Tag Archives: sense of place

All That Science*

This week I’m posting an excerpt from an essay I wrote about skiing the Blackcomb Glacier in Whistler, B.C., last winter.

Whenever I write about skiing, I try to do it in a way that will appeals to people who don’t ski, as well as those who do. For me, it’s about more than technique or equipment or the freedom of speeding down a slope (though speed is immensely appealing). For me, skiing is about having rare access to places that would be difficult, if not impossible, to get to otherwise. It’s about being out in the world, and feeling far away from the every day even if I’m just an hour or two away from home. It’s about being immersed for a time the beauty of the mountains, of nature and silence, and remembering for a time that we’re all, each one of us, just small elements within a vast universe.

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Whistler’s Blackcomb Glacier: An Immense Geological Marvel

“What makes Whistler Whistler is geology: volcanos, rocks, ridges, altitude. What makes Whistler Whistler is the effect of the Pacific Ocean on the climate: rainforests, precipitation, temperature. What makes Whistler Whistler includes all of the elements of the natural world we learned about in school—all that science….

Just when I was about to catch my breath from the hike, it was taken away again by the vista before us. The immense cirque where the glacier originates gradually opens into a bowl so wide that the skiers traversing toward the middle looked like tiny moving insects even though just a few moments before they were regular-sized human beings.

It takes a moment to consider this, to feel the impact of your true size against the immense backdrop of land formations that evolved from forces that we can understand intellectually, but that are suddenly inexplicable when you’re staring right at them….”

 

*If you enjoyed this excerpt, I hope you’ll check out the complete essay in this season’s OutdoorsNW SNOW Guide and on the magazine’s website.

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The Straight and Narrow

The Central Garage at the university is all lines and angles and primary colors. Well lit and dry, an annual white wash keeps the walls fresh.  Angled car stalls are outlined in white against the dark floor like hundreds of chalk outlines at a murder scene. Diagonal crosswalks, the white-striped corridors that offer the suggestion of safety for pedestrians, cut across open spaces between the cars and yellow-painted walkways that lead drivers up and out of the garage into the fresh air.

Three times a week I park in the bowels of the garage.  My assigned parking area is on the lowest level—marked by vivid green —and at the farthest remove from the exit that takes me nearest to my building. So, three times a week, I walk from one end of the parking lot to the other, thoughts tumbling whichever way they will:

Do I need to make copies? Did I bring my key? Is there time for a coffee before class? Will my perennially absent student show up today? Do I care if my perennially absent student shows up today?

Three times a week, thoughts tumbling whichever way they will, I park my car, cross in the diagonal crosswalk to the N-shaped pedestrian ramp from the green zone to the red, and enter the narrow yellow-bordered path painted on the floor.

Sharp right to the end of the row of cars, sharp left along the wall, continue skirting the wall to the exit. Up four flights of stairs and out.

Three times a week, I reverse the process and go home.

It’s unremarkable, really. The parking garage is a utilitarian space for housing my car. It is a space in my day–a physical and mental space–that equates to nothing more than a way—a tool, even—for leaving one thing to do another.

But then one day, I noticed something.

The garage was half-empty as I began my head-in-the-clouds journey from car to exit.

Would anyone actually notice if I parked in the red zone instead of the green zone? Like in that empty space by the exit that I can see from all the way over here? Does anyone even check the permits?

Leaving the ramp, I made the usual sharp right into the yellow-bordered pathway, took a few paces, and stopped.

Just me there, no one else. Not a moving vehicle in sight. The space between where I stood and where the exit sign glowed in the far corner was virtually obstacle free. A direct as-the-crow-flies line was open before me.  And, yet, I had still begun to turn away and unthinkingly follow a painted yellow path along the perimeter of the vast expanse of concrete.

The idea that I’d been doing this—blindly following routines, being guided by painted paths I never really looked at—struck me as simultaneously poignant and silly. Full of meaning, if I wanted it to be. Or not.

It was clear what must happen next. Obviously I had to step out of that path. The narrow path laid out by parallel yellow lines was a painted suggestion, not an absolute.

I stepped out.

But there was an odd momentary pull as I crossed the painted yellow line. Imagined, no doubt.  But it was almost as if my brain wanted to give me a chance to turn back.

“Whoa, there. Are you sure?”

And so it has been. Three times a week, I pull into the Central Garage. I park. I get out of my car. I automatically follow the lines. At the end of the ramp, it takes a few beats for me to remember.

And then I cross out of the straight and narrow, making my way–as a crow does–across, out, and away.

 

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Summer Afternoon: A Moment

I’m at the creek at the farm. I am ten or eleven years old, lying on my stomach on a big flat rock jutting into the low creek, the surface of its lazy trickle of water radiating the heat of summer. Dappled sunlight lights the creek bed lining the bottom of the narrow hollow I’d scrambled down hours before. It’s a while past noon now, and the shadows of the trees along the slopes are just beginning to stretch over me.

I’m looking in the water of a small pool set against the bank, deeper than most of the little water pockets created when the spring melt eroded the sides of the hills sloping above, but not by much. If I lie still I can see water bugs skating along the surface, crayfish scuttling along the bottom, maybe a salamander—black with red or yellow spots—if I pry a stick or stone from the mash of wet leaves and mud at the waterline. The cool water feels good on my hands as I lightly wave them on the surface. Dragonflies zip back and forth. It’s a sleepy time of day.

I don’t know how I do it—maybe I toss a stone in or poke the wrong part of the mud with a stick—but suddenly there is a startled water snake, a black slithering “S” winding its way across the pool. It stops under the hanging tree roots on the far side, turns its head, unhinges its jaws and opens its wide, white-cheeked mouth at me, curving fangs at the ready. It’s not a large snake. It’s not close enough to be dangerous, but this snake has had enough of my meddling. I have threatened it and I’m supposed to pay the price. Cottonmouth. Water Moccasin.

It’s a small one. I do not fear it. After all, I’ve read all the Little House on the Prairie books. I have one of them in the bag lying next to me on this warm rock in the sun.

This is what I have learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels. Nature is beautiful and dangerous and endlessly fascinating. When a girl is in nature, when she sets off to explore the wilderness—even in the relatively tame creek beds of southern Ohio—she must show the proper respect. It is up to the girl to get herself out of sticky situations when they arise.

I remain on my stone, staring, and the snake remains in the shelter of the bank, threatening, until we both get bored and move on to other things. No snake bites today.

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Foundation

When I was in college my parents sold the weekend property—“the farm”— they had bought when I was a child. The cabin and the forty acres it stood on were a giant playground on which I spent a great deal of my childhood. It was the perfect place for a kid with a large imagination, a peaceful place where every day irritants like sibling warfare and family squabbles never seemed to matter. Everyone loosened up a bit when we pulled into the long, overgrown driveway.

There was a place of mystery at the farm. A short distance from the cabin was a mound. It was a rather small, horseshoe-shaped mound, but to me as a child it was huge. I liked to think it was an ancient Indian mound even after my father explained that it was the foundation of the house that had once stood on the property. All evidence pointed that way, though I didn’t want it to. The mound was located next to the old iron hand pump where we still got our water, worn stone steps led from the pump into the mound—the root cellar—and we found several broken stoneware plates embedded into the soil.

The ruined foundation was beautiful to me. Grass grew over the two sides of the horseshoe, long and unmown. Trees shaded the curve where it bent in on itself. They were young trees, some walnut, mostly maple. Grapes grew at the base of the right side. On the left side was the green-painted pump and, at the end, a dead tree.

The dead tree was one of my favorite perches. Both the mound and its dead tree were on top of a hill, and I could stand on a broken-off branch at the base of the tree and lean against its decaying trunk and look out across the valley. I could see our land as it sloped down and out of sight into the creek bed and then rose up again on the other side as someone else’s property— it looked the same in reverse, the upward slope mirroring ours. The tiny white farmhouse at the top of that property was just visible from my tree.

I wondered if the farmer across the valley had known the people who had lived in the house on the mound. I wished to know their history. I made up stories about them.

The steps that led down to the center of the mound were well set. Only a few had cracks running across them. They were rough, hand hewn from the rock that covered the hills. Each stone was rectangular, wide, and thick. Even after such long exposure to the elements, the steps were even and steady. Other than the steps, the pump, the mound, and the occasional bits and pieces of crockery, there was not a trace left of the house that had once stood there.

As my brother, sister, and I grew older, the inevitable happened. The farm had lost its novelty. We became preoccupied with basketball games, dances, and our friends. Much to my father’s disappointment, the three of us joined our parents for trips to the farm with less and less often and, finally, not at all. The lives of each of us moved in new directions. My parents and I moved to a new city and my brother and sister went to college. The farm remained where it was, further distanced from us by geography. Reluctantly, my father sold it.

When I think back on that horseshoe-shaped mound—even at a remove of over 25 years—it is easy to imagine what happened to the people who once lived there. The children probably grew up and away from the farm. They followed paths they thought were better, destinations that held new mysteries, new experiences. They left the mossy steps, the broken dishes, the footprint of their house behind them, just as we left the farm behind us, too.

I miss the farm. I regret that I let the last few years of driving down the long gravel driveway go by without savoring them. It was a place that played an important part of who I was—of who I am even now—and I feel a bond with the unknown family who once inhabited the same patch of earth that we did.

I hope that their memories of the place were as fond as mine are, and I hope that any regrets they may have had were only those of leaving a place that was much loved.

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A note on the text: This essay is an odd collaboration between me and myself. In the spring of 1990, when I was a senior at Ohio University, I took a nature writing course with the poet John Haines, who was spending the year in Athens as a visiting professor. Springtime in SE Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalacian Mountains, is glorious, and it was the perfect time to take such a course. I wrote a version of this essay–then called “The Mound”–for that class. 

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on an idea that has its origins at the farm. I’d completely forgotten “The Mound.”  For whatever reason, I found myself rummaging through old boxes this week and there it was. A sheaf of papers from my nature writing class, typed out on my portable electric typewriter. This new version has been revised and edited by yours truly.

Funny how that happens.

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As is

The neighbor’s house down the street.  Quick cash sale—“As is.”

The pale wife, rarely seen except for well-timed trips to the mailbox from the tightly-curtained house, made a change after her husband died.

Curious, I went to the estate sale.  Crossing the threshold was like falling into a time warp; I felt as if had I resurfaced in a 1970’s-era Sears Catalog. Stale shag carpeting, once forest green, covered the floor of the living room, rust-colored shag in the rest. Dingy walls showed bright rectangles where pictures had once hung, many of them now stacked against the walls. Little furniture remained in the front living room, but as I went further into the house and peered into the homebuilt, wood-paneled rooms at the back, I saw that they were full of old furniture and belongings. Too new to be vintage, too old to be kitschy, too nondescript to be retro.

The estate sale company hadn’t made an effort. Preprinted price tags, neon orange, adorned everything from the unexpected biography of Gertrude Stein among the National Geographics to the rusted and dented TV tray tables tossed against a support beam in the basement. Astonishingly high prices on less than pristine…junk. The sort of junk we all have cluttering various nooks in our houses,  that we periodically purge for the donation box.

This estate sale was how the pale woman purged her belongings: all at once. She was nowhere to be seen, pressure marks on the carpet in the two almost empty rooms indicating the few large items that went with her. No one in the neighborhood had spied a moving van in the days leading up to the sale; she didn’t take enough to need one.

Three days later workers for the new owners came in and began gutting the house. Their first task was to finish the job the estate sale company had so poorly started—emptying what was left in the house. For two days, the man disappeared into the house, grabbed an armload of price-tagged items and tossed them into an industrial dumpster parked out front. Pots and pans, dishes, linens, books, tables, planters, picture frames. The contents of the once tightly-curtained house destined for the landfill. No ceremony, no hesitation, not a second thought.

The kind neighbors who know everything say the pale woman moved to a high-rise apartment building for retired seniors not too far way. They say that she couldn’t be happier.

I like to imagine her now, in her new home. In an open space that contains only the things that matter. Her belongings, her history, her future reflected in the light coming in from the open windows.

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Ashes: A Travelogue

When I told my sister once that I want my ashes scattered after I die–that I don’t want to be buried beneath a headstone in a cemetery I have no connection to, she said, “But how would I visit you?”

In June, I’d tell her, head south to North Carolina. Go to the island off the Intracoastal Waterway, where the water in the inlet is like a warm bath and the white egrets glow against the tall sea grasses. Where the hot sun is tempered by a cooling breeze and, if you look very carefully in the crushed shells above the tideline, you might find tiny, black shark’s teeth.

In August, I’d say, go to the opposite edge of the country, to the wild Olympic Peninsula, where the beach is so remote that you’ll experience the darkest of nights lit by the most brilliant moon you can imagine. Its reflection on the waves a never ending path for “what ifs.” Where “my” tree hangs by its roots as water erodes the ground beneath it, yet it persists season after season, storm after storm, year after year.

In October, I’d offer, return back towards home, but go just a bit further, to Athens, Ohio. On a Sunday afternoon, drive without plan through the country roads in the worn foothills of the Appalacian Mountains. Stop here and there and shuffle your feet through the vibrant carpets of russet, red, yellow, and brown leaves. Breathe in the crisp, clean air. Let the sun, glowing in the late afternoon, redden your closed eyelids, warm your face.

In January, I’d tell her, head back west. Ride the ski lift to the top of Denny Mountain and look back, midway, to the fog-filled valley behind, knowing that while you’re in the secret sunshine above, people below are going about their days under a ceiling of gray. Head down the long run, but stop before too long and look across to the far side of the valley. Marvel at how high you are, how much snow lies beneath your feet, listen for the raven’s call as it glides across the landscape. Hear how lonely, yet fulfilled he is.

In February, I’d say, follow the hidden sun east from Seattle to where it shines without shame on the Methow Valley. It’s a bit of a slog to ski up Thompson Road, but you’ll thank me later. Breathe in the scent of the fir trees’ sap as they bake in the sunlight. Admire the grandeur of the Ponderosa pines, their red bark radiant against the snow. At the top is another valley to gaze upon, this one a high desert valley. Look for the ravens, the eagles, the camp jays, the mocking birds. Wave at the other skiers as you stand and catch your breath.

Then start down—all the way to the valley floor—your mind empty of everything but the two tracks for your skies, the occasional need to eat or drink, and the reassurance that this world is still beautiful, is still wild, is still more solid and substantial than any of us are or will ever be.

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Weeding the Front Bed*

It was time. The weeds taunted me, choking our few perennials, their colorful petals just visible through the wall of green. The blueberry bushes trapped behind a prison of crab grass. Strawberries competing with towering dandelions for a bit of sunlight. Through the latticework fence I could see the neighbor’s well-tended, raised beds. They were weedless and overflowing, even so early in the season, with beautiful red lettuces and rainbow chard.

A long afternoon of work ahead.

I glanced at my new Ipod, freshly loaded with entertainment. Portable, easy to wear, perfect for an afternoon of repetitive, tedious labor. I paused for a moment thinking of the possibilities and then left the Ipod on the table and went out for the pitchfork and gloves.

I got to work.

Jam the pitchfork into the soil, rock it back like a lever, feel the roots give way, pull them up, shake off the soil, toss them in the bag. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss, let the mind wander.

I remember the beautifully smooth blacktop of the horseshoe-shaped driveway leading up to and away from the convent’s front door.

I remember looking at my friend, thinking what she was thinking. A road test is a road test, convent driveway or not.

I remember our certainty that the nuns had horses somewhere on the property. (Why the certainty? Because we wanted it to be true.)

I remember our plan. We would volunteer to weed the convent flowerbeds. The nuns would be so grateful that they would let us ride their horses whenever we wanted to.

I remember my parents’ pride when they learned that their 10-year-old would sacrifice some of her precious summer hours to help nuns.

I remember there were really not many weeds in the convent’s flowerbeds.

I remember the curved wooden door of the white stucco building, like a Bavarian chalet; the cool foyer where we’d wait for a few minutes after weeding while a nun disappeared into the kitchen and returned to offer us lemonade or a store-bought cookie. (Didn’t nuns bake?)

I remember that eventually, after the offer of free horseback riding never arrived, I did my weeding alone. Peaceful, silent, and shaded by the gardener’s carefully manicured shrubbery.

Jam the pitchfork into the soil, rock it back like a lever, feel the roots give way, pull them up, shake off the soil, toss them in the bag. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss, smile.

I remember Grandpa Lynch’s garden beds. Narrow borders around the small back yard, full of dahlias, roses, geraniums, and—always—tomatoes.

I remember Grandpa Flynn’s garden. One long, long bed between the clothesline and the patch of the yard where he parked the car. I remember rhubarb and zucchini and corn growing there. Probably tomatoes—everyone planted tomatoes.

I remember that Grandpa Lynch’s beds meant it was a city garden. Grandpa Flynn’s giant bed was a country garden.

I remember Grandpa Lynch, in his old Heileman beer t-shirt and his slacks (never jeans), weeding the beds and bringing in tomatoes. Always a fedora or a cap when he was outside.

Jam the pitchfork into the soil, rock it back like a lever, feel the roots give way, pull them up, shake off the soil, toss them in the bag. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss, remember.

I remember our first garden together. We’d signed up for a p-patch in our college town, rode bikes to work the tough, crummy soil. We planted tomatoes, lots of tomatoes, because everyone planted tomatoes. Corn, too, but we didn’t realize corn was truly a challenge.

I remember I’d always hated tomatoes, but that didn’t stop us.

I remember that harvest. We were up to our ears in tomatoes. We visited our parents in turn, loaded down with tomatoes. We had to get rid of them somehow. They already had tomatoes—because everyone planted tomatoes.

I remember deciding that I’d better start liking tomatoes.

I remember thinking, “Can all these people be wrong?” It took seven years.

Jam the pitchfork into the soil, rock it back like a lever, feel the roots give way, pull them up, shake off the soil, toss them in the bag. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss, thoughts meander forward and back.

I remember the story of the neighbor boy who wanted to surprise his mother by getting all the ants off her peonies. He proudly showed her the flower heads in a mound on the ground. No more ants.

I remember picking violets so I could give a bouquet to old Mrs. Frank, who seemed so lonely.

I remember my mother explaining that while Mrs. Frank thought the bouquet was pretty, she’d rather the violets stayed in her flowerbeds.

I remember the two little girls sneaking quietly up my front steps very early on a May morning.

I remember being fearful about their safety because of moments in the past when they weren’t safe. What could be wrong that they were coming over at this unexpected hour?

I remember opening the door to their smiling, sweet faces as they held a secret May Day bouquet towards me.

I remember saying, “Oh! Were you going to surprise us?”

I remember they nodded happily. “Then I’ll pretend I never saw you.”

Jam the pitchfork into the soil, rock it back like a lever, feel the roots give way, pull them up, shake off the soil, toss them in the bag. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss. Jam, rock, pull, shake, toss, remember.

 

*This is my take on the memoir style of poet Joe Brainard. Thanks to Philip Dodd for introducing me to Brainard’s work and for inspiring me with his own “I remember…”

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