourdough pancakes, with home-churned butter and honey. Fueled up, dishes washed, we headed out to move the irrigation pipes, or cut, rake, bale hay. The boys and I loaded the old pickup with hay and brought it to the barn. The roughness prickled our sweating arms as we bucked bales up onto the growing stack. The midday meal, a rest, then back out. Sometimes in the afternoons, we had time to go down to the river or explore backroads in the pickup. After supper, we would sit out in the yard and that’s when the honeysuckle let its fragrance out. Wafting gently through the warm humid air, calling hummingbirds to come sip nectar, flowery and a little citrus-y…

I hope wherever I live and garden, I will be able to take a start of this honeysuckle with me.