Winter On … and On and On and On

I grew up in a house where the winters were long, the springs were greatly anticipated, and the summers were scheduled for one week somewhere around the middle of August. Fall was lovely, but it really was just “introductory winter,” if I’m speaking frankly.

Heat was a commodity no one took for granted. You needed it for a good solid nine months of the year, and it had to be reliable. The thermometer was a device you trusted not just to tell you how to dress for the day, rather we used it to determine whether you should even step outside the front door.

One January morning, when I was seven or eight years old, my family piled into the car to head to church services. It wasn’t an unusual day per se, as despite it being incredibly cold with a nose-numbing ice fog sparkling all around us, one was never encouraged to indulge with the obvious complaint existing within everyone’s head as to just how unhappy one was. My dad had drummed one phrase into us: Your being cold is not a personal experience, therefore, suck it up.

This particular morning, we arrived in the church parking lot and pulled a standard move—something that was considered fairly normal for this time of year—we kept the car running.

It was only once we’d finished the service and loaded back into that car that we heard the radio announcer report that as of today, our little town was the coldest one in America, registering a balmy sixty degrees below zero.

Apart from the obvious danger to skin, other more unusual things begin to happen at temperatures that frosty.

Cars’ tires will freeze to the road surface in a somewhat flattened shape, and now it will be like driving with square wheels.

Heating oil turns into jelly.

Storm windows shatter, and nails pop right out of house siding, whizzing like bullets.

And of course, there are a few extra children’s tongues tethered to flagpoles. *shrug*

For most of us, that was just another day growing up in Wisconsin. And those long, cold winters meant time to chop and haul wood. If you heated your house with a wood stove, like we did, it meant you’d be chopping and hauling at least four cords of timber. You take on a special appreciation for trees at the beginning of the season when you cast your eyes across the tremendous sacrifice they contribute toward one family’s wellbeing, or maybe more accurately, survival.

And although I no longer endure those formidable winters having moved to Virginia, I do currently live in a log cabin and rely upon a large fireplace for mostly the physical sound and visual tease of heat. My wood needs have shrunken considerably, but each year I dutifully have a cord of hard oak delivered, and I stack my treasured logs in a way so they will be seasoned, and I will have access.

Except this year I noticed I still had several layers of split logs filling the bottom third of my main wood rack. It was agreed by me and the well-seasoned logs that moving them to any other location would simply be an exothermic exercise and a waste of precious heat, therefore, the newly dumped truck full of split wood would have to find a home somewhere else.

I eyed available space and assessed my resources. Oftentimes, once you run out of room in your ideal location, you simply look for cooperating trees—solid trunks that will stand as sentries on either side of your neatly stacked row. But mine stood on hills and a good way from the house, and most folks tend to disappear when the general question of “who wants to fetch more wood” is asked, and they see it will require hiring a Sherpa for assistance.

Reaching back into my brain for any latent engineering skills that may have been deposited there via a freak of genetics, I remembered occasionally seeing an oddly-shaped wood pile during my youth in Wisconsin—a state liberally sprinkled with Scandinavians looking for weather just as cold, but a language less annoyingly mimicked.

With renewed vigor, I went about planning my new wood stacking design—the Norwegian Roundhouse. I know this sounds like some sort of kickboxing move, but in truth, if it’s made well, it looks a bit more like a giant wooden gumdrop. And no one has ever had to defend themselves against pectin.

I took apart an old whiskey barrel and used the metal rings as a base, then I placed a layer of thick metal lattice on top to create the “circulation” layer. If there is one thing I have gleaned from my youth, it is that being just cold is much more survivable than being both cold and wet. And everyone who has ever gone camping in the rain knows just how soul-satisfying cryogenically preserved baked beans eaten out of a tin can be.

Wood must not get wet and stay that way.

The whole point of the Norwegian Roundhouse is to build a wood stack that wind can whistle through, mice can scramble through, and no eight-year-old boy can kick down. Breezy, yet sturdy, like the Titanic if it simply encountered an eight-year-old boy.

Layering the wood is a process of intense focus with choice, placing every log facing inward in a large circle the size of a four-person hot tub—or an amateur Florida sinkhole. Each piece of wood is a puzzle that must fit perfectly into its slot. The sides, as you build, must never bulge, never move outward and overlap the piece beneath it. Instead, each one must lay the tiniest bit farther into the center, eventually creating the appearance of a beehive, or a gumdrop, or a pyramid built by a guy following directions provided by IKEA.

As I did not know these last bits of direction before getting about chest high, I spent the next several hours hammering pieces into place. After two full days of choosing the perfect logs, hammering them into their ideal spaces, wedging in supporting structures, and bandaging the hammered and wedged fingers that got in the way, I was finally finished.

It looked awesome. It looked perfect. It looked like a mix of true engineering and art. It looked like I was going to need to call the lumberjack back for another load of wood because ABSOLUTELY NO ONE WAS GOING TO BE ALLOWED TO TAKE WOOD FROM MY “ART IN PLACE” PROJECT.

And so it begins again. The constant pursuit of warmth … and perhaps a small dose of sanity.

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? History. And a Bunch of Dead People Who Want In.

I have heard countless tales about the mystical days of the year when there is a thinning—an opening of the usually bolted door between the living and the dead.

I find these legends to be magnetic and irresistible from both the historical perspective in that apparently our folk tales of old are still captivating enough to be passed on and hold great longevity, and also because I’d love to know who is the guy who lifts the latch on that door and allows it to creak open with invitation.

Sure, it could be the wind, but seriously, that’s way too many years of perfectly timed coincidence, right?

The chunk of consecutive days known as Halloween or Samhain (the ancient Celtic festival), All Saints Day, and All Souls Day are three celebrations and commemorations when, beginning October 31st  through November 2nd, many people’s thoughts are steeped in leaf blowers, credit card bills showing an overabundance of pumpkin spiced lattes, and fear. (That second one causes the third one to bloom when the pounds run high and the dollars run low.)

Samhain marked the end of all things warm and sun-related, and the beginning of the coffin making season. The Celts marked their new year beginning on November 1st, and likely didn’t bother with any yearly census until spring, as people dropped like flies during the cold winter months.

I’ve always preferred Samhain to Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, as typically the costumes are better. Yes, they both incorporate some semblance of gathering—festive or otherwise—but the getups worn in days of old were truly meant to ward off ghosts. And what spirit wouldn’t turn tail and leave when peeking in to join the massive bonfire only to see animals being sacrificed within it and the party guests all draped in a few extra severed heads and blood-soaked skins.

Begone, you destructive wraiths! Leave our crops be or we shall threaten you with … Wait, hey, Bob? What are we threatening these dead people with?

Let’s say MORE DEATH, Dick, okay? Can we all agree that ‘more death’ is our menacing chant?

I could be wrong, but even with this action and logic I’m going to vote that the chilling and shuddery-inducing specters are more inclined to back off from a party such as this than one where folks are dressed in chintzy polyester tat from Walmart.

Personally, I think donning a naughty bar maid getup is likely more of an invitation rather than a deterrent to any lonely ghoul.

And although we may be in the thick of a ghastly pandemic at present, the fear felt by the living souls 2000 years ago was more of a “the entire village” type of dread as there really existed no “K” modeled economy forecast where when things went pear-shaped, some folks did well, and some felt they were in the middle of another version of The Hunger Games.

Back then, once you’d run out of firewood by dismantling all the furniture and eventually the homesteading structure itself, it was back to living surrounded by an outcropping of rocks and prickly gorse bushes instead of moving in with family. Because by that time, you may have actually eaten the only family that had a couch you could surf.

Once the Romans conquered a good chunk of the Celt’s turf, the new residents began to feel some softening of celebrations might be in order.

Maybe instead of scaring away all the dead, you folks should switch it out and commemorate them? We’ve come across far fewer demands for the sacrifice of livestock if we simply recite a few of their shinier earthly moments.

The request may have been a resounding NO! from the remaining Celts, which might have made the Romans give in a smidge and answer with:

Fine, fine, we’ll stretch the whole thing out a bit—keep your “frightnight”, but then word from corporate is that we make the next day one for the dearly departed, and then follow that up with a nod to old Pomona. She’s the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, and who doesn’t love bobbing for apples, eh?

Despite the church’s efforts to delicately rosy up and combine the fetes of the past, these people were surrounded by fearful imagery most of the time, whether it was a lack of food in the cupboard, the rush of pillaging neighbors who didn’t ascribe to that whole “do not covet thy neighbor’s anything, or simply waking up next to a spouse with three working teeth and a penchant for wild onions. Times were scary.

So why would they wish to set aside three whole days to mingle with the dead and focus on all that fear—all the prophesying of bad crops to come, or another mouth to feed, or hearing the soothsayer reveal that your mother-in-law was soon to move in?

Maybe for the same reason that we ride rollercoasters, or go through haunted houses, or check in with our 401ks.

Likely those actions are simply to show ourselves that it can always get worse, and we should be grateful for the now.  

As for me, I’m still left wondering if that doorman is really more of a Beefeater type of position or a “someone’s left the barn door open again” kind of deal, as perhaps the latter would explain precisely why it gets so damn cold in the winter, eh?

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Wandering Off with Profound Purpose

There is a trail I’ve grown to love. A roughly kept path, both rutted with roots and covered in cobwebs, it’s a weekly venture I now refer to as six miles long and two hours deep.

I’m the only one on this stretch, just me and my hound. It feels abandoned and forgotten—or perhaps never discovered. As if prepared for footfall but neglected of promotion.

 

It’s divided into neatly portioned passages, each segment unique with temperament and attitude. To enter one is to be enrobed within that identity, where changes, both subtle and of magnitude, shift your focus and your vigilance.

A spread of one mile bears a perfect canopy, deciduous arms reaching to embrace and braid, the rustling sounds of leaf brushing leaf and branch chafing branch.

Another offers the heat of sun and great crunch underfoot, as in this landscape, only those forged in a fever can cope and thrive.

Along the route there are dens and burrows. Fallen trees extend the invitation to any fauna weary of their old abodes to nestle somewhere new, a chance to peak from behind still rooted tubers and discern if this view will suffice.

There sits a sanctum halfway through where modern day has not been given permission to bloom. A small, grassy clearing dotted with the remnants of those who lived on it first—or died on it last. A lichened crop of chimney stones resist the urge to collapse, to follow those who built it toward a soft grave of repose.

The surreally green colored moss floor muffles all that travels across or through it, a lush weighted blanket keeping history quiet, but comforted.

Three corner stones, the vestiges of walls, invite the visitor to conjure the past and evoke voices long suppressed by the quelling power of isolation. They still whisper though. But only if you listen.

And I do.

I listen more, hear more, breathe more, smell more. I feel the gnarly rough-skinned barely buried roots that spread beneath my feet, catch my shoe, stub my toe. I feel the sponginess of rotting trees as I traverse across them, the pliable composition of their cells. The crack of their forgiving nature resounds across the hollow or the hilltop, upsetting the status quo soundscape and thrusting a hush upon the busy conversation of all woodland tongues.

There is an unraveling that takes place when walking unencumbered. When untethered from manmade sound, sights, and people. This is a forum for the memory reels to unspool, for the strolling narrator to develop his tale, for soliloquy in all its unpracticed inelegance to gush forth without restraint.

This trail is where I find rebalance. Where presets are over-ridden, and recalibration transpires. It is where rejection is handled, malfunctions are tackled, and failures owned. Insight is sought—if one hopes to move forward—for there is little benefit to a walk such as this if deep and soulful pursuit of the truth is ignored.

Emerging on the other side is transcendent and electrifying. Revelatory in that the accomplishment of such a trek was as feasible as hoped, and wondrous with the fresh new mental space now unoccupied.

The trail stays with me only fleetingly, the feel of crushed pine needles beneath me, the scent of forest floor decay, the melody of life as it exists in that treasured space.

So, I soldier on until next time. I muddle through the concrete days, the desk-filled hours, the mundane and must-be-dones.

The path waits there for me … or for no one.

But it is there, and I have felt its wonder.

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

September; the Gathering and Gleaning

There is something about September.

I wake to the sound of rain splattering on the copper rooftop, slapdash and sporadic, its disordered pattern teasing and anticipatory.

The dove gray skies are a soft, woolen blanket the earth has loosely wrapped about her shoulders. She makes a tucking in gesture, paying no mind to the cold and endless black that surrounds her. Those slate-colored ceilings soften her edges and mollify the barbed tips of clacking seconds as they tick, tick, tick in the foggy background. They slowly morph into a muffled heartbeat. Is it mine, or hers?

My first whiff of wood smoke … I am transformed. A tendril that taps at a memory drawer, unopened for months and stiff with disuse. But once loosened, it spills, like cream over ripe berries, and I do little to halt the movement.

There is a tinge to the trees, too early to label as anything more than a lowering of the bright, green flame of searing summer life. The sun has merely stepped back a pace to eye her work in progress and rests on the handle of her proverbial rake. And like all avid gardeners, she finds that there are other projects that catch her eye as they rotate into her field of vision. And with that momentary lapse of intense attention, the products of her efforts soon yellow and wither.

No matter, she shrugs. Work will resume next circle round.

It’s now that I brood about in the pantry. I count the beans—for big potted stews which will fill chipped crockery and rumbling bellies. I measure the tea—for ample kettle-fulls that let slip soft wisps of steam carrying somnolent notes of ginger, cinnamon, and chicory. I eye the whisky—for the pure pleasure of the oncoming flush of heat. And then I eye the clock to determine how long I must wait for that sweet fever. It’s usually too long. And I re-busy myself with bean counting.

Each year, I am caught unawares when changing the calendar from the eighth to the ninth month. August is so spectacularly hot, so devoid of working people, so filled with the phrase, “We are off for three weeks.”

September is for ‘back to business,’ ‘back to school,’ or “Back to you, Bob, and that’s a look at our weather.”

It’s a transitional month, a swinging door from a sizzling, smoke-belching patio to a wood-paneled parlor, with hushed library voices where one’s mental bandwidth slowly revs into gear. It is a time for thinking, musing, simmering, and inventing—spoon-feeding one’s brain the rich broth where the flavors of creativity will meld and percolate, sluggishly dragging salient thoughts to the surface.

There is an observable change in the laundry basket, which once barely reined in an endless mess of cut-off jean shorts and paper-thin tank tops. It now houses fuzzy socks and zippered hoodies, displaying the return of layers—an unending circle of cloth discarded then desired—warm days and cool nights.

The printer churns a constant stream of schedules, documents, forms, and calendars, convulsing with updated information like a Morse code machine relaying movement of troops and coordinated attacks. Paperwork strewn across all available flat surfaces, requires signatures, filing, and the hopefully intended read-through.

And it is the time for reaping, for gathering the last, for the lifting of leaves, the peeking to see if one final fruit has found the finish line.

But there is also time for reflection and observance among the business of harvest. The long days of field work and preservation may still take place in the sweat of the last shafts of summer sun, but once she has set, there is a thinning of the air. The scent of woodsy autumn appears on a draught that slowly pushes summer’s plump stars off stage in preparation for the next act: a crisp set of patterns that will pierce the inky black skies.

Of course, intermission casts the bright light of the Harvest moon, and she will illuminate your path from field to home and back again. September bathes in that downy yellow glow, almost as if, aware of her age, she asks to be seen through a soft focus lens.

Be busy, be effortful, be thoughtful.

Be here now, in the last of September. Before she says goodbye.

~Shelley

PS–(In case you missed it last month!) An important update to all the Robin Gott Doodle Devotees out there! Robin has opened a new site where you can finally and officially purchase some of his finest and funniest work via a website called Society 6. To quote the champ of chuckles, “I know it sounds like some kind of low-budget South African sci-fi film, but it’s actually an online market place for all sorts of design.” Don’t miss out. Check it out here: ROBIN GOTT

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Let’s Talk, Turkey

Haggis, the great white hairy hound, ran into a wild turkey yesterday. And by ran into, I mean literally.

I was hiking down the mountain, en route to get the post and suddenly, in front of me, I saw a spray of pine needles, dead leaves, feathers, and an old empty bucket of vanilla ice cream.

Then I saw Haggis skedaddle out of the copse of trees, and run for the hills like the lily-livered, yellow-bellied beast that he is.

Chasing him out of the thicket was a monolithic, wholly indignant wild turkey—a wing-flapping, eye-popping, larynx-screeching pile of feathers.

Apparently, we had disturbed the monarch of the mountain, as one could nearly hear all the other animals in the forest take a giant step back and suck in a lungful of air.

The woods were filled with the whispered words, “I’m puttin’ fifty on the turkey.”

Or something like that. It could have just been the wind.

But this guy was a plumage-covered boulder of muscled meat that had made it through more Thanksgivings than Mother Nature normally allows. And he didn’t mind displaying the reason why.

Surely no gratitude could slip from the mouths of any ‘pack-as-much-poultry-in-your-gob’ feast-goer if that shindig had this brute on their platters. It’d be one forkful of anger right after another.

And anger tastes … well, not terribly optimistic about the future.

I think—and forgive me if I get this wrong, as there is little research on buzzard brains to delve into—he had a real twist in his knickers about winter.

As I could see it, it was the end of March, and his bones were aching, his feathers were waterlogged, the webbing between his toes were cracked, red, and itchy, and lastly, there was nothing to eat in this god-forsaken wretched house—err … forest.

All the good seeds were gone. Not a berry in site. Damn squirrels finished off the last of the beechnuts. And there hasn’t been a hatch of palatable pests in months.

Not that anything tasted good anymore anyway. His taste buds were nearly as old as the pilgrims he’d first started running from.

I felt for him—once I sussed out all possible escape routes, cuz he weren’t finished with his beef just yet.

I put my hands up and said, “You’re screechin’ to the choir, buddy. Remember yesterday? When you just sat from your lukewarm lair and watched me walk up and down this mountain three times? I had that book festival, and an authors’ panel? And because I would rather peel back my own toenails than ever be a no-show for work, the car had to be stationed at the bottom of the mountain—one big fat long mile away. Not even unplowed roads and eight inches of snow was going to be an impediment, remember?”

He looked at me blankly.

“Yeah, well, it was cancelled. And at the last minute. After I’d trekked through all that snow.”

His eyes narrowed, smoldering.

“You’re right, it should technically have only been two trips up and down the mountain, but the extra one was because of Haggis. Walking through snow is really noisy, and I had no idea he was following me until the very end, and of course had to march him back up the mountain because the Barnes & Noble folks are super prickly about which snow-clodden, fur-covered creatures get to drool over their stacks of bestsellers. But mostly, because I couldn’t trust that he could find his way back up to the house, as this guy can get lost in a paper bag.”

Even after that, old Testy Tom gave me the stink eye.

“Really? Still no sympathy?” I said, standing with arms akimbo. “How about two weeks before? Remember the three-day windstorm? The Nor’easter that felled twelve trees—each one across the damn driveway? That first day I was supposed to be one hundred miles from here, chatting to a bazillion beautiful fifth graders, being treated like the celebrity I’ve lead them to believe I am, but instead, I spent that day dragging logs.

“Not one of those trees asked me for my autograph. Or gave me a piece of warm, lint-filled butterscotch candy that had been sitting in its pocket since last Halloween. Not one of them bought my books. As in none.”

I glanced up around me at the trees. “Okay, there is a chance that’s because some of their ancestors are my books, but still. Not fair.”

Haggis peaked out at us from behind a large oak tree, far, far away.

“Coward!” I shouted.

The foul-mouthed fowl took one long step in my direction. I put up my hands. “Listen,” I said, “If the hairy hound over there interrupted your much needed afternoon kip, then I apologize on behalf of him. We’re still working on manners. And forming the words I’m sorry. Dog lips are tricky.”

The bird took another step toward me, and suddenly my mind was filled with images of the long, but surely award-winning documentary made by a group of New Englanders who’d advanced human knowledge and awareness on the dangers of engaging with belligerent wild turkeys.

It was two and one-half hours of watching these creatures savagely peck at the Subaru that always seemed to hold the camera man.

Yeah, at the time I laughed, but now I grew a measure of respect for their message.

“What is it you want?” I shouted at him. Well, not so much shouted as begged in a super high-pitched voice.

He said nothing. He just turned and walked slowly back toward the thicket of trees he’d flown out of, using one thick-sticked leg to bunt kick the ice cream bucket out of his way.

I stared until he was out of sight. Haggis came back and sniffed around the area of our standoff. I picked up the old ice cream bucket and read the label. Turkey Hill.

Related image

Clearly, like me, he just wanted a taste of summer.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.