Category Archives: Montana

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

Also posted in Living

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.

Also posted in Living

Turning toward the light

peonies at dawn

At first light, peonies catch the sun they have grown toward, facing upward like brilliant trumpets. All around creatures adapted to the dark move toward places to hide. For them, dawn is a chaos of territorial warbling. The steady change they craftily evade empties their nightish niche of its mystery, leaving them dull in their gray hollow. They creep and amble for cover. The world has turned.

The earth tilts a little more toward the sun, and the snows melt and the flowers restore themselves. The gardener returns to his rounds, the daily tasks that join his small doings to a vast progress. He leaves the news unread on good days, ignoring the losing battles, the rebels against reality.

Thinking is better than wishing, as the days lengthen and light floods the landscape’s forms and colors. What was hidden or forgotten returns. It’s the season of real work. Meaning is dependent on truth, which resonates like God’s thunder in the distance, behind the pirouetting retreat of the dark ones, moving through a forest they cannot name.

Also posted in Gardening, Living

Waking to the dawn

Mountains at Dawn

Dawn does not come suddenly; instead, the transformation is vast, steady and sure. Things are changing, so there’s an urgency in the bird songs, borne of both exhilaration and defensiveness. It’s an astonishing cascade of beauty, driven by intense necessity. There’s a peace in it, if peace is understood not as idleness but as endless replenishment. “If we can’t find Heaven, there are always bluejays,” said Robert Bly.

First the robins and then the thrushes, before dawn, with their rich, fluty notes and vibrating trills. The singing is both proclamation and invitation. A lot may depend on the right song, at the right moment. I listen in the early morning dark, participating in the great change that has already begun, and that nothing can slow or turn back.

The “dawn chorus” begins in April, as the neotropicals return, full of mating vigor. It will last until mid-July, when things are more settled. Many male birds sing throughout their breeding season, then are mostly quiet for the rest of the year. In the morning, first the robins and thrushes–large eyes, worm eaters. Second the raspy trills of the wrens, insect eaters. Last the seed eaters, the bell-like tinkling of the finches and the whistling ke-chee of the sparrows.

cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwings’ high, thin shree, a series of single notes, is easily missed in the morning chorus.

The dawn chorus is a complex phenomenon, doing many things, including social signaling about territory and mating. The air is tranquil and sound carries perhaps 20 times as well as at noon. Birds awaken at dawn, before insects are active or there’s enough light to see tiny seeds. The chorus is beautiful, in the ways of this world. It’s a beauty rooted in need–a need to make or keep a relationship or to hold onto a place. Creation is work, awakening.

Armies also awaken at dawn. There’s a terrible beauty in the bugles, the shouted orders, the rustle of getting ready, and the vast assemblage of ranks filled with restless men on the move with things to do, things to hope, things to fear.

Some predators are most active at dawn. These crepuscular hunters include bats, cats–house cats but also ocelots and jaguars–stray dogs, ferrets and rats. Hyenas, bears, skunks, nighthawks and owls are also about, stealthy and opportunistic. A lot is undecided in the early morning, as fresh energy floods the earth, stirring our blood and calling us to the day.

Also posted in Living

Rain is grace

It takes some effort to live in a garden, where the beauty of nature is clarified and cultured. But this doesn't mean we have earned that beauty. It remains something we did not earn so much as a gift we may receive.

Who could “deserve” to really see a peony on a rainy day? It takes some effort to make a garden, clarifying the beauty of nature near at hand. But after the work, it remains something we did not earn so much as a gift we may receive.

As much as I can, I live in a garden. I thought it would be a good place to sit and write, or at least read, but more often I find it’s a place that provokes busyness, a little like sitting in a messy house. Wherever I sit, I find myself noticing things that could be done—a day lily moved that’s be crowded by shrub that got larger than I’d guessed, a new curve to an established bed that would add a bit of elegance, or a decision to get rid of the self-sewn echinacea that is taking over the round bed under the office window. There’s no better way to procrastinate than by edging a bed of lupines in full bloom. But I also find I never enjoy the beauty so much as when I am working.

Beauty, when it is found in truth and goodness, brings us the sort of joy that gives substance to hope. A world with such mountains, and such waterfalls, under such a sky must be fundamentally good. It would be a betrayal of honest faith to be very pessimistic. Our best longings may yet lead us right.

I know from experience how easy it is to be misled by beauty, of course. Hell has its beauties, too. Whole industries have been founded on the artistry of giving bad things good appearances. The devious appear innocent and the manipulative seem free of guile.

But as we pay attention our powers of discernment grow, and as we gain experience with good and evil, all the decoys that are not good lose their luster. Junk food loses its appeal, as do junk art, junk science, junk culture, and junk society.

Not that one should get too snobby about it. The farmers of ancient Sodom were highly skilled, and through their hard work they became very wealthy, but their wealth made them cruel and self-righteous. This was their great sin. Hugh Nibley tells us that “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah put nets over their trees to deny the birds their lunch, and ‘Abraham, seeing it, cursed them in the name of his God.'”

It seems good, on several levels, to plant elderberry and chokecherry and mulberry bushes, mainly for the birds. And at unexpected times, the good moments do come.  I do sit and read, visited by goldfinches and cedar waxwings and dark-eyed juncos amid gardens that have drawn my consciousness outward to include them, moments like kingfishers landing and trout leaping in a calm metaxis whose horizons ripple and hum, there and not there, here and not here. It seems a good thing, living in a garden.

In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, one of the things Norman learned from his father is that “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

Just so. Though I dug a hole and amended the soil and planted the peonies, I still don’t know by what miracle they grow, and I did not make water to fall from the heavens or sunshine to flood through the morning, though these things happen. It’s grace.

Also posted in Gardening