Death Comes for the Goose

Every morning we pass the lone goose. He has been there waiting on the banks of Coulee Creek for a couple of weeks. He is attentive and as we go by his long neck turns to keep one eye focused on us. My heart breaks for him. Geese mate for life and I fear the worst has happened to his partner. How the minutes must drag into hours and days as he waits for her arrival! How long will he sit there at the bend in the creek before he gives up? And then what? How does a lone goose find a new mate in late spring on the prairie? Wherever I look, pairs are hunkered down together preparing nests and incubating their eggs. If there is a goose singles pond, it is a well kept secret. 

I hiked upstream from the lone goose’s hangout earlier this spring. Not far away, perhaps only a quarter mile, I found the remains of a dead goose. At the time, I marveled at the lightweight bones, the unique fused pelvic girdle, and the wide, long feathers that were piled together in a heap. Probably made a good meal for the coyotes, I thought. But now as my heart breaks for the lone goose, I wonder if that pile of bones was his partner. The cycles of nature make sense to me intellectually; some animals die so that others may live. But when I see the lone goose again each morning, I ache. 

There is a delicate balance that keeps the web of life perfectly in tune. We exist as part of this web, though you wouldn’t know it while walking around on pavement in the cities or down brightly lit grocery store aisles, selecting perfectly picked and packaged food that has traveled the world to our tables. Out here in the country, we are no longer just consumers. We are an authentic part of something bigger. It is not as tidy as human society. It is messier, with the raw spots open to the wind, rain and sun. Fairy tales with predictable happy endings have no place out here. 

How can I reconcile the immense joy nature brings me with the death that is an integral part of the system? I have put wildlife out of its misery when it was evident that the alternative was a long slow death. With a shovel in hand and tears running down my cheeks, I have beheaded fatally-wounded naked baby birds. I cannot answer the question of whether there is life after death, heaven or hell, nirvana or reincarnation for myself, nor for the baby birds who lived but a short while on this earth. Those greater questions go unanswered, floating away on drifting clouds. What feels right when faced with death is deep reverence for the life that was. And so I end each mercy killing with a burial, the placing of the body within the earth from which it came. Here it will decompose and spring forward as life anew. I tuck the bodies away where flies won’t consume the flesh, laying eggs that emerge as naked fat white grubs where once there grew magnificent feathers. Is this my fascination with tidy endings, the human attachment to neatly packaged goods and ideas rearing its head? Or – quite possibly – my actions spring from an innate desire to weave together the loose ends of the web of life, completing nature’s perfect pattern. 

Swarm of Bees

Yesterday a swarm of bees on our gate post, and today I took some time to write…

“Maybe the sun will shine today” croons the smooth male voice on the radio. I can hear the rain over the music. It is coming down in steady sheets, hammering the roof and windows. An unusual north wind blows strong, barreling down the coulee where we live.  

Part of the garden is planted. The seeds tucked neatly under the earth. Rows of beets, spinach, and beans are gladly soaking up the moisture. Meanwhile, the young tomatoes and cukes hunch miserably under white cloaks that shield them from the worst of the wind. Of all the things to plant on Saturday, those went in the ground first! The peppers and pumpkins starts have a prime spot up on a card table in the wood shed. They are cold, but safe from the buffeting winds and from curious chickens. 

Yet it’s been so soggy the chickens haven’t gone ten feet from the coop today. The dogs and I took a short walk to the garden and on down the driveway to the end. We  looped back along the cliffs on the southeast side of the coulee. By the time we returned to the cabin we were drenched. Now they sleep, curled tightly on their beds by the fire. And I sit enjoying a day of rest while it rains. There is nowhere else I’d rather be. 

Winter ramblings

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Here comes our single digit winter, descending on us with brisk, stiff winds. The mercury plummets as nature rages outside. No doubt about it, we are privileged to block the buffeting wind out so completely. The roof shakes and the windows rattle. My mind turns to the animals outdoors – a small blanket of snow, groves of trees, and rock outcroppings all make temporary shelters from the wind. They are better adapted to the cold than I. Tomorrow I won’t venture out for long.

It is the first evening of February, now well after dark, and I am cozied up on the couch under blankets while the fire blazes.

And yet, just yesterday in January, I strolled across the prairie in balmy 50 degree weather. How can I capture the tenderness of that moment? It was so very still. I paused to breath and a raven called. It rose out of the pine coulee in front of me and floated overhead, drifting across a patchwork of sky and clouds. The naked prairie was dotted with bright golden snakeweed. Far to the north the Snowy Mountains jutted above the prairie, crystal clear and blanketed in snow. I could see for miles.

At times, I’m cloistered in by the cold and snow. Winter weather takes me on a rollercoaster ride of possibility. Tonight I huddle close to the fire with gratitude.

Winter Begins

Oh, November! Following on the heels of the golden glory that was October, you feel utterly oppressive. It is as if you have pulled a cold grey blanket across the sky, and tucked it in close to the earth.

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Brilliant blue October skies

Goodbye to the sun! It has slipped so far to the south that our bodies could no longer make vitamin D even if it were to show its glowing face. Goodbye to the brightly colored leaves that delighted my eyes as fading chlorophyll revealed hidden carotenoids and anthocyanins. A few dry leaves yet cling to their branches, colored only by basic brown tannins. Goodbye to all the wild things that busied themselves this last month getting ready for winter. No more caterpillars, crickets, millipedes, nor spiders, which just a few weeks ago had the prairie crawling with life. A handful of hard frosts later and the earth is still.

We have made our preparations too. Hay is baled and stacked. Firewood is split. Strawberry plants are tucked under a blanket of straw. Hoses and sprinklers are empty, wound up out of the way. A new addition to our shed offers protection to our machinery and other sundry goods. We have tidied up our outdoor lives as we move the focus indoors.

With the turning back of our clocks, it is light earlier, a welcome change. At the other end of the day, it is dark soon after five. Time to seek refuge by the fire and eat hearty meals that chase the cold away. Time to lengthen our slumber and give thanks for the roof over our heads. Another busy season has passed. We’ve circled around the sun into the chilly dark days of winter.

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I stopped to capture the view while screwing steel panels to the new shed roof

Backyard beauties

A brief stroll up the hill in our backyard revealed an amazing variety of spring flowers. Many prairie wildflowers are diminutive and understated. The prairie golden banner is an exception – bright yellow blankets of these beauties are abundant this year.

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The bright blue shining penstemmon is our earliest blooming penstemmon.

IMG_0763Like many plants, this one has a couple of common names – the star lily or sand lily.

IMG_0767It is hard to positively ID an onion without digging up the bulb. But my guess is that this is a nodding onion. When the flower opens, it will be an umbel (think umbrella-shape) with 5 – 40 individual flowers.

IMG_0768Field chick weed has but five petals – each is deeply notched, making the flower appear more complex.

IMG_0774Nuttall’s violet, also called yellow prairie violet, has a delightful 5 inch tall flower.

IMG_0776Cous, also known as biscuitroot, has an umbel flower structure like the nodding onion.

IMG_0781Phlox species, surrounded by some woody winter deer scat.

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The shrubs are all in bloom too! This is sticky currant, a cousin of the yellow currant that grows along the river. The leaves are sticky to the touch.

IMG_0786Skunkbush sumac has tiny whitish yellow flowers and trifoliate leaves (a compound leaf composed of three leaflets). If you rub your finger on the bark, it emits a pleasantly pungent smell.

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The world comes alive

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As spring marches into Montana, there is a surprise awaiting me every time I step out the door. Day by day the spring migrants are returning from their warm winter locales. The first harbinger of spring is the Sandhill crane. This year they arrived on March 15th to a world still blanketed in snow. Their long legs maneuvered lithe bodies across the crusty snow in search of patches of bare ground. Within a week, their graceful courting dances began as the world around them melted out.

Next to return to the neighborhood were the mountain bluebirds. Their brilliantly colored feathers are a delight to my eyes, which had become accustomed to the flat white light of old snow and mud. Within days, they were busy bringing twigs and grasses to the hollow post in our yard where they nest each year. On the Equinox, the official start of spring, the red-winged blackbirds made their first appearance. Their buzzy “konk-a-ree” song will become the backdrop of life along any body of water for the next six months.

As March comes to a close, the western meadowlark at last arrives. Its sweet, flute-like melodies permeate the summer days on the prairie and grasslands of our state. Within a few weeks, we may become so accustomed to birds’ songs that we forget how utterly silent the winter was without them. Even the black-capped chickadee, a year-round resident, is singing more frequently and ardently now than in the dead of winter.

As many bird species arrive to spend the summer with us, so too do some species depart. These winter residents prefer cooler climates, and head north as far as the Arctic to breed during the summer months. The rough-legged hawk, for example, breeds in the far northern tundra and only winters in the northern U.S. It is more difficult to notice the departure of these species. They exist in the fabric of our daily lives for months, and then one day we realize that we haven’t seen them for a while. Their return in the fall will signal the arrival of winter, just as the many birds this month are heralding spring and the warm months to come.

* I wrote the above article for the Montana Audubon Center April e-newsletter.

When smoke gets in your eyes…

Intense smoke from western wildfires has settled upon us, and made it nearly impossible to see the horizon. It is time to focus on the world immediately underfoot! I took a short walk in the woods along the coulee cliffs and found some interesting things to look at up close, such as this pine cone, resting atop a bunch of silver sage.

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Woodhouse toads love our water tanks; I found three in the tank at once today. We gave them a board to crawl up on and hop out to freedom when they are done swimming and feasting.

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IMG_0418Sandstone slabs pile up in their angle of repose above Coulee Creek

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Golden currant leaves in the sunshine – the flowers and berries are long gone.

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Ponderosa pine bark flakes off in puzzle pieces

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I took shelter from the heat in a juniper bush, and sat to watch a chickadee sing. Below me, the team of horses paced along the fence and whinnied, wondering where I had gone.

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The scar on this tree looks a bit like a mitten surrounded by barnacles. It could be that the ocean is on my mind after a trip to the astounding Oregon coast last weekend.

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Skunkbush sumac, another favorite forest shrub.

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I took this photo before the smoke settled in on us last week – somewhere there is blue sky with fluffy white cumulus clouds!

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The obligatory photo of Doc – he loves to rest around the corner in the washroom, but always manages to keep an eye on me.

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Midsummer

Oh sweet, cool August! You have provided such soothing relief after the searing heat of July. Already we have had two evening rainstorms to freshen and moisten the parched earth. The daytime highs are merely in the mid-80s, far closer to a bearable average. I have actually been able to work comfortable outside in the afternoon. I feel far more productive. And yet, I never seem to get it all done. The school year starts in just a month and my teaching responsibilities will ramp up again. Even with my work load lightened in the summer, I still don’t have time for all the projects that I think I’ll get done. The days just skip along, full to the brim.

It seems like all the wildlife in the neighborhood has discovered my garden this summer. It began with the ground squirrels – more commonly known as gophers around here (although we don’t have true gophers in Montana).  The ground squirrels popped up into the garden in June, just after I planted it and went down to Colorado for ten days. While I was gone, they took over! They seemed to most enjoy the lettuce, and kept it expertly trimmed down and completely unedible.

Then in July the rabbits showed up. It turns out my “rabbit-proof” fence is completely penetrable by rabbits. I watched them squeeze through the openings; I have visual proof. They enjoyed eating all the young carrot tops and sunflower shoots, and managed to reach and nibble on my first ripe tomatoes. Simultaneously, aphids were sucking the lifeblood out of the tomato leaves, despite a couple of applications of neem oil.

Just yesterday I saw a chipmunk in the garden. This is a particularly surprising intruder because it is the first chipmunk I have seen in the coulee. They live in town, about two miles away, where there are a variety of deciduous trees and shrubs, not out here where ponderosa pines, grasslands, and sagebrush dominate the landscape. The interloper was busily munching on the seeds that I planted last week – a cover crop mix of clover, peas, vetch and ryegrass. I tried to rake the seeds under, but apparently the nutritious and delicious seeds were too tasty to hide from the chipmunk. Unlike the rabbits and ground squirrels, I couldn’t chase him out of the garden. He immediately hid in the winter squash jungle and despite my best efforts to cajole him out, he wouldn’t budge. It was amusing to watch. He flattened his body down to the ground under one of the big leaves and didn’t move, as if perhaps I couldn’t see him there. When I got closer, he’d move to another spot and do the same thing. After a few rounds of this he chittered away at me and was feisty enough that I didn’t pursue him further. After all, I was wearing flip-flops, and could envision him making an about face to attack my toes.

The sunflowers that survived the rabbits are in full bloom, the beet harvest was large enough to make a batch of pickled beets when my mom visits, and everything else just might ripen before frost. Next spring, I’ll be installing chicken wire around the garden!

Tidbits from July

Late June strawberry harvest – one of the simple delights in life!

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July 1, 2017

We’ve been spending long evenings on the porch, watching the world go by while the house cools down. Nighthawks high above, blackbird flocks dancing on the ridge, and the messy pigeon swooping in to roost in our barn. A dragonfly buzzes by, dropping a deerfly on the rock in front of me. The fly is motionless, its innards sucked clean by the predaceous dragonfly. I quietly celebrate; deerflies have a nasty bite. The dogs sprawl in synchronized sleeping, heads touching in a reverse swan dive. I suppose that might be too poetic for a pair of mutts.

I am tired from the heat. I move quickly in the morning (after slowly savoring my cup of coffee on the couch). I try to get as many outdoor chores accomplished as possible before the heat intensifies. Mornings are cool, upper 50s, and pleasant. But the high, direct sunlight quickly seers the dewy suppleness from the air. By early afternoon the heat is harsh, and I move indoors to escape the sun. I read, study, nap, write… anything to be in cool environs for the hottest hours of the day.

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Sunday 9 July 2017

When I became a teacher, I mostly kicked swearwords to the curb. When they are part of one’s everyday vocab it is all too easy to accidently drop the f-bomb in front of a group of students. But there are times when angst, anger, or pain will drive me to swear. This past week, at least once a day I’ve exclaimed “fuck, it’s hot”. Something about the word fuck allows me to decompress and let off steam. Today it was close to ninety degrees by nine AM, and still ninety degrees at nine PM. Our thermometer has declared temps over 100 by two pm on a couple of afternoons. It is too hot. Too dry. The grass is crisp underfoot. And the heat brings out the flies. I long to be too cold. I dream of -20 degree weather with snow and wind. I would bundle up and get moving. Or sit by the fire and drink tea. I would be able to cope somehow. But this heat is brutal. There is no escape. Work outdoors must go on and for most of it I must wear boots and pants. Our house stays about 15 degrees cooler than outdoors, which is small comfort when it is 103. Punishing heat. It makes me cranky, tired, and prone to swearing. I am not my best self in this heat.

July 15, 2017

I went back to the river and found the offending plant tucked among the snowberry bushes along the shore. Poison ivy. My nemesis! I had completely overlooked it last Saturday and paid the price. Sunday night the first bumps appeared, and in my naivety I assumed they were bug bites. Monday, more itchy bumps popped up as the uroshiol oils spread from legs to hands to face to stomach. By Tuesday it was crystal clear; I had poison ivy hives everywhere! Having suffered from a brush with it in the past, I recognized the oozing blisters and slow, insidious spread of the rash. How could I have been so foolish as to think these were bug bites? I began the detox process: three thorough scrub-downs with tecnu soap, then bagging infected clothing, bedding, and shoes to be laundered in extra hot soapy water. At this point, I felt relieved that the spread of it was over, but the blisters I did have were just entering the intense itchy, oozing phase. I commenced a recovery regimen: oral antihistamines, steroid cream, loose clothing, cool bathing and trying hard as I could to not scratch anything!

Heat, flies, and poison ivy. That about sums up the worst of July. But there was a silver lining. My sister Lara and her family visited, and then my friend Pippi and her kids visited. All of the kids loved helping with chores, learning to ride horses and visiting the cows. It is a delight to see the world through the eyes of a child! And in the afternoons we all enjoyed relaxing in the cool waters of Deadman’s Basin (an unfortunate name, but a fantastic spot to go swimming).

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Evan, my nephew, checking on the cows

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My niece, Claire, and her blue tongue – someone has been eating Otter Pops!

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Talus, Pippi’s  son, rides Buddy with me

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Annika, Pippi’s daughter, meets Bic

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Claire riding Whiskey

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Bart ground-driving our new team on a cool morning in June – the world is so green!

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Pippi examines a bull snake skin

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Annika and Talus meet the heifers

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Evan, Claire, Lara, and I go for an evening stroll (photo by Brendan)

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Annika and her “baby” – Who needs a playground when you have a flatbed trailer to play on?

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Annika and Talus chilling on the beach

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Even Doc loves swimming at Deadman’s Basin

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Pippi floating carefree on the lake

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Evan and his dog, Sadie, out for a paddle (photo by Brendan)

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The lavender is in bloom despite the heat and drought

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The Snowy Mountains under a smoky evening sky

Grandma’s Gift

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The plane launches through the cloud bank over Syracuse into the evening sky. The auburn-tinted horizon is aglow with the light of the setting sun. A waxing crescent moon floats with its companion star above us. I wonder to myself if this star always lingers so close to the moon. Is it always such a bright beacon in the baby-blue sky of early night? Is it actually a planet? I could probably look it up, and may. Or I might just watch the night sky to see what happens over the next few weeks, months, and years. So many times over the past few days we wondered about something, our questions often triggered by a faded family photo or relic. We wished beyond hope that we could ask Grandma for the answers. She always had the answers.

A tight-knit crew of Clark descendants gathered for four days and nights in her house of seventy plus years. We celebrated and grieved, laughed and cried. We are bound together by our history and by our love for Esther Elizabeth Baker Clark. We are bound together because of the compassion and care she shared with each and every one of us. At Grandma’s, I was surrounded by kinship and hope. Each room of her beautiful old home held a connection to past, present, and future. In every nook and cranny a photo or memory gave me pause and brought a smile to my face.

I feel the loss of Grandma deep in my heart. Yet, wrapped around that aching hole, I feel the love of family. This was Grandma’s gift to us all. She brought us together. She created and nourished the loving bonds between us. These bonds will live forever. Grandma’s love lives on. With every act of kindness and compassion, Grandma’s love radiates out from her family to our communities. It spreads in ripples across the world.

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