Dry Grasses and Pine Trees

pinesun

We walked here today, carrying tools to mark a ski and snowshoe route. Instead of snow, the ground is frozen with patches of slippery ice forming where water has been unable to soak into the soil. The air is chilly in the shade and a rime of white crystals create a frosty surface on conifer needles and logs. Where the low angle of the sun penetrates, the ground has softened almost to mud. I want to sit in the sunshine and soak it up, while smelling the warm sweet scent of ponderosa pine pitch.

Things we found: some sort of old old tree from an early homestead–not one of the natives, but a gnarled twiggy evergreen with small oblong olive-green leaves. A nearly intact deer skeleton spread out on the ground, joints still attached by gristle. A deer skull with antlers, one spike and one forked-horn. This I set on a stump to watch over a meadow below where elk beds were matted down in the dry grass. Leaves of grass curled and twisted in an elegant tangle that was almost a pattern but not quite. Some pine trees were charred at the base, indicating a low-intensity fire in the past but not within our memories.

We looked ahead and back to determine the route and walked until we had completed a loop. By 2:30 in the afternoon the sun was heading west and it felt like time to start for home. Already the temperature was dropping toward nightfall, which is coming a few minutes later each afternoon.

This is how a January day goes by, in dry grass and pine trees.

Winter Sun

wintersun

It was cold today, and when the sun slipped behind the ridge just before 3:30 this afternoon it got colder. Cold enough to penetrate two pairs of gloves and cause me to hop up and down on the dry squeaky snow. It was pleasant enough at midday, with brightness and a little warmth (although still well below freezing). But when the sun headed for the west, the air grew frigid. Definitely time to get back into the truck, blast the heater, and head for town.

Fifteen days until the winter solstice.

Still Winter

aldercone

Much of January has been cold and stagnant. Not many storms coming over the mountains, and the snow has not been good for skiing. With all the ice fog, it’s been easy to stay home and do other things–like stay warm, write, paint, cook, read, piece quilts. The last few days have brought a welcome change of weather. A person can look out the window to see snow, rain, blue sky. The inside of the house feels stale and claustrophobic. This afternoon I put skis as well as snowshoes in the back of the truck and headed out. If the snow was too horrible to ski on, I could always snowshoe.

Most of the time I would rather glide on skis than trudge on snowshoes. Today I was in luck. A light snow was falling as I made my way up the Jungle Creek road. The metal edges of the skis sliced and scraped against the crusty side of the track, and the fish scales on the bottoms whizzed over icy spots. I had overdressed, so pulled off a layer and opened the vents in my pants and coat. My breathing smoothed into a slow steady rhythm. The creek is overhung with snowbanks, with plates of ice piled up against the sides. I stopped to look closely at these alder catkins. When they open in spring, yellow pollen spews out.

I’ve always called this plant sitka alder. Of the eight alder species in North America, only four of them take the form of a tree. The others are shrubs. Sitka alder is a robust shrub that prefers moist areas and creek banks. It can be found growing in avalanche paths. Fast-growing, it loves sun but will tolerate some shade. It’s a pioneer plant, coming in after ground-disturbance. All of the alders are capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil where it can be used by other plants, so it has ecological value. As a trail crew member, I have slaughtered and maimed many alder bushes in order to clear the trail. Sometimes it feels like we’re committing vegetation mayhem, but it always grows back.

Sitka alder seems to be in a taxonomic limbo right now. I looked up the scientific name, only to find several options: Alnus sinuata; Alnus crispa spp. sinuata; Alnus sitchensis; Alnus viridis spp. sinuata. All of these names refer to the same plant, and I’m not sure why there are so many choices.

I didn’t know this while I was skiing–only that the catkins are lengthening even as some of the branches are held down by snow. I saw sticky buds on cottonwoods as well. It’s still winter, but there is a glimmering possibility of the next season’s approach. The days are noticeably longer.

Piecing

vinquilt

Another writing project takes my attention away from the blog. This winter is different from previous ones because I’m not going to my day job. I feel as if I’ve been given the gift of time–to sleep, to let my joints and tendons recuperate from summer fieldwork, to be unashamedly idle. Lyanda Lynn Haupt has written about Idle Pleasures on her blog The Tangled Nest. For me, these include reading, knitting, sewing, listening to radio programs, cooking complex recipes, staring out the window, hanging out with friends. Idle Pleasures are my reward for writing at least 1000 words a day on what I hope turns into a book.

The days are gray and ice-foggy again, so I turn to my scrap box for a splash of color. I’m piecing quilts. The one in the photo is coming together after years of languishing. One time I found a bag of vintage fabric scraps at a yard sale, and that sent me hunting for more. I collected them from second hand shops, and found contemporary reproductions. They remind me of my grandmothers, who were both quilters and savers of scraps. As a little kid, my artist’s eye was entranced by the colors and patterns, and boxes of material held unlimited potential as far as I was concerned. I learned to sew in my teens and started my own collection of quilt scraps before I even had a permanent place to live. Leftovers from cutting out a pair of pajamas, sundress or flannel shirt followed me from place to place. I used to buy blank composition books for my journals and cover them with colorful fabric. Sometimes I buy a quarter yard of fabric just because I like it. And I inherited some of my gramma’s stash. So my collection has grown, and I’ve pared it back some by giving bags away. Because of the gift of time, I’m diving into the box and discovering the potential. How this piece could go with that, how an accumulation of pieces can come together in a handsome warm covering.

It’s the same with the writing. Scraps of experience carried for years are pieced together in a pattern. I won’t know how the whole thing will come out because I haven’t stitched together enough blocks yet. In the course of daily writing, I’ve learned to drop my expectations of how the process ought to go. I’m not a linear thinker. Things do not appear fully formed in my imagination. I only get the starting point. It’s all about the exploration and figuring out. It helps to be curious and willing to play. It’s necessary to trust the creative process and follow it.

Out of all these pieces, wholeness is possible. I truly believe that.

How to Hibernate

frost

The ice fog has descended. This photo was taken midday today, but you can see how dull and flat the light is. Cold air has settled into the valleys fingering up into the Cascades to be dammed by the mountains. The air is still. No wind. Above the blurry fog, there will be clear skies and sunshine, but down here there’s no way a person could imagine such a thing. The freezing temperatures bring out the moisture in the air, and it crystallizes on any surface. If it was above freezing, it would be dew. Instead intricate formations of hoar frost develop. I noticed how furry my honeysuckle vines appear when I took the compost out last night.

This fog can linger for two weeks or more, trapping fumes and particulates from human activity. The woodsmoke and vehicle exhaust have nowhere to go, so the air grows increasingly stagnant and dirty. People’s moods get stagnant too, as the gray and cold settles into the soul. I have been known to refer to this weather as “Killer Death Ice Fog from Hell”, adding expletives as necessary. The inertia settles into bones as well, and it can be difficult to force oneself out of the house. I feel myself slipping into careless eating and Internet surfing late into the night, so that I wake up disoriented and slow.

Yesterday I spent hours twining a little basket. When it wasn’t turning out the way I wanted, I tore it out and patiently started over. I am genetically and temperamentally a person of northern latitudes. I could see myself in another time and place (Scotland or Germany before electrification) being content to wrap up in shawls and sit weaving at a loom through the dark winter days. Or in a Pacific Northwest longhouse making baskets of cedar bark and spruce roots. My hands like to be busy during the dim time, and I don’t need to be fully awake. I can understand how winter was storytelling time in so many cultures. While I twiddled with my basket project, I listened to stories on the radio while my imagination wandered far and wide. What could be better on a gray day?

This morning I decided that I need to try a little harder to take my lethargy in hand. In spite of the gloomy fog, there are things that I would like to do: write New Year’s cards and send them; pound cabbage with salt and set to ferment into sauerkraut; bake bread; clear up piles of books and papers; put away the Christmas ornaments. Turn away from the glowing screen at a reasonable hour, putting aside the seduction of the World Wide Web. Sleep, and get up tomorrow to write for awhile and consider getting on my skis. (No midnight revelry for me. Sorry, not into it.)

Outside, juncos, chickadees, pine siskins and house finches sit on the fence with their feathers puffed up. Now and then they flit to the feeder where I’ve put out black oil sunflower seeds. They’re conserving energy to survive the cold. Hibernation is the most extreme way of conserving energy in the winter, and most animals here are not true hibernators. Many stay somewhat active, relying on caches of food they’ve stored or foraging for what’s available. But during storms and dark periods it’s nap time. I’m one of those.

Forecast is for a low of 5 degrees tonight.

Of Noble Fir and A Brave Old World

nobles

One of the best bargains around is a Christmas tree permit. Go to your local Forest Service ranger district or BLM office, and for five bucks you get a tag and permission to choose your tree from the millions that grow on federal land. The trick around here is that the best trees are at higher elevations, which are now inaccessible unless you have a tracked over-the-snow vehicle or are willing to snowshoe a long way.

I hitched a ride in a snow cat on Friday. My colleague John (how many Johns do I know? Many. This one operates machines.) was grooming snow over Keechelus Ridge, packing and smoothing the route for snowmobiles. I have ridden this area myself, so I know that it’s prime territory for the noble fir (Abies procera), the largest and tallest of the world’s forty-odd true fir species. Writing to British botanist William J. Hooker in 1830, David Douglas said: “…Among these, A. nobilis [noble fir] is by far the finest. I spent three weeks in a forest composed of this tree, and day by day could not cease to admire it…”

No arguments from me, as I cannot cease admiring it either. Its range is small, growing only from Stevens Pass in Washington south to Mackenzie Pass in Oregon, and along and west of the Cascade crest. Noble fir prefers a cool moist habitat, and unlike other firs, is intolerant of shade. So the stands require periodic disturbances in order to regenerate themselves.

The wood of noble fir is prized for being light, strong, and clear (free of knots). Keechelus Ridge has been partially logged, although laws protecting old-growth forest stopped the logging in the early 1990s. Clearcutting opened the way for new trees to grow, so there are many seedlings and saplings. It was a fine day to be out. The cab of the cat was warm and comfortable, and I was hypnotized by the roll of snow curing up from the blade of the cat while we listened to an audio book. Tracks of snowshoe hares, squirrels, and predators like foxes and martens trailed and zigzagged through the fresh snow. I was also watching the tree species change as we gained elevation, and how the trees on top had more snow plastered onto them. It was clear which way the prevailing wind blows, perfectly demonstrating “windward” and “leeward”.

One of my current experiments is to loosen my death grip on linear time. Since I am laid off from my job, there is rarely a reason to look at the clock in order to be somewhere at a certain time. My wristwatch stays on the dresser, ticking away all by itself. All the clocks in my house tell a different time anyway–I am incapable of keeping them synchronized. Keeping track of time in the modern world is a challenge for me. I would much rather be ruled by how the sun moves, when my stomach growls, how the seasons turn. The clock and calendar butcher time into uniform chunks, and our culture’s adherence to linear time feels like tyranny to me. I will take any opportunity to be free from it, living according to the rhythms of the planet and my body.

So the day unfolded. I found my tree, floundered in the snow to cut it, and it rode on the back of the cat the rest of the day. We went up and down, in and out of shade. At the top, we looked down at Kachess and Keechelus Lakes. Out toward the Cascade crest, fleeced in by woolly gray clouds. The sun traveled a shallow arc toward the west, and dusk fell as we made our way back. We listened to one of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, tales that take place far away from noble firs and mountain hemlocks and snow. John turned the lights on, and I felt drowsy. But I could see stars beginning to show in the velvety darkness.

Now my funny little tree can come inside for one of my favorite winter rituals. It has been snowing here at home, and cookies emerge from the oven to scent the house with sugar and spice. The cat and I are in semi-hibernation, luxuriating in sleep while mostly ignoring the clock. However, the calendar insists that Christmas is nine days away. I’m reading Brave Old World by Tom Hodgkinson. The subtitle is “A month-by-month guide to husbandry, or the fine art of looking after yourself”. I don’t know about you, but I was creeped out by reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And I’m even more creeped out by how much of it has come true (and continues to come true). The Brave Old World of Hodgkinson is pre-Reformation Europe, and he pored over many classic and medieval texts for clues about how to live well. Tending chickens and bees, raising a garden, singing songs, brewing your own ale, hunting and gathering, cutting wood are all covered with personal stories and humor. He prefers words like “resourcefulness” to “self-sufficiency”, because a person might still want to buy things for practical reasons. Capitalist consumer culture is “New World”, and suspect because it turns us into slaves ruled by money and time. So find your own way to rebel.

December is for feasting and making merrie. Nothing to be done in the garden, huzzah! and the bees are tucked into their hive with lots of honey to eat. Here at my house, there’s a quiet little rebellion going on with a crooked $5 Christmas tree, hand-crafted gifts, recycled wrapping paper, food put by last summer, and a watch-free wrist. A joyous Old World feast is in the making!

FOOTNOTES:
David Douglas quoted in Northwest Trees by Stephen F. Arno, 2007. A wonderful book, highly recommended.

Keechelus (KECH-uh-lus) means “few fish”, and refers to a lake near the headwaters of the Yakima River. Its neighbor is Kachess (Ka-CHEESS) lake and ridge. Strangely, Kachess means “many fish”.

Gathering Greens

firsnow

Entering another year-end holiday season with this intention: Keep It Simple, and Take the Pressure Off. There is creativity, family time, connection with friends, favorite traditions. And it’s possible to get entirely too busy. When that happens, I spend too much, don’t enjoy myself and just want the whole thing to be over. Bah, Humbug! So I’m sticking with my intention. It keeps me mindful of what I choose to do.

One thing I really like to do is bring evergreens into the house. I’ll have a small tree, but not for awhile yet. It’s a pagan tradition, and also a personal one. Being inside after spending so much of my year in the woods leaves me longing for trees. So to bring a bit of the forest to my house in town helps me remember that spring follows winter. And that the earth’s axis will shift in fifteen days. Besides, evergreens are beautiful and smell good.

Yesterday I ventured out to a place I know where several kinds of conifers grow. My favorites are true firs and I clipped small boughs of grand fir and subalpine fir. But mountain hemlock is also attractive, and white pine is different from all of them. I even snipped some kinnikinnick. Last week I collected some cedar boughs from the coast. I tied the bundles with blackberry vines and carried them out.

It feels like I’ve been away for some time, and I suppose that’s true. I was curious to see where the snow was. Large areas under the trees are bare. The day time temperature was above freezing, so the crusty deposits of snow were melting. Higher up the slopes, snow blankets the ground in a continuous thin layer. My ears caught the sound of a great horned owl hooting over toward the Waptus River. In the daylight? It was insistent, certainly not talking to me, but one of its own kind.

Walking felt good, so I left my bundles in the truck and continued exploring familiar ground. Tree trunks are dark with moisture and water dripping off thousands of slim fir and pine needles fills the air with soft pattering. Colors are subdued; a limited palette can be soothing. Vine maple branches are bare, and it’s possible to peer into a deep thicket that’s impenetrable in summer. I glanced at all the aluminum cans in the brush and thought about coming back in spring to pick them up. Also thought about becoming a Leave No Trace educator. Maybe it wouldn’t help, but it seems like people can be taught to care where they put their garbage. A crusader lurks within my heart.

On my way back to the truck I stopped to examine twigs. The vine maples are reddish, with buds opposite each other. Huckleberry buds alternate on greenish twigs. The buds are there, next spring and summer’s growth lying in wait. For some reason, that knowledge brings a smile to my face.

Now my hands smell of pitch as I bring branches into the house into the house to admire. Chunky rain falls outside the window, and not too far from here it’s more snow than rain…time to get cozy.