Monday, January 31, 2011

January's Chill

A January storm settles in and delicate flakes fall silently hour after hour. I, too, settle in and wait as a dark chocolate pumpernickel bread rises slowly on the stove. After experiencing the sustainable rural way of life in the Andes region (on a recent horseback riding adventure) I couldn’t help but reclaim my old commitment to baking our bread upon my return. I was reminded on that trip how food made from scratch added a certain satisfaction that couldn’t be found any other way. And so, this morning I wait to put the dark loaf in the oven and return to a lost, but familiar rhythm of kneading, rising, and baking.

With bread rising, I watch Lena, Candy, Barbie, Daddy’s Girl, and Allie make their way slowly to the feeder in the meadow, single file, their heads low, their steps deliberate. Lena and Candy, their bellies round and lower than the rest will be the only mothers this spring. By the hay shed, the yearlings, Katie, Snickers, Flirtina, and Hustler repeat the same coming and going, their pace the same along the single track to the feeder. Occasionally, they rattle January’s stillness and kick up their heels when the wind blows in or they trot toward Pete when he feeds in the morning or they greet meet me when I snowshoe through their meadow. But their daily mid-winter rhythm remains simple: eat, walk to water, perhaps nap and then back again.

Each year, when we’re deep into January’s winter chill, Pete and I ask ourselves, “How do they survive, how do they stand the cold?” We know a hand beneath their manes feels comfortable and warm, just like a horse blanket over a passenger’s legs in a horse buggy years ago. But how do they really survive? A search for a scientific answer led me to Paard Naturlijk, a Dutch horseman, who says horses are better acclimated to cool weather than humans. According to Paard, a horse’s energy neutral range is 15-60 degrees. A human’s is 50-85 degrees. Both ranges indicate the temperatures in which humans and horses are able to sustain their core temperatures without additional changes in their basic metabolic rates. He says the horse is created to produce and maintain heat, while humans are built to dissipate heat.

When colder weather does settle in, a horse’s metabolism adapts by increasing. This increase means greater caloric demand. In order to meet this demand, it’s necessary to increase their feed from 20-25 lbs. to 35-40 lbs. of hay a day. Their natural digestive and metabolic processes actually contribute to the total heat generating capability of their bodies. The extremities are an interesting exception. They have less muscle mass, require less blood circulation, lose less heat and therefore have less metabolic demand. The horse’s coat also insulates from the animal from the cold. The horse’s hair coat straightens as the weather chills, creating a pocket of insulation between the skin and the outside air.

So, when the temperatures dip again, the snow falls outside the window, I won’t feel the need to ask Pete this perennial question when overnight temperatures reach 20 degrees below zero. I will watch the girls meander, graze, and water. I will watch the foals keep each other company for a long winter’s night and know that they are in their element. Then I will return to a comfortable mid-winter retreat, sated by the rhythm of baking and January’s seasonal chill.

*First posted 1/31/09

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writing Contest Winners

Winners of the first At Home in the Elk River Valley writing contest are posted below. Thank you, each of you, for your participation. I know my blog readers will enjoy reading each of your essays.

What I Love About the West
Jean Petersen

Purple and pink hues illuminate the clouds as the sunrise creeps over the horizon’s mountains. A hint of amber warms the brisk winter sky. Nothing is better than watching the day raise its weary head from beneath the blanket of our western sky.

I step of our deck and my Muck boots crunch on the snow. “Ah,” I sigh with a fulfilling breath. The cold air consumes my lungs. Then ranch scents fill my nose. Hanging his head over the straight wire fence is my morning pal, Ben. He starts nickering for a rub behind his ears. From his nostrils, steam billows with every hard breath, and small particles of crusted ice hang along whiskers surrounding his mouth. “It was a cold one,” I say to him. His brown eyes look at me as if he understands, but to him it’s a way of life. He doesn’t know any different, especially this time of year. I do, it was bitter cold last night. Although, we’re lucky out here because ten degrees is usually dry, not like those harsh wet temperatures on the seaboards. And as I continue rubbing his head, right behind his ears as he’s so fond of, what I love about living in the west continues to envelop all my senses. It’s the smell of his hairy winter hide, the dander, a lingering scent of hay, leather and manure wrapping their fragrances into one. A mix of dirt and bits of snow rub onto my palm, as my hand slides down from his ears to his cheek. I lean over the wire to kiss his nose. It’s as soft as cotton and as warm as a fleece blanket. It makes me want to drape my arms around his big neck and wrap up in the soft warmth all day. However, the sun is showing it’s time. Rising higher above the mountain tops it lights the day. The rest of the critters are starting to croon. I smile as I walk away to do chores, and look over my shoulder. There he stands waiting patiently for my return. It’s a picturesque to say the least. With the Crazy Mountains painted against the western horizon’s wall, cooleys covered in snow, a few deer peppered along the hillside, and my loyal horse in the center of it all. Many a photographer would seize the splendor, but thankfully I get to have it etched through my memory every morning.

Our barn cats have emerged from their haystack homes, and the lambs are huddled together waiting for their alfalfa mix. “Ah, smell that?” I say to my trustworthy dog. She looks at me softly with her old tired eyes, and wags her tail. A coat of tan is what she wears and white socks cover her feet. Calamity and I have enjoyed the west together for almost fourteen years. Oh, the adventures we’ve had. From trail rides, hikes and snowshoeing across mountain tops, to moving cattle and fishing in quaint hidden lakes, she’s taken every step with me. Her body has aged, but her spirit continues to grow. My heart overflows as she makes morning rounds with me. Calamity doesn’t miss a step. Where she lacks in ability, she out weighs with heart. I think one of the highlights of her day is chasing our cats from underfoot and letting our corgi pups know the true head wrangler of the ranch.

She was once sleek and rich with color. Now her covering is coarse and washed out. I pat her side once we’ve stopped trudging through the pasture hauling the ewes’ bales. She leans against me for her back scratched. “Aw, girl,” I say and kneel down. Looking in her eyes, I see not only an animal but a friend who’s experienced a life most people would envy. From cowboying and daily ranch chores to sitting on the hills feeling the soft summer breezes trailing across and bumpy back road truck rides, she’s experienced the best of the west. Scratching her back suddenly I’m reminiscent of all the things. The memories begin playing through my mind like snippets of a film. These days her hair is rough, however malleable to my fingertips. She too, has a scent combining all the elements of western ranch life. Her fur soaks up the aroma of the fresh air; the dirt, the sweetness of hay, the scent of grain being drawn from a bag reopened, the mountain morning, and even the syrup drenched pancakes I served my boys lingers upon her. All of these flood over me at once, not only into my senses but deep into my soul.

These moments are vivid reminders of why I love living in the west. The significance of the basics, yet essentials, surrounding our lifestyle resonates through me. As strong as the majestic mountains are embedded upon the earth, so is old Calamity’s loyalty. And as my steadfast horse waits, like clock-work, every morning to bid me good day, his dedication is consistent. No photograph could give justice to the images placed upon my heart. The scents laid on my senses and animals’ spirit of faithfulness are symbolic equals to what I value and why we live by the creeds of the west.

The smells float across our pasture and we move along with the daily chores. I look to God and say thank you for all He’s sent my way. The abundant beauty in little things, nestled in our western lands is what I call upon to encircle me. It has created who I’ve become. I’m grateful for the gifts. A package wrapped into one.

We hang our hats on horseshoe hangers, have mud rooms filled with boots, and landscapes covered with treasures we hold dear. I am blessed to live in the west and it’s here I plan to stay.

A Word or Two About My Best Canine Friend
Suzanne Hope

I am finally home after another 12-hour day; ten hours spent working, two spent commuting. On bad snow days, the commute can easily be three hours, so I feel lucky tonight.

It’s dark, but I can see Maggie joyfully awaiting my return. We’ve had enough snow this year that our discard piles are nearly the same height as our 4-foot high chain link fence. Maggie loves this. She can see, unencumbered by wire diamonds, all of her neighborhood. I’ve watched her stand at the top, barking to her friends passing by, “Hey, look at me! I’m the King of the World!” Tonight she uses this same mound to joyfully welcome me home. I reach over the fence and return the greeting.

Maggie came into our lives just a few short months after Shadow, our previous dog, had died. Shadow had been part of our family for 14 years, raising and protecting our children, loving us fully until her last breath. We missed her terribly, but I was determined to hold to the rule of “No More Dogs!” Yet, somehow we found Maggie at the pound. Guess my rule didn’t mean much since I’d allowed the kids to talk me into driving there in the first place.

Someone had just turned Maggie in, proclaiming that she wasn’t their dog. Looking into her deep, liquid black eyes, I knew the truth. For whatever reason, her last family just couldn’t keep her and had let her go. That’s when Maggie first joined our family and our hearts.

She was supposed to be the kids’ dog, but in the back of my mind I knew better. The kids would all be graduating high school and leaving home within a few years. Maggie seemed to sense this and it soon became apparent that she was my dog.

So each night now, we had a ritual. She’d wait patiently until dinner was finished and the kitchen cleaned. Then she’d ask, wagging her body fully and jogging back and forth to the door, “Walk? Walk? Huh? Can we go now? Huh?”

It was much easier to answer this in the summer when days were longer and the weather more inviting. But this winter had brought a lot of snow, winds and incredibly cold temperatures. Most evenings it was well below zero even before I would arrive home. Tonight seemed more promising. So I bundle up, grab the flashlight, and snap on Maggie’s leash.

Maggie is anxious to get going and tugs at me exuberantly. I’m trying to tread carefully so I don’t wrench my knee and so I tug back. Sighing, she settles a bit, but just barely. Returning her sigh, I try to control the pace while calculating in my mind if I’d have time to meditate when we got home. I still have calls to make, a couple of bills to pay, and the laundry. Nope, not happening.

In a perfect world, my daily routine would always include “me time” – time to exercise, and time for meditating and journaling. The reality doesn’t even come close. I do, after all, live in the real world.

Lately, the messages I’d been receiving while meditating were simple: eat healthier, exercise more, remember to laugh and play, rest, love more fully, and express myself more honestly. Again, I live in the real world of schedules, family demands, and bad weather.

Maggie tugs at me, anxious to explore. I know that walking Maggie is a good way to get my exercise and smelling her neighborhood makes her happy. I vow to do better. I thank Maggie by picking up the pace a bit, allowing her to bound over the mounds of snow that lay everywhere. She’s joyous at her new freedom. I allow myself an amused chuckle at her antics, and my heart lightens. Thank you, Maggie.

Maggie has been my quiet, loving companion through a lot of changes in our lives. In the years she and I have been walking, my oldest daughter has completed her Bachelor’s degree, and has recently returned to pursue her Master’s. My other two kids graduated high school and have journeyed into their own lives. On a sadder note, my mom died a few short months after Maggie came to me. Maggie has listened patiently and lovingly while I’ve cried, laughed, sang, and cursed God for the injustice of losing my mom before I was ready. More recently, the ragged rawness of facing my husband’s illness and impending death has brought Maggie back to my side with her loving compassion. I realize that I’m thankful that Maggie allows me to express myself so honestly to her without judging me. Heck, she doesn’t even hold it against me when I resist her pleas for walks. Ah, the true meaning of unconditional love – something I should practice more. Thank you, Maggie.

Turning back for home, I realize that I feel lighter. The next realization hits the side of my head like a 2 x 4. I’ve been doing my own sort of meditating while walking with Maggie tonight. Not sitting in the dark with lit candles and crazy music playing, but honoring myself instead with nature, with Spirit, and with Maggie. My heart lightens more and, again, I vow to do better, walk more and take care of myself. Thank you, Maggie.

Later, in bed, I count the abundance in my life – the love of family and good friends, security, walks with my dog, communing with nature and God’s world, and the ever loving grace of the Divine. I realize there are ways of honoring myself each day without a checklist of things to do. Thank you, Spirit. Thank you, Maggie.

The Most Memorable Resolution I Ever Made
Angela Yender

The most memorable New Year’s resolution I can recall was my 3rd grade year - the year I gave up green beans. I gave them up for Lent every year, much to my parents’ displeasure. It was allowed as long as I also gave up something I loved, along with the green beans. But this idea, this New Year’s resolution, was going to change things. I just knew it.
I despised even having to pick green beans on hot mid-summer's days at our half-acre garden on the east side of town - where every scary, crawling insect was waiting for a run up my bare arms and legs. Knowing they would not be deterred by - maybe even laughed at - the jug of bug spray on my body, made the 5 minute bike ride more grueling.

After quickly picking a brown bag full, I would retreat home, only to touch them once again to snap the stems off, hoping - rather, praying - that my mother would send them to the old ladies in our neighborhood, instead of our dinner table.

Just the smell of them cooking could bring dry heaves.

Even though my hatred for green beans was known in my family, there was no pity -- no getting around the fact that I had to eat what was on my plate. The half-cup mountain that remained in the corner of my otherwise cleaned plate would not disappear by single bean feedings to the dog under the table. She didn’t like them either.

The family often left the kitchen to gather in the family room after dinner. The table cleared, dishes done, but there I would sit, with my enormous pile of green beans. A clean plate was the gateway to desert, and I never missed desert. I would look in the freezer and eye that bowl of ice cream for motivation. I can do this! With a pinch of my nose and tightly closed eyes, I would eat one. Trying not to inhale its scent or taste, my mouth would grind it fast.

By the last bite, my eyes were watery and my gag-reflex was in high gear. I could barely bend over to put my plate in the dishwasher, for fear it would all come up again and I would have to start all over.

Being an eight-year-old, I knew I had all the answers, and giving up green beans for the year was a brilliant one. I, however, was the only one who thought so, as the green beans continued to take up residence on my plate at dinner.

At least, I thought, Lent is only 2 months away.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Winter Reflections

I have spent very little time trying my hand at poetry. In junior high English class I always felt fearfully awkward trying to write within the parameters of whatever poetic form we were asked to use. But in the stillness of early December and January I was drawn to the simplicity and concise demands of poetry. The first poem was written freely without concern for meter, rhyme, or specific poetic form.

A Season Turns

A breeze, a howl, a silent white night
Snow slips in, an early solstice guest

A wintry blanket erases fall’s marquee
Clouds hover and propose retreat

Crystals, unabashed, chilly and fresh
Stir, wiggle, and awaken

A season’s turn, a new land
Braced and be-stirred

This second poem is called a "Cascade." The first stanza can be any length, but each line of the first stanza must be repeated in order as the last sentence in the following stanzas. In other words, in my poem the first line is the last line in the second stanza, the second line is the last line in the third stanza, and the third line is the last line of the fourth stanza.


Janus, god of beginnings and endings, motions
To a threshold of contemplation
Of life behind and life yet to unfold

Footsteps dancing through Long Draw’s door
Float through winter’s deep pastoral chill
Janus, god of beginnings and endings, motions

To linen-covered hills and icy still waters
Crystalline air taps spirit and calls mind
To a threshold of contemplation

Land and sky’s quiet breath
Entice reflection, rising to ask what
Of life behind and life yet to unfold

I found working on these a quiet, satisfying challenge. I experienced the thinning, whittling, and search for clarity a kind of contented discipline I couldn't envision as a thirteen-year old.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Oops! Confusing Deadline

I apologize for the confusing writing contest deadline. January 15th is Saturday. So, those of you who were working furiously to finish up by Friday can breathe easy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Writing Contest Deadline Just Ahead

I hope all of you who love to write will be sure to submit your essays by Friday, January 15th!

There's no time like mid-winter to settle into the rhythmical movement of pen and paper or the tapping of keyboard keys. If this is your first attempt at submitting your work, I encourage you to take heart: going public offers you an opportunity to have readers share what resonates or speaks to them in your writing.

I look forward to reading your submissions.

Good luck!