Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Never were there such devoted sisters."

I am taking a break today from my normal theme of how much I love trees, mountains, and wilderness.  I've been in the city for the past few weeks and am now enjoying a few days in my hometown.  Staying at home always provides lots of fodder for thought as well as a chance to get around to projects that never seem to get done.  Today's is backing up my currently sluggish laptop.  In the process I found a file of pictures entitled "Sisters!".  I have two sisters, one older and one younger.  My first thought as I looked at the pictures was, "She looks so young!"  And the second was, "I look so young."  One woman once said, "A sister is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost."  That seems right.  We aren't peas in a pod or three of a kind, but from where I sit in my childhood home I feel the need to pay homage in an ode to my sisters, mostly in pictures.
Beth, Eve, and I cheering in & for Germany in the 2008 Euro Championship
Beth is my older sister.  I remember watching her get ready for dances, make oboe reeds, and move away to college.  We tease her about how she psychoanalyzes her pets and how much she likes chocolate.  She also bought me makeup when I turned fourteen and showed me how to put it on.  Beth likes pink so much that I don't wear pink at all.  I visited her at college where she showed me around campus and let me attend her classes. I visited her when she lived in Germany.  She is my confidant when I have a truly sticky problem.
Discussing directions in Germany
Eve and I were the last two at home.  We played dress up together well past the point when we would owning up to such behavior to our peers.  I stood right behind her every year on Christmas morning as we paraded out to see what Santa brought.  We harmonized around the piano and she wore my clothes when I didn't want her to.  When we went shopping the saleswomen thought we were twins.  I moved away for college before she started high school.  I didn't come home much for the next four years.  I graduated from college a month before Eve graduated from high school.
Eve, me, and my mom when I finished my undergraduate work in 2004
Eve graduating in English in 2009
I had never planned on staying at my same university for graduate school, but as events unfolded it became my best option.  That remains one of the best choices that I've ever made.  Not because I spent several months in London conducting research, fell in love with running, or lost fifteen pounds that year.  But Eve and I became roommates and Sunday evenings found us singing along with her guitar and becoming friends again.  People still got confused who was who.  That was seven years ago.  I now live several states away and she is deep into her career as an English teacher.  Only our nieces and nephews get us confused now.  I spent an evening with her this weekend.  She taught me a few chords on the guitar since without her I need to learn to play myself.  She once drove eight hours to come backpacking with me.
Trading foot rubs in the tent
Of all the things I miss in moving to Montana--I miss Eve most of all.   After all, there are very few people who think it's fun to do this:
Yes, sometimes we just smile pretty for the camera.

Thanksgiving 2010
If we ever start a band this will be our album cover

"A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves--
a special kind of double." 
-Toni Morrison

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Everyone Has Days Like These."

I'm spending a week or two in the city taking a wilderness medicine course.  It is strange to be back in a place that was my home for the past few years.  It's much bigger than I remember; its noises seem strange.  I am surprised by how many emotions being here brings to the surface.  It is wonderful to see friends and my sister, but also bittersweet.  The class itself is all-consuming and sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed.  I'm sure that these factors influenced the following chain of events.

6:30 am My alarm beeps and I roll in my sleeping bag to turn it off.  I'm staying with a few previous roommates, but today I'm relocating to a different place.  The day before was 13 hours of class, another bittersweet social call, and not enough sleep.

7:15 After snitching a bowl of someone's cereal I load all my stuff in the car and drive off with my hand drawn map to my new three day home.  The goal: park the car out front and catch a bus to campus.  I'm running late.

7:27 I park the car, run to the bus, and it drives off leaving me in a cloud of toxic fumes.  I choke back tears.  I have a firm policy not to run for or cry over public transit (I had a bad experience).

7:32 I chase the bus trying to get in front, park, and then hop on board.  I try, but miss it again.

7:39 I give up the leapfrog technique and just follow the bus to campus looking for a place to park where I won't get a ticket.

7:45 I find a place to park only a 30 minute walk from my class which starts at 8.  I shoulder my large backpack full of stuff for the woods and start off through the falling snow.

7:52 I convince a university shuttle to pick me up and drop me off a little closer, even though it isn't part of his route.

7:57 The shuttle drops me off. I run across an intersection and almost get hit by a car.

7:58 I choke back tears again.

7:59 I walk into the building and take my seat in class.

8:00 A slideshow with pictures of dislocations and bloody lacerations begins.

I think I'll be okay.  Tomorrow is another day.

Friday, March 11, 2011

It Might As Well Be Spring

In C.S. Lewis's novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the magical country of Narnia is ruled by a cruel White Witch who makes it always winter in the land.  Always winter and never Christmas.  The past few months there have been times when I wondered if I'd moved to Yellowstone or moved to Narnia.  It was my first Christmas alone and I worked through both Christmas and New Year's so I felt that Christmas never really came as it always has in the past.

But in the last month I've finally started to feel more at home.  I know the names of most of the mountains and we are beginning to get acquainted.  I've also learned the names of my neighbors and I like them too.  In the past week it has become very apparent that Aslan is coming and that even here, winter cannot last forever.  I woke a few days ago to a  new sound: small birds talking to each other from my lilac bush.  They called to the world and it is beginning to answer.  There is a change in the air: the wind blows with a hint of warmth and the sun's rays are stronger.  The birds and I aren't the only ones to have noticed.  Bear tracks were seen on the interior of Yellowstone on March 1. Skiing while carrying bear spray is a first for me.

As the snow melts and the earth appears like blocks in a snow-mud patchwork quilt, the bison search the ground for available grass.  Their ribs and hips show prominently.  It has been a difficult winter for my hoofed friends.  I've seen animals sleeping right on the road rather than spend valuable energy moving through deep snow.

But now, there seems to be hope again.  The elk have come out from the trees where they spent much of the past month and are seen on every windblown slope.  It is good to see the animals on their feet and with their heads down eating again.

It is strange to see bare pavement and soil.  The snow that is left has lost its powdery consistency and is developing a hard crust.  There are potholes everywhere I look.  Road crews are out filling them one by one.  There are so many I doubt they can finish before Labor Day.  There are no wildflowers or lilies peeking shyly through the snow.  But there is lots, and lots of mud everywhere.  In fact, a road was closed today not due top snow but because of mud.  The Yellowstone River was blue this morning as I walked to work, but walking home it looked like chocolate milk because of the snow-melt carrying sediment into the water.

These changes translate into the human world in different ways.  Unlike the bison, my diet hasn't changed.  But as their winter coats start to look a little ragged I change to a lighter jacket.  My long underwear hasn't been worn in a week.  The park hotels have closed; spring comes quietly here.  I find myself in my office sorting through a three month high pile of papers.  But I look outside at the wind and sun and think to myself, "This would be a great day for a run."  Instead, I keep skiing, but I'm the only one out now.  With the warmer temperature I quickly get too hot.  Soon I'm left skiing with a pack full of clothes and my skin soaking up the sun it hasn't seen in a long time.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I Heard the Owl Call My Name

I went out for a ski today.  Winter is losing its death grip, but there is still plenty of snow for skiing.  I was all alone climbing high up the Blacktail Deer Plateau.

Electric Peak in the distance
The sky was bright blue and I felt so close I could reach out and touch it.  At some point, always too soon, I had to turn my skis towards home.  It's always hard to leave the mountains and return to life and home.  I am reminded of Wordsworth's Ode--Intimations  of Immortality.  He wrote, "Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own."  Earth's pleasure's are so different than those of my small home.  I stood and watched another's skier's tracks disappear around the bend.  Today, I chose to follow my own back.  Softly I quoted the wise hobbit Bilbo Baggins, "It's dangerous business...going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

As I turned, a large grey bird silently dropped from a tree and dove head first into the snow.  After a moment on the ground it stretched its wings and returned to a nearby fir.  I knew the instant it left the tree that I was watching an owl hunt.  I skied to where it had dove into the snow and marveled at the feather tips marked in the soft snow.

Again the owl swooped from tree to meadow and then returned to the very top of a tree.  I came closer and we examined each other.  I saw its rounded face and knew I this was a Great Grey Owl, also called the Great Grey Ghost or the Phantom  of the north.
I had the rare opportunity to watch the largest (though not heaviest) of the owls in the world hunting for mice and voles under the snow.  Owls have ears that are not even with each other.  This enables them to pinpoint an animal's location under up to two feet of snow.  They are large birds, with an average wingspan of 4.5 feet.  Their wingtips are softened so that they can fly silently.  Indeed, the first time I ever saw an owl I was sleeping outside and what I remember most was how every small creature grew quiet when the own slid noiselessly by.  He or she watched me scooping its head to get a better look.  I stood and marveled at this rare moment.  Time slid by as silently as the owl's flight.  It began ignoring me completely, gradually moving from tree to tree.
The sun dipped below the rim of the hill and my fingers began to tingle from the cold.  Reluctantly, I left it to hunt and glided across the glorious expanse of the plateau in the fading light.

Sources: J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings

Climate Change

I walked out the front door of my little cabin/house this morning and was faced with a problem.  All winter the plow has been driving by and creating a big pile of snow next to the sidewalk.  I have dutifully shoveled a pathway through it after each storm (more on the pride of shoveling my own walk another time).  Now, however, the air has a different quality and the snow is beginning to melt.  What I am left with is a shrinking pile of snow and a growing pile of loose gravel.  Each time the plow pushes the snow aside it also scrapes loose rocks and moves them with the snow.  As the snow melts the rocks are left behind.  But what do I do with the sediment?  As I pondered the problem on my commute to work (a seven minute walk), I had a moment of brilliance akin to the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton's head.  "Eureka!" my inside voice exclaimed (I've learned not to talk to myself while walking around Gardiner--it's a small town and people might start to talk).  My inside voice continued, "I have my very own terminal moraine."

Glaciers carve and landscape much as a plow scrapes snow off a road surface.  As a glacier slowly moves it also pick up rocks from the landscape and carries them embedded in the snow and ice.  When a glacier retreats, or melts, all the sediment that it has picked up along the way is left behind in a pile of loose soil and rocks--this is called a terminal moraine.  They mark the maximum advance of the glacier and can be quite big.  One of the largest moraine's is in Norway.  It is so big that local legends tell of how giants built it to keep invaders out of Norway.  My own terminal moraine is quite small.  I am proud to report that the glaciers in Gardiner, Montana are retreating until the next ice age (which should begin around Thanksgiving).  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd better go skiing before this changing climate catches up with me.