Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Ides of March

Apparently, before Julius Caesar was slain, March 15th was just an ordinary day, sometimes mid month being the time that debts came due. Before our current calendar, the 'ides' just meant the middle.

I'm not normally a superstitious person, but there have been some rather harrowing Ides of March(es). The most memorable was a freak late snowstorm that churned itself into a blizzard as the mercury plunged below zero. That Saturday night, snuggled into our cozy cabin with city friends visiting, we had no idea two drunken snowmobilers were racing past our driveway. One of them plowed into our visiting friend's car in the blinding snowstorm. We took turns staying with the body until the Mounties arrived. Since that night, I've never felt a wind that brutal. I began to not take March for granted.

My morning epiphany let me in on a secret about mid-March. Each year, when the sap starts rising, I come unhinged for a couple weeks. I only noticed because it eased off today with this nice skiff of new snow. All my thoughts get let out of their cages or leave their comfy contrails and mix it up. For two weeks I have shit for brains. It is impossible to focus on the simplest most elementary motion. I have to walk myself through brushing my teeth.

I binge read, which is the only thing, other than anesthetic, or driving too fast, that helps. At work, it feels like bees buzzing inside my noggin. My 'hard drive' freezes up and there's no restart button. Simple tasks like answering email or making a list become impossible and I lose whole hours in a stoned haze. It feels like witnessing a bar fight but muted as though my head was stuffed with novocaine soaked cotton.

Lucky for me, I have perfected the look of normalcy even when I'm having a stellar meltdown. Now that I'm through it for another year, I can look back at the past two weeks with (almost) nostalgia. And, I've never been able to get any sympathy when I moan about my discomfort. Friends nod and murmer the right words, but really they think, how bad could it be? One friend even said, "I think you're exaggerating".

Even if I'm miffed at the time, they actually help me keep the 'crazies' compartmentalized. Now that I'm working on a novel, I see that I'm eventually going to make money off this drama that roils in my thought bubble 24/7 but only gets revved up during the sap rising, Ides of March. I decided those conversations and characters are all just scrambling around in there trying to get out. No problem dudes. You'll get your own page one day.

It's great in a way. My friends have always helped me to not compound the interest by wallowing. Because I look so good doing it, my angst doesn't register on the Richter scale for me or my friends. I mean, how bad could it be?

I only know that when the storm passes for another year, I feel so good it should be illegal!!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

You Have to Start Somewhere

I guess you could say my grazing career began shortly after we moved to California. It was a rough start, but luckily didn't do permanent damage. I was nine years old and felt sort of like Dorothy scratching her head and saying to Toto, "I guess we aren't in Kansas anymore." We most definitely weren't in Michigan anymore. Our post war, brick bungalow neighborhood with one inch diameter crabapple trees was a thing of the past. Our new house had an old weathered shed with spiders and biting insects hiding in the corners. We looked up at pine trees so tall they blocked out the sunlight.
BoldMy grazing started innocently enough one summer day in the woods behind my house where Monterey pines, live oaks and tick bushes created a child's paradise.

That summer, before I had found kids to play with, I wandered in the woods pretending I was a wild animal, or an Indian warrior, or person who lived outdoors. While sneaking behind trees and outrunning imaginary enemies, I spied a wild iris in a shrubby copse under the pines. It was divine. It shone with an inner light. It erased all memory of the game I had just been playing. Never had I seen that color...indigo, before. Time stood still as the color seeped into me. Indigo. Hell, I wouldn't even hear the word indigo for another decade or so.
In that moment, under the damp mist that blanketed the Monterey Peninsula for two thirds of the year, I was transfixed by a beauty I had never imagined to exist. Of course I had to eat it. I had to have it inside me. So I picked the flower and chewed it up, noticing that it didn't taste that good. That was the first shock. That color should have tasted like heaven. The second shock was the pain. Almost immediately my throat began to burn. It was a fire that kept getting hotter, but not a normal hot like burning your mouth, and the pain was loud like a noise.

I stomped away from the house, heading purposefully toward relief, I hoped. I clutched my throat and moaned, so focused on the pain like you do when you're a kid, that I was too tied up in it to be scared. The thought briefly crossed my mind, "Go in the house. Tell Mom."

However, that scenario was instantly discarded as too risky. Kid logic has it that death might be preferable to letting your Mom see what an idiot you are. So I didn't have much perspective on my viable options. I was dizzy, disoriented and at certain points couldn't have told you where I was.

Hours later I went in the house and said hi to Mom. The pain had eased down enough that I could pretend like I dreamed the whole thing. In my family, we pretty much handled all our problems like that and it seemed to work pretty well when I was little. Not so great later, but that's another story!

I never ate another flower until was 30- something and I saw it in a cookbook. Now, I eat calendulas, violas and of course my favorite, dandelions, just the leaves, though.

I learned my lesson that day. It certainly didn't cure me of roaming the woods, alleys, city streets or country lanes where I've lived or from appreciating the treasures I found there. That lesson all us wild kids have to learn eventually, is what goes in which hole. No food in the ears. No jelly beans or peas in the nose. And keep those irises away from your lips!

Happy Hunting Out There
Alley Grazers, Forest Foragers
and all you Country Mice
Trapped in
Town Mouse Bodies!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Gymnastics

My day of skiing yesterday came complete with a memorable last run: a couple of aerial cartwheels followed by a back of the head bonk and minor whiplash. I decided to stop by the First Aid room at Blacktail and had the first aid tech, Emma, check my pupil size before I left.

You haven't lived until someone half your age asks you what day it is, what year it is (!) and what your name is. Anyway, I passed the test and drove on home, feeling a little beat up. But it was worth it. Sun warmed the ski lift chairs so the ride up the mountain felt like a benediction. And the miniature mogul hogs in their dayglow ski outfits were putting me to shame, as usual. One tiny tot had a pair of bunny ears on her helmet. At the end of the day, stowing my skis, I watched a giant red-haired poodle harnessed to a plastic sled whiz by, giving his little passenger the ride of her life. That was the happiest, goofiest looking sled dog I ever saw. A day on the mountain to be remembered and probably my last until next year.

It did seem strange yesterday morning, leaving the springtime ambiance of the valley for 10 degrees F and several inches of fresh snow on the mountain. Back to my previous post, this is the delicious fact of Montana in March. Crocuses are showing off, daffodils are barely breaking ground, robins serenade at dawn, and there's still nine feet of snow mid-mountain.

Today, my Easter service will take place in the Missions, only ten minutes away, which yield both snow free and snow covered paths to traverse. At 4,000 feet you can wear regular boots or Crocs and at 5,000 put on cross country skis or snow shoes.

I suspect our bear friends will be showing their groggy faces soon. There is certainly plenty of elk and deer sign where I go, rabbits and turkeys are finding lots to eat. A couple of white tails scattered last time I drove up there and they look almost too fat to run! I guess it's been a good winter up the hill and they'll be having their babies soon. These three does are so used to humans, they let me take their picture today, though they were quite a distance away, and me with no telephoto.

After I came down off the hill, I noticed crocuses fully operational and looking fresh and full of mischief. They also let me take their picture up close. What a treat for the winter weary that crocuses come when they do, long before anything else rears up out of the winter soil.

These ones seem to be dancing under the Mission Bay sign on Highway 35.

I see it's snowing on the mountain right now. I can watch from my dining room window which is where I write. Usually, Easter brings with it images of springtime. Because it's so early this year, we can probably expect another couple weeks of snow on the mountain, maybe a snowfall or two more in the valley. That's the fun of living here, I tell you. You never know what's going to happen next. Or as my friend Bill says, "If you don't like the weather here, just wait an hour, you still won't like it."

Me, I like weather whatever the flavor, especially if it's cool or coldish.

I hope you all had a wonderful Easter, celebrating in the fashion that is closest to your heart. I certainly did. Letting my feet lap up the dirt trail, mud puddles, and snow pack included, while I harvested thoughts from my thought bubble and felt thanks for every tree and shrub. That was my Easter blessing.

The only wildlife I came across besides the deer was a bicyclist, who seemed as happy to be up there as I was. It's so rare to run across another human up there this time of year that I had to stop and chat. This one was riding a mountain bike along the trail and though he was headed for mud and snow, seemed to have the perfect rig for it. He said, "So you're the one who drives the other red Honda." It turns out that we drive identical cars, blood red Honda CRVs.

Is that odd or is that God?

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Season of Firsts

Every year, at this time, something happens to me. Maybe when the sap begins to rise in the trees, there is an answering rise of sap in human bodies as well. This human body feels it acutely and so the counting begins. What do I count? The appearance of each new, fresh as dew, phenomenon. First Crocus. First Robin. First Dandelion. First Picnic Tables in front of Ace hardware. First sound of a lawnmower.

You psychologists out there will be having a field day with my OC symptom of counting. I've been doing it so long, it's worn a deer trail of neural pathways into my grey spongy stuff. So let the counting begin.

Today marks the first whiff of my personal favorite 'first', the dreamy, aromatic scent of cottonwood trees. More specifically, within the woody terminal buds, the inner bud scales are saturated in an ambrosial resin.

This resin exudes a scent that is beyond description. Usually, I have no problem describing things...slathering a sizzling string of adjectives in front of some hapless noun. Not this. Nope. No can do. But you want to take a shot at fitting a handle on cottonwood scent, check out this wonderful resource for perfume descriptives.

When these
buds first open, this perfume spreads like an invisible mist over the whole town. Up in the woods, it is positively intoxicating. Every time I open my front door, my nose smiles. It feels like an oceanic blessing. Yet, strangely enough, every year when I rhapsodize about this experience, I'm usually greeted with a cavernous yawn of indifference. Aside from the precious few, who like me, fall helplessly under the spell, it seems the rest of my compatriots are immune to the dreamy rapture wafting from Populus deltoids occidentalis.

So today I noticed the first whisper of a scent that I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to describe for 20 years.

What a tree! In the spring, a harvest of perfume . A few weeks later, bud scales cascade to earth like a mahogany snowfall. A while after that, the male flower catkins finish blooming (see above) and rain down like a plague of dead caterpillars, spackling cars, sidewalks, bicycles, garden boots, lawn furniture, garden tools, and especially pets.

Then comes the cotton, great rolling whisps like angel tumbleweed auguering sidewise along pavement in little spirals. We wear it in our hair.

I remember one day last spring, frisky breezes started unloading the cottonwoods like teamsters. Then the roiling spirals of fluff started filling First St. by Riverside Park. Like a low flying cloud layer it hovered, drifting indecisively this way and that. Albino cotton candy taking a leisurely romp through town. Surreal as an alien life form.

We won't even talk about the leaves that eventually make their way earthward. In sheer tonnage, cottonwoods put all other trees to shame. But that's too far in the future to worry about. I think the prodigious output of cotton, catkins and especially leaves, is what causes some folks to curse cottonwoods like they do burdocks and dandelions.

Two weeks ago, the cottonwood buds began to swell. They're still pretty tight, but as of today, they're just starting to leak their woody incense. In another week, I'm betting on them popping open, maybe a week after that they fall...and so on.
I'll let you know the day when our town gets hosed with that melifluous, resiny sweetness, so if you live where cottonwoods grow, you can run outside and take great snorts of this heady treat and be glad, oh so glad, you're alive in your cottonwoody city, burrough, or mountainside retreat.

Look for other firsts that will be appearing daily in this springtime extravaganza of sensory exuberance.

I can hardly wait!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Spring is Sprung

What is amazing about this time of year is this overlap of seasons, like two seasons for the price of one. It makes me feel like I have a lot more recreational choices. Within a few mile radius, I can either bask in the sun, rake leaves, or cross-country ski . If I want to venture further, Blacktail Mountain offers downhill skiing. I'm a couple miles from bowling, and two blocks from the skateboarding park. Wow!! Winter and spring seem to play peek-a-boo for several weeks here. The crocuses came up last week, did you notice? They are so picturesque, sometimes coming right out of the snow.

Today, I was gliding along the glassy surface of 'cornmeal' snow, three miles up Hellroaring Canyon. Meanwhile, my friend Eugene was capturing Stellar Jays east of St. Ignatius, on his mountain. His strategies for schmoozing birds are as irresistible to them as his photos are to us. His quest for suet to entice the birds is another story altogether. I had never seen blue jays looking so photogenic.

My friend Mary said that last weekend when she was over by Mission Dam, she heard (but didn't see) a bear on the slope, as some scree came tumbling down ahead of him (or her).

No bears today where I was. Just a couple feet of snow, sun pierced clouds, a stray snowflake or two, and chickadees ghosting through the branches. My dog, Sam has used up all his free passes chasing the wee, furry creatures in the woods. So he and I are tethered together for any woods roaming. That didn't work out so well on skis, I can tell you. That dog had me wrapped up like a bundle of newspapers.

Reminds me of roller blading with him a few summers ago. Yes, I had a helmet, elbow and knee pads on. I looked like the Michelin Man. He played sled dog and got me rocketing along the sidewalk until my life started flashing in front of my eyes.

Like his owner, he's an old dog learning new tricks. In any case, we survived that experiment, as we did again today. But Sam had to park by the stream while I went on without him and his leash. That snow was too heavy and deep for any creature without skis or snowshoes. He was still heavy breathing from the exertion when I got back from skiing without him for twenty minutes.

When I lived in Canada, we spent whole days behind Skiff Lake on snowshoes one winter, building a snowmobile trail. It was great fun. At noon, we started a fire and cooked lunch. But the long days in the woods, with 6-7 hours of silence, except for the shush of snowshoes was both exhausting and rapturous. Breathing fresh air all day changes you in ways you wouldn't expect. Spending all day on the ski slope does that for sure. All that oxygen!

This is the first Saturday in a while that I haven't hit the slopes at Blacktail Mountain for a day of skiing. Today they got four inches of fresh powder. Can't beat that. Watching the tiny tots fly down the mountain in long lines like colorful beads, is one of the high points of skiing there. Then there are views and more views.

My biggest problem these days is to decide what to do next. Even when I didn't have the money for a ski pass or a car to get up the mountain, I had these three magnificent parks, all situated on the water, which felt like country right in the middle of town.
What an incredible place to live!