Sauntering in Bearadise

One conversation at the table during the fancy dinner was about what we did during the ogreish cold of winter here in the Bark-of-Beyond. People argue other’s personal preferences and call it conversation. We all know that. Someone asked me what I liked to do in winter, and when I said “Go outside,” it caused a minor ruckus. Voices were raised in protest, but I stuck to my guns, “I love the cold. I’m out in it whenever I can.” I added that I loved it in May when people started reappearing, and that helped a little. When winter arrived yesterday, Bear and I didn’t hesitate. We know what we love.

The snow wasn’t deep, just a few inches, and the day wasn’t exactly cold, but cold enough not to melt the snow in a flash of San Luis Valley sunlight. No surprise that we were alone out there, except for two geese and one poor hungry Harris hawk. As I watched him flying low over the snowy world I thought that raptors’ great energy-saving efficiency in flight is an evolutionary feature of not getting to eat often and having to fly far to find food. They must get enough or they wouldn’t stick around, but not more than that.

We took Bear’s favorite trail, a path built around a pond that often overflows in spring. For me, it was wonderful because I could see what Bear smells. A fox had been hunting earlier that morning. Kangaroo rats and deer mice left their furtive traces. If snow is a transient catalog of events (it is), it was earlier yesterday morning, around the same time the fox was after them. Bear was fascinated by the fox — and has been even when I couldn’t see any evidence of his passing. But now I know what appeals to her so much. At one point it looked like the story went sideways for some little creature and the fox got breakfast.


We finished that small loop (1/3 mile) and continued on the main road. Bear found even more wonders — including the snow itself — and a couple of times nearly pulled me into a shallow ditch. I wish I didn’t have to leash her, but I do. First, it’s the rule at the Refuge; second, she would roam. It’s part of the nature of her breed. She’d come back sooner or later. I’m even sure she’d come all the way HOME if she got loose, but she’s my Bear, and when I adopted her I promised her I would keep her safe. Dogs like her who are employed and working with sheep stay with their sheep, but that was not to be Bear’s destiny. I try to give her at least SOME of that life, and, since she’s always been here with me, I don’t think she knows the difference.

She finally found something worth rolling in and made a snow angel.

As we walked, a squall formed over the Refuge and, lucky for us with our perverse idea of fun, it snowed. We just stood there for a while and savored it. Last year we had ONE snowstorm and it was in January. This really felt too good to be true. Where snow is concerned I learned in Southern California to seize the day. Good training for this desert valley. Some winters we get a LOT of snow; some winters next to none. We have rain shadows in all directions. The BEST direction for snow to actually reach us is from the south or southwest and that’s what brought this storm. This is what the first snow looks like falling on the natural landscape of the San Luis Valley. All the plants are perfectly designed to capture moisture.

Bear and I were pretty bushed when we got home after a couple hours out there.

I sometimes feel as if Bear thinks I GAVE her the snow, but it is definitely a bond between us. Teddy is OK with it, but Bear truly loves it. She’s out in the yard right now taking a nap in it. This is what she did last night, snoring softly and smiling in her sleep.

Wow

Just got back from a perfect walk with Bear. Perfect sky. Perfect light. Perfect (chilly) temperature. Silent except for our steps and a few cranes in the distance. Only two cars, one belonging to a guy from Taos who loves Teddy but hasn’t met Bear. We waved. New shoes. Wow. Elizabeth socks. We walked and walked and walked and had a perfect time. Bear smelled many wonderful things (I’m given to understand) and I savored every moment of our time in this amazing place, surrounded by white peaks. Good God, how did I get here? It amazes me almost daily.

I’ve been thinking about the many wonderful things that happen only once in our lives. Just one time. We can’t repeat them. Every single moment is a one-shot deal. For me that list involves things that have happened randomly in nature, or seem to have been random but maybe aren’t. I can’t say. I wrote a sonnet about this, but it only scratched the surface. Fourteen lines is ENOUGH, I’m just not that good at it.

I realized I have been trying to paint some of those moments. I think that’s a good goal. One painting is the cranes flying over Bear and me last spring.

I mean things like (this list is in no particular order and no where near complete) last winter Teddy and I crossed paths in the snow and fog with a black fox. How often does that even happen AT ALL? Crazy. Or the first fox I ever saw, coming out of the fog on a snowy day while a golden eagle circled above us. Bear and Dusty were so stunned they didn’t react; they just watched. The deer my dog Ariel led me to one afternoon; we walked into a thicket and the doe stared right at me, a foot away. The deer and I were both deeply surprised, neither of us frightened, and my wolf dog just proud of how well she tracked? It was something. Maybe the cherry on the sundae is the mountain lion in 2004. It’s hard to say WHAT that cherry might be, there are so many wonders — a blue skink? A rare Laguna Mountain Kingsnake? The rosy boa I carried in a pocket in my cargo pants for most of a hike? The coyote that appeared to run across the hills with the spirit of my dog Lupo? Skiing through two seasons in one day with Molly? Going to pick up my Aunt Martha who suffered from dementia and finding dozens of post-it notes in her apartment all of which said, “Martha Ann Comes Today!” Standing on the EXACT point of the rain shadow that makes the great American desert, one arm in winter, the other in, in, in? I don’t know but it wasn’t snowing on that half of me. A twilight hike to the overlook of the Delicate Arch with a man with whom I share a precious, inexplicable, bond? A spontaneous 28 mile hike with Molly just because it was a godawful beautiful December day and we wanted to see EVERYTHING? A birthday party in a Vietnamese restaurant in Zürich? Granitas in Venice? Walking with friendly, belled cows down from the Eigerwand Station of the Jungfraubahn? Crossing the Zürichberg with the ONE person in the world who is as interested in Gfenn as I am? A heart-breaking hour at a hospital in Billings, MT, returning to my Aunt Jo’s house to find she had fixed my very favorite dinner from when I was a kid? Riding my bike to the Guangzhou Botanical Garden for a picnic with students, being passed by a lorry carrying the students who sing “This Land is Your Land” to me as they pass by? Crossing the stage to get my Master’s Degree and hearing, “YEEEE-haw!” from the back row where my aunt and uncle were sitting, bringing real life and Montana into that stuffy, solemn, moment. Hearing John Bayley recite “The Windhover,” a famous, stuttering English professor from Oxford who, reciting that poem, didn’t stutter at all, watching his hand move like a hawk in flight. Seeing my dad in the coffin, reaching for his hand, touching it, and understanding in that moment what death is, breaking down, collapsing, and feeling the strong arms of my Aunt Kelly and Uncle John who were prepared for that moment and there to help me? My Aunt Martha arriving on the street car for dinner at our house, and little girl me, running down the street to meet her.

A fraction, a tiny fraction of the long catalog of miracles.

Seriously, this life thing. Fuck. As I walked in the beauty with Bear this afternoon, so many of these moments passed through my mind, and, as I thought about them, Bear took a break from smelling things to come and lean on me.

-

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

A Little Redemption…

A little voice said, “Martha, go out there. Go out to Heaven RIGHT NOW!” That little voice, of course, was canine telepathy. Mosts of the time I listen and I think there is MORE to those little voices than dogs.

As we were on our way, I watched a golden eagle hunt above a pasture and when we arrived, a Northern Harrier took to the air in front of me. He was a very, very beautiful hawk. I’ve learned this evening that the males are white; the female rufus or reddish-brown so I might not have identified females or confused them with other hawks. Binoculars are a challenge for me as my hands are full of dog leashes almost every time I’m out there. The birds have to be familiar or come close for me to identify them. While this hawk apparently is pretty common all over America, I didn’t see him until I moved here.

A little later I watched a red-tailed hawk evading some small bird parents protecting their nest. I’m always amazed at the small birds — could have been anything from a blackbird to a sparrow to a marsh wren, no way for me to know as they were up quite high — protecting their young against a predator so many times larger. Today’s red-tail finally evaded them by flying low (thank you!) then soaring very high until he was a dark speck in the clouds.

Hawks have their predators, too, sometimes human. Long ago I found myself driving with two baby redtails on my arm, safely covered by my cowboy hat. Some idiot had caught them somehow and put them in a cardboard box under his car while he went off and did whatever. The boys I hung out with — the BMX boys — found the box and were sure I would know what to do. Not knowing what had happened to put them on the ground, I didn’t know what to do. I just thought of the local wildlife rescue with whom we worked at Mission Trails Regional Park. SO… the boys and I very carefully drove the birds to the emergency vet hoping he’d have somewhere safe for them until the local wildlife rescue (Project Wildlife) could intervene. Of course, we took shit from the vet for having the birds at all, but by then, having hung out with a bunch of rough looking teenage boys for a while, I expected we’d get shit anywhere we went. Mikey, the youngest, 12, tried to explain to the doctor who wasn’t interested. The vet was surprised when I told him who to call.

Here’s what I saw during the walk, and, toward the end, the wind got cold and wet and we were pelted with graupel. I have chosen to understand THAT as a promise for a better winter next year. ❄️

However fucked up our world gets (and it blows me away the potential it has for that, potential it too often realizes) I just have to get out there to remember that none of us is really in charge.


Sources for Northern Harrier photos: https://www.birdzilla.com/birds/northern-harrier/multimedia.html, https://www.featheredphotography.com/blog/2013/11/03/a-menacing-look-from-a-male-northern-harrier/, https://tonystakes.com

Elk!

Had a beautiful walk with Teddy this morning and, as we were leaving the Refuge, I saw something I’ve wanted to see for a long time — a herd of elk! I’ve seen their tracks and their poop, but not them. They were pretty far away. I watched them as long as I could see them, running away with their zig-zag evasive tactics across a barley field toward the mountains.

I appreciate your response to the first part of the story I posted a few days ago. I set it to private for now. I’ve finished that chapter and might post it later — or just keep going. Thank you everyone who took the time to read it. ❤

Redemption

Bear and I headed out on this beautiful afternoon for a saunter. The leaves on the mountains are continuing their magical transformation to gold. The air was cool; the sky covered by low, fluffy clouds. Seldom does the sky here in the Big Empty feel so close. The light changed continually. It was perfect.

As we were walking back to Bella, a brand new Hyundai stopped. The driver rolled down his window and Bear jumped up to say “Hi!” which the vast (meaning everyone but this guy) majority of crane tourists encourage and enjoy and which the man did not like at all. Good grief! She could scratch the paint! I apologized and lifted Bear’s feet from the car thinking the guy’s priorities were messed up. Then he said, “Have you seen anything?”

I was thinking, “Everything. There’s all kinds of everything around here.” I thought of another tourist a while back who, when I asked if he were looking for cranes, said, “I’m happy to see anything.” I also thought the paint on a car is meaningless compared to experiencing a joyful, friendly, giant-breed white dog jumping up to meet you. We might try not to be judgmental, but I think we fail a lot at it. I fail constantly.

“You mean cranes?” I said.

“Yes.”

“It’s not the best time of day, but they’re around.” I told him and his wife where I thought they were most likely to be (near the barley fields). We chatted for a bit and I seriously plugged the wonders of the Crane Festival in the spring, and explained that while there are a lot of people, most of them like the tours in the school busses because they are sure they’ll see something and they get a wildlife biologist riding along to show and tell. I explained that crane tourists are not like other people, that they’re interested in cranes and very kind and respectful. They got the idea that coming back in spring might be a good idea. They only live 3 hours away so they could do that. Then I explained that there’s more crane activity at dawn and sunset. His wife chimed in with quite a bit more warmth and charm. It was a pleasant, pretty typical, conversation with crane tourists.

We went on our way and here came an old guy (my age) on a bicycle. “Hey, he said, “you dyed your hair to match your dog!” I laughed. He commented rapturously about the “perfect day” and I heartily agreed.

And this is what we saw (along with a Harris hawk and young bald eagle hunting).