Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest of a Different Kind

A week ago, as we prepared to leave for dinner with a friend, I spotted some movement coming down the driveway. In an instant I knew it was a bear, but my mind kept double checking to be sure. Quick on its heels was Griz who, in his chase, sent the bear up between two cottonwoods. I rushed out the door to call Griz in to the house. And then we watched as a beautiful yearling cinnamon bear hung snuggly in the cottonwoods.

He appeared tired to us, perhaps he'd negotiated the main county road to the river and then meandered into ranch and couldn't find an easy way out. We watched as he eventually came down out of the cottonwoods and rested beneath them catching his breath and bearings.

In a few minutes he walked across the driveway and the garden bridge and seemed to settle in for a bit behind the garden shed. We left him there and Emma and Griz in the house. Our dinner date awaited us and our unexpected guest seemed content.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Paint Brush Meditation

For those of you who regularly read my blog, you may have wondered where I’ve disappeared. As I wrote in my blog on May 25th, we started the summer season working on deferred maintenance projects around the ranch in preparation of a family reunion later this month. We’ve been at it since then and only recently did the list shorten. In fact, I think this morning at breakfast Pete and I caught sight of something glimmering at the end of the tunnel.

But in short, the answer to the question is, I’ve been at the end of a paint brush. I started with those fuel tanks, then it was high temperature paint for a grill, thick shiny metal paint for the trampoline, sticky stain for an arbor, redwood stain for the deck for my garden bench and the decks, and cedar stain for the house. The other night I sat down after dinner and told Pete I felt like the inside of a paint can.

I’ve found, however, painting akin to mediation, particularly when I don’t have to move my ladder very often or when the detail of a small area or door frame requires greater concentration. In the meditation I find myself wandering through memories of this house and my children. While kneeling down to cover the aged front porch with redwood sequoia stain, I thought you know there were some important events that occurred on this porch over the last twenty-four years.

One image came quickly to mind. It was the photo of Cassidy’s first day of kindergarten. She was wearing the blue calico dress I had made for her, the collar stenciled in flowers and vines. Much to her dismay, she had to wear a large sign around her neck with her name spelled in large letters. Holding the strings attached to the sign, she looks up at the camera with one eye squinting and her smile anxiously hopeful. Looking back, I think she wondered if she would survive the attention each time someone greeted her and pointed to the letters in her name and said, “Good morning, Cassidy. We’re so glad you’re here.” She did survive that first day in the hands of a very loving and supportive teacher; and that blue calico dress is stored away in case there’s another little girl whom it might one day fit.

In the next moment I remember standing on the edge of the porch telling my son, Andy, he was a dumbs… as he walked out to get in his truck and head to town. Pete and I had told our children all their growing up about the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol; but at sixteen, Andy was naturally trying the world out and I’d found chewing tobacco in his laundry. I was surprised that what we thought of as enlightened parenting had resulted in a soggy bag of Red Man in my laundry room. I wasn’t one to let loose with my children very often, but when I did, they knew the conviction with which I spoke. So, to this day Andy describes the moment I followed him out the door, stood on the edge of the porch and called him a “dumbs… for using chewing tobacco, an indelible and defining moment in his growing up.

Making my way around the house with my paint brush, the memories frequently come and go. And when I get impatient about the work and hoping that all the projects hurry up and get done before the reunion weekend, I tell myself to slow down. This house, this place has given us so much. Wouldn’t I be better served to consider the acts of repairing and refinishing an offering of thanks and recognition for the shelter and security of having such a place to call home? For our house and the enduring landscape of this ranch provide not only physical shelter, but an intangible sense of self and history; one which we have internalized and has become a part of who we are and always will be.

Pioneering Lupine

With my chore for the afternoon finished - staining the deck - and a gentle June breeze coming in from the west, I felt the need to run on the hillside of what we call the TV Tower, named after its signal equipment stationed on top. Putting on my running shoes, Griz and Emma barked and herded me out the door. They always know what it means what I tie my sneakers and fill my Camelbak.

Heading up the first small rise I realize the mule ears and lupine lining my path are in full bloom. The happy yellow blossoms of the mule ears invite optimism and the wild lupine, so much smaller than their domesticated relatives in my garden, ask for closer attention: they grow closer to the ground and their whorls stand only six to eight inches tall.

My steps continue in and out of the lavender lupine and Griz and Emma trot in and out of fresh young sage sniffing under the oaks and along game trails. Sometimes I lose sight of them and call, “Emma Lou, Grizzly Bear!” They emerge back on the road, sometimes ahead of me and sometimes from behind me as if to say, “Just checking things out. No need to worry.” I usually don’t worry too much about them, but I’m also a little more aware on the hillside after spotting mountain lion tracks this winter and after recently hearing about a friend’s dog that was clawed by a mountain lion before it was scared off. I think, “If I make noise with my hollering, maybe it will deter either a lion or a bear.”

Once on top, a vertical climb of over 800 feet, our traveling pack seeks some shade and a minute to catch our breath. Congratulating Griz on his climb with a rub of his ears, I spot a Chiming bluebell in full bloom. I think Griz looks as happy as the bluebells beside him. And then I catch sight of the deep purple larkspur and sticky geranium, its delicate pink a striking contrast to the rocky outcropping beneath our feet. While I know most of the wildflowers on the hill, I fail to know all of them.

Upon my return home, I found in the welcome of the wildflower bloom an invitation to find out more about what I’d seen. I first looked up mule ears and find the common mountain sunflower was first collected in 1893 by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, a Massachusetts merchant who in 1832 traveled by land to Oregon; and his botanist friend, Nathaniel Nuttall. In 1934, Nuttall named the sunflower after Wyeth, christening it, Wyethia x magna.

Next, I googled the lovely and diminutive lupine. It turns out the lupine is actually a pioneering plant of sorts. Its ability to tolerate barren and infertile soils, combined with its ability to fertilize the soil for other plants, establishes a foothold not only for the lupine, but for other plants. In essence, it claims a “plant homestead” by making the infertile fertile and hospitable.

So, from Wyeth and Nuttall to the sweet lavender lupine, little did I know that I had run on the hillside in the company of seekers and pioneers. I was, perhaps, most taken by the pioneering role of the lupine. To settle in a formidable landscape is an admirable achievement. I thought of the parallels to the many pioneers who attempted to do the same in the West: establishing a foothold, often in formidable landscapes: creating shelter, securing a source of water, and then growing enough food for their families and the next generation. They too, like the lupine, first found that foothold and when successful, provided sustenance and support for others.

The wildflower bloom is hard won for our winter season is long and deep. When the mule ears, lupine, chiming bluebells, larkspur, and sticky geranium sing-out on the top of the hill, they too have triumphed over the odds of an arid western climate and rocky soils. As I write, I conclude that the spirit of their bloom and the spirit in the dreams of all those hardy seekers and pioneers must be one in the same.