In the Belly of the Whale

Driving north across the frozen sagebrush and fallow farm fields, across oxbows of frozen rivers and along streets shuttered on a Sunday morning, we pull into the terminal at the Riverton Regional Airport in Riverton, WY.  An unattended 15-minute parking lane sits vacant, directly in front of the entrance doors to the one terminal. Mounted mule deer, mountain lions, Sandhill cranes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and elk peer down at weary travelers with glass eyeballs and frozen countenance. Security is a room 5’ wide by 10’ long, and the singular airline gate has 10 folding chairs set up along the perimeter of an L-shaped room. Through the glass windows, frozen Tarmac stretches away as snow dances across the black and yellow of the runway. In the distance, flat prairie abruptly dead-ends in the sagebrush foothills, forcing heavenward to breathtaking heights of craggy stone and unforgiving glaciers.

Ten passengers emerge from the terminal onto the Tarmac and ascend, one-by-one, up the five steps to the cabin of the prop plane. Passengers are arranged into ten of the available 18 seats for weight distribution, stoically faced, as the pilot and co-pilot make preparations, entirely visible through the door-less entryway to the cockpit.  One seat on each side of the aisle and 9 seats deep is the entire volume of the plane. A small service dog and his companions occupy the three seats at the back; a blonde woman traveling to New Orleans inflates her fuzzy, pink neck pillow; a soon-to-be-father reads Pregnancy for Dummies two seats up from me and across the aisle.

Over Colorado, snow and a fogbank settle into the valleys, creeping into the canyons like a giant inland sea. Island hills break the surface, or appear ghost-like under the clouds like unseen pods of whales or prehistoric mastodon. Clouds and snow in the mountains form the appearance of giant advancing ice sheets, plowing boulders and carving giant crevasses with their sheer force and might. Saber-tooth cats stalk herds of wooly mammoth through the mountains and down to the edge of the foggy sea.

Civilization disappears as we soar over the cresting clouds, breaking in and out of the waves as though in the belly of a giant whale. Rib bones encircle the cabin as we peer out through tiny windows, looking down onto waves of clouds and imagining the world beneath the surface. An albatross descends, several miles south, and soars westward, barely cresting the waves, as we dive beneath the murky surface toward the ocean floor below. Schools of fish travel single-file along straight or curving paths in the aquatic vegetation. The air control tower looms ghostly and frozen, like a castle in a fishbowl, as we dive to the whale-dock with all the other passenger-carrying whales. Icicles and frozen fog form algal colonies on the trees, roofs, and bushes along the runway, and in the distance the ocean floor rises to meet the surface of the inland sea.

Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s political identity, by Julia Stuble – wyofile.com

My coworker – the lovely Ms. Julia Stuble – was asked to contribute to the Simpson Forum on one of the Wyoming news sites – WyoFile. She has shared incredible insight into the “vibrant and beautifully complicated Wyoming political identity.” An excellent read, and one – I’m sure – that many of us can relate to, regardless of our origins or residence.

Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s political identity, by Julia Stuble – wyofile.com.

Back to the bush.

In the spirit of Natural Resource Conservation, I found this particular post – and the entire blog – extremely inspiring. The writing style, insight, images, and experiences are beyond incredible.

A Place for Embers

Separated by time and space what continues to stick with me are the images I carry in my mind.
Africa has left its marks deep under my skin where only I know to look. But I suppose this is true for all the significant events of my life: working for Nols, the CDT, training my horses, and Nikki They all have left tail-tell sign as indelible as the blood trail of the first elk I shot. I suppose I am not the only one who can read these signs. They must show up on how in how I walk, in the joy in my face as I watch a kudu cow come to drink, her over sized ears swiveling to catch the sounds of my breath. The twinge of sweet pain as we eat our wild game, and the way my horse comes to me when he could walk away…

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Canning Tomatoes

Photo courtesy of www.prudentbaby.com

Photo courtesy of http://www.prudentbaby.com

I have always loved putting up for winter. When I was young, it was always jam. Blackberry jam from hand-picked berries ripened inland from the coastal fog that swallowed the headlands in the summer – creeping up the craggy ocean cliffs and settling in the branches of the redwoods. We would drive east toward the sun, through the dappled light of the dense forests; on roads that curved and ambled under giant redwoods on pavement slick from the damp. We would reach the sunlight and, in the dry Mediterranean heat, would sweat under our sunhats as thorns stabbed our fingers and the regular sound of berries dropping in the buckets filled the air. All the scents of summer were amplified in the close heat. The cool damp scent of creek bottoms floated up on the breeze and mingled with the rich, earthy aroma of cows. Pungent mint crushed underfoot spiced the dusty air.

Once we made it home with what wasn’t consumed en route, we would rinse the berries and boil them down with sugar. Jars clinked in the boiling water as they sterilized and country music on the FM radio crackled through the speakers as Vince Gill, George Strait, and Leann Rimes serenaded us from the living room stereo. Sometimes, when the fog had receded and was sulking somewhere on the ocean horizon, we would open the top of the dutch door in the kitchen and the scent of lavender from the planter boxes on the deck would waft in on the breeze. The jam jars were filled and we would retire to the porch with ice in our drinks and listen for the ping of sealing lids.

Since growing up and moving out on my own, I get an itch deep down in my memory that starts in August. Most years, the produce to do my own canning comes from the farmers market, but this year I have my own garden. I started six tomato plants indoors from seed last spring and watched them slowly mature as snow blanketed the world. The learning curve for tomatoes in my area has been quite steep, but trial and error (actually, quite a few successes) has yielded a total of 14 pounds of tomatoes – minus the ones eaten in hand as I stand between the plants with juices dripping down my forearm. And they’re still flowering.

For fear of losing my crop of harvested tomatoes, I canned my first batch of tomatoes this evening. How ironic that preparing for the frigid days of winter must start in the heat of an Indian summer. A stove full of boiling water on a hot summer afternoon will be a distant memory as I make lasagna, sauces, and casseroles or fill my Crockpot with canned tomatoes from my summer garden as the snow hurls itself against the windows. The same can be said for gathering and stacking firewood. The American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “If you chop your own wood, it will warm you twice.”

Canning this evening was only part of what is to come from my garden, but was a good start with two pints and three half pints of chopped tomatoes. The color and aroma of a garden fresh tomato is unlike anything else and I look forward to the lingering taste of summer as I listen to the January wind and the bubbling sounds of dinner.

As I listen to the ping of my jars sealing in the kitchen, I am so thankful for the bounty coming forth from my garden. Thankful, also, for the childhood experiences etched into my soul that cause me to reach into my cupboards for jars and lids as the days begin to shorten an the leaves begin to change. Perhaps it is something deeper than my own experiences – an evolutionary draw from an ancestral past that is passed down from generation to generation, sometimes suppressed, but nevertheless present in each of us.

June Wildflowers

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There has been an absolute stampede of changes in the plant communities over the past two weeks. I live in the foothills, and every few weeks I make the drive to the next town north of us. There are two routes – one through my town, and one slightly to the east, along the river. I took the river road, through the wide valley between upland sagebrush mesas, that wound and bobbed between hay fields and farms, cresting along the edge of the unending sagebrush before diving back down to the densely vegetated fields of timothy (Phleum spp.) on the valley floor. Adequate precipitation in early spring has greatly contributed to the abundant vegetation along the road sides, and I am likely a danger to myself and others as I drive along, peering intently in the ditches in an attempt to identify plant species at 60 mph. The timothy fields are at least knee high, interseeded with nebulous patches of smooth brome (Bromus inermis) and sometimes agricultural alfalfa (Medicago sativa) interspersed for mixed hay. In the wind it shimmers and ripples, and waves of green, gold, and mauve sway in the gentle breeze – sometimes flattened as they are broadsided by the downdrafts from spring thunderstorms.

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The road along the river bisects numerous sagebrush pastures where faded Indian paintbrush (Castilleja wyomingensis) – once vibrant and abundant, like miniature fireworks bursting forth from the silver background of sagebrush – gives way to the bobbing heads of Sego lily(Calochortus nuttallii). Sego lily appears seemingly overnight in a perfectly timed and choreographed emergence of delicate white flowers. Each plant produces one white flower on one slender, silvery-green stalk. The flowers are like upside down bells of white. Three wide petals with narrow points are interconnected at the base – each petal exposing a deep purple spot suspended part way up the petal, with a spray of yellow stamens in the center. Their appearance is even more startling as they protrude above the sagebrush layer in a widely but deliberately spaced sea of heads, bobbing in the wind like fireflies in a pasture at dusk – blinking as the sun catches the translucent white of their petals, and waving to and fro as delicate dancers with their bumbling and stumbling sagebrush partners.

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May

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Spring has finally burst forth from the mountains like an awkward fledgling. Snow has been recorded historically in every month of the year, but mercifully not this month. Garden equipment has begun sprouting outside Ace Hardware and True Value, the nursery greenhouses are overflowing with gallon pots, hanging baskets, decorative pots, seedlings in 4″ pots, fruit trees, annuals, perennials, and cement bays spilling top-soil and compost. Gardens are spilling over their fences as white and purple lilac bushes burst forth in an overwhelming display of vivid color and intoxicating scents. Green has come at last to the mountain slopes and an onslaught of wildflowers can be seen ascending the hillsides in an onward marching torrent of yellow as they strive for the snow-capped summits. The red cliffs and canyons around the house contrast sharply with the deep green of the new growth. Near to our house, federal land is leased by livestock ranchers and in mid May we were greeted by the bellows and grumbles of cows as they were turned out onto summer pastures.

The lengthening days provide for extended mountain viewing. Every hour shows a new face to the hillsides – whether shrouded in a cold and hugging rain or blinding flashes of yellow and gold as the contours of the earth are sharply contrasted as the evening sun sets behind the mountains, casting deep shadows along the dip of the smallest hill slope and illuminating the ridges in a highlight of brilliant green. Sunset stretches to infinity and dusk lingers until 10:00 pm as the sun climbs northward toward the summer solstice. The approaching summer brings changes to the valley as well – new birds are frequenting town as well as my bird feeder, vibrant shades of green, yellow, and purple swath the pastures dotted with grazing cows; mares and their young foals. My bird feeder has seen an assortment of new visitors as well – Bullock’s oriole, Baltimore oriole, Lazuli bunting, to name a few. Robins and meadowlarks have begun announcing the rising and setting of the sun, and Mountain bluebirds are nesting in the nest box on our fence.

As the weather warms, the tourists begin to thaw and move about town in increasing numbers. Memorial Day marks the start of the tourism season in the land where snow is sometimes seen on the ground until the middle of the month. To the south of town lie two historic mining towns, founded in the late 1800’s when immigrants traveling the Mormon, Lander, and Oregon Trails settled when gold was discovered along Cottonwood creek. Atlantic City and South Pass City still stand today, though their populations dwindle compared to the once booming metropolis’. South Pass City boasts 40 residents (most are not year round) and many of the houses are renovated cabins from the historic mining days. The town opens its Historic Site from Memorial Day to Labor Day and visitors can tour the historic cabins, mercantile, post office, bar, and jail house before moving up the road to Atlantic City for prime rib at the historic Miner’s Grubstake Restaurant and Saloon. Every other Saturday, the Miner’s Grubstake holds a whiskey and bourbon tasting event, followed by dinner and dancing.

I have been aching to get out in the garden and Memorial Day marked the start of gardening season here in the North. Furtive consultation with knowledgeable nursery staff and experienced neighbors led me to conclude that nothing should be planted outside until after Memorial Day, so May 25  dawned with a trip to the nursery and myself joyfully digging holes all over my garden. Raspberries, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, six varieties of tomatoes, sunflower seeds, hops, and clematis all made an appearance in my garden plot. I struggled with my drip irrigation system which seems to loose pressure after the first 50 feet, so I laid out an odd pattern with a long length and coiled it at the end of one of my beds – secured by stakes – while a second and shorter line of irrigation tubing criss-crossed to water everything the first had missed. Blue flax – a native wild flower – lends a nice back drop to my garden, as does the purple salvia and mint which have established themselves nicely among the rocks. Honey bees and mud daubers have appeared in the past few weeks and what was once a quiet place to sit on the deck is now nearly deafening as bees rummage through the flowers and birdsong echos across the valley.

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As the days lengthen and the sun thaws the soil, I look forward to the changes as spring turns to summer. The daily change is imperceptible, but every so often I look at the hills and notice the golden line of wildflowers has advanced another few degrees toward the ridgeline and the cows are making their way higher up the mountain side – their bellows and mumblings floating down the valleys in the evening light as the meadowlarks bid farewell to another day.

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