Thursday, November 18, 2010

Keeper of the Flame

Late in July, Pete and I hosted the 2010 Mortensen Family Reunion. The ranch filled with Mortensen family members from across the United States, Canada, Panama, and Denmark. Axel Mortensen, who emigrated from Denmark, was my maternal grandfather. Members of my grandfather’s offspring and members of two of his brother’s offspring all made their way to the Elk River Valley for our gathering. In all, there were over eighty including representatives from four generations, eight great-great grandchildren, and nine relatives from Denmark.

Over the course of four days we shared meals, oral history, live acappella, mandolin, and fiddle music, plein air art, croquet tournaments, orienteering, stick horse races, blind-man tractor contests, a fund-raising silent auction, rodeo demonstrations, and a sky lantern memorial for family members whom have passed away. The final event of the long weekend was a traditional family reunion service on Sunday morning conducted by my uncle, Joe Mortensen, a retired First Baptist minister. He began by asking, “…why (do) we go to the trouble of get-togethers like the one we’ve just had…why do we have a reunion?”

Having just returned from Ghana in West Africa, my uncle recalled visiting the Coast Castle, a fortress from which slaves were shipped for labor. A fellow traveler, an African-American woman, was deeply touched by the site of the “door of no return” through which slaves were taken to waiting boats. In response, she said, “You all know where you came from. I never did. But now I know. In reflection, my uncle suggested to our gathering, “Our reunion helps us know where we came from.”

Through great genealogical research efforts by my Aunt Mary and other family members, the history of both my maternal grandfather’s family and my grandmother’s family is known—we are fortunate to know from where we came. For the reunion my aunt created detailed family trees of three of the seven Mortensen siblings represented at the reunion. They were on display all weekend along with photo albums and other related historical items. In the perusing of the family trees, small groups would read and point fingers, and then ask questions about who and whom and where and when. Most often they would refer to my aunt for the answer or others would join in on stories they had heard or had been handed down.

Reflecting on my Aunt Mary’s genealogical work and collection of memorabilia, my uncle said, “Every tribe or clan has one or a few people who are the Keepers of the Flame. They are the ones who know the secret of making a fire. Mary is our Keeper of the Flame, collecting pictures and other memorabilia, making charts of our families so we can see who is connected to whom…” My Aunt Mary does indeed nourish our family tree--the roots, buds, and branches. With detailed connections in the form of a paper tree and her on-going emotional commitment to the clan, she lights, she stirs, and lovingly keeps the Mortensen flame burning.

When my uncle finished his remarks, I looked across the picnic table at my two children. I quietly hoped that they identified and saw more clearly from whom they came and therefore who they are. For in the dark of the night, on days when the winds of life unexpectedly shift, or when a sense of true north bobbles, the needle of the compass undecided, remembering their clan and their branch on the family tree will offer a place of clarity, a point of steadiness.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Word Notes

Pete and I recently drove to California to see our son, Andy, at his new winter location outside Exeter, California. We hauled a three-horse live-in trailer and three recipient mares across western Colorado, the high deserts of Utah, the barren Mojave Desert, and finally into the San Joaquin Valley. On the way we planned for a stop-over in Moab, Utah where I attended a workshop at Moab’s annual Confluence, a reading and writing conference. I was pleased to hear one of my favorite authors present. Bill deBuys, conservationist and author of The Walk, discussed the art and craft of writing. He noted the importance of pace and rhythm in writing, likening it to creating a musical lyric. Those of us in attendance all nodded in agreement about the appeal of lyrical writing.

Traveling with Pete the following week, I found myself thinking about Bill’s presentation and how words and their phrasing create music for the listening ear. After we had safely delivered the live-in trailer and three mares, Pete and I enjoyed a couple of days in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. Reading my way through the park museums and literature I didn’t find what I thought of as lyrical writing but I did find words that sang out, holding my curiosity until I understood their meaning. I found it an interesting exercise and discovered a number of intriguing words both in their tone and definition: words like sapwood, heartwood, talus, Silver Apron, Ahwahnechee, chuckhars, and nunataks.

In Sequoia National Park, where the world’s tallest tree stands, nearly 400 feet high, its longevity is attributed to its unusually thick bark and the layers of wood within, namely sapwood and heartwood. Sapwood is the youngest wood of the tree, drawing in and managing water reserves from the roots to the leaves of the tree. The heartwood, the innermost wood, is the oldest wood, particularly resistant to decay. Through the adversity of weather, fire, and insects, these layers of wood adapt, heal, and continue to grow for centuries.

In Yosemite’s deep valley, talus is created when the tall granite wall’s top surface layers slough off as a result of natural weather and mechanical erosion. A talus, in simple terms, is a rock pile. The talus provides nooks and crannies in which native animals find physical protection year round. Hiking upwards to the precipice of Vernal Falls we discovered the Silver Apron, a once a rugged granite surface now worn smooth over millions of years by the waters of the Merced River. The transparent and silken river flows over the Apron moments before it takes a thousand foot tumble over a stunning granite cliff.

In the recently renovated Yosemite Museum I discovered the history of the Ahwahnechee, the first native tribe to inhabit the valley floor. These early inhabitants called their home, Yosemite, the valley of the gaping mouth. They subsisted largely upon acorns which were stored in chuckhars, an oval storage bin made out of natural materials, much like a birds nest, and supported by poles up off the ground. The acorns were ground into flour which was then leached to remove toxic tannins. Crossing Tioga Pass to the east as we headed home, a line of nunataks appeared in the distance in sharp contrast to the smooth and rounded granite domes and walls of Yosemite Valley. Nunataks are rugged high mountain ridges standing high enough above the glacial fields to have escaped glacial erosion.

The simple exercise of listening for the music I heard in words captured my curiosity and imagination. Whether these words have their origin in Latin or Greek or a Native American language, once enticed, I began walking my way through the landscape of their use, whether it was the heart of giant Sequoia or the clever and practical storage bin for life sustaining acorns.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Andy Hits the Road

Andy Winters at Whitney’s Wild Oaks Ranch

In late October, with his six-horse trailer fully loaded and his two dogs, Brute and Pearl curled up in the cab of the pick-up, Andy headed west to the Whitney Oaks Ranch outside Exeter, California. The decision to winter in California was a difficult one, but the opportunity to train at the Whitney Oaks Ranch was a valuable one. The facility includes a fully equipped barn, large covered arena, 1½ mile track, cutting arena, round pen, and boarding paddocks. In addition to his horses in training, Andy is caring for four recipient brood mares until they foal next spring. In all, thirteen horses made their way to the ranch from Steamboat in the last couple of weeks.

Andy joins horse trainer, Brandon Staebler, at the facility. Brandon won the Snaffle Bit Futurity in 2004 and continues to find success in competition and training. Andy looks forward to sharing training time with Brandon. Trainers are always learning and facing different challenges with their horses in training and often times they work in an isolated environment. So, this winter Andy will have the opportunity to process ideas and problematic training issues with another trainer.

For more information on the Whitney Wild Oaks Ranch, go to:

Andy Readies for the AQHA World Show

As if the calendar weren’t full enough with his move to California, Andy is pleased to be on his way to the World Show in Oklahoma City November 6-20th. He and Annabelles Playgun qualified in the working cow horse event scheduled at the World Show for November 15th.

According to the AQHA’s website, “The World Show is the pinnacle event for American Quarter Horse owners and exhibitors around the world, who must qualify for the event by earning a predetermined number of points to compete in each of the classes representing halter, English and western disciplines. More than 3,300 entries from the United States, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Mexico, United Kingdom and Venezuela are competing at this year’s event.”

We wish Andy and Annabelle the very best on the 15th.

For more information about the AQHA World Show, go to:

Also, please visit Andy at: for news, results, and updates.