Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Chod Hedinger and the bridge over Cedar Creek

Not the same: discovery on Cedar Creek

The remembrance lingers though I cannot say why. I knelt there on the banks of Cedar Creek and picked it up and watched it slowly writhe as if it struggled through a toxic medium. A squiggle of snow formed a mysterious imprint at my feet. I looked upstream and down, heard a rattle from around the bend, and thought, What now?

***

By the time Chod Hedinger and I parked the truck near the old barn and started on foot toward the bridge, a ghostly structure half-visible in the falling snow, we were tired and, perhaps, a little dispirited.

There comes a point in every Christmas Bird Count when the day’s excitement dulls and the birding becomes more rote than pleasure. When finding another flock of sparrows or juncos elicits groans rather than grins, and crows become repugnant creatures who in their very blackness seem the personification of merciless winter. Whatever acuity one possessed at dawn’s early light is gradually blunted from the drudgery of the same—the same bird species in the same habitat under the same gray sky held aloft by the same gray trees.

This is partly a result of birder greed. Since a count is all about numbers—tallying every bird within a restricted geographic area, ours being from the Rocky Ford area to the upper northeastern reaches of Tuttle Creek Lake—the objective may seem simple: find the birds and add them up. But in that way we tend to corrupt even the most basic functions, here we’re guilty of sullying the math by focusing on specific numbers rather than the totality. More crows? Big deal. We covet different bird species not only to break up the monotony but in the hopes of shattering previous records. It’s not more juncos we’re after but the solitary Townsend’s solitaire perched on the tallest cedar, the lone fox sparrow lurking in a pokeweed tangle, or, if we let our flights of fancy take flight, something really outlandish, like a ferruginous hawk, a Smith’s longspur or a long-eared owl. In short, we want surprises, and lots of them.

By mid-afternoon the sameness of the same lulls the counter to a daze only one shade brighter than boredom. We were, by then, a few degrees south of that point.

It had already been a long day. Snow was falling by the time I reached the county line, first a few flakes dancing in the headlights and then more, until the predawn darkness paled to a milky opacity narrowing my world to an area illuminated by the twin lights cast before me. The fields beyond, the wooded draws, the farmsteads lit by their singular yard lights, faded into obscurity. I sailed in a sea of white.

Dawn was a long time coming. We marched down a long straight road with open fields and staggered woods on one side and an ashen body of water on the other, accompanied only by the whisper of falling snow, the crunch of boots, the sharp rustle of clothing and the deep moaning of flexing ice. Our recorders exploded the stillness as the call of a barred owl echoed through the woods. We waited for a reply that was not forthcoming, and continued on, deeper into the trees, where we repeated our actions until acceding defeat.

Daylight never came, only a sort of half-light. Our morning consisted of fogged binoculars and wet lenses, frozen beards and feet; the treeless knolls and hillocks veiled in falling snow reminiscent of Arctic tundra, with civilization something left behind years before. We skidded and slipped down a rutted road until it ended in a frozen wasteland, the only living thing a rough-legged hawk winging past to vanish in the gloom. Once I broke through a dark ring of cedars and stepped onto a wide level plain, and the half-seen spillway to the north appeared like the ruins of some vast monument of a forgotten race.

Hot lunch and a warm house broke winter’s spell for a brief respite, but the harm was done. Our relaxation was too much, and the cold seemed to intensify when we again set forth. Washington Ranch was our last stop, a mile or two on foot up the creek and through the wooded hills and back. Our final chance for something new.

We followed the highway to the bridge and descended to the creek. It was shallow, running sluggish, iced over in places, its open leads dark as cedars. A monotone winterscape with two hunched figures moving into the teeth of the wind.

A mixed flock of birds led us upstream like feathered Pied Pipers. “Yellow-rumped warbler,” Chod yelled; the first of the day. While from our left the song of a Carolina wren mingled with alarm notes from the group, we followed as they moved on, stumbling over ice-slick stones, trying to separate the species to get an accurate count.

My foot slipped and I almost went down. Beside me, stretched upside down at full length in a deep patch of snow, limned with frost, was a leopard frog.

Its presence there was totally without precedence. It looked dead, but then its legs twitched in a torpid rowing motion. There were no tracks leading to its location, only a gnarly indentation as if snow had been dumped. Looking up, I saw the bare limb of a tree. Could a kingfisher had nabbed the frog and landed on the limb to eat it? Surely it was too large.

Chod had gone on but stopped when I called. “What should I do with it?”

“Either way, it’s dead,” he said, and turning pursued the birds.

I set the frog in a shallow rill with a deeper pool below. It bobbed in the current like a half-filled helium balloon. I hoped for some thawing, some life, but it appeared to be in shock. Whether from the cold or the bird I could not tell; maybe both.

The rattle of a kingfisher was borne on the wind. It sounded like cold cruel mirth, nature’s inimitable law of survival. There was nothing more I could do. I passed on, following Chod’s tracks in the snow until a bend in Cedar Creek bore me away.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A rabbit falls from grace

This is a cautionary tale. Sometimes through generosity, love, or a misplaced innocence our acts become more than what we wanted or bargained for, and we find ourselves trapped with no means of extrication. I know, for this happened to us. We thought it was cute. Endearing, even. And now, well, now we have a problem.

These things always begin slowly, almost unnoticeable, easily excusable.

“Oh, how cute,” we say, knowing full well that what we’re doing isn’t really cute or even wise.

“Just this once,” we say, but it’s never just once.

“No more,” we say, though it’s always more.

Soon, what once was overt becomes reclusive, secretive, as if something deeply shameful, illicit, or illegal.

This is where we now find ourselves: cringing at the crinkling of a plastic bag, feeding our addictions in dark hallways and back rooms, ever conscious of the sharp hearing of one who lays in wait to snare us in our guilt.

So please, heed our advice. Mark the words of those who have fallen into the shadows and now live in constant dread of exposure. Whoever you are, whatever you do, mama, don’t let your bunnies grow up to be snackaholics.

When Sheba first came into our lives she was guileless, sweet-natured, unwise in the addictions of humans, having known only the narrow confines of a cage in an outbuilding that broiled in summer’s heat and froze under winter’s icy grip. Her days had been dull and tedious, an unchanging monotony of tasteless meals and weary resignation heightened by the occasional bouts of terror when her human pulled her kicking from the cage and raked her fur with a hard-toothed comb. And then we came along.

I like to think it was the love and care we afforded her that eased her fear of this new place she suddenly found herself in, but I suspect it was something else. Something more basic even than love or trust. Something like—food.

Gone were the insipid generic pellets, replaced by high-quality, expensive Oxbow Hay timothy pellets. There was fresh broccoli for breakfast, a carrot for supper, and, in season, fresh-cut alfalfa. And for a bedtime treat there were papaya pills and a lengthy rub that left her a melted pile of bun-fur.

Oh, she took to her new life as if it were her due. Her queenly mannerisms compared favorably with her name, given for her dark beauty, her lustrous coat that shaded from jet black across her face and ears to a soft velvety gray and silver on her flanks. A dusky princess, reminiscent of the pictures shown to us in Sunday School of the meeting of King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, she adapted with grace and not a little haughtiness to the freedom of the Parker household. Good food, unfettered independence, she had all she needed or wanted. Until one night my wife offered her the bunny version of the apple from the Garden of Eden.

Sheba, always mindful of food, had watched us take the pale crunchy things from a colorful bag and scarf them down but had never expressed an interest. And yet behind those adorable brown eyes was a terrible intelligence at work. She saw that the things were good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that they were desirable for the knowledge that they could give. So when Lori handed her a portion of a Lays potato chip, she took it greedily.

Then her eyes were opened and she knew she was a rabbit, and she was slightly miffed at the injustice of it all.

We fought the urge to give her more, and yet she would not be denied. If we could eat chips, then she required her share. Nor did it end there. Tortilla chips, barbecue chips, sour cream chips, Fritos, crackers, anything that made a rustling sound when opened, had to be shared. She quickly equated the sound of a plastic bag with snacks, and there was no muffling the sound from those long tapering ears.

There was, in short, no place for us to indulge in our addictions to grease and salt without having her crawl on top of us demanding an equal portion.

At first it was merely cute. We’d give her a few chips, mindful to limit her intake, and sit back to watch the joyous dance she’d give in return. But we soon found ourselves putting them away to save the hassle of keeping her at bay. Her presence was a damper on our own addictions, which meant that eventually we began sneaking them at odd hours of the day or night.

They had to be kept in the living room, far from the back room or dining room where she stayed. And furtiveness was the key to successful noshing, though more often than not as soon as the bag crinkled we would hear the pitter-patter of furry feet dashing from the cage. She would be found waiting impatiently, and accusingly, at the foot of the kitchen’s linoleum floor, ears erect, nose twitching, eyes gleaming with a feral light.

It was like having our own diet cop living with us, ready to cite us at the slightest infraction.

Last week I found myself craving potato chips, so I left Sheba sleeping by the computer and made my way to the kitchen. Carefully lifting a plastic bowl from the cabinet, I went into the living room and picked up a bag of chips, wary not to make the slightest noise. I tiptoed to the bathroom, closed the door, and carefully filled the bowl. When I walked back to the kitchen she was waiting for me.

Bunnies are not supposed to be snackaholics, but I suspect that people aren’t, either. Since Sheba has gained the knowledge of good and evil, our own wisdom is being tested. There are other things to eat that are better for us—chocolate, for instance. She hasn’t figured that out yet, and this time we won’t let her.

Sheba, the Queen

November in a windblown seed

In the ashen moonlight slanting through tall barren trees William Morris, the British poet, saw November. The light transformed midnight into “dreamy noon, silent and full of wonders,” he wrote, and

The changeless seal of change it seemed to be,
Fair death of things that, living once, were fair;
Bright sign of loneliness too great for me,
Strange image of the dread eternity,
In whose void patience how can these have part,
These outstretched feverish hands, this restless heart?

I, too, have seen November, not in moonlight filtering through the half-naked trees flanking our gravel road, nor in the variegated shadows cast by the death and rebirth of the full moon in the waning days of October—the hunter’s moon, blood moon—nor in the deep prairie grasses burnishing the hillside into shades of russet and umber and ochre, but in frost glittering on cold stone, in an icy wind coursing over the land, slipping through the desperate clutch of boughs to bend low the goldenrod and asters in fields grown empty of birdsong and cricketsong. The loneliness Morris wrote of clings to me like wood smoke. In the growing darkness of winter’s approach I find an oppression that has no name or shape but seems somehow to focus on a pile of rocks behind the house, situated between a pair of low elms and an Osage orange, sprinkled with withered bunches of wild alfalfa and the season’s final blooms.

When poets speak of November their words are mostly filled with loss, dread, loneliness or sorrow. Alexander Pushkin wrote, “A tedious season they await/ who hear November at the gate,” while Thomas Hood, with barbed whimsy, called it the month of noes, as in “no warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease/ no comfortable feel in any member—no shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees/no fruits, no flowers, no birds, no bees.” To Charles Lloyd it was “dismal,” to Helen Hunt Jackson “treacherous.” Charles Baudelaire saw in it the onslaught of winter, when he would be “exiled, like the sun, to a polar prison.”

In the mornings, when spindly shadows flee the pursuing sunlight or gray dawn is met with gray woods and gray heart, I walk to my rabbit’s cairn and stand over it and struggle for words to say. The wind harvests the bright leaves of the hackberries and maples only to abandon them, and slowly the grass lies beneath a blanket that sings autumn’s own peculiar chorus under the rustle of footfalls. I set more stones in place until the first shafts of sunlight strike the cairn like the tolling of a bell. In evenings, the sun long down, last light bleeding away into the hollows and darker recesses of the woods, I again stand above the stones and say farewell.

As all is farewell now. In November, “a little this side of the snow and that side of the haze,” as Emily Dickinson puts it, we become acquainted with the end of things. Yet even as the last leaves drift to earth, as the colors, once so gaudy and vivid, now die away, something remains just below the surface, some nagging thought or memory, of a November promise. And it eludes me, even as I trudge back to the house, whose lights glow with a warmth unknown in summer, a coziness of refuge, of sanctuary, like a solitary candle burning in a vast and terrible plain.

Can there be regeneration in the gathering gloom? Does November hold something that we can look upon in the benighted dusk and proclaim, as Morris did in an earlier stanza, “Is it not fair, and of most wondrous worth?”

I thought not. And yet, as one morning I sat beside the cairn, the asters nodding in the breeze, their purple blooms exploded into fuzzy seed heads now, a sudden gust sent them yawing and swaying, and I watched the seeds whirl away, as insubstantial as hope, each a tiny perfect microcosm containing the rudiments of germination and propagation, with embryo, placenta and egg, the matter of life itself. Here was the promise of spring in the fading of autumn. November, I had thought in my grief, was like the cold and bitter wind that strips away the tinsel of summer until all that remains is the desiccated husk of December. I was wrong.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon with no hint of November in the air my wife made a phone call. We drove south, the Flint Hills opening before us, the roadway spotted with tawny litter scattering in our wake, and after an hour’s drive we turned east toward the mad jumble of land enfolding Tuttle Creek Lake. There was a lone house at the crest of a hill and behind it a cluster of outbuildings. Inside were cages, and in them were angora rabbits.

One, a small black-faced female with silver ears and mottled flanks, placed her front paws on the bars and studied me. And I cannot say why this was so, only that it was: that in a room filled with rabbits, some tortoise, some black, some snow white, some tan, there was only the one, and we watched each other until I crossed the room and unlatched the gate and pulled her out, and she huddled close to me, heart to beating heart, and then she stood in my hands, our noses almost touching, her dark lustrous eyes staring deeply into mine.

In that instant I saw the “wondrous worth” Morris wrote of, and the coming November void held no fear for these feverish hands, this restless heart.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Ghost woods in whiteout

Caught in the eye of the crow

Snow hides everything. It shrouds the pellet-riddled bodies of the starlings that drop from my suet feeders, erasing their black iridescent feathers as if they never existed or had the temerity to choose my yard for their brigandage. It blankets the seeds almost as fast as I toss them out, and desperate birds scratch and claw and blindly peck through the rising drifts. It covers the tracks I drag behind me so that when I turn to survey my meanderings there is no history of my passing. I might have been created here from this white earth, fashioned from virgin snow with ice water for blood, each step my first, each moment new, a cosmogony of snow.

That lack of record is bothersome but won’t stop me. I plunge ahead, silence paramount save for snow ticking off the Gore-Tex shell and the toc-toc-toc of my trekking poles keeping pace with my boots. I’ve forgotten to bring my watch and know that if Lori gets home before I do she’ll wonder where I went, and no note to inform her. But what would I have written? That I needed to hear the sound of snow falling through winter trees? Or that my feet, like restless sprites wandering wherever they will (and I subservient to them), embarked upon a journey with no certain destination, and that any fence post, tangled thicket or winding creekbed cascading from the windswept hills possessed the potential to deflect my steps and take me elsewhere? Such a note would say little more than she could fathom herself. I went out, is all. And if by bad luck I do not return, summon help. But better to ask the crow, if he will tell you.

There are no mysteries for crows. Behind those depthless black eyes resides a brain as comparatively large as that of a chimpanzee, and so, by inference, an intelligence surpassing most politicians. They possess the collective wisdom of millennia of studying mankind and the world they inhabit, and an oral tradition that keeps it fresh. Their evening roosts are given over to storytelling, regaling their adventures and exploits of the day—a particularly juicy morsel of roadkill, the trick X played on Y, advice on which field is best for winnowing corn, and perhaps warnings on areas where an uncompromising and humorless farmer lives. Tonight I would give them something to debate.

My going was spontaneous but not foolish. Before starting, I took time to slip knee-high gaiters over my waterproof boots. I dressed warmly. And then I closed the door behind me and stepped into air vaporous with snow, and so crossed a neighbor’s fields, and wended through the trees to the railroad tracks, and crossed over and down into a field where I aimed for the crest of the hill, barely visible in the snowfall. A fence blocked my passage, so, like a river seeking the path of least resistance, I turned and angled downhill, following a gulley to stand at last beneath the railroad trestle.

Where to now? Such is always the question, especially on a cold afternoon with five inches of snow on the ground and more falling so fast that it heaps on me until I become more Yeti-like than human.

A gap in a barbed wire fence catches my eye and I am gone, slipping through and up the incline to the iron rails, and thence westward past the road to the westernmost house and beyond. The storm engulfs me.

Oh, this is delicious fun. If it is indeed impossible to lose oneself in much of the conterminous lower 48, then this is the next best thing. Wilderness ready-made, the virgin wild, and none about but the hardy explorer. Which is me, and I exulting in it, the sensory overload, the tactile feel of boots sinking into drifts and the swish-swish of the sticks dragging snow. I scrutinize the patterns on the land, the pallid treeless hills, the dark timbered coulees, the sensuous curve of a streambed painted on textureless white fields, the dark splashes of cedars bowed under the weight of snow. The only movement that of myself and the inescapable crows silently winging overhead, their stygian eyes taking in this strange sight and making no remark upon it. But that will come.

So far I hadn’t heard their guttural calls, but when I stride out onto a vast whited field I hear one, then two. They bark sharply, as if calling attention to the figure below. A pair banks and returns as if scrutinizing me, and wheels away to disappear in the ghostly twilight. Again I make for the hill, and again a tight-strung fence blocks my way. Rebuffed, I turn back, and notice a crow sitting atop a high tree, intently watching me.

Thereafter, I am shadowed by dark shapes that swirl through the blizzard, singly, in pairs, or, once, a mob that boils over the treeline to heckle and jeer. Surely my actions are aberrant, and the crows seem intrigued by them. No matter where I trek they follow.

Snow is falling fast when I near home. Below the feeders five crows watch this apparition materialize from the storm. One utters a raucous caw, throwing its weight into the call as if coughing out a hairball. The others nod their heads and take flight, and as they circle me their shouts are unrelenting. It sounds like laughter.

When I glance in the mirror inside the front door I see a figure with snow piled on its head and shoulders, with a frozen beard dangling with unruly icicles. It is admittedly a bizarre sight, and I can’t help but join the crows in hilarity, they in flight and me grounded, our conjoined voices a rollicking wave of mirth. Lord, how we laugh.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

New! Dispatches From Kansas the book

"Dispatches From Kansas" is now in book form!

The 364-page trade paperback contains 88 essays taken from my weekly newspaper column, "The Way Home." The book jacket says it best:

"Ex-urbanite Tom Parker's weekly newspaper column, 'The Way Home,' explores the natural world and rural Kansas and his place in it--an evolving process involving hit bugs, prescient store clerks, daredevil rodents, divine beetles, malevolent weather, failed quests, and the tribulations of living in a century-old house. Along the way he explains the true nature of women, the character of the months, and how sometimes not finding a sought-after bird can be better than finding it.

"Besides learning to see the little things of this world, readers follow Parker down the dark road into depression, and beyond."

Eileen Umbehr has this to say: "Tom Parker is one of those rare individuals who have the courage to share their deepest and most intimate thoughts. His weekly column is a window into his very heart and soul--a sometimes tormented but always triumphant soul. Whether he's writing about his wonderfully supportive wife of thirty years or his struggles with life's most heart-wrenching challenges, Tom's vivid depictions leave little to the imagination."

"Dispatches From Kansas" can be purchased directly from BookSurge.com, Amazon.com, or from the author.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A cairn for Mister Bun

A little snow-white Angora named Mister Bun

Never forget: a cairn for Mister Bun

A cairn is a pile of stones, usually pyramidal in shape. Sometimes found high above timberline, where they are used to mark a path through frost-heaved scree, or along rocky Arctic promontories where they announce, “I was here,” they also denote a monument, usually of someone of renown. Thomas Pennant, in “Voyage to the Hebrides,” published 1772, wrote, “As long as the memory of the deceased endured, not a passenger went by without adding a stone to the heap…To this moment there is a proverbial expression among the highlanders, allusive to the old practice; a suppliant will tell his patron, I will add a stone to your cairn; meaning, when you are no more, I will do all possible honor to your memory.”

Sara Everton, protagonist of Harriet Doerr’s novel, “Stones for Ibarra,” finds an ever-increasing pile of stones stacked outside the hacienda’s front gate on the anniversary of her husband’s death. When she asks a hired hand what it means, he says, “When people pass by and remember, they bring stones.”

I was told that if I write this there will be people who think I’ve gone off the deep end. “It’s just a rabbit,” they’ll say. Some will understand, though. If it helps, substitute dog/cat/horse/hamster. But let me be up front about this column—this wasn’t written for you. This is for me, and a certain little snow-white Angora rabbit with sometimes-pink eyes and sometimes-blue eyes, with a temper that could be easily assuaged by his favorite treats, who loved super-premium-gourmet rabbit food and Post Raisin Bran, who loved nothing more than to lay beside me and get rubbed for hours and hours, and who was by any and all means spoiled rotten. As were we.

Mister Bun came into my life ears first. Lori had just returned from a meeting and carefully set a cardboard box on the kitchen floor. Before I could ask what was in the box, a pair of white tufted ears and two curious, frightened red eyes slowly rose out. When our eyes locked, he slowly sank out of sight.

Lori had stopped at an Angora breeder’s home north of Manhattan with the intent of buying a young rabbit and wound up rescuing a middle-aged bunny with bowel problems. This was excellent from Mister Bun’s standpoint because he had been slated for destruction. It was also a big step up from a small cage behind the house. Here he had the run of the place, his cage situated in the back room just behind the computer. He was possibly the only rabbit in Kansas to have his own remote-controlled air conditioner, though in honesty we shared it.

Once he got over the intimidation of new digs, he was quick to capitalize on his newfound freedom. Regular rabbit pellets? Forget it—he wanted gourmet stuff. Sleeping in a cage with the door closed? A resounding thump from his back paw let us know his disgust, so I wired the door open. He loved being with us, and would spend each evening lying beside me on the livingroom floor. The new furniture we bought was left to Lori alone; I had a pillow.

Sometimes he slept under the kitchen table, sometimes against a bookcase, sometimes in the back room, almost hidden under the desk, with only his ears poking out. He had his favorite places and kept to them with a rhythm only he knew. He was lonely for another rabbit—a girl rabbit—but accepted me as his soulmate. He disliked being brushed and tossed the comb around whenever he saw it.

For almost four years he was my constant companion—my muse, my friend, my familiar.

Three weeks ago he stopped eating. He had been losing weight and acted as if his front right paw was crippled. We were seeing the slow decline of a rabbit who’s led a full life, the vet said. But the decline wasn’t that slow. Several days later he started eating again, voraciously, and we fed him a steady diet of apples, bananas, wild alfalfa and the little green and yellow treats found in his gourmet food. Things he loved and should have eaten in moderation. For two weeks he rallied, even gaining weight.

Then his other front leg went out. He remained outside of his cage, and I hand-fed and watered him. A day later his back legs stopped functioning, and he could no longer eat from his dish. I would spill some in front of him, selecting only the treats. Every free hour was spent by his side, stroking him to a blissful daze.

On Wednesday morning I rubbed him for two hours, and then, when the first wan sunlight gilded the hackberry tree, I wrapped him in a towel, took him outside and set him on the grass. Though almost paralyzed, he began eating. “You’re a wild bunny now, Mister Bun,” I said. His eyes were blue when I shot him.

That afternoon I began stacking rough stones above his grave. I chose flat ones of native limestone, found along the river where the bones of the hill are exposed. They were carefully chinked together to form one layer, then two, then three. On top I set the last of the gallardia blossoms and an apple.

Yeah, he was just a rabbit, a little snow-white long-hair Angora rabbit with sometimes-pink eyes and sometimes-blue eyes, who would sometimes run after me for one last rub before bedtime, who would thump his back leg loudly when sensing danger or being peeved about something, who would steal my pillow when I left for a moment and not leave until I rubbed him some more, who had a sweet and loving disposition unless we tried sneaking in generic Raisin Bran, who spoiled the two of us rotten. He was just a rabbit—just a rabbit!—and his name was Mister Bun.

Bring stones.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Walnut Creek in winter

In search of Santa Claus

One of the cruelest hoaxes perpetrated on us is that we are brought up to believe in a wise, generous patron who will give us our hearts desires if only we are reasonably good throughout the year. We are led to believe that the letters of petition we send and the long lists we dictate to the man with the long snowy beard and the garish crimson and white costume will be awarded to us on Christmas Day. And then, just when we’re getting into the groove, the curtain is drawn back and the deception is revealed. Alas, cruel fate!

I miss Santa Claus.

Christmas was a lot more exciting when we had the freedom to ask this perfect stranger for anything we wanted. Greed was sanctioned. We could ask for anything and everything, and we did.

And then we learned the truth but the truth did not set us free. Instead, we learned to continue the fabrication, on siblings, friends and, eventually, upon our own offspring. Our children prattle on about the many nifty things they expect to see under the tree when they rise from their restless slumber. Meanwhile, visions of credit card receipts dance in our heads. Our Christmases are reduced to what we can afford rather than what we actually want.

Our boys are grown up now and have families of their own, leaving just my wife and I. It’s been an exciting time since they moved out – no empty-nest syndrome for me. No more worries about Santa bringing presents we can barely afford, no more illusions of the supernatural. That chapter of my life is forever closed.

And yet, the other day I was listening to a little girl tell Santa Claus what she wanted. She wanted a lot. Santa smiled and patted her on the head and gave out a hearty bellow, and she lightly skipped off his lap, her face glowing with contentment. I was jealous.

Why should kids have all the fun? Why isn’t there a Santa Claus for adults? I once made a promise to never grow up. Life gets in the way and tends to beat you up, but faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. I’m trying to hang on to that. I really am.

I read in the paper that Santa Claus will be at Saturday’s Lighted Horsedrawn Parade. This year I’m willing to give him another try. I’m drawing up my Christmas list and intend on handing it to him right after I plunk down on his knee.

I want that new 65m/m Swarovski spotting scope with HD glass and a 20X-60X zoom, and a Bogen carbon-fiber tripod to set it on. I want an unlimited shopping spree at Amazon.com. I want a million dollars in the bank. I want to lose thirty pounds and keep it off without exercise or diet. I want beer to have fewer calories and still taste good.

Dang it, I want my Santa Claus back.

When I was young, before my father taught me how to read maps, I had only the vaguest idea of directions. Still, I knew that north at the top of the globe that spun on my desk I knew that north always had an arrow pointing toward it on two-dimensional maps. North was up, that’s all I needed to know. And north was where Santa Claus lived, at the North Pole.

However, my unformed brain did not register the full picture. From my home in Albuquerque, north was that void between the eastern outthrust of the Sandia Mountains and the flat horizon to the west, where, on clear days, distant Mount Taylor, “Turquoise Mountain” to the Navajos, could be seen. If I was unable to grasp those facts, I still could discern that north was, at the very least, a higher elevation than whatever level plain I was standing upon.

And so, once Christmas drew nigh, a friend and I went looking for Santa Claus. If north was up and we were down, our reasoning indicated that all we had to do was find someplace taller than our present position, which happened to be near the elementary school we attended near the north edge of town. And not far from there stood an old farmstead, a relict rapidly being consumed by the growth of the city, and behind it, jutting up from the sandy soil like a finger pointing straight to God, was a windmill.

Up we climbed like two monkeys, hauling ourselves ever nearer the galvanized blades forever stilled by time. We did not find Santa Claus, or reindeer, or anything much more than a good view all around, but a policeman found us and ordered us down. He drove us home to our parents where, I recall, we were sternly advised to stay clear of the farm.

In many ways, though, I had it right. Maps are useful tools, and in our modern day of satellites and computer imaging they are accurate down to the inch. But they may also fail to show what is really there—the imagination, the wonder, the dream. I was searching for the invisible, for a fantasy, and by doing so I was more engaged in life and the world surrounding me than I ever would have been had I scientifically diagnosed the situation and declared that Santa does not exist and that the North Pole was thousands of miles beyond my reach.

This Christmas Eve I’m going to do something different. Late at night, when most of the town lies slumbering, I’m going to step outside and peer into the starry skies. I’m going to look for movement, not of jets streaking silently past, but for something considerably more ancient. And I’ll listen with everything I possess for the sound of bells, of harnesses creaking, of wind rustling over brightly wrapped packages, and for a fat man in a red suit joyously calling to his steeds, “On Dancer, on Blitzen!”

I’m sure they’ll be up there, for up is north and north is where Santa Claus rides in the sky.

Solstice, the promise of December

If December had a voice it would be in the gentle whisper of snow falling through naked trees, or the wind sighing above a narrow tree-fringed valley, each tarnished leaf and spindly twig motionless as if giving lie to the ceaseless current of air moaning aloft. As if in another time or place, or far removed from this brittle landscape with its tenebrous woods and rocky bourns half-buried under leaf wrack, where the echoes of footfalls break off sharply as if truncated or silenced by something unseen in the air, or dampened beneath the gnarled limbs of towering bur oaks, or smothered in the darkness congealing between the gathering boles. This still, small voice that spoke long before there were ears to hear, or time, or a calendar. Or a December.

Do the crows flying overhead comprehend this? They weave the air with invisible strands, the warp and weft a pattern of their own reckoning, untraceable to others. If I could call them down to me on this shadowed forest floor I would, and ask them what they know of the end of things. If they sense its approach in the lessening of light, in the endless bitter nights lumined by the silvery gilt of moonlight, or cavernous beneath patined clouds suffocating all light however pallid, each night longer, and darker, until sunlight seems a faraway dream. Will they think the night ascending? That their blackness will merge with night’s blackness and so disappear? Or do they fathom that all ends are but beginnings?

For most of our collective history we have wondered this, huddled around our hearthfires, looking for signs in the heavens or portends on earth. The knowing is one thing, the intense darkness another. We have forgotten all too readily. The earth is a circle and all therein even as the sun is a circle and the seasons are circular and return with exquisite precision, yet in the cold midwinter we fear the mounting gloom. Have feared. Not now.

We have sought solace in the burning of bonfires, in donning sprigs of mistletoe, in warding our windows with prickly-leaved holly, in gathering rowan trees to hang inverted in our dwellings. We have built intricate monuments to chart the course of the sun, whether Stonehenge or Newgrange or Maeshowe; we raised monoliths across the breadth of Europe and Egypt, constructed Aztecan temples and Chacoan pueblos, and in medieval Roman churches the sun slanting through a small hole in the roof tracked the meridian line which, surrounded by symbols of the zodiac, demarcated noon and the extremes of the solstices. Have, not now.

This desire to know the end and the beginning was as much a physical longing as a spiritual one. We called it Lenaea, Alban Arthuan, Inti Raymi, Shab-e Yaldaa, Mi na Nollaig, Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, Brumalia, Jol. We called it the winter solstice. We made celebrations to drive the darkness away, adulterating them into festivals of excess such as Saturnalia, ancient even before the Romans and the Persians, where children became rulers of the household and masters slaves, and, in the words of Seneca the Younger, “we…take a better supper and throw off the toga.” Have, not now.

We deduced from the placement of the North Star that our planet is tilted, that the sun’s light is not equal, that it shifts and lengthens and withdraws. We added a new holiness to the season and called it Christ’s Mass. We saw the world from space and so proved our computations. The darkness became metaphor for death and resurrection and no longer catered to our uncertainties. Christ’s Mass eclipsed solstice, and in return was obscured by the jangling of cash registers and the redcoated bellringers warding the entrances of supermarkets and malls. And greed. And excess. Saturnalia redux.

It is easier to hear December in this valley where I stand as motionless as the spindly twigs and tarnished leaves, with blackbirds weaving the low sky and calling out in their dog-voices, the insubstantial whisper of wind like the sound of distant tides. Competing voices are silenced. December murmurs and beckons.

And if it could be followed like the tracks of voles through the snowy meadow, December would lead us from first snow to the stronghold of winter’s reign. It would show us the end of things. It would sink us in unforgiving cold and infinite night. It would drag the sun earthward as if to embrace it. And at the last moment, when despair is imminent, it would turn a corner and release us.

This is the message of December, that in the darkness there is hope. That the end is a beginning. We know this, have known it for thousands of years. Have almost drowned it out. Have almost forgotten it. Almost, but not.

We must listen again. We must hear the still small voice of December. We must listen to solstice, to its promise. After all, we have been listening for a long, long time. The colorful lights garnishing our homes could never be as bright were the night not so deep; the hot drink never so comforting were the windows not glazed with frost.

The crows depart. Darkness swallows the trees, rises in the creeks like floodwater. I make my way toward the truck, a half mile away. Night falls. Falls hard and fast. Cold intensifies. Snow falls. It will not last.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Digital painting of the Blue Rapids elevator

Confluence of Juganine Creek and Big Blue River

Wanting it all—a creek, a name, a dream

Part 1 of 4

Long had this obsessed me. To come to this moment at a city council work session where something as mundane as the redrawing of a lease for the fair board could answer a question unanswerable until that moment. And perhaps unanswerable still.

On an obscure portion of an obscure document, a legal description set the eastern boundary of the Marshall County Fairgrounds as Juganine Creek. I stared at the word. I saw nothing else but it.

I said it aloud and everybody looked at me. Talk stopped.

“It says Juganine Creek,” I feebly said.

“Yeah?” the mayor asked. “So?”

“So I never knew the name.”

“There’s lots of things you don’t know,” he said.

The meeting resumed.

But what was discussed was lost to me as I mentally chewed on the word. Juganine. I’d always wanted the perennial creek separating the westernmost two streets from Blue Rapids proper to have some melodic name, something lyrical and poetic, and instead I got something that sounded like a cheap brand of rotgut, or that had evolved from some other entity or form. Jug of nine. Jug o’nine. Jugonine. Juganine.

Not what I expected. Not what I wanted.

***

What I wanted was to walk the Pecos River from the snowfields of Pecos Baldy above Santa Fe to its confluence with the Rio Grande northwest of Del Rio, Texas. It was a tall order and one I had no idea how to manage. Nor did I own a justification for so audacious an undertaking, other than my youth, and inexperience, and dreams of a larger world than that which hemmed me. Maybe it was about knowing both the beginning and the end of something in a life that seemed an inexplicable synthesis of absolutes and uncertainties.

A boy’s life is more about longing than fulfillment. Things desired seem utterly out of reach, much like stepping down 900 miles of river on an illogical quest. And what did I know of the river? That it formed from snowmelt high above timberline, and that once I had straddled it and heard its inceptive music, and from which height I could see it widen as it gathered other waters to itself, and that I imagined its many long windings and meanderings as it crossed the only two states I loved. That I watched my father stand in its current and cast white-winged flies that enticed from the unseen depths creatures with vibrant rainbow flanks and eyes forever open to their liquid worlds. That I stood on its tamarisk-lined bank near Imperial, Texas, surprised at its narrowness, its insubstantiality, thinking that after so many miles a river should have grown into something fierce and sprawling, and disappointed somewhat that the river, like myself, had remained small and inconsequential.

I knew that it flowed under the bridge near the small town of San Jose halfway between Glorietta and Las Vegas, where one could look northward to the tall barren peaks of the Pecos Mountains and southward onto the vast plains where junipers gave way to scrub and cattle and sunblasted stone. That the immense midsection of the river’s length would probably be eternally unknown to me. And that knowing wounded me, for though at that age my dreams were congealing into recognizable forms, they were already bitter with the certitude of impossibilities.

Some gifted people hold these dreams as challenges, and ultimately fulfill them; the rest of us simply let them go and try not to let their loss cripple us. Or, little by little, we pare them down to manageable levels. A few years ago I stood at the confluence of Elm Creek and the Blue Earth River and remembered the dream and wondered if I could resurrect it on a more local plane. If I could turn my back on the river and walk down the creek’s birthplace. If that would suffice. And I never did.

In the Blue Rapids community center I read the name Juganine Creek, unfolded my metaphorical knife, and whittled the dream down. Not 900 miles now, but two at the most. A microcosm of the Pecos. It was the best I could manage.

***

“What’s in a name?” Juliet would have us imagine it to be no more than another word, a string of letters without weight or history. I’m not so sure. What images are conjured when hearing of the Yellowstone River, the Colorado, the Mississippi, or, in Kansas, the Republic, the Smoky Hill, the Big Blue? Of course I’m discussing a little no-name feeder creek that’s dry most of the year, but still…

For the first time in my life I searched Google for something and came up empty. In all of cyberspace, out of trillions of bits of data, there was not one reference to the name “Juganine.”
Which makes the name suspect. There is no Juganine in any of the early deeds, no founding father who carried the title. The 1904 plat map of Blue Rapids shows no scribbled meandering of a creek, only the boxy rectangles of property lines. It’s as if it never existed, or was considered of so little importance that the mapmaker could dismiss it out of hand.

Nor is there a Juganine listed in the Geographic Names Information System, the nation’s official repository of domestic geographic names and information. Out of 16,887 place-names in Kansas, there is nothing corresponding to the creek.

But a name, whether real or artificial, had been dropped in my lap. A boyhood romance rekindled. It was not time to ponder bitter impossibilities or failures, but to act. I slipped binoculars around my neck, grabbed a hiking stick, and set off for the source. It was time to fulfill a dream.

(To be continued)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sunday calls and dilemmas, or, opposing urgencies between a birder and his wife

On what well might have been the last really warm day of autumn, a Sunday morning, with sunlight spilling over the barren trees bordering Juganine Creek, shortly after we’d finished eating breakfast and were settling down to another cup of coffee, the telephone rang.

Rarely welcome is a call so early on a Sunday morning. Lori and I stared at each other. I frowned deeply.

“It’s for you,” she said.

“I think it’s for you,” I countered.

It rang again.

Lately we’ve been going so many directions on our various and sundry projects that we realized we were working seven days a week. After some discussion, we agreed to hold Sunday as an inviolate day of rest. Since only three weekends had passed since initiating the plan, it was too early to tell whether we could stick to it. But at least it was a start.

The phone rang a third time. We watched each other. I was a bit more ambivalent about the ringing and could easily have let the answering machine take a message. Women, however, are by their very natures disposed to grab the infernal device at the first shudder of a ring, as if it were a matter of life and death. This is something that has long puzzled men.

Still, for it to ring this early, on a Sunday, was cause for worry. Given the opportunity, the mind will summon forth a multitude of disasters, tragedies, crises and woes only tenuously connected to reality. And yet that connection, tenuous though it be, binds one’s fears of inevitable loss to a suddenly uncertain present.

Of course, it could also be someone wanting us to meet them at the shop, or asking a favor, or an invitation to an event we’d somehow forgotten about, whether through an actual lapse in brain synapses or a Freudian slip.

The phone rang again.

We have our answering machine set to pick up on the fifth ring. This means that if we intend on filtering the call—the coward’s method of hiding—we have four long rings and their concomitant pregnant pauses to wonder who it is on the other end. Sometimes the suspension is comically palpable.

I wasn’t surprised when Lori lunged for the phone and grabbed it. My only surprise was in how long it took her to do so.

She spoke for a moment and then handed the phone to me. “It’s for you,” she said.

I hate it when that happens.

A woman’s voice informed me that the birds were back, their numbers having grown from five to eighteen.

“They’re there right now,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“I’ll be right out.”

We’d had a similar conversation the week before—not on a Sunday, but on a Friday. I was just walking out the door to go to work when Beth Warders called to tell me there were five large gray birds in her field, each about four feet tall and with red markings on their heads. Did I have any idea what they were?

I did. They were sandhill cranes, a species of bird that occasionally passes through the county but never when I was looking. And their exclusion was an ulcer on my county list. Within two minutes I had lined up someone to take my place and off I went, but by the time I arrived, around fifteen minutes later, they had disappeared.

She and her husband, Gary, met me at the end of their drive. He said the birds had flown south not two minutes before.

So here I was being handed a second chance. “Let’s go!” I shouted, grabbing for my binoculars and camera.

“Let me curl my hair,” she said.

I tried to say something but my mouth was locked open. In fact, my entire body was stunned to immobility while it waited for my brain to register the impact of her words. Hair? Curl? It was a form of concussion, bludgeoned by a shockwave of surprise that even thirty-some years of marriage could never have prepared me for.

“You look great,” I finally stammered, following her into the bathroom. She looked at her reflection and ran a comb through her hair. “There’s no time,” I implored.

“Please,” I begged.

She cooched one side of her head, and poofed her upper tresses, and fluffed the other side.
I said something else and we left.

There is no fast way to get to the Warders’ place. You go west out of Blue Rapids to the Fawn Creek School marker, turn north and follow the narrow dirt road as it winds, bends, dips, snakes, curves, and undulates for five miles. All the way, we watched the skies and the stubble fields for cranes. I wasn’t about to let them slip past this time. Lori pointed out how dirty the windshield was and how the wiper was in shreds. She alerted me to several soaring bald eagles, a mob of crows, and a harrier.

The Warders’ drive is a quarter-mile long and passes through wheat fields now ragged and sere. I could see Beth and Gary waiting for us, so I coasted in, trying not to flatten their dogs, one whom apparently had a death wish.

The birds had taken wing a few minutes before, Beth said. We probably couldn’t see them through the dirty windshield.

Sunday is almost here again, but this time if the phone rings I’m going to answer it. It may be a day of rest, but some things just won’t wait.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Remind me who I am

The mailman delivered a package I had long anticipated. So long, in fact, that I had given up all hope for it. It had become like something out of a dream, imagined once in the lonely hours of night and then only half-seen, lurking on the periphery of my vision, quick to dance away once it sensed my attention, not quite a figment of my imagination and not wholly substantial, either.

And yet it was there, heavy in my hand, the return address giving away the secret of what resided within the blue and white envelope.

I didn’t open it right away. Instead, I set it down and sorted through the other mail. Bills were laid aside, junk mail tossed.

Lori watched me with a look her in eye I could not decipher.

In the stack was a magazine with an article I’d written, and I thumbed through it to see what kind of illustration they’d put to it. I was not only pleased to see that the artist had nicely captured the essence of the story, but envious, also. Painting has always been something I wished I could do though I never learned how, or never tried, which is a truer statement. My admiration for artists is unbounded. I once vowed, only half in jest, that upon attaining a certain age I would take up brush and palette and sit on the crests of the hills with a canvas and easel, perhaps wearing a white smock smudged with a rainbow of colors, or a French beret, my beard grown wild and white and tangled. But that certain age is far from certain.

Lori pointed to the package. “What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s my book,” I said.

She wanted me to open it, and I did too, but something in me was almost afraid. The process of publication had taken far too long, and I was left drained and haggard. There should be more excitement, I felt. Some part of me was missing, though I could not name which part.

In my mind’s eye I saw the procession of our lives, from the first date, when I showed up on her parent’s front porch feeling like a man who’s been given a reprieve, to much later, after the kids had grown up and left and we first started talking about trading Colorado for rural Kansas. Throughout those years I recalled sensing an abiding faith that the future was unlimited, that whatever we set out to do would be successful, and here I was at this juncture hesitant to open a package I had waited to receive since graduation, if I was honest with myself.

I wondered where that faith had gone, what was holding me back.

Our choices are always finite. I picked up the package, tore off the strip, and pulled the book out.

It was exactly as I’d pictured it but somehow less real. Or more. Or maybe it was I who was insubstantial. I felt as if all the many things I’d been engaged in suddenly swept around me and carried past like the flow of a river, leaving me immobile as a boulder.

Earlier that day I had listened to an author friend read from her books, and afterward we’d talked about publishing and marketing. She agreed with what I’d heard, that writing was the easy part. Once the book is in your hands, she said, life becomes something else.

I handed the book to Lori. “Is it what you expected?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I guess so.”

After we married, we moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where I worked as a guard at a Public Service generator site supplying electricity to the northern part of the state. Lori would sometimes bring me lunch or supper. We were crazy in love, and young, and had little concerns other than just getting through my shift so we could be together. Life was simple and the few complexities were shunted aside by the newfound freedom we had found. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle, or so we liked to think.

I wondered how things could get so complicated.

Lori handed the book back. I wondered what it would look like on a bookshelf, or on a display, and though I tried imagining myself giving a reading as my author friend had done, or of autographing the book, it was always a stranger I saw in my place.

I put the book on the arm of my reading chair and went on to other matters. Life indeed becomes something else.

That evening I stepped outside as the moon brightened in the dusk. It hung pendant in the eastern sky, veiled behind the last of November’s leaves, so I walked into the field to see it better. A few crickets trilled, their songs muted. A light breeze rustled the dry grasses.

The wild baying of geese filled the air, and I turned to see a small group skim the trees by the house and bank toward the sewage ponds. For a moment they were silhouetted against the moon, and then they were just a fading echo in the dark.

Light spilled from the window. Lori was in the kitchen washing dishes, oblivious of my departure. I watched her for a moment, thinking of that young girl in New Mexico, and I wondered again, not for the first time, what she had seen in me. What quality or character or trait. And I wondered, too, how I could find my way back to that undoubting man, or whether it was even possible after all these years.

In the deepening dark I felt the weight of time, of successes and failures, of dreams won and dreams lost, and saw for the first time an unbroken chain linking them, a chain that stretched back over the decades to a girl forever young, a girl who would hear the door open and come to me, and who would remind me, once again, of who I am.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Trying to fill the gaps

I remember sitting in a park. It was warm and sunny, and a thin layer of cirrus dimmed the sun, reducing the glare on the pages of my spiral notebook. I was distanced from the others, conscious of them and they of me, and after a time a friend came over and sat down next to me.

“What are you writing about?” she asked.

“Socorro,” I said. Or I think I did, anyway. I really don’t remember much more than her sitting there and me pausing in my recollections, and the sun warming the two of us, and how grateful I was for her presence. It was a long time ago.

I might have told her that I first saw the hotel at half-past midnight when I walked through the cobblestone courtyard and roused the old man sleeping on a couch in the foyer. Of how he walked me to my room, his footsteps slow and arthritic, up a flight of oak stairs that groaned under our passage and down a long dark hall, and how half the tiles were missing in the bathroom, and the window overlooked a fountain whose waters had evaporated decades ago.

I might have told her, but I really don’t remember. I’m sure whatever I said didn’t convey what I wanted to express.

If I had it to do again, I might tell her that sometimes we forget that the heartbreak and loss we experience are uniquely our own, that though friends like her may express sympathy or empathy or any other –pathy, only we know the road we travel. I might say that I was writing down the details of an important part of my life and I didn’t want to forget, that it was an exercise to while away the lonely hours while I waited to go through to the other side and find out who I was and what I might become, and what would be left and what missing.

I would tell her, I’m trying to fill the gaps.

It was a long time ago. I don’t remember much more, and I never did write it all down.

***

I’ve been having dreams lately of being in a car speeding backward, and when I stomp on the brakes there is only a faint slowing. It’s always night and I can’t see what’s behind me, and the pedal doesn’t go to the floorboard but feels solid. I know what it feels like when brakes are bled dry, how the pedal hits the floor with no resistance and the car continues on as if under its own volition, and panic is a brutal punch to the stomach. It’s happened to me before, in the Gallinas Canyon above Las Vegas after I had engaged in drinking and offroad exploration. It’s not like that.

It’s more like I’m being carried off, dragged back to somewhere in my past, and my terror isn’t so much that the car will hit something but that it will take me where I don’t want to go. I’m wild-eyed with fright, both feet on the pedal, both hands gripping the wheel. When I look in the mirror I see nothing but darkness and a few colored lights.

Last night I dreamed I saw Lori get into a car and start the engine. A sense of dread hammered me speechless, and before I could shout the car lurched into reverse and shot away, and her eyes widened in fear and I screamed no no no stop and she couldn’t and the darkness took her and I was left alone on a deserted street, the pavement gritty under my knees.

I think of that young man with his notebook. If I could meet him again I would tell him that maybe some things are best forgotten.

***

I wrote that the airport was two miles out of town, that it was new and empty except for four pieces of furniture, a Coke machine, a candy machine, and a pile of magazines about flying. An old man came in each day I worked there and fell asleep on a couch. We never spoke.

The jet was chained to the asphalt runway just to the side of the terminal. It was a T-33 trainer and the reason I was there. A former pilot wanted it back and had threatened to take it. My job was to make sure he didn’t.

The waitress where I ate was named Melissa. She was very pretty.

At night the hangars rattled in the wind, and tumbleweeds rolled down the runway as if taking flight. Sometimes a car would turn off the frontage road and drive up, and I would stand off to the side and watch its occupants. They came to see the jet.

I wrote that I called Ellen from the payphone. A girl named Betsy answered and put Ellen on. I apologized for calling so late. Ellen said she was reading Dune.

I have forgotten who Ellen was. There isn’t the shadow of an image, a face, a recollection. Only a gap.

***

Last weekend we drove to Manhattan. On the drive back Lori fell asleep, and it seemed for a while that I was alone in the vehicle, distanced from the autumnal landscape and the life I’ve led and the steps I’ve taken to reach this place. That for a sliver of a moment I was that young man sitting in the park with a notebook and pen and a friend who asked what he was writing about, and even as he tried explaining he knew that words would sometimes betray him. That they would never be enough.

I watched crows boiling up over barren fields, and leaves cascading gently to the ground, and the car was like a time machine whisking me from where I had been to where I was going. I glanced at Lori and saw the silver in her hair, and the rise and fall of her breasts, and the reds and golds and auburns of trees beyond her, and I told myself I could not forget this. I must remember, I said. I don’t want to someday look back on this moment and wonder what happened. Don’t forget, I whispered. Don’t forget. Don’t forget.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Not a leaf

Part 4 of 4

So. It was an autumn creek now, damp from recent rains, patined with fallen leaves and walnut husks gone black, and stubbled with stones worn smooth by time and water. It was not the Pecos River, not 900 miles of waterway traversing two states, and I was not the young dreamer, but someone else, older, perhaps wiser, cognizant that dreams can die, or fade from neglect, or reduct to manageable levels. By which, if successful, we are ennobled to stare back at our mirrored selves and not turn away.

As is increasingly difficult for me. I am fading even as my dreams fade. I am passing away. So: it was an autumn creek now, and I an autumnal man, and the last leg of this journey was before me.

Down I went, and down, the declination less, the bed wide and deep, with fewer feeder creeks adjoining, and those narrow and grassy-banked. The only sound that of my footsteps in the dried leaves and the toc-toc of my hiking stick as it glanced off stones. A half-buried metal drum signaled the sad and sorry spectacle of the disrespect mankind affords the natural world.

My way was barred by a downed tree. Beyond it the stream cut sharply westward past heaps of riprap. I balanced on a tree bole and walked down carefully. Maneuvering around a tangle of limbs, I peered around the bend and saw another severe turn to the right, deeply grooved, mucky, an accretion of trash and sticks and concrete slabs tilting up like ancient monoliths from a forgotten race. As I stepped down from the log a sharp-shinned hawk appeared like an apparition and flared in my face with a burst of wingnoise and golden eyes and I heard a snap and something tore into my right knee.

The hawk was gone. A blink, no more. The pain continued. A stick was wedged through a hole in my jeans, and as I extricated it I checked for damage. Some skin missing, a trickle of blood, nothing debilitating. I suspected it was a snare but found no indication of it. But wariness intruded on my solitude, and as I approached the first houses and heard the hammering of metal echoing through the trees I stepped lighter and kept to the deeper shadows.

Someone was above me on the bank. Something was being dragged, something heavy and metallic, and I forced my way through saplings and ragweed as silently as thought, hunkered down, moving fast. The first bridge came into view and I slipped into the darkness beneath it. A car rumbled overhead. The air itself seemed to vibrate.

I didn’t pause but hurried on. The stream narrowed into a brush-choked gulley, hiding me from bordering houses, and soon I came to the bridge over Highway 77. A fishing spider guarded the entrance but let me pass. Like ancient petroglyphs, the walls were patterned with a series of muddy handprints sequential to a heart now capped with a representation of hair. Letters within the heart were indecipherable, but farther on, near the north entrance, were more inscriptions of lovers long gone. I wondered if their loves had been true.

For a hundred yards now I felt exposed, hastening down a stream now treeless as it entered the fairgrounds. I wanted to be hidden from the eyes of men. Only when I bulled through a copse of weeds and sunflowers did I feel safe, and then kept the pace past the scattered buildings and beneath the latticed footbridges and out the far side, where the bottom opened up and water pooled in low places and the whistle of a tree frog sounded through the woods. Towering cottonwoods jutted through the canopy. So massive were the trunks that it seemed I had entered an old-growth forest, a remnant from the dawn of time.

Shadows deepened; minnows flitted through the pools; yellow butterflies wove the air. There was current now, a true stream, and each step triggered a leap from tiny chorus frogs. I ranged the stream, picking the easiest course, slowing now to relish the shade.

I broke into the open near the levee. The stream wended into twin rectangular culverts twice my height. Under the ground I went, my footsteps echoing, accompanied by a whisper of moving water. Near the outlet was a stretch of muck that swallowed my boots, but I was near the end of things and would not be deterred.

The final stretch snaked through high banks of weeds and vines, narrow-bottomed, muddy, so I clawed through the vegetation to gain the high ground and paralleled the stream with the sun hot on my shoulders. The blue river opened up on my left and swung past in an arc and I dropped down a steep bank and stood beside the confluence.

It was so quiet. And so sudden that it took me a moment to catch up with myself. The years melted away and I was a dreamer still. And I knew it was a minor victory but a victory nonetheless. A sharpie flew across the river and back and quartered the sky. A squirrel scolded from the woods. I felt giddy and uncommonly free.

A leaf floated past, spinning slowly on the sluggish current. It bounced over a riffle and purled and bobbed and was carried captive downstream. I thought of how I often felt imprisoned to time and demands not of my own choosing, an inmate without choice or say, and yet I have legs and mobility and spirit and have used them to this conclusion. I have seen the beginning and the end of a creek that might be named Juganine or named nothing at all, and though my imprint upon it will never be the name of my beloved, it bears my footprints from start to finish.

I stood there until the leaf disappeared around the bend. The sharpie crossed the river and flew southward. I watched it go and turned to follow. My legs carried me up the hill. I am not a leaf.

Monday, October 10, 2005

An interlude for naming rights

Part 3 of 4

“The glory and the nothing of a name.” Lord Byron

Connie Nugent has lots of files. She has files on city council meetings dating back to the creation of Blue Rapids; files on agendas, on resolutions, on social groups and their meetings, on businesses past and present; on the evolution of the town square, on Riverside Park, on the waterworks (which were the most advanced of any town in Kansas at the time). Woven throughout those files is our town’s narrative, from its bright beginning to its long slow decline. And somewhere, she says, there’s a brief reference to a Juganine. Maybe a horse once renowned at the race track here. Or maybe it was a prize bull exhibited during the early days of the fair. It’s in those files somewhere, she says. She just can’t remember where.

While she looks, I’m thinking of the Judith River in Montana. Not that I’ve ever seen it, but its name has resonated with me for decades since reading that William Clark named it for Julia Hancock as he and the Corps of Discovery worked their way up the Missouri River. At the time I thought it one of the most romantic things a man could do. I wasn’t aware that little Julia would have been around thirteen years old at the time, and, in fact, that when Clark had last been with her she would have been a waif of ten. The man apparently liked them young.

Even so, naming the river in her honor must have scored points with Julia’s father. I imagine Clark rapping on the door of the Hancocks’ Virginia plantation, a bouquet of flowers in hand, and who should answer the door but Mr. Hancock himself. Though Julia’s suitor is one of the most famous men in America, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s over twice her age. Mr. Hancock is understandably dubious. Mr. Hancock makes no move to allow Clark egress.

“Why,” he intones sonorously, “should I let you woo my daughter? Good God, man, she’s only fifteen!”

“Well,” Clark stutters, “I did name that river after her.”

“Major tributary?”

“It looked pretty big.”

“What a jolly good fellow!” Mr. Hancock exclaims, ushering Clark in with a gallant sweep of his arm.

Something about a name gives its namesake power and permanence. In the book of Genesis, the act of naming was the first thing God commanded of Adam. Parents often agonize over what to name a child, as if the name itself somehow bequeaths nobility or intellect. But these days naming rights rarely extend to points on the compass. There are few William Clarks about, and fewer unexplored areas.

Which leaves the stars and little no-name creeks like the one running past our house.
I seem determined to name something after my wife. Even as I plunged downward from the crest of the hill and vowed to place her name upon it, I was uncomfortably aware of the time I tried casting her name to the heavens—literally.

“An eternal home for your name in the night sky!” I’d read in an ad, and if that didn’t catch my attention, the next line did: “The perfect gift for a loved one!” Surely a star is loftier than a river, and here was a way to upstage Clark. The company offered several packages to fit my budget (Couples Stars! Constellations! Galaxies!) and even included free shipping. But an annoying little doubt crept in as I was fixing to give them my credit card number. A few minutes of research exposed star-naming as an utter sham.

And yet, and yet, there had to be a way to name unnamed landforms. In my spare time I rooted around the Internet looking for information, and after several days I found it at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Included on their Web site is a form for naming geographic entities, which I began gleefully filling out. Somehow, though, I skipped the part where it says the nominee must have been dead for at least five years. When it was pointed out, I felt I had run into a wall at full speed.

Dead.

I walked outside and stared at the ribbon of trees and felt defeated. I questioned my motives for wanting so badly to place my wife’s name on something as eternal as a star, as a stream. Was there a trace of conceit, of pride, one of the seven deadly sins? Or was it something more benign, an old-fashioned romanticism hearkening back to that of Clark? I could not say.

But my way was barred, I knew that. All that remained was to proceed to the end.

The next morning I stepped outside to go to work and lightning shattered the darkness, silent flares of light exploding in the treeless west, and overhead a gibbous moon flitting between scudding clouds unseen in the velvet night. No breath of wind, no distant rumble of thunder, only the metronomic pulse of crickets. I stood by the car and thought of the cold front sliding down from the north, how it would drag migrants in its wake, and change, too, how it would shred summer’s final hold and replace it with an ascendant autumn, and how even if warm days returned they would be as insubstantial as dreams, transient, pale shadows of what once was. I got in my car and drove eastwards, the headlights sweeping the road, and lightning overtook me and engulfed in perfect lambency the wooded ridges beyond the river. Thus summer died.

It would be an autumn stream now. It would be named Juganine or named nothing at all, neither obscure nor famous but simply there. On a cool morning with leaves drifting to earth I slipped from the house and crossed the field and the woods swallowed me.

(Conclusion next week)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Life and death on a creek with no name

Part 2 of 4

Moving water knows only one direction. Down it goes, and down, always seeking the path of least resistance. And if we are to know a creek, a stream, a river, we must see as it sees, how each waterworn stone, each blade of grass or shrub or bankside tree, each oxbow or cutbank or run, each gravel bar or exposed root, owes its shape and placement to the insistence of the water’s progress. But before I can follow this little creek down I must see it as it never sees itself. I must do what it can never do. I must first go up.

It wasn’t far. Down the road to where it turns west, into a field chest-high with grass and thorntrees and white asters crowned with yellow and orange butterflies, past gnarled clusters of scarlet-stemmed pokeweed heavy with their deadly purplish berries, angling lower toward the dark line of trees delineating the perennial creek whose name may be Juganine or may be nothing at all, as if that could be, a thing on the earth without a name. When even the tiniest insect carries its own appellation by which it is recognizable, when every star has its own number, every flower and seed its own nomenclature. When to be innominate is to be cast off or worthless, and why should that be when this little creek or ravine or gully (words already falter under its namelessness!) is singularly responsible for divorcing the westernmost two streets from the town proper as if we were a peninsula jutting into a sea of grass, so that as I walked it was if my steps led into a deep forest a thousand miles from civilization, and only the towering grain elevator shining white in the sunlight anchoring me to this place. Juganine, or something else? I had my ideas, my own dreams, dreams that lay dormant for years and now stirred to life. This creek would have a name. It would be given by me. I passed under the foliage, stepped down a grassy declivity, and stood in a sandy scrape patterned with the tracks of raccoon and deer.

My hiking stick tap-tapped the sun-dappled gravel, its carbide tip skittering off larger stones to sink into the soft damp sand. An elongate pool lay hard against the right bank, sprinkled with the first golden leaves marking autumn’s arrival. Narrow-mouthed toads, looking like formless lumps of clay, leaped into the water leaving ghostly contrails of silt. The stream snaked into a clearing, one bank carved deeply into the rich fertile soil, grass thatched, stratified with shards of flint and limestone and geodes. Sunflowers and ragweed grew prolific in the sudden light, and then I plunged back into the shadow world.

A deep gash on my left indicated the confluence of the eastern branch. It was narrow, choked with deadfall and laced with cobwebs. I realized here that any idea I had of keeping to the stream channel was irrevocably doomed. This was not the headwaters of the Pecos River but a prairie creek of such slow-moving pace that all manner of vegetation grew abundant and riotous, and occasionally broke free to float downstream and wedge in impenetrable barriers.

My goal was to keep to the main branch, which topographic maps indicated came in from the west. I passed an opening on my left where sumac blazed scarlet and the air glittered with dragonflies. Beyond it the channel was filled with large stones, scattered as if toys left behind by some gigantic child. The elevation steepened. Hopping from stone to stone, I passed beneath the railroad trestle far above me and entered a wide level curve pitted with the tracks of cows. The middle branch was a narrow cedar-choked ravine. A few hundred feet beyond I stumbled over a huge fallen cottonwood and faced an array of cows staring intently at me. They seemed in no hurry to move. I was in no hurry to disturb them, so I retreated to the middle branch. My plans were already coming undone.

Up I went, sometimes walking in the channel itself, sometimes forced to find a path beside it. I came to a downfall and skirted it and the narrow game trail led me past a deep cut at least 20 feet in depth. It appeared to be carved by a tremendous force of water, abruptly culminating in a sharp drop-off with a gentle valley beyond. Spider webs made lattices between the trees, and I hewed them apart with my hiking stick.

The final section of streambed was impassable. I broke out into the deep grasses and walked beside it. Up I went, and up, the valley opening at my back and a Cooper’s hawk rising past on a thermal. Only at the crest of the hill did I stop and look back to see the creek as water sees it, and I could not because of the vegetation. There was no rivulet or snowfield but a shallow bowl.

I looked out and saw the green path tumbling to the Big Blue and plunged down, elated and happier than I could remember, stepping fast, moving free as water, seeing how it cut and carved and wore and eroded and cascaded over the detritus of aged woods. How it was sometimes gentle and sometimes temperamental and always lovely beyond the telling. How it was like a woman. I will name this Lori Creek, I swore. I will mark the land forever with her name. Not Juganine, but a name worthy of its beauty.

Down I went, down like water, until I saw the west fork through the cedars and a dark shape to my left and the drone of insects was like a scream and the dark shape turned its head and swiveled its ears toward me and where its eyes should be were two seeping white stumps. I froze in shock.

It was a calf, wandered blind into a deadfall, kneeling now as if expecting rescue or death and not caring which came first. Iridescent blowflies matted its fur. A long ropy tongue flicked out and wet its greasy back and the flies rose and settled again.

I backed away from the horrific sight, suddenly queasy, cognizant of its helplessness, and my own. Its sightless eyes tracked my footfalls as I left it behind.

Down I went, down like water, but I had already reached a depth no stream could reach.

(To be continued)