Begin again

By Catherine Keefe
When Weather Underground Lake Tahoe, and the cabin rental agency, and the Squaw Valley ski report, and the friends who live here, and the drought watchers say, “there’s no snow,” I believe them all with the conviction of a woman who packs boots with slippery soles and thin socks for an alpine January vacation with plans of biking and hiking instead of skiing.

I expect no browning snow patches covering the bike path, no puddles melting into ice on the driveway, no leftover frozen white piles hiding the hiking trail.  I imagine dirt and dust and brown pine needle paths still edging the bluest lake in America but no, I definitely don’t imagine snow.

Let me tell you something. There’s no snow like you think there’s no love sometimes, like you want the thrill of skiing the big bowls but the coverage is so light you stay off the mountain so you don’t scratch your new skis and tell everyone there’s no snow, it’s no good. But it is there.

Look – Just now as you come around a corner and catch a glimpse of peaks and those endless pines that aren’t too proud to reach all day, there it is. Snow! Just like love.

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It might not be new and it surely isn’t making the news, but there’s pure white evidence that you simply forgot how it fell, silent one night at Christmas time which, truth be told wasn’t even a month ago.

There really is snow because it really is winter and even if it’s not showy and causing road closures or lost hikers or skidding trucks or epic skiing conditions it’s there, a little off the beaten path, a drift in the shadows. It shines under the moon and sparkles in the sun.

There’s less than usual, but when hasn’t that been true about something like your perception of the presence of hope or goodness?  So here I am, entirely unprepared clothes wise and shoe wise and activity planning but I couldn’t care less. Why?  Because it’s winter and there’s snow in the mountains and no one acknowledges it is there. Do you see it?

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Once again, I’m delighted, as a child who first discovers snow and now I’m even more apt to believe what Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It:

Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones. The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be?—it is the same the angels breathe.

In this month of beginnings, under the influence of angels, I once again am allowed the opportunity to let go, especially of expectations.  How blissful to discover I have everything I need after all:
a fireplace.
a match
a husband of 33 years
a contemporary book of poetry written by a woman who lives here
a notebook
a pen

With cold feet,
Catherine

p.s. One of my travel pleasures is picking up a book written by a local author.  If you ever travel to Lake Tahoe, I highly recommend regional poet Judy Tretheway’s book Rubicon Ramblings.

Here’s one of my favorites:

What is Enough?

Tell me how it happens,
magnificent one,
who stretches
into the golden light above the creek. Tell me how you can stand
so full
when under you flows
a rush of water and foam,
rock and debris. The very water that feeds you
washes away
the earth from your roots.
You grab onto the big boulders
while the soil
full of your food travels on. Every other tree I can see
greets the earth with a full embrace.
Your tether is tenuous,
yet it must be enough.What is enough
in this swiftly flowing world?How much security beneath our feet
do we really need
while we reach for our place
in the sun?

 

Gifts

Chester and I set out on the trail this morning, a day that is cold enough for a sweatshirt, but not scarf or gloves. The December California sun is bright, yet low in the sky. It’s a beacon, a headlamp I walk toward with sure strides even though its light blinds.

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Go toward the light, I say aloud and giggle because I’m so serious and so kidding at the same time.  I’ve been praying hard – for my students, so many of whom write so eloquently about being sad or lost; for my friends who’ve lost loved ones and face a new kind of emptiness this season; and for those strangers I might touch with my writing or teaching in ways I won’t ever know.

Maybe it’s the light, or the drawing near end of the year, but I feel a taunting melancholy and longing for something I can’t quite put my finger on.  I wonder how to hold the fullness of this day and season, how to share this expansive blue, the thrilling sound of twittering bushtits hidden in the scrub oaks that raise a grand chorus as we pass. What am I supposed to do with all this beauty I ask the sky.

Chester thinks I’m speaking to him, turns his head, cocks his ears, then crashes through the sage to chase a roadrunner. Right, I think. You’re simply one anonymous creature among the myriad in the canyon today.There’s nothing to do but be here.

The trail winds past a row of California pepper trees with weeping branches laden with reddish pink Christmas berries.  As I walk past the grove, a little too close, one slender green wispy branch slides its gentle finger from my cheek to my neck and I feel I’ve been caressed as if by a mother, touched by nature as if to say what am I supposed to do with all this beauty here? Goosebumps rise on my arms.

I laugh again, accept the touch, accept the sky, the birdsong, the quiet crunch of loose dried mud under my shoes and Chester’s soft nudge against my thigh when I call him toward the homeward path.

Isn’t this what the season is about: not only giving gifts, but openly receiving? I think, if we are attentive, we can fill the quiet spaces with appreciation and acknowledgement of all the gifts we’ve experienced this year. The unexpected visit. Daisies left on the front porch. Goulash dinner and homemade bread for no reason other than longtime friendship. Tilt your head skyward and be attentive. You might feel the caress of gratitude from others upon our cheek at the most unexpected moment.

~Catherine

the close-up color

_MG_1953Inspired by a photo accompanying a book excerpt in Shutterbug magazine, I looked at a collection of mine differently. This spurred the realization of the potential for color exploration and abstraction. Pastels and earth tones are the most prevalent colors of my array.

_MG_1993I have gathered these from both near and far.

_MG_1964I am looking at this collection in a whole new light.

_MG_1986The interplay of the shapes and colors is something I am just discovering about my array.

_MG_1966I like this mystery game.

_MG_2045I am especially drawn to the pastel pink and flesh tones in the one above, as well as the vibrant hues of this one.

_MG_2037Whereas, the earth tones of this one are not to be downplayed.

_MG_1968If you haven’t guessed yet, these next few photos will probably give away the items in my collection.

_MG_1955Did you guess yet?

_MG_2024Last chance.

_MG_1937You probably got it by now . . . sea shells!

I confess to being a long time beachcomber. My collection adorns many of the window sills in my home. Gazing upon them transports me to the various shores where, while strolling, they were spotted, picked up and lovingly chosen for various reasons – their flawlessness, uniqueness or color. I will always remember once, many years ago, coming home and sharing the day’s treasures of the sea with my mom by placing them in her hand, and the shriek she let out when one of them began moving across her palm – I had inadvertently collected a crab’s home – sorry mom and crab: I did return it to the sea.

I have gotten more careful and choosy over the the years but still enjoy a long afternoon strolling the sand with an eye out for a new addition to my collection. Now, I have another criteria for selection – as the possible subject of a color, abstract photo.

The book excerpted in Shutterbug magazine is The New Art of Photographing Nature: An Updated Guide to Composing Stunning Images of Animals, Nature and Landscapes by Art Wolfe and Martha Hill with Tim Grey. Judging from the pictures accompanying the article, I would like to see what these three have to say.

This week either gazing at my window sill or out looking for new treasures.

~ Susan

Sacred Garden

Air. Earth. Water. Fire. Find the four elements of nature within life, love, work, garden, and art and you’ll create a sense of balance without boredom, surprise without chaos.

These elements have long been subjects for poets.

The Fire, Air, Earth and Water did contest
Which was the strongest, noblest and the best,

wrote Anne Bradstreet, “the first woman to be recognized as an accomplished New World poet,” in her poem, “Four Elements [Fire, Earth, Air and Water].”

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In the spirit of Sunday as a day of rest, and with an invitation to you, dear reader, to find sacred places within your own garden, patio, or apartment, I give you Day 28 poetry for the 30/30 Project.  I composed four tanka: 5 line poems with  5,7,5,7,7 syllables per line, for a complete 31 syllable poem.

Sacred Garden: Four Tanka
Air
Canyon breathes, trembles
manzanilla olive leaves.
Starlings flush. Startle
golden garden bells. Birthday
gift erupts in temple song.

Earth
Angel’s apple tree
holds his palm imprint above
rootline his hands once
grasped, now both deeply buried —
roots and hands at rest in ground.

angels-apple-tree

Water
Patter on copper
rain chain drips a water chant.
Peace Rose bends toward war
veteran’s gate. I watch him stand
in open storm, hands clutch rain.

Fire
Votives lit on rocks
every night an evening prayer.
Dinosaur bones once
found here, two fossils. We too
press lantern path, watch light rise.

_______________________________________________________________

While I’m happy enough with these poems – written in a day – they’re not finished, in a true poetic sense yet. Complete tanka needs a turn between lines 3 and 4, “a pivotal image, which marks the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of the personal response.” Poems, like gardens, need constant pruning, rearranging, and feeding.  What inspires you?  Why don’t you try your hand at writing tanka today while your feet are resting on a ledge.  You’ll find a complete discussion of the form on the Academy of American Poets website here.

To balance,
~Catherine

p.s. In the spirit of small things, did you know that a donation of $10 to the 30/30 Project as a gesture of support and love for poetry and its publication, is as beautiful as the tiny blossoms on Angel’s apple tree?

Wild thing

Coyote yips drift through the open bedroom window sometime before dawn. It’s May’s most consistent night song. Chester’s hackles rise and he growls low. I pull the sheet over my ears.

Regal ChesterChester’s been chased by a coyote three times. These aren’t the lean, mangy, skulking wild dogs of past years. This crop of fat boys trot across the trail. They sit. Cross their legs. Light a cigarette, pinky ring glinting in the morning glare before they chase.

First time it happened, J was walking Chester. He stood his ground, raised his arms and yelled “Stop!” When it was my turn at the wrong end of a coyote chase I did the same. The coyote cocked his head, tightened his silk cravat, emulated the Don Draper eyebrow lift and then slowed his pursuit to a model-like prowl.

Chester bolted, leaving me to walk backwards until I couldn’t see the whites of coyote’s eyes any more. A chilling sweep of goose bumps rose on my neck.

It’s not an option to stay indoors when this is steps from my backyard.

trail vista

But where there is prey, there are predators.

oh deer

Last night, I dream there’s a lion with full mane in my house, barreling down the hallway toward my bedroom.  I slam and lock the door, lean against the wood which cracks and creaks and splinters against my hand. I call out to J in his office. There’s a lion in the hallway! Shut your door!  He’s working on his computer and not paying attention and the lion pounces. I wrestle the lion, wrangle his scruffy neck and heave him out the office window which somehow overlooks a high stony cliff to the sea even though we’re nowhere near the ocean.

I’m sure it’s a dream inspired by recent sightings that frighten me more than coyotes. Yesterday when Chester and I walked, we heard a rustling in the oak grove at the bottom of the hill.

cool oak tree

The noise spooked us both, much louder than the familiar rabbit scurry or quail scuttle through dry leaves.  It sounded human-size, but stopped as we neared, the instinct of an animal.  Chester’s fur ruffled; he hush-growled and we turned heel, Chester wildly scanning the scrub oak lining the trail.  To one side stands a solitary oak  and within it we heard another great flurry of leaves overhead. I expected a hawk, a peregrine falcon, maybe even the screech owls that have taken up in the neighborhood but the shadow didn’t fly. It scampered down the branches, down the trunk, a shadow bigger than my dog.

It’s been about a month since J and I spotted a mountain lion off the trail about a five minute walk from this grove and a neighborhood association warning came last week.

A mountain lion has been seen in the Dove Canyon area.

The animal was picked up on cameras operated at Starr Ranch Sanctuary.

Additionally, this past week Dr. Don Earl of Lido Animal Hospital treated a greyhound that survived a serious attack from a mountain lion that climbed into the backyard of a home in Dove Canyon. The Department of Fish and Game is aware of the dog attack and has tips on its website should you encounter a mountain lion.

I read the “Keep Me Wild” tips.

  • If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects. Pick up small children.
  • If attacked, fight back.

I don’t have a great track record with looking big. And I’m an awful thrower.  But I sing when I’m nervous and there’s one song that’s on rerun this spring.

This morning, I hurl lyrics, loudly, and yes, maybe dance and air guitar a bit on the trail. Chester didn’t seem to mind, but I might have some explaining to do to the woman who caught me coming around a blind curve. Last I saw, she was backing away, waving her arms to the sky.

With a song on my lips,
~Catherine

Gary Snyder wrote a spot-on poem about sensing the presence of a wild thing.
One granite ridge
A tree, would be enough
Or even a rock, a small creek,
A bark shred in a pool.
Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted
Tough trees crammed
In thin stone fractures
A huge moon on it all, is too much.
The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks
Warm.   Sky over endless mountains.
All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present seems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in the dry air.
A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.
No one loves rock, yet we are here.
Night chills. A flick
In the moonlight
Slips into Juniper shadow:
Back there unseen
Cold proud eyes
Of Cougar or Coyote
Watch me rise and go.

Weekend Dish-Summer!

I know what you want.
Cherries. Peach juice dripping down your chin. Bare feet. Sandy toes.

Chair

You want 101 days of summer.
The countdown officially begins today. 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

What will you do with these 2,420 hours, these 145,440 minutes, these 8,726,400 seconds of your one precious life?

There’s no way you’ll make a to-do list. You want a game.

Scavenger Hunt

Remember summer night scavenger hunts? You and your friends split into groups then set out in the neighborhood with a list? First one back with all the loot won?  Yeah. You’d like to try that again.

Take a photo of each of the 101 Days of Summer.
Post them on Instagram. Hash tag the photos with #backyardsisters_101days

Ready. Set. Go!

Epic BBQ

1. Perfect your go-to summer barbecue meal.
2. Learn a new grilling technique. For a great veggie grilling video, click here.
3. Invite a new neighbor for dinner.
4. Eat outside. Every night. Unless there’s thunder and lightening.
5. Eat by candlelight. Every night. Outside. Unless.
6. Sit on the grass with your dog’s head in your lap.
7. Watch fireflies.  If you catch them in a jar, be sure to let them out before you go to bed.
8. Learn 5 new objects in the night sky.  The free app SkyViewFree uses an i-phone’s camera as viewfinder.
9. Plan ahead to find a dark viewing spot for the Perseid Meteor Shower, August 11 and 12.  You’ll catch the summer’s best display of shooting stars. More info here.
10. Make your own ice cream. You don’t even need an ice cream maker. Check it out here.
sunset

11. Stay up late.
12. Get up early. Photograph your days.
13. Learn the names of 5 birds in your neighborhood.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an amazing library of birdcalls. Link here.
14. Take your morning beverage on the porch, patio, or near an open window.
15. Prop your bare feet on a ledge.
16. Plant one living thing, even in a small pot if you don’t have a yard.
17. Plant something you can eat. A few green onions. Parsley. One tomato plant.
18. Visit a farmer’s market.
19. Take home something you’ve never eaten before.
20. Eat it.
21. Learn to make the perfect margarita or mojito or favorite frozen treat.
22. Invite neighbors over to help you drink it.

Gammy and girls

23. Visit your mom and dad.
24. Look at photos from childhood family vacations; yours and theirs.
25. Record favorite memories either on video or audio.
26. Visit your children.
27. Look at photos from family vacations; yours and theirs.
28. Record favorite memories.
29. Create a family yearbook of photos.
30. Do one thing that scares you.

get wet

31. Swim in a natural body of water.
32. Cannonball into the deep end of a pool.
33. Play Marco Polo.
34.  Learn one new water skill: surfing, body surfing, paddle boarding, water ballet moves.
35. Teach your new skill.
36. Pick fresh blueberries.
37. Make a summer fruit cobbler. For the Backyard Sisters favorite cobbler recipe, click here.
38. Eat dinner on a blanket under a tree.
39. Walk after dinner through town or your neighborhood.
40. Listen.
Waimea
41. Hike a new trail.
42. Learn the names of 5 new native plants in your region.
43. Visit 3 new state parks. The rangers there will know the names of the plants.
44. Take a new friend with you.
45. Volunteer for a park clean-up day.
46. Tune your guitar, your piano, your cello, your drum, your voice.
47. Learn one solid song.
48. Lose your inhibition.
49. Make a campfire.
50. Sing under the stars.
51. Make s’mores.
52. Sleep under the stars.
53. Learn how to remove ticks from your dog. (Same concept applies to humans.) Great video here.
Art

54. Sketch, photograph, or journal what distinguishes your local ecosystem from others.
55. Learn 5 edible plants.
56. Learn 5 poisonous plants.
57. Learn to pack lightly.
58. Learn to clean up after yourself.
59. Learn to read a map.
60. Get lost.
61. Go to a car show.
62. Attend your state or county fair.

stevenson quote

63. Submit something: homemade beer, photography, literature.
64. Hold hands on the Ferris wheel.
65. If you win a giant stuffed panda, give it away to a neighborhood kid.
66. Visit the booths with prize-winning pies and jams and wines.
67. Congratulate the blue-ribbon winners. Ask one fine question about their process.
68. Hear an outdoor concert.
69. Watch an outdoor movie.
70. Wait for the Milky way.
71. Visit your local library.
72. Remember summer reading when you were a kid? Check out ten books.
73. Visit an independent bookstore. Buy one thing.
bookstore

74. Hear a live author reading.
75. Thank the author in person.
76. Perfect one aspect of your craft: Great openings. Killer closings. Trimming the fat from word count.
77. Slow dance under the Full Flower Moon on May 25.
78. Sip strawberry wine under the Full Strawberry Moon on June 23.
79.  Dance with abandon under the Full Thunder Moon on July 22.
80. Fish under the Full Sturgeon Moon on August 20.   For full moon name meanings, click here.
81. Invite neighbors over for a pancake breakfast.
82. Visit the housebound neighbor who couldn’t come.
83. Bring flowers, or stories, or one of your photos.

all birds and sand

84. Call your grandmother or grandfather or aunt or uncle or long lost cousin.
85. Tell them about the trees and birds and stars. Ask about the view from their window.
86. Ask about their favorite summer memory.
87. Remember to return your library books.
88. Lie on your back on the grass and watch the clouds.
89. Swing.
90. Swim again. Again. Again.

balcony art
91. Travel.
92. Learn five bits of history about one place you’ll visit.
93. Read before you go.  You can find a literary companion for more than 20 destinations from Whereabouts Press where the mission “is to convey a culture through its literature.”
94. Attend an outdoor art show.
95. Bike ride. On a beach cruiser. Along the beach if you’re lucky.
96. Learn hello, goodbye, please, thank-you and I love you in five new languages.
97. Learn how to come home.
98. Harvest and eat your one small thing standing barefoot on your own patch of ground, balcony, stone or wood.
99. Cut flowers from your yard. Take some to your neighbor.
100. Send an old fashioned hand-written note, with some herbs or fragrant leaves.
101. Set 5 small items – a shell, a rock, a poem – from your summer on your desk.

DSCN2585

Last one done is a rotten egg.
~Catherine

Seeing the tree through the forest

Patterns in nature come in many forms. This week, I took the time to “be in the moment” when walking about and looking for natural patterns. I found them! On a recent “photo walk” in Palisades Park, Santa Monica, the eucalyptus and palm trees are abundant and once I stopped looking around them and instead looked at them the beautiful design of their trunks became apparent.

_MG_8303pattern

_MG_8299pattern

_MG_8307patternNext, the patterns in the leaves of the grape vines and apricot tree, which are just beginning their new cycle of growth, right in my own backyard.

_MG_8312pattern

_MG_8316patternTwenty-four years ago this April, our family received a cymbidium orchid plant to celebrate the birth of our daughter (thank-you again backyard sister.) Every March and April since, it bursts forth with the most beautiful pink blooms which have an intriguing pattern in their center.

_MG_8326patternIt’s such a treat!

Sometimes, nature is used by man as a medium to create an art installation like the puppy sculpture at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao Spain.

IMG_4513pattern.JPGOr, nature can be tamed and formed into geometric patterns creating a grand and formal garden like this one at Versailles.

IMG_3935patternThe pattern possibilities of nature are great. I’m sure I can find more if I try this exercise again. It is helpful to capture with a purpose – for it’s through practicing your photography that you will improve and hone your craft. Having a project or a purpose in mind when you are going out to photograph, makes you ponder what you are trying to convey and the best way to capture your vision. It also can keep you from falling in to a pattern of always taking the same types of pictures – more on that next week.

Naturally yours,

~ Susan