Petroglyphs and pictographs are pecked or seeped into rocks all over the West. It is the tenacity of the marks that pulls me in. Chipped lines differentiate themselves from the surface of rock as do lines of pigment and urine or blood that have bound themselves to stone. The lines seem inconsequential even temporal, yet they remain. I’ve not thought much about the meaning of the symbols, but Mary Clearman Blew describes a broken circle surrounded by another circle with a triangular head that resembles a uroboros - the tail eating snake, or the Eastern interlocked Yin and Yang, or the Greek Alpha and Omega, or even the mathematical infinity symbol. I have never related my dual life to anything so lofty as archetypal symbology, but maybe it is the simple structures of living that inspire lofty concepts. Perhaps there is a connection between my summer/winter life and what someone long before me committed to stone.
local to local
Daily observations at or near Two Dot Spot, written by hand on the backs of postcards that record with ink and coffee a few minutes of the earth's orbit around the sun. The cards are physically mailed from Two Dot, Montana to those who have requested them...local to local. Ruth Marie Tomlinson
When Carl, in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, returns to the farm he laments his life of freedom . “… off in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike. We have no ties. We know nobody. We own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury us. Our landlady and delicatessen man are our mourners. And we leave nothing behind us but a front coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter or what ever we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is pay our rent. the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet in the heart of things.” But Carl’s friend Alexandra who lives on the farm, sees it another way. “We pay a high rent too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do. Our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something besides this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worthwhile to work. It is what goes on in the world that reconciles me.” She understands that it takes something beyond herself, two sides to make a coin: permanence and ephemera, roots and freedom, responsibility and spontaneity, cornfields and delicatessens, and for me, Two Dot and Seattle.
It has already rained hard this morning. My idea of washing the sheets for John’s arrival is gone. The point was for them to line dry, gathering the smells of sun and wind and newly minted oxygen. I will drive to Bozeman this afternoon and busy myself in town while his plane crosses three states and two mountain ranges. “Bring him safe me,” will breeze across my tongue with every breath in barely audible whispers until I see his face.
We gathered around my cousin Richard yesterday on his birthday with the usual banter and stories of the day, but everyone turned their faces toward him more than usual. He is, after all, the patriarch of his family. I wouldn’t have thought of it that way until a visitor referred to him as such. What is a patriarch: The male head of a family? The person regarded as father and founder? The one who exercises autocratic authority? It is a word with epic biblical roots that don’t fit my cousin. But he is a focal point of his family. He is the one they all feel free to joke with, the one who needs to be there to call it a family gathering. Perhaps the term can be reworked through a postmodern lens; a patriarch that isn’t hierarchical, that doesn’t supersede the matriarch. For Richard, I see it as a term of love and respect.
I am here and John is there, so we celebrated our 42 years together on the phone. Who would have imagined this life we have, with its here and its there. It is more than a life of rural and urban, of wet and dry, of wind and calm. It is also a life of longing and satisfaction, of separation and reunions, of independence and relationship.
I drank no coffee this morning and by 1:30 was heavy lidded and unable to focus. So I made a cup and found a piece of chocolate. While drinking my belated coffee, two children rode past the schoolhouse on tiny bikes. I could tell they weren’t from here by their protective helmets. There seem to be different imperatives in rural settings. No one I know here would understand the impulse to stop drinking coffee. It is the first thing offered in the morning and flows freely from never ending pots. Likewise I don’t see parents pad their children in protective gear. Saturday night my cousin’s children played in the yard and one got hit in the eye producing a shiner. It wasn’t rage, just an accident and it wasn’t the end of the fun. The urban and rural parents I know love their children fiercely. And my rural and urban friends are all passionate about how they live their lives, but they might go about it differently. I am keeping in mind our mother’s admonitions, “in all things moderation,” with my hand curled around a coffee cup.
In Mary Clearman Blew’s essay “The Art of Memoir,” she considers the telling of her ancestor’s stories. How much is really her own projection, and what bearing does that have on the “rightness” of telling? She sticks to what she knows has happened, at least the told or documented versions, and declares it when she is speculating. And yet, she acknowledges that all stories are dependent on their shape, and it is she who crafts that shape. I listen to stories and read stories. I observe stories and take part in stories in the making. And I keep busy finding the shape of those stories. It is all part of understanding this place and finding my place in it.
At 4:51 MDT this morning, the sun reached its annual northern zenith at the Tropic of Cancer. Of course, there is no reaching on the part of the sun, but it seems so from on the ground within the territory of gravity. I woke up about 20 minutes after the actual moment of the solstice, but before the sun rose here. The double orbit of earth, spinning large and small at once is hard to grasp. I understand it in my head, but when it comes to realizing it in space and time it is different. What I can easily understand is being fully awake at 5:40 with a complete circle of sun just above the horizon, no clouds to speak of, and knowing I have the longest day of the year ahead of me.
Nearly blinded by the rising sun, I don’t even have to open my eyes to see it. The light penetrates on this day before the longest day of the year. The mornings have been a little gloomy, watching and waiting for a decent shadow, but here she is now getting ready for her day of glory.
My friend Charles wrote me a letter about beauty. He has determined beauty is a learned experience and yet, what he elaborates having learned from his mother is an ability to see beauty, to “take time to rekindle the flames of appreciation.” Does everyone see an unencumbered sun taking over the sky in the morning as heart stoppingly beautiful? Maybe not. We are each particular in our appreciations, guided by our circumstances. I don’t think I learned the sun’s beauty from anyone, but absence has increased my fondness. Seattle winters with the constant interruption of hills and cloud cover have colored my view of this big Montana sky ablaze. It is recognition of the appreciation I have learned. Charles has reminded me of a question my friend Tania was asked in a job interview, “Beauty, yes or no?” Without hesitation I can say “yes.”
There is complete cloud cover and it has been raining off and on since yesterday. I awoke in the night to the sound of rain and slipped further under the covers so I could keep the window open to listen. Bird song kept me from closing the window in the morning. Birds seem to have rain preferences; lots of robins were out but fewer meadowlarks. I can be sure the ranchers are crowing too, unless they have cut hay getting wet. It is all such a gamble, what you need and what the weather provides you. The rain has prevented me from drawing, so I’ve watched everything that goes on outside from window squares. Cloistered in the kitchen with a small heater to stay warm, it’s been a day for observation and separateness.
Half of the cottonwood fell. We are planting a new tree to guard against the day the other half goes. I want to insure a patch of shade for the future. When digging to prepare the bed I discovered a layer of charcoal about 6 inches down. Is it from the fire that burned the first schoolhouse in 1944? The yard is framed by its foundation. Have the remnants of that long ago fire remained just under the surface? Or is the charcoal from more recent history. The current schoolhouse burned in the 1980’s. The wood floors bare scorch marks from that fire. Did the yard burn too and leave this evidence? Either way, it is a reminder of my being just a part of a long history. Long after I am gone this place will remain, either as the building it is, or as remnants in the dirt. Perhaps something of me will be etched into the floorboards or buried in the ground. Another curious individual or bird or animal will peck at some curiosity I have left behind and wonder to its origin.
This first day on my own has a different texture than when others are here. Arbitrary markers are removed. I still follow the tides of light and darkness as always. And I seem to eat regular meals, though there is no one to ask: “Are you hungry?,” “Do you want lunch now?” I just realize I am hungry and eat. When I am tired I rest. But there is more to the quality of being alone than schedule. I hear the clock tick off minutes and am reminded of my grandmother’s house where there wasn’t always something to say and never any music or voices in the background. I don't remember this as unpleasant. It was a rarified place, as it is here, where time moved differently. Very little was expected of me. We might pick raspberries, or play with her button collection, or make toast in her antique toaster. Her house contained a profound sense of everything being ok…of my being ok. There was nothing to negotiate outside or the inside.
Great horned owl chicks grow quickly, though they remain dependent not being particularly adept at flying until they’re nearly 3 months old. A pair of fledglings at the Vestal Place stood about 14 inches tall, but their feathers were still all fluff. In all the hours we were there they did not leave the barn rafter. Linda, the current resident artist, has been bowled over by this pair; more than the curlews with their long arched beaks, or the giant hare leaping above the grass, or the cottontail that shades itself everyday in the slim shadow of a power pole. The owls moved her more than the young white tailed buck in velvet antlers, or mares with their foals romping at the fence, or the cowboys on horseback herding cows like a California movie. She has responded to all of these, but it is the owls she brings up again and again. The pair that for all we know is still on the log beam waiting for their parents to bring them rodents plucked from the fields with fierce talons and dropped into baby beaks.
At the Vestal Place, eggs have already hatched. Great horned owls are some of the earliest nesters. Two fledglings fluffed in down perched on a log beam in the two story barn. They sat as still as the bronze owl andirons that belonged to my stepmother’s parents. But as we circumnavigated the barn, trying to see but not disturb the birds, their heads pivoted with agility as they followed our movement. Each new view found them staring at us with rich yellow eyes. They seemed entirely unconcerned by our presence though their parents had abandoned them at first sight of us.
While walking through Anderson’s field to the old homestead, two red-tailed hawks scolded us. The message seemed clear that it was a place we did not belong, and yet we continued knowing that from our side we meant no harm. Near the wetland a Sandhill crane fluttered out with her wings at odd angles. She put on a show attempting to lure us away from what must be her nest. When we continued walking, she changed her strategy to follow and patrol. She paced back and forth across the clearing we’d just passed through. Her message was also that we shouldn’t be there. This is part of living with the wild; we all posture and sometimes threaten, we forge ahead or back off, hopefully finding a way to cohabitate.
Ten days, one after the other, with morning wakings and observations assessing what might shape the day. The luxury of stillness is a retreat from over stimulation. This quietness serves such a different purpose for me in this 21st century than I suspect it did for previous inhabitants. People came to Montana looking or something they didn't have: food, land, opportunity, a way to survive, and/or freedom from something. And, as with most searching, the unexpected was often found. Was quietness and solitude part of the bargain?
At the Vestal Place I listened, trying to put on the ears of its homesteaders. I wasn’t expecting to understand the experience of constant labor or satisfaction of building something. I was just trying to ascertain the quality and sounds of solitude. Near the homestead buildings, the wind wrenched at roof tin, garnering angry cracks and squeals. These are not the sounds of living here, but of the elements reclaiming. Further out in the field sitting under a pine tree on a sandstone boulder, I listened again. The wind is different when nothing but trees resist against it. I worked language over, trying to find words that could encompass those sounds. My body understands the hollow reediness of it, the empty force, but no words exactly describe it. Even its emotional effect is hard to restrain with language. Wind has been described as lonely and it is, but what is the quality that makes it so? From my perch, I appreciated its melancholy, but to live within the wind’s hold year around in isolation, it could be a sound of distress.
Even trees that have fallen sway in big wind. When I perched in the large relaxed U shaped branch in our downed cottonwood, the west wind rocked us both. The tree has fallen as far as it can, but I had to keep my toes curled in a “hold on” grip. There is a natural order to things, but I am not sure my perch is part of it. And yet, I couldn’t resist the U exactly holding my curved body. A pillow propped my head but it was important not to be inspired to sleep, diligence being required to keep from falling to the ground. I have assessed and trimmed every limb, and left a patch of lawn uncut to allow the tree’s touch points to rest in tall waves of grass. I want her to remain like this forever, though she will not. For now, I conform my body to her curves, imagining what it must have been like in that cold heavier wind that brought her crashing to my level.
It occurs to me that much of what I observe, I have recorded already. Each year I look for the right words to describe the colors of a Great Plains’ sunrise, not just the color, but also the way color takes the sky. And each year I marvel at the the tone and character of bird songs. The meadowlark melody lines alone could fill pages. Antelope sightings produce a lexicon of descriptors. What is the point of these efforts, of these repetitions? I know the meditative quality of observation. The calm and total engagement it produces in me. But is there something more? Just before I sat down to write today, five antelope stepped up to the fence across the road one after another. They’ve looked so majestic in the distance with their white/tan patterning and proud-pronged horns, but up close I could see the wildness in their hair. Is my descriptive habit part of developing keener observation?
I slept till nearly seven after a day in the garden: weeding the lilac bed, beginning to trim the fallen cottonwood, and cutting branches into firewood lengths. It is good to spend time with the tree, getting to know her shape and details, starting to make choices as to what stays in tact and what is removed. A tree is a complex thing, as much defined by its interstices as its solid branches.
At first light, I could only see as far as the neighbor’s pole barn. The river trees appeared shortly, but then were concealed again. The east field was obscured almost completely, and then the trees at its far edge took shape again. Fog pulsed in slow breaths, a hulking phenomenon not so familiar in this area. We were left wondering what to do, held in by its presence.
I did wake before five today determined to witness the sun’s rise. The horizon’s edge was already crimson. Over the next 30 minutes, with me determinedly propped up in bed, I watched the low clouds morph from gray to passionate brilliance. Big words for something so often described as “pretty,” but I know behind this simple word lies the emotions of love and fire.
I awoke just before 4. The sky was beginning to lighten, only a few stars still visible. At the bottom of the window parallel to the pillow where my head lie, a tinge of light almost visibly expanded. Sleep reclaimed me, but I opened my eyes again shortly after five to brilliant pink and a half ball of sun at the horizon. Louise Erdrich suffered from horizon sickness when she lived in New Hampshire and longed for the North Dakota skyline she was born to. I did not grow up with such vastness, but have found my home in it. At the end of every road: vastness, Erdrich mused. Out of every window: vastness, I would add. The horizon is full of openness and possibility; it is a place your mind can fly to.
Half the cottonwood lies across the schoolhouse yard. It is not just a limb, its stout girth too much for any lightweight chainsaw we might use. The tree’s upright half is leafed out in deep green, the fallen half is trying hard, but only producing small light leaves. The trunk is still attached and arches beautifully, high enough to walk underneath. I want to leave it where it is, allowing the reverberation of the fall to continue.
We arrived at the ranch late last night, weary but happy to begin again what was left off last August. We let our glasses ring in summer as they came together over the table with our dear cousins.