Dawn in the Skagit Valley

Dawn in the Skagit Valley

“The real world, in my opinion, exists in the countryside, where Nature goes about her quiet business and brings greatest pleasure.”
— Fennel Hudson

I am drawn to the countryside.  I love its “quiet business.”  The pre-dawn hour is especially lovely.  I enjoy pulling to the side of the road, turning off the car’s ignition, and sitting in the quiet, watching the world awaken.

The Skagit Valley awakens

The Skagit Valley awakens

Old truck by barn

Old truck by barn

Allium stands tall un the foreground of a field

Allium stands tall un the foreground of a field

Farm in the Skagit Valley

Farm in the Skagit Valley

Allium

Allium

 

 

Advertisements

Driving Nebraska

March 28, 2015

Sunrise near Kearney, Nbraska

Sunrise near Kearney, Nebraska

Nebraska is flat!  I was struck by the wide open landscape and the dearth of trees.  You could understand why early settlers resorted to building sod houses, for wood is scarce.  When we saw trees,  often cottonwoods,  it signaled a river or natural water source.

Nebraska landscape along I-80

Nebraska landscape along I-80

The Great Platte River Road

The Great Platte River Road

Sun halo (sun dog) we saw at a rest stop along I-80

Sun halo (sun dog) we saw at a rest stop along I-80

Huge fields with nary a farmhouse in sight

Huge fields with nary a farmhouse in sight

Irrigation machinery

Irrigation machinery

A whimsical Nebraska practice -- capping fence posts with old, discarded boots

A whimsical Nebraska practice — capping fence posts with old, discarded boots

IMG_1736

Power lines across the Nebraska landscape, near sunrise

Power lines across the Nebraska landscape, near sunrise

Nearing sunrise, Nebraska

Nearing sunrise, Nebraska

IMG_1628

When we left Kearney, we drove north and west through the sandhills of Nebraska.  This is the mid-grass prairie, but the grass grows in clumps rather than in waving expanses, on undulating low hills.  It is range country.  I was surprised to see windmills dotting the range every couple of miles.  I was also surprised at the hundreds of ponds and rainwater basins dotting the land, many with sapphire blue water.

Sandhills (with pronghorn)

Sandhills (with pronghorn)

Horse with cotonwoods

Horse with cottonwoods

IMG_1731

The ubiquitous windmill

The ubiquitous windmill

Sandhill region of Nebraska

Sandhill region of Nebraska

I had not seen such natural blue water since Crater Lake.

I had not seen such natural blue water since Crater Lake.

Train tracks (we saw so many trains carrying coal -- I counted 120 coal cars on one train.)

Train tracks (We saw so many trains carrying coal — I counted 120 coal cars on one train.)

 

 

 

 

When we were cleaning out my parents’ farmhouse, I came across this farm alphabet book I made for them in 1994, twenty years ago.  I made the illustrations from colored tissue and paper cutouts.  Each page highlights fond images and memories of my 1950s and ’60s childhood on our Minnesota farm.  I’ve reproduced the book for you here:

IMG_8352

A is for angels in the snow, and
a pail full of apples to feed the pigs, and
the smell of just-cut alfalfa, and
the attic with its trunks of winter clothes, boxes of Dad’s Army things, and stacks of Easter baskets.

IMG_8353

B is for bats that occasionally swooped down from the attic, and
the brooms John and Ken used to bring down the bats, and
jumping from the heavy beams in the hayloft into piles of scratchy hay, and
boots lined up on newspapers by the front door, and
shaking cream into butter, and
the bullheads we caught with bamboo fishing poles.

IMG_8354

C is for chocolate-covered cherries on Father’s Day, and
playing circle tag in the snow, and
cinnamon cream pies, and
corn on the cob, and
wooden clothespins, and
barn cats.

IMG_8355

D is for the dish towel we waved to call Dad in from the fields for supper, and
the long gravel driveway we walked to catch the school bus, and
dusting the furniture at least twice a week.

IMG_8356

E is for the egg yolks that stood up in the frying pan, and
the jolt of the electric fence, and
playing eucher.

IMG_8357

F is for the floods that washed out the driveway, and
dressing in front of the furnace vents on cold winter mornings, and
Mom’s rich dark fudge with nuts, and
swatting flies with pastel-colored fly swatters, and
retrieving foul balls for ten cents.

IMG_8358

G is for the green grain box carrying oats to the grainery, and
pulling the tough, yellow skin off chicken gizzards, and
gopher traps and garter snakes.

IMG_8359

H is for hoeing thistles and hauling hay, and
the hard-boiled eggs Dad cracked on our heads, and
doing homework around the kitchen table, and
the holy water that hung in a bottle at the bottom of the stairs, and
hanging clothes to dry on the lines outside.

IMG_8360

I is for the ice storms that transformed our everyday farm into a winter wonderland, and
learning to iron by practicing on handkerchiefs, and
the white rocks surrounding the island, and
ice skating on the pond by the culvert.

IMG_8361 (1)

J is for junk pile treasures, and
Jack Frost’s feathery masterpieces on our window panes, and
jeans that froze stiff on the clothesline in winter.

IMG_8362

K is for the kitchen table, and
kneeling to say the rosary after supper, and
the knick knack shelf in the living room, and
pretending to make bread by kneading our pillows.

IMG_8363

L is for Lava soap in the washroom, and
the smell of blooming lilacs, and
the Little Team, and
taking turns mowing the lawn, and
pink lungs floating on top of the water from cleaning the chickens.

IMG_8364

M is for mittens drying on the furnace vents, and
picking from the Montgomery Ward catalog, and
Morrell mushrooms in scrambled eggs, and
mosquitoes.

IMG_8365

N is for St. Nicholas Day goodies in brown paper bags, and
the Nativity set.

IMG_8366

O is for the oilcloth covering the kitchen table, and
overshoes with lever-like buckles, and
the two-seater outhouse.

IMG_8367

P is for dancing the polka, and
dishpans full of buttered popcorn, and
priming the pump in the washroom, and
the ants in the peonies, and
shelling peas and planting potatoes.

IMG_8368

Q is for Dad’s collection of silver quarters, and
warm quilts on the beds.

IMG_8369

R is for rhubarb sauce and wild raspberries, and
the roller towel in the washroom, and
red-winged blackbirds, and
raking leaves, and
root beer floats served on the island in real glass glasses.

IMG_8370 (1)

S is for the stubble in the oat fields, and
Mom’s sauerkraut and homemade liver sausage, and
sprinkling the laundry before ironing, and
the stanchions in the barn, and
sledding on Walerius’ hill.

IMG_8371

T is for tinsel on the Christmas tree, and
the tire swing, and
Tom Thumb donuts from the Minnesota State Fair, and
waiting out tornadoes in the basement, and
feeding the threshing crew.

IMG_8372

U is for Union Hill, and
the unheated upstairs where we slept, and
sleeveless cotton undershirts.

IMG_8373

V is for treating chest colds with Vicks Vapo Rub, and
the VFW picnic, and
summer vacations at Hauer’s home in the Cities and at Grandma and Grandpa Meger’s house in Montgomery.

IMG_8374

W is for whipped cream on chocolate cake, and
roasting weiners on sticks over a bonfire, and
stacking wood, and
the wringer washing machine, and
shouting “Whoa” when it was time to drop bales of hay into the hayloft.

IMG_8375

X is for Aunt Mary’s x-stitch embroidery, and
the axe that beheaded the chickens.

IMG_8376

Y is for the smell of yeast from freshly baked bread, and
butter so yellow visitors would ask Mom if she put food coloring in it.

IMG_8377

Z is for below-zero weather, and
zillions of mosquitoes.

 

 

 

 

 

The old farmhouse where I grew up

The old farmhouse where I grew up

“I live here in the realm of predictability.  Each day goes by, a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come.  The passing hours bring variations in the sky’s coloration, the comings and goings of the birds, and a thousand almost imperceptible things.”
— Sylvain Tesson, The Consolations of the Forest:  Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

My father is rooted to the land where he has lived for over 90 years.  The Minnesota farm was his childhood home, and he has observed the seasons passing predictably year after year.  And now in old age, the call of travel and adventure no longer appeals.  From my perspective, life on the farm seems slow and unchanging, each day a “rough draft of the one to come.”

Still, there is a lot of richness in being so rooted.  As Natalie Goldberg says in The True Secret of Writing:  Connecting Life with Language, “Much can be done by doing little — with regard.”

Sylvain Tesson, quoted in the opening to this post, deliberately experimented with finding his inner life by removing himself to a remote, rustic cabin in Siberia.  He found that “Staying put brought me what I could no longer find on any journey.”  Writer Jim Harrison, writes about these same feelings in Brown Dog:  “Come to think of it, the main good thing out here snowbound in this cabin is that nothing is happening . . . I’ve got this personal feeling things are not supposed to be happening to people all of the time.  At least I’m not designed for it.”

If we live to extreme old age, our bodies will inevitably wear out, slowing us down and making us stay put.  I got a taste of this during the two weeks I stayed with my Dad.  The challenge for all of us, regardless of age, is to stay observant to the things that come across our range of view, and to find the beauty in these still images.

Here is a window to my Dad’s world:

IMAGE_DEFBC1DA-60E9-421B-9A53-944291332A7F

IMAGE_1EBF2A9F-4BB7-4A3C-B2FF-1C4811F954A9

IMAGE_30FC652D-461E-4F2D-8FE2-796E781E2736

IMAGE_0A44966D-F632-4271-8208-60BBAC768C3C

IMAGE_B3072571-F99F-427B-B119-ECBC3D8D434A

IMAGE_00DCBDD3-7B61-4336-A64C-06D87E6F0E59

IMAGE_8B12978D-E138-4D11-A2C0-AFD141231B3E

IMAGE_57A4474B-7763-443B-BF3C-E43419FC0A66

IMAGE_DCEE5782-50C8-48F5-9702-A036D9B1677C

IMAGE_DAB935D7-4B18-4784-A394-7648B8C68E54

IMAGE_C7FE54C5-FD8D-44D0-8BE5-71429C676CBE

IMAGE_D75F2896-D47A-4CC8-8AA3-CAC9E1E46BB7

IMAGE_5F46755E-254F-474F-BCF9-116610E27CD5

IMAGE_BE2CC04B-80EB-43DC-A7F7-EDA0416A4A4B

IMAGE_0ED2A8D4-DE52-4FBD-8CF2-4A19E7D90368

What Remains

July 8, 2013

“It’s all life until death.”
— Grace Paley

My 94-year-old Dad and the old farm house where he lives

My 94-year-old Dad and the old farm house where he lives

Our family has been blessed with Dad’s long life.  If one of the central questions of our humanity is how to live our lives, trying to figure this out can become a bewildering predicament if we live to a very old age.  While staying with my 94-year-old Dad, I was reminded that one’s value and worth should not depend on what you do, but rather should be inherent in simply being.  Because at 94, life has slowed considerably, and a good day is not filled with lots of activities or accomplishments, but with moments of doing nothing.

A full life is inevitably filled with losses, grief and suffering.  But this post will focus on what remains, what my father is still able to do and enjoy.

Every morning of my stay, Dad cooked breakfast for both of us — usually bacon, eggs, and toast, with tomato juice or half a grapefruit, and once, pancakes.

Dad making breakfast

Dad making breakfast

A cup of instant coffee with every meal

A cup of instant coffee with every meal

And after every meal, Dad helped wipe the dishes.

Dad at the kitchen sink

Dad at the kitchen sink

Putting the clean dishes into the cupboard

Putting the clean dishes into the cupboard

On Mondays, laundry day, and Dad still used the old Maytag wringer machine to wash his clothes and then he hung them on a line to dry outside.

Hanging his laundry

Hanging his laundry

Mowing the vast lawn, a summer job, took several hours (with rest breaks).

Dad mowing the lawn

Dad mowing the lawn

Through the window

Through the window

Dad is now the oldest person in his parish.  He always said grace before and after meals.

"Bless us O Lord . . ."

“Bless us O Lord . . .”

Dad still read the local weekly paper and bought the Minneapolis paper on Sundays.

Reading the paper

Reading the paper

Reading the paper in Dad's favorite chair

Reading the paper in Dad’s favorite chair

Dad continues to play cards — cribbage and solo.  He gets together with two of his sisters, his brother-in-law, and son for a weekly card game.  They take turns hosting the games and then go out to eat after hours of playing cards.

Playing cribbage

Playing cribbage

The days were full of dozing and naps.

Dad at rest

Dad at rest

And all of these things made for good days.  For that we are grateful.

IMAGE_F878F2D2-EE5F-4D34-A0B3-904A8E9C00C1

” . . . everything is always already being lost.”
— Bradley L. Garrett, discussing Walter Benjamin on the nature of ruins, from Explore Everything: Place Hacking in the City

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

I’ve just returned from two weeks of keeping company with my 94-year-old Dad on the family farm.  I’ve written about my father before, most notably a tribute in honor of his 90th year.  On this recent visit, I was reminded daily of the small, accumulating losses that accompany anyone into extreme old age.  Since my last visit in February 2012, I noticed that my Dad no longer checks his email every day, works on crossword puzzles, goes to mid-week mass, or plans and cooks even simple dinners, much less barbecued chicken.  His short-term memory is going, and it is doubtful that he will be able to continue to live alone in the old farmhouse, even with the considerable day-to-day support that a few of my siblings provide.

And this is going to be a challenge for our family, because Dad will not go willingly to another home no matter how much better a change would be for him — keeping him in physical safety, with good home-cooked meals provided, and lots of other support.  He wants to die at home on the farm.  The loss of his home, a reassuring space, would be heart-breakingly sudden, not like the other losses he has born, some so gradual that he might not even be aware of them.

We cannot stall the passing hours.  There is no promise of preservation.  I see in the slow, inexorable deterioration of the farm house, sheds, and barn — those that will be torn down when my brother builds his family’s retirement home on the land — the reflection of my Dad’s inevitable decline.  In spite of the pain, there is beauty in this collapse of our everyday existence.

Farm house window

Farm house window

East side door

East side door

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

East side window

East side window

Roof of Uncle Pete's garage

Roof of Uncle Pete’s garage

Interior, garage

Interior, garage

Barn doors and windows

Barn doors and windows

My view upon waking

My view upon waking

Old farmhouse in the morning light

Old farmhouse in the morning light

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

A Spring Day So Perfect

June 11, 2013

View from Samish Island

View from Samish Island

Snow-capped Mount Baker seen from the Skagit Valley

Snow-capped Mount Baker seen from the Skagit Valley

Mount Baker viewed from Bonnie's back yard

Mount Baker viewed from Bonnie’s back yard

Cows grazing, Skagit Valley

Cows grazing, Skagit Valley

Today
by Billy Collins

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.