Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's AboutTime

This is the last week of Daylight Savings Time (DST). It means, for me at least, a welcome re-setting of my daily schedule. I find it hard to sleep once the sky begins to lighten, but at the same time I don’t like to get up in the dark. With DST, for the last two weeks or so I’ve been doing just that. My usual routine is to get up, dress for the weather, take the two big dogs and make a circuit of one of the many trails on the ridge behind the house, or around the fields across the road. We are out for half-an-hour or more, depending on the length of the trail and the mosey-ness of the dogs. They both like to graze as we walk, and some of places can hold them for four or five minutes at a time. Teddy can also be distracted by something small below the surface, and will dig a significant hole trying to capture it. He will catch up (nose, chest and paws holding traces of the hole) most of the time. We stop and wait for him unless we are in sight of the house. Max, elderly and independent, will sometimes linger over a special bunch of grass, or a bush he finds interesting, and so we will stand and wait for him. If we move on too fast he’s likely to lie down and rest, or turn around and be at the front door waiting when Teddy and I get there. That worries me, because I like to know where my pals are.

But about time: If we get out too early we might surprise one of the bears that crosses from time to time, or jump a deer (that then runs off with Teddy in hot pursuit), or even run into a pack of coyotes. The deer are a good exercise for Teddy (he's fast but not that fast). Bears and coyotes are another matter. I wouldn’t want a confrontation with either. Neighbors insist that the dogs will scare off the bears, but I don’t want to take that chance. Coyotes, traveling in packs, can be dangerous for even two 80- to 90-pound aggressive dogs.

Time. We enjoy getting out just as the sun is starting to show itself over the top of the eastern ridge that defines the fields. I love to watch the sun rise above the horizon. At the flat angle from which we see it the movement to full exposure is rapid. Even on a morning like today, with the temperature around 250 we can feel the warming of the sun before we turn for home. In these last two or three weeks the sunrise has been appreciably later and later, which means the boys and I get out and back with only a little time in the sun. So we are looking forward to next Sunday, when we adjust to "sun time". It used to be that life was more-or-less tied to the four seasons. Now it seems we are working on just two: Spring (ahead), and Fall (back).

With the sun and the clock back in sync, winter can come. Re-setting everything to match some arbitrary standard doesn’t give us the gradual, natural easing from one season to the next. Time is something we need to value more than we do.

You can’t buy time, only trade it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Early Morning Maintenance Tasks

Despite the rain both of the big dogs were anxious to leave the house the other morning. Usually they are eager only to make brief forays into the wild if the weather is wet, but I was happy to let them out together while I pulled on my boots. Once outside, I understood their eagerness.

 Sixty feet from the garages, across the driveway, is the building that houses our furnace and at least some of the things we can’t figure out what to do with, if you know what I mean. Attached to the side of the building is a plastic bin, designed to hold and protect two garbage cans. Designed to, but hardly up to the task. That’s why the dogs were eager to go out: they knew the bear had been there (and gone). Left me a mess to clean up, strewn down the hillside and distributed among the trees and a bench nearby. While they won’t tell me in the middle of the night when the bear is feeding, they will eagerly romp among the leavings and ripped-off doors.

 So my early morning maintenance for that day was to clean up after the bear. The dogs helped of course, snuffling out the chicken bones the bear left behind, and further distributing orange peals and plastic detritus farther down the hillside where it will eventually be covered by the oak leaves and pine needles and wild grass. We didn’t walk. Soon after returning to the house I turned to another maintenance task: my daily journal.

 As often happens, being out with the older dogs (Max and Teddy) will start me on a path relating real life to writing. If we throw things away, things like the stories we live, there is no way to share them with others. If, on the other hand, we secure the stuff of our internal lives, the thoughts and ideas and reactions we experience every day, and if we also get rid of the things we don’t need and will never use again, then we have something to look at, to guide us, whether we are writing about life, or just living it.

 Everything I have experienced colors and informs my stories and essays. Writing, for me, is a way of remembering, a way of examining my life. That is a good thing, because it helps me remember where I have been, and see where I am going. Writing helps me keep direction in my life. It is where I find my compass.

"If we don’t change direction soon," a wise elder once said, "we’ll end up where we’re headed." Writing helps keep me oriented to the star I should be following. On this day it was Ursa Minor.

Monday, October 17, 2011

All Too Soon

I spend a part of each day outside, regardless of the weather. Some days longer than others, but every day, at least for a little while, I’m out there. Usually I begin my day about the time the sun is just peaking over Shenandoah mountain on the northeastern border of our land. I take two of the dogs (the older, bigger dogs) and we either climb the ridge behind the house or go down to the fields where we have paths to follow, always heading toward the sunrise. We walk for half-an-hour or more, exploring the daily changes in the land, the trees, the grasses, looking for signs of visits from the deer, the bears, foxes and smaller animals. As the seasons change, so do the signs. On cold winter mornings we’ll sometimes seek out a place protected from the wind and just stand, letting the rising sun warm us before completing the path we have chosen.

Later in the morning, I spend some time outside just stretching and preparing myself for a morning’s writing. In the afternoons, unless the weather is too bad, I will find something to do outside: getting wood for the winter heating season, cleaning leaves from the gutters, cutting what little grass we allow around the house or on the paths where we walk. Just now, in mid-October, I have become aware of the changes in the way the air smells.

Suddenly, long before I’m ready for it, the perfume of downed leaves, of mushrooms and toadstools, of damp earth is here. What happened, I wonder, to the heavy odor of boxwood around the deck? Where did the scent of lilacs and green grass, of hay and recently turned earth, go? Why, only yesterday, it seems, the air smelled of green growing things, of hot earth baked by the sun centered above us. Now the slanted light of Fall misses the earth it seems, but sharply outlines the falling leaves, instead. Oak and maple and walnut replace the signature of pine in the air.

I’m not ready for this! Not ready to have the smell of old wood burning in the furnace replace that of renewal and rebirth; certainly not ready to welcome the first snow (though in years past we had it long before now), yet I’m certain it will come and I will be prepared, if not ready for it.

"Stop!" I want to say. "Stop and just let me sniff the air and enjoy the fragrance of Fall," before that, too, escapes my senses. Then I remember Shelley: "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

[If you want to post a comment, "Anonymous" is perfectly okay!]

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Worcestershire, the Missing "U" and Other Anomalies

We live in Virginia, birthplace of presidents, and in some ways, the birthplace of democracy in America. It is also the death of some words, even as we speak.

Our closest town of any size is the very heart of the Shenandoah Valley. It is the city of Staunton, pronounced Stanton. Strangers to the area are prone to vocalize the "au" sound in their first contacts with the city, but they are quickly corrected. What doesn't come so quickly is the explanation of the oral anomaly. So I have evolved my own theory.

Virginia, as you must know, was founded by the Brits. Even if you didn't know that, you could surmise it just from the pronunciation of Staunton. To confirm that, you only have to go across the Blue Ridge mountains to the east, to the town of Faber, south of Charlottesville. That’s where Staunton’s "u" has gone. It is pronounced "Faw-ber."

And then there is the family named Taliaferro, one of the FFVs (First Family of Virginia).

I grew up in North Carolina, and heard my father speak of his friend Taliaferro. He (and the rest of us) pronounced "Tally-a-ferro." When we moved to Virginia may years later, we learned that in this state the name is pronounced "Tolliver." Well, what can you expect from a state founded by people who call St. John "Syngine"? (And put their punctuation marks outside the quotation marks?) For that matter, what do you expect from a country that owns up to Worcestershire by calling it "Wostershire?"?

And by the way, it's pronounced "Cline," not "clean."

Words matter, and most especially when the words are you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

On the Beach

As I walked the beach this morning I paused to look at the thick white foam gathered in sudsy piles along the water’s edge. Some floated back out to sea, as if it were being recalled to its home in the water. Some seemed to struggle against the motion of the tide, trying to be part of the land. I reached down and scooped up a handful only to see nothing there. All that and only a little dampness on my skin. Salty to the tongue, but otherwise leaving no trace. Does the sea own the foam, only sharing it briefly with the land? So much of it riding the waves, in and out. A private show I could share with no one: there was not another soul on the beach.

I stood looking out to sea, watching the ebb and flow, the push and pull against the sandy shore. Had it been warmer I probably would have stepped into the waves as they washed up to my toes, but already being of a winterset in my mind, I stepped back, just out of reach. Powerful pull, the sea. I admire it, respect it, love the sound and strength of it. Do I like it? Not enough to want to be here all the time, I think. I still like my mountains. But there is so much more sky here!

In the end it comes down to comfort. The quiet solitude of my mountains brings me peace, lets me hear my inner voice, the voices that tell me stories, that fill my head. The sea clears the voices, opens new vistas, tells me new things to think about. If I could live on a mountain above the sea, hear it, see it to the horizon, knowing the mountains have my back, I would go no other place.

Today the sea is in my ears, before my eyes, against my skin. The saltiness is in the air and everything tastes of it. The words I write come from the senses. The sea is so elemental, like the wind, like the sun, like the smell of earth and grass and trees. When we let ourselves we all respond to the natural world from which we evolved. The man-made elements weaken us and take away our sense of what we are, if not who. Who we are, if not why. Why we are, if not where. The sea talks of all of those. Listen. Listen.