Author Archives: Michael Umphrey

End Times: peace and strife

Ninepipe at sunset (looking north)

Ninepipe at sunset (looking north)

Toward sunset I put aside whatever daily tasks remain and go out to see what I can see in a wilder place. Several refuges or wilderness areas are nearby. The wetland is nearest, and because it is open country it’s a good place to see birds and other wildlife. It’s a good place to stand  as present as possible to a day coming to an end.

The wetland is part of a bird refuge, quite wild in a way, though we live in days when all such places have become gardens, shaped by human activities and human intentions. Several agencies—federal, state and tribal—collaborate along with private landowners to agree on how the gardening should proceed. A map of land ownership shows a strongly checkerboarded view, though when one is in the middle of it, the abstractions are less compelling than what lives and moves there, such as the Trumpeter Swans, reintroduced a few years ago. The power lines that traverse the refuge have spinning reflective cards on them, to reduce the mortality of swans and other birds that have no nearly invisible cables running through the skies of their evolutionary history.

I took the photograph because I was moved by the peacefulness and harmony of the scene at last light. To the left, the western sky was a more dramatic interplay of vivid sunset colors. To the right, the jagged majesty of the Mission Mountains, purple sedimentary mudstone with white glaciers and pink clouds, was more of a spectacle. But the view to the north had a quietness that I found attractive.

Not that I’m naïve about the details hidden by the scale at which I focus on that panoramic view. The biology of earth is premised on death. Plants may eat the air (especially carbon dioxide), but most eating involves the death of something else. Among we creatures, we are always potential food for another member of the community.

collageBloody in tooth and claw: Osprey with fish, Kingbird with insect, Red-tailed Hawk with baby skunk.

And yet, that’s never all we are. We recognize and respond to the beauty and the sense of calm which persists around and through the brief flurries of struggle. In shifting our focus from the struggle to the calm, we change the pulse and tempo of experience, as we do when we shift our focus back to this particular hawk tearing at the flesh of this particular skunk. Both are present to us only so far as we are present to them. This is the stuff we are made of.

True religion, I think, deals mainly with immanence. Spirit animates us, and we see that whatever we are we are distributed through a world in which objects and settings circulate through each other. I have a plug-in in my bag—Sibley’s field guide—which allows me to upload centuries of accumulated gleanings into the thoughts and desires already circulating amid the pink of the northern sky and the crisp slice of an osprey veering through the space just above me, the dead fish neatly aligned aerodynamically in his left claw. The breeze lifts my hair and brings me the spicy fragrance of hundreds of Russian Olives, blooming yellow. Making a photograph is one way to pray, to turn attention to the circulation of this world through me.

Posted in Gardening, Living, Montana

Autumn and change

I planted a stand of Gaillardia this year at the front of a large bed of oriental poppies. They began blooming as the poppies died in early summer, and continued blossoming until hard frosts. Lewis and Clark collected a species of gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata) in Montana in 1806.

One could argue against autumn, trying to get imaginary opponents to see that the world was once warmer, the sun brighter, and the whole garden fragrant with lilacs then peonies then lilies. There’s pleasure in judging–in seeing that some present circumstance does not meet some standard we have learned. In the decay and dreary rain of November, the remembered delights of easy summer nights entice us to name the doom that descends as nightfall on the many-pleasured peace just past.

To be sane, we also know the delights of getting things ready. My pump is stored, tools gathered, the massive leaf fall of cottonwood and willow raked and moved to mulch the most tender roses and smother the weeds in borders and beds. Apple branches broken by the bears that come each year when the fruit is ripe have been sawed and piled in the meadow, where a New Year’s Eve bonfire may bring the pleasure in being toasty and warm outside on a cold winter night.

As temperatures cooled and the sun dropped in the southern sky, trees moved nitrogen, magnesium and phosphates from leaves to the bark. Then the hormones auxin followed by ethylene triggered the leaves, stripped of nutrients and no longer photosynthesizing, to drop.  The tree monitors the cold, tracking interactions between proteins until time and cold have lasted long enough and new buds begin to form new leaves.

Late autumn is the best time for making some major changes in the garden. Besides planting hundreds of new bulbs–this year mainly deer-resistant daffodils, white and fragrant–one November chore was moving tree peonies that have never bloomed, most likely because they don’t get enough sunshine. Tree peonies don’t like to be moved. They develop, slowly, extensive root systems, and to preserve as much of that as possible, it’s best to wait till the plants are dormant and  then to begin digging at some distance from the main stems, to expose and loosen as much of the root as possible.

Making dramatic changes when things are flourishing and bursting with life may not work. But autumn is a time to see and act on possibilities.

MORE PHOTOS

Posted in Gardening

Escaping the mundane

Hudson Smith receiving a pass at Polson High School.

Sports offer moments of transcendent action and beauty to people otherwise deadened to all the glimpses of eternity which flood through the matter of everyday life.

There, above the mundane world, he’s transfigured in a moment of pure longing and effort, suffused with the beauty of athletic strength and agility. Sports may be the closest some moderns come to the transcendent—to the realm of metaphor where we glimpse spiritual realities through the facts of the material world.

The receiver rises above the horizon, the earthly world of gravity and shadow, into a magically-hued sky, reaching out in the throes of intense effort and intense longing for what might descend from above. It’s not just a football, but also a signifier of glory and meaning.

The story also includes a defender, momentarily hapless, and a referee, judging events by the low standard of rules, which in only necessary, making the game possible. The game itself—that partakes of a different realm. Both the defender and the ref become irrelevant to the hero at that brief moment of success, all power and grace.

Posted in Teaching

The end of some things

plum tree with fruit

“The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit.”
—George Elliot

Plums and grapes and apples ripen in a world aglow. Mornings are golden with mists. The light is failing, and trees turn gorgeous colors—orange, gold, amber, red—warm hues merging with the smell of fire while nights come sooner and faster. I see hostas with brown scars of frost damage and corn stalks, dry and sterile, whitened with hoar-frost. Sunflowers that yesterday faced upward, thrusting at the sun, now bend toward the ground like old men with worn-out spines.

We feel the change, exhilarating and ominous. The loss of the warm easy—long days, shorts and sandals, swimming, midnight sunsets, warm nights. After long drought, torrents of rain whipped by rough wind, and when the clouds clear: blue mountains topped with white snow.

sunflower wiltingSummer dissipates like morning reverie the moment I get up from breakfast and turn to work, and back at school I wear long jeans and socks and shirts with buttons. Nights have become chilly. Young girls have sorted through their closets, coming out pretty in their woolen scarves, puffy vests, sweaters and boots. Everyone becomes prettier or more handsome—without sweat and bad hair, imperfect flesh enhanced with layered beauty, and the younger ones exuberant about something they can’t quite find.

Pumpkins continue getting heavier; hard green pears turn slightly gold, softening. The rules are shifting.

2014-0525-bear_0854A feeling flits in and out of me, like bats through a cavern—a hollowing sense that it’s all slipping away. I remember when the world was darker and colder than this, the relentless winter, the simple knowledge that nature is deadly wild, always, even when it seems to let up in March and April. Now, again, gentle summer has gone. Fire becomes important—we remember a need for warmth and light. We plan an autumn bonfire, light the furnace.

And we enjoy the earthy joys—apples turning sweet and red, heavy clusters of elderberries and grapes just in time for neotropical birds, flitting and feeding, building energy to migrate away. Bears come down from the high country, a lumbering hunger drawn to the ripening fruit.

Mission Mountains first snow

Posted in Living, Montana

Light the sun blocks with its puny burning

Milky Way seen from the American Rockies

The Milky Way is always there, but most often, blinded by the lesser light of our sun, a minor star, we cannot see it. Watching the sunset fade into darkness, an invisible cosmos coming into view, offering a majestic intimation of a vastness and mystery we cannot fathom, one would need to be somewhat simple to think that all that science cannot yet see must not exist.

I wrote a poem once, inspired my grandfather, about how blinded we can be by the light we have. The sun sheds light on an amazing world around us, but it also blinds us to the breathtaking cosmos beyond, which we glimpse on dark nights.

I’ve been reminded of all that while doing night photography–setting up on a hillside overlooking the Mission Mountains, and being outside, watching and waiting, as the day fades. The vast, slow changes of light permeate the soul with a sense of beauty. We are never alone in the presence of a created world on the brink of something so majestic and alive our words fail.

The sky darkens and the pink fades through orange and blue toward the unspeakable depth of night. And yet, there is more. The moonless sky doesn’t stay dark. Our vision begins to twinkle, a star here and there. Then more. And more.

Before long we are immersed in a cosmic fire of such scale and beauty that we could not have imagined it if we had not seen it. And seeing such a spectacle emerge where before we had stared at an apparent void, we are assured that what we do not know and cannot see is as vast and wonderful as we dare to hope. And more.

Posted in Living, Montana