Saturday, November 14, 2009

I spend half an hour with Wonder Woman

This Thursday evening I drove from Denver to Colorado Springs to have dinner with some classmates. I left early to visit with a friend who is also a wonderful poet. Lois Hayna had published five books of poetry and has another book of 80 poems ready for a publisher. She's having some trouble getting it published because of the economy and the fact that not many people read poetry or buy books of poetry.

I spent half an hour visiting with Lois and talking about poetry and how she got her start getting her poetry published. Lois and I were in a critique group a dozen years ago when I lived in Colorado Springs, and she was and is my inspiration for writing poetry. Her work is really good. Here's a poem from her last book, published in 2005. 

Dark Mischief

The antic shadow of the crow
clowns the crow's path
shape-shifting across lawns,
leveling along pavement, scrambling
in swift and comic angles over obstacles.
Mimic and mindless,
it speeds it carbon route, shredding
and reuniting seamlessly as the crow
follows his black agenda. Then
it vaults in crazy angles up 
the wall, arriving exactly 
as the crow arrives, barely in time
to dart under and vanish
at the precise moment that the crow
tucks his wings.

The bird's unflappable, he perches
in charge of his world.
His shadow has to catch its breath.

Isn't that a wonderful poem. Can't you see the shadow of the crow flashing on lawns, bushes, sidewalks, and finally coming to rest on the wall when the crow lands? 

Oh, I guess that I didn't mention that Lois will be 97 this coming January. That's why I called her Wonder Woman in the title of this blog. She's spry, more alert than many twenty years younger. She is absolutely amazing. An inspiration to me and all who know her. She was named Colorado Springs Poet Laureate Emerita this past year and was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Regis University here in Denver. 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Snow storm visitors last week

I got so involved in grading papers and writing articles for the Plains Center where I volunteer that I forgot that I wanted to post this. One of the staff naturalists called me to say that a flock of from 300 to 400 sandhill cranes had landed at the center that morning. I immediately drove out there because other than one sandhill that landed their last year, we've only had them fly over. I drove out and these pictures tell the whole story. Incidentally, I created this panorama from three pictures with Photoshop Elements.

Before I got there, I guess they were bugling and calling a lot, but when I got there, they were mostly quiet with only a bird or two calling now and then. What a wonderful surprise.

We had had a snow storm the previous day and it had moved east. I suspect that the storm, which was out in Nebraska, had the birds blocked from their usual route, so they went around the story and caught a tailwind through Colorado's prairie.

Ain't Mother Nature wonderful?

October snow storm in Denver

It's the second day of our October snow storm, as the TV news folks are calling it. Why isn't it just a plain old fashioned snow storm? Why do the weather guessers have to look back into the records to see if today is going to be a record, and if a record, by how much. Why can't we just take what nature has given us and be satisfied with it? Happy with it?
Will it make it any easier to shovel snow if I know that this is a record snow? Or will it make it more difficult thinking that my father-in-law had it easy back then when they had two inches fewer? I've really enjoyed this snow. That's probably because I didn't have to get up, shovel, and go to work. I got up both mornings, had a cup of coffee, ate breakfast, checked email, and did some writing. Then, when my breakfast had settled, went out to shovel.
I've been joking with David, our neighbor across the alley, that I've joined Mother Nature's gym. For the first two days of the week, I raked and bagged leaves. Then the next two days I shoveled snow. Don't know what she's got in store for me next week. But the price is right. And it is so grand to be outdoors most of the day, no matter whether it is a record or not.
I think we had more leaves this year. Perhaps in wet years like this one, a year some people will see in tree rings a hundred years from now, the tree puts out more leaves because it can, and those leaves capture more of the sun's energy, making for a fatter growth ring that year. That sounds reasonable to me, but an arborist or biologist might find my theory amusing. But that's fine. It's my theory, and I'm stuck with it. Glad I got the leaves up, except for the back yard, before this snow storm hit.
Here's a picture of our fountain, which I've still to put away for the winter. We call her Barbara Fay, after my late mother-in-law. Note the depth of the snow around the basin.
And below is a picture of the walkway beside the garage and out the back gate. The peach tree has some branches bending low with the weight of the wet snow. Note the snow on top of the privacy wall.

The final picture, to the right, is the view to the northwest out our front door. It's hard to tell that there's even a street out there. The views of our neighborhood certainly were one of a fairy land. And to think that Halloween is this weekend.

One nice thing that happened to me this morning is that when I got out to the front sidewalk to shovel, my neighbor had run his snow blower down the sidewalk. So I didn't have to do that, just the walk from the front door to the street.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Feeding the writing muse

This past weekend and yesterday were good for my writing muse. I went to an all-day writing workshop/seminar at Denver University on Saturday. The workshop leader was Laura Pritchett, a nature and fiction writer from Laporte, CO. LaPorte is a small town on highway 287 that snakes through some beautiful country from Fort Collins to Laramie. We used to drive that route visiting Al up at UW. 
Laura is a Colorado native who grew up on a ranch in LaPorte and writes novels, non-fiction books, and non-fiction essays, usually about nature. She has also edited several books that have collected good essays on various topics, usually the environment and nature.
We brought a piece we had written to the workshop to read to the small group, six people, and get comments on it. We also did a lot of free writing about different topics and then shared those with the group. Laura encouraged me to reshape the piece I wrote for class and to work with one free writing exercise I did to get them published. She even suggested some places to send them. That really inspired me. I'll start working on them this week. They will take a lot of thinking, walking around, and chewing on to get them focused and written.
And yesterday I met finally with Mary Jo, my poetry critique partner for the first time in a couple of months — seems more like a couple of years. She has been painting and revitalizing her house. Mary Jo, as is her wont, dashed off a poem about a shawl she had received from a relative years ago and had just given to that woman's daughter on her 40th birthday. She's amazing for how quickly she can dash off a poem that works almost immediately. Mine take a bit longer. We have two different styles, hers being lighter in tone and mood than mine, usually.
I had started a poem about homeless people I've seen in Denver. I wanted to get away from my stereotypical reaction to many of these people, men in particular, and show instead their humanity. I did some free writing on the topic and came up with the start of a poem a couple of months ago. Knowing we were going to meet yesterday, I worked on it some. Got good feedback from Mary Jo and spent some time this morning revising it. I like it much better now, although I'll probably tweak it a bit before I try to publish it. Here it is:
The edges of humanity
Five derelicts, cast-offs 
of humanity, huddle 
near a fire in a barrel 
in the corner of an alley, 
tumbleweeds blown there 
with the plastic bags and rags 
of their lives. They are trapped 
by the barbed wire of fate, 
fear, alcohol, psychosis, 
by choices made years before 
with no thought of where 
they might lead. 

They laugh as they share 
a meal and stories. 
They also share
a brown paper sack, 
each drinking from it 
before passing it on.
They share their humanity
with a stray dog  
each giving the dog 
a piece of his meager meal, 
hugging the dog's neck,
talking to it, 
scratching its ears. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

Homecoming Dance Revisited

Another amazing day out on the prairie. I got to the Plains Center at 8:00 AM in fog and about 45 degrees. It was just warm enough that my jacket would keep me warm and I didn't need the gloves and wool cap I'd brought. I was going to do a critter count, a four and a half mile walk during which I count every nose and beak and bill I see. I try to do this each month to get some sort of snapshot of the health of the prairie and its inhabitants. I send the count to the Tudi, the executive director so she knows what's going on. Besides, it's a blast for me. An excuse to get out and have fun.
I walked through the fog seeing very few critters to count until about ten minutes into the walk a male northern harrier appeared like a ghost flying past in the fog. The pale bluish gray of his upper wings and the white of his underwings made him seem to appear and disappear in the fog as he flew by in front of me. Later I saw two female harriers, but their dark brown wings and the fact that the fog had lifted some didn't make them look like ghost harriers.
Soon after seeing the male harrier, I heard a large jet coming down the glide path into Buckley AFB. I could tell that the pilot had the throttles back in a final glide. Couldn't see a thing in the fog, so I followed the sound with my binoculars until a barely visible C-17 transport— a very large puppy— appeared just over the runway and landed. Pretty neat sight. Nice airmanship from the crew.
As I got about a mile into my walk, I spotted a pronghorn buck with three does. I thought it might be the same herd we had seen on our bird survey on Saturday. The herd got nervous as I approached to within a few hundred yards and trotted across the road in front of me into the large part of the area. Immediately three other bucks and then another two trotted up, making the now milling herd, six bucks and three does. I thought it looked a mite like a homecoming dance with six football players trying to hook up with three cheerleaders.
The milling went on for some time without the spectacular, racing charge I'd seen on Saturday. The bucks just kept cutting each other off as they walked and trotted among the three does who had that deer in the headlights look. Finally, the milling herd disappeared over the ridge. I remembered watching a herd of 40 or 50 cow elk in Rocky Mountain National Park being herded toward a pond by three or four large bulls. The herd got to within fifty yards of the pond when a huge bull, it looked like a fugitive from a WWF commercial, ambled from several hundred yards away toward the herd. When he got about 50 yards away, the bulls that had escorted the herd to the pond thought they heard their mother calling and trotted off. It was really humorous.
Because of the fog, the number of prairie dogs I could see was very small compared to last month's count. The only time any numbers were visible were when the sun would come out briefly. Then a bunch would pop up, look around and nibble on some vegetation close to their burrows. And here and there a pronghorn buck would show up, walking along looking for some action. Most of them managed to find it.
I saw the scene I described above repeated by another group of three bucks with a doe who were intercepted by two more bucks. Finally, as I got two-thirds of the way around, near the large pond, I saw a herd or 20 pronghorn that included, as well as I could count them because of their milling, 8 or 9 bucks, 8 or 9 does, and four fawns. The bucks were do-ce-doing with the does, and I imagined the fawns rolling their eyes as their moms acted like insecure teenagers at a square dance.
This herd of 20 animals milled and broke into smaller herds that took off over the ridge only to come back to join the larger herd again, and on and on. It is no wonder that the most dangerous time for a mature buck is right after rutting season is over. Those critters have to be totally exhausted. Later I noticed a very large buck with a beautiful set of horns that were much larger than those with the herd. He was off by himself south of the main herd. I suspect he's going to wait until the other bucks are worn out chasing each other and trying to herd unwilling does. Then he's going to walk up, like that Bull I saw in Rocky Mountain National Park and take his large harem off to a quiet spot on the prairie. With age comes wisdom. :-)
I did see five ferruginous hawks, five red-tailed hawks, a couple of kestrels, and well over a hundred red-winged blackbirds. The red-wings were migrating along the creek to the south. I got back to my car and had put my binoculars in the back seat when I noticed a large raptor circling just east of me. Got the binos back out and discovered it was an immature bald eagle, probably the same one we saw in Lone Tree on Saturday. Tough duty, but someone has to do it.
Another wonderful day. Why didn't I retire a few years sooner? Al, why?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Raptor Rapture

Once in a while on a bird survey at the Plains Center, we are totally astounded by what we see. Today was one of those times. There were the usual suspects, mourning doves, meadowlarks, horned larks, vesper sparrows, Say's phoebes, starlings, magpies, and several flocks of migrating red-winged blackbirds. But the raptors we saw were simply amazing.
Three of us were on this survey, Tudi, the center executive director, Karen, one of our regulars and a fantastic birder, and me. We usually have three or four other regulars, but they didn't show this morning. Perhaps the cold made it more fun to snuggle down in the blankies.
As we approached a large prairie dog colony, Tudi suddenly stopped the suburban and yelled, "Two ferruginous hawks on the ground." These raptors are our largest hawk and beautiful creatures. It has, when in breeding plumage, a rusty-red back and wings, a white breast and belly and tail, and white patches on its outer upper wings. And it loves prairie dogs. One of the hawks was pulling apart a dog it had caught and was busily chomping it down. The other tried to look like it didn't care, but when its sibling--these were immature hawks--didn't share, it flew off to look for its own breakfast.
We continued on to the northwest corner of the large prairie dog colony and found two burrowing owls sitting all puffed up to stay warm. They are the last of the 25 or 30 we had during the summer. I think they were this year's chicks. In the background we saw a pronghorn antelope buck who had a harem of four does. Earlier, we had seen a buck trot a few yards from the two hawks on the ground and expected them to fly. They watched the buck but just sat. Speaking of sitting, a prairie dog, probably a sibling or mate of the hawk's breakfast, sat on his burrow about five yards from the eating hawk. Amazing.
Anyway, the buck we had seen earlier suddenly appeared a few hundred yards from this small antelope herd. The harem buck perked up, stood as tall as he could to show a very large set of horns, and started a determined trot toward the interloper. The harem buck suddenly shifted into high gear and must have been doing 50 or 60 miles and hour. The interloper figured he was in the wrong part of town and turned tail, starting to accelerate. The harem buck caught him in a few seconds, and only a hard right turn kept the interloper from being a hood ornament on the other buck. The charging buck turned hard right and again caught the interloper who again turned out of the way and headed out of Dodge.
As the buck turned back for his harem, he saw that one of the does had decided to leave, so he accelerated again to top speed and caught the doe in a few seconds and herded her back to the harem. Then they all went back to eating. 
How wonderful to see something so extraordinary. Just seeing the speed of that pronghorn was amazing enough. But to see that charge and then the cowboy-on-a-cutting-horse herding of that doe back to the harem was something one sees only once in a life time.
Later, we were driving south and I noticed a large raptor in a tree we call lone tree. The bird was so large there was no doubt it was an eagle. We got out of the suburban and used Karen's scope to determine it was an immature bald eagle. Sitting on the other side of the tree were two red-tailed hawks. The size difference between the eagle and hawks was astounding. I've almost never seen the two birds that close so you could see the relative sizes. 
Then, as we drove through the final mile our outing, we stopped at a point we use for the survey and noticed six large raptors flying over a ridge to the east. They turned out to be six more ferruginous hawks. They seemed to be patrolling the ridge, probably looking for breakfast in the large prairie dog colony just west of them below the ridge. 
The prairie dogs had a relatively safe summer because the grasses were high from all the rain we had this spring and summer. But they've been busy cutting down the grass near their burrows for food, to lay on a layer of fat for the winter, and laying in seeds and stalks for winter reserves. So, now they've cut down the grass that screened them from the raptors in the area. There are now more raptors around than all summer long and the dogs are in danger. But we have way too many prairie dogs, so we look forward to the raptors thinning them for us.

It was the kind of morning that makes me look forward to getting up early on cold mornings to go out on the prairie to look at the critters who live there. Days like today really recharge my batteries, which are getting old and don't hold a charge like they used to. :-)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hiking in the Bighorn National Forest

I'm finally getting around to writing about our experience in the Bighorn National Forest and Cloud Peak Wilderness. When I say we, I mean Al and me. We had originally intended to make a long weekend out of this trip, but because of a few physical ailments and a lack of recent exercise, we decided to take a couple of day hikes rather than a three or four day camping trip. We actually took one long day hike, and that was so good that we decided to skip the second hike and spend time with Kathy and Lesley--and that turned out to be a great decision, because they are two wonderful women to be around.

We drove out of Casper at 6:00 AM and into a gorgeous sunrise. The eastern sky began with an ever expanding band of magenta that finally covered about a third of the eastern sky. Then it lit the hills we were driving through near Kaycee, providing depth and substance to them. Finally, as we got further north, we could see it lighting up the eastern slopes of the Bighorns. That was the kind of experience we have every once in a long while. Those times make my soul expand and expand until it feels as if the entire scene is inside me as well as outside where I can see it.

We parked at the Hunter parking area at 8:30, got our gear on, and headed UP the trail. During the ten minutes between the time we parked and left, two women rode by on horseback with two German shepherds following. We saw them a mile of so ahead when we crested the first ridge. They were a mile away, riding the trail in the long meadow that heads west to the Cloud Peak Wilderness. They disappeared in a few minutes, and those were the only people we saw the entire day. We spent eight hours on the trail and saw no one else. Here's a view of the meadow we hiked from the trail to the east.

And here's a view of the intrepid hikers as they got ready to go through a gate at the top of a ridge just to  the north of the meadow. Al set his camera on a fence post for a timer shot and ran over to pose with me. Note the wonderful view of the Bighorns in the background.

As we hiked west through Buffalo Park, I was surprised that the meadow near the creek was forested, but a hundred yards to the north, the valley was covered entirely by grass. That, of course, is what most prairie looks like, trees only near streams and grass everywhere else. Having my own geologist along, I felt I could ask questions of geologic importance.

I knew from the hiking guide to the Cloud Peak Wilderness that the area had been shaped by glaciers. The valley we were hiking in looked U-shaped to me, so I asked my resident expert if the valley was a glaciated valley. He said yes, and then I realized I should have known that because of all the scattered rocks half buried in the grass. Those were the leavings of a glacier that slowly retreated from the valley. And what a beautiful meadow it was. Here's a view of it with the Bighorns off in the distance. The grassy side of the meadow is on the north side of the meadow and valley.

And the next picture is a view, facing east, of the tree covered part of the valley on the south side of the valley. The trees closest to the camera, the ones turning gold, are aspen. We discovered several islands of dead and dying aspen which had provide shade for many evergreens which were taking the place of the aspen. One of the many cycles of nature we noticed and commented on that wonderful day.

But the most startling discovery that day was the realization that we were hiking through a thoroughly burned over and recovering forest. Al commented that we seemed to be hiking through a Christmas tree farm. All the trees were about five feet high, with a few pushing up to seven and some eight feet. Then we noticed that there were obviously fire charred lodgepole pine trunks sticking up in places in the middle of the Christmas tree farm. I checked the needles on the small pines and discovered they were in packets of two needles, so they were also lodgepole pine.

We checked with Lesley when we got back to Casper, and she said that back in July of 2003 she had to go up to Buffalo for that fire for BLM. Actually two fires because it flared up a second day and got everyone excited again. So we were witnessing a second natural cycle, the recovery of a forest from a devastating fire. I remembered as we hiked and discussed the burned woods that lodgepole pines need fire to release the seed from the pine cones and regenerate.

We marveled all day at what we were seeing. Here we were hiking through a national forest and Al was getting sunburned because all of the trees were so short. He whined about that, but he who wears a short-sleeved shirt like one would wear to the office deserves a bit of sunburn. I spend so much time outside that my arms are almost permanently tanned, so I had nothing to whine about.

We hiked up a very steep and very rocky trail to just over nine thousand feet and it was about time for lunch, so Al and I decided to head back down to the only spot we'd been to that had shade. The trail went through a few acres of woods that didn't burn, so we hiked back down to it and sat on a log. We were joined by a chipmunk who scampered after a crust from my peanut butter sandwich when I tossed it. I commented that we were in a national forest, but we had not heard a single bird singing. A few minutes after that comment, I heard a black-capped chickadee, but that was the only bird song all day.

Al was in a thoughtful mood as I took pictures of some flowers in that small stand of trees.

The best part of that day was spending time with Al, even with all the wonders of nature we discovered. It is a rare gift to a parent to spend time in a national forest with one of your kids. A kid who is now an adult. You don't have to be the parent, just a friend. And he doesn't have to be the child, just a friend.

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

We'll do that again soon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Aerial Perspective

Kath and I are headed for Casper this Thursday for a few days. Al and I are planning to do some hiking up in the Bighorns and the Cloud Peak Wilderness area. I've been looking at a book about the area that describes trails and also at the NatGeo Trails Illustrated map for trails that might be convenient for day hikes and not too much driving.
That got me thinking about one of the last trips I made to Casper and back. I drove Al up to Casper, had dinner with him and Les, and was driving back to Denver. The sunset was spectacular. As I made that long sweeping bend from Douglas to Wheatland, I had a slowly changing view of the last hour or so of the sunset, as the clouds changed color and the hills, valleys, and ridges between I-25 and Laramie Peak became backlit. It was beautiful and I did a lot of smiling. Well, we idiots do lots of that, but this time the beauty of the land made me smile.
The fact that the prairie was so green from all the spring and summer rains and that I saw lots of pronghorn, some mule deer, a few eagles, and lots of hawks, added to the serenity and magic of that drive. Then I got to Fort Collins and it all went to hell in a hand basket. The traffic just gets so bad. Lots of idiots. Not many of the smiling, just blowing their horns and making obscene gestures.
Anyway, I chewed on that drive for several day and then started a poem about it. I worked on it for a few weeks and then took it to Mary Jo, my critique partner, who offered some good advice on it, as always. The title is Aerial Perspective, which is an atmospheric effect described this way in Wikipedia:
As the distance between an object and a view increases, the contrast between the object and its background decreases, and the contrast of any markings or details within the object also decreases. The colors of the object also become less saturated and shift towards the background color, which us usually blue, but under some conditions may be some other color (for example, at sunrise of sunset distant colors may shift toward red).
Probably more than anyone wanted to know. Anyway, this effect was discovered by Filippo Brunelleschi during the Italian Renaissance and used by painters since to give depth to their work.

Aerial Perspective
He watches the sun slide down
toward the Laramie mountains
twenty miles to the west. The valleys,
ridges, and peaks are softened 
by a haze that gives form 
and distance and grace to them. 
The prairie is lush from a wet 
spring and summer and the low 
sun paints seed stalks gold, 
and deepens the green of the grass. 
The sunset reminds him that his life's journey 
too is nearing its end--he has already used more 
than his allotted three score and ten. And his life 
has been graced by a light that gives form 
and definition to its valleys, ridges, and peaks, 
a light that glows golden on the fruitfulness 
of his days. 
The sunset dims to alpenglow. 
The beauty and grace of that moment 
assures him that his light 
has been well spent.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gold glove poetry

I'm sitting here at four minutes after one in the morning because I've been thinking about topics for my blog. Now isn't that a fine kettle of fish. Along with teaching and writing poetry I now have a blog to keep me awake at night. 
I was trying to develop topics when I thought about how I relish watching people who are really good at what they do. I enjoy watching Al, my son, look at a piece of machinery, usually something broken and that I'm bamboozled over, and figure out what's wrong with it and fix it. After he shows me what he did, I'm amazed how his mind works in a way that lets him see stuff like that. 
Or I watch a gold glove center fielder glide effortlessly across center field to arrive just as the ball almost completes its arc from bat to ground, catching it with outstretched glove. Or a gold medal slalom skier, swooshing through gates, bashing them alternately with  forearms, throwing rooster tails of snow from the edges of skis, gliding swiftly to the bottom of the run. 
When I was a young pilot in the Air Force, I admired the rare pilot I flew with who could nail airspeed, rate of descent, and heading, with little movement of the controls, and slip quietly down an ILS glide path to break out of an overcast  sky at 200 feet, perfectly aligned with the runway for a smooth landing. 
The problem with watching performances like those is the fact that I'll never be that good at those things. I'll always admire, but never realize, those performances. One could get a serious inferiority complex just from watching.
As I've begun writing poetry in earnest during my retirement, I read lots of accomplished poets like Mary Oliver who in "Some Herons" describes water in a pond this way:
The water
was the kind of dark silk
that has silver lines
shot through it
when it is touched by the wind
or is splashed upward,
in a small, quick flower,
by the life beneath it.
How can I even begin to think like that, much less write like that? If Oliver were the only one, I'd perhaps feel better, but then I read Ted Kooser's poem "At the Cancer Clinic" He describes two sisters leading a third, a patient, into the clinic. They are met by a gentle, sympathetic nurse. He describes the atmosphere in the waiting room:
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.
And then there is Billy Collins in his poem "I go back to the house for a book":
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me—
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.
How do I ever get that good? I could write until I'm a hundred and never come up with ideas or images like those, particularly "the kind of dark silk/that has silver lines/shot through it." 
Guess I'll have to plod along, write the best poetry I'm capable of, be satisfied with less than gold glove performances, and learn from Al how to fix things in my life that are broken. 
Wonder if he knows how to fix the right side of a brain?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lightning scarred ponderosa

A month ago, while I was out walking Principessa, the Bichon Frise who owns me--well has first claim after Kathy--and I noticed a long yellow scar on a ponderosa at the corner. I recognized it immediately as a lightning scar. We had had a particularly loud T-storm the night before and one flash of lightning was simultaneous with the clap of thunder. We all jumped. Principessa snuggled closer to me.

The scar winds from near the top to about three feet from the ground. Large pieces of bark were scattered everywhere, even into the street where cars had mauled them. A thin brown line traveled down the center of the scar, tree tissue that had been burned by the bolt passing through it. Sap oozed from the exposed flesh of the tree.

As I continued to walk Principessa, I thought about that tree and the similarity of that bolt of lightning to a traumatic experience. The experience doesn't kill; it just maims emotionally. I expect the tree will live for many more years, as long as some infection doesn't get under the bark through the scar. That would be terrible. I felt that I needed to write about the tree in my journal and create a poem about it. I worked on it for a month, sharing it with my critique partner, Mary Jo, who provided some great help and insight.

Ponderosa, lightning scar
He notices bark, scattered 
on the ground, and sees 
that it comes from a ponderosa 
rooted on a grassy knoll. 
A fresh, yellow scar curves 
from near the top 
almost to the ground.
Centered in that scar 
is an indelible brown line 
of burnt wood, fibers 
that will never heal. 
Sap oozes along the exposed 
flesh, as if the tree 
is bleeding.
The tree could be his own life, 
scarred and thunder struck.
His relationships, like the bark,
scattered by explosions 
of impatience, anger, fear. 
His lightning came not from a storm 
but from a year of combat, people 
trying to kill him, while he tried 
to kill them. 
After forty years the nightmares
and flashbacks are less frequent
but he still awakens in a sweat, 
caught in a chaos of violence and fear. 
In those dreams he is rooted, 
unable to escape the terror. 
As he looks at the tree, he senses
that it will heal in time as he 
has healed with time. But the tree 
will not have to remember the blast,
the burning, and the pain.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My walk Thursday at the Plains Conservation Center, where I volunteer as a naturalist, started off in exciting fashion. I had walked perhaps a third of a mile and stopped to glass the ridge to the east. I heard a weak rattling sound, and it took me a second to realize it was a rattlesnake letting me know it was there. I looked for the snake and five or six feet away saw the rattles sliding away from me in the grass. I followed the rattles and saw the rest of the snake, slowly coiling. I guess it was headed for the sunshine on the trail to get its body temperature up and was lethargic.
The snake managed to rattle a bit more energetically, and it finally managed a full coil. As I walked north past the snake and away, it stopped rattling. I tried moving back toward it, but it made a feeble and short rattle followed by another. I walked away again, and it stopped. In the five years I've been wandering that thousand acres of prairie, that is the first rattler I've seen that wasn't pointed out to me by one of the snake researchers or a staff member who found one near the sod village. They are really non-aggressive and run off or freeze-hide when a human comes close.
Although the autumnal equinox is still three weeks away, the prairie and its inhabitants are showing signs of its approach. Mourning doves, house finches, coots, mallards, sparrows, and red-winged blackbirds are gathering into migratory flocks and feeding in the riparian areas. They seem anxious about the long and dangerous trips they have ahead of them. And the meadowlarks have mostly moved south. Not a single one was singing during the two hours I spent on the prairie.
I saw a small herd of pronghorn as I left the nature center and it turned out to be a bachelor herd of 7 bucks. Later I saw a mixed herd with three bucks, half a dozen does, and four fawns. The fact that bucks are joining the nursery herds means that rutting can't be too far off, probably about a month. I also saw several SPUD signs on the road. A sure sign that the bucks are starting to mark their territory. (SPUD is sniff, paw, urinate, defecate, how they mark their territory.)
During the walk, I wrote in my notebook that "Slo is wonderful," a lesson I always have to learn again. Why am I so dense that I have to learn this lesson again and again. Perhaps it is from years of having to get things done yesterday, be places a few minutes ago, and be out ahead of the pack.
We get too soon old and too late smart.