Category Archives: Sticks Life

Pa’s Lunch

I appreciate the simplest things. Shadows on snow. Dew on grass. The calls of the birds in the trees or passing overhead. The smell of pines and rain on the wind. Sunrise. I cherish these things, constant and enduring. Faithful as fate.

Shadow Art

I’m not certain how I arrived at this place. Perhaps I convinced myself this was the way I wanted to be, for I have not always been so. Perhaps I should not be so typically human, and take a conceited credit for learning these lessons. Some credit should be given, perhaps, to the living of a modest life, one without the extravagances monetary wealth seems to attract. Due should be given also to my interspecies soulmate, my late Chuy The Wonderdog, for the many silent happy hours we spent together on the trails and in our Wonder Woods. Without a doubt, it was he that truly taught me. Not only to look, but to see. And to smell and hear. To stop talking and start listening. To slow down, and smell the bunnies.

View from The Top

I like old things. My mom was old and I really liked her a lot. The Earth is old. The sky, too. I like old trees that remind me of myself. Feeling grand and stately, yet exhibiting a few signs of wear and tear. I like old forests that have huge deadfalls carpeted with green moss, and tiny pink sorrels that grow between the shadows of Hemlocks. Don’t get me wrong, some new things are good. New socks. And babies. Although they also get old eventually.

I like old movies, TV shows and radio series’. Folks often talk about how “times were simpler back then”. There’s a lot of truth to that, but unfortunately an egregious dichotomy. To put it simply, sometimes things were great for healthy white men while at the same time things were not good for women or the infirm or people of color or children. You can imagine this list could go on a bit. I grieve for those sorely affected by the narrow-minded and short-sighted people that came before me. Hope remains high that we are well on our way to a welcoming world.

I like to watch old shows because of what is not in them. I see wooden crates and burlap sacks and I say “no cardboard back then”. The phone is wired to the floor. All one needs to do is exit the room to be liberated from it. I see characters in crisp cotton clothing and think there was no wash-and-wear. Every garment worn would require pressing, except the wool and fur. There are no power tools or machines as we think of them. The kinetic energy of water was used to turn the mill wheel, to grind grain. Or to turn a leather belt that turned more leather belts and the cogs and gears and blades needed for a sawmill. Beasts of burden turned such wheels where water was unavailable, and they further pulled plows to till the land, and the wagon to go to town or church. Life In Engleville takes its name from this tiny hamlet, named for Engle, who built Engleville Pond a half mile from here, to power Engle’s Mills. Perhaps living in the shadow of the mill pond and the namesake endears those olden days to me.

Engleville Pond

In cowboy movies there are no vapor trails across the sky (except that one scene in that John Ford film, a famous blooper). In pirate movies, the wind propels the Black Pearl, without the black soot of the diesel engine, nor the trail of toxic wastes left in the ocean. In Egypt, we marvel at the great pyramids, built solely with human muscle, the sweat of the brow, the unfortunate slaves. In Yucatan we are amazed at the accuracy of cosmic clockworks, calculating calendars out twenty thousand years without the aid of Newton, Einstein a slide rule or a scientific calculator. We can watch Hillary summit Everest in a jacket and a pair of leather shoes. We can watch Shackelton stranded in the Antarctic for two years without a single death of the 28-man crew. People were tough back in the when. People were resourceful and did with what they had, whether in Antarctica or the Great Plains of the American West.

When my kids were growing up, Michael Landon did a television series bringing Laura Ingalls and her beloved book Little House On The Prairie to life. She would be known as Laura Ingalls Wilder when she wrote the series that chronicled her childhood as her family went westward with the frontier. It was a moment in an episode of this series that cemented my desire to “live simply” as Thoreau would put it. To be the kind of person that could make do with what he had, get along without machines, to embrace Yankee ingenuity,  and the Pioneer spirit. And to be happy and content with such simple things. Pa, as he would be called by Laura, worked at the saw mill with Mr. Edwards.

(Sidebar: Okay, so Ingalls is almost Engle, isn’t it? And Pa works at a mill, for which my road and Hamlet are named. We used to have a neighbor that used the hayloft of our barn. His name was Roger Edwards. Coincidences, I suppose.)

Barn At Sunrise

I’m watching Pa break for lunch. Pa and Mr. Edwards don’t go over to the diner or drive up to the Burger Queen. Pa brings a lunch pail. It’s a rectangular tin box, and the lid has a chamber and a screw cap. One would put cold water, or ice if you’re lucky, into the chamber in the top to keep food cool. In the winter, a scuttle full of hot coals would keep a warm meal so until lunchtime. (I have one upstairs).

Big buildup. Here it is. Remember how we’re talking about simplicity?

Pa reaches into his lunch pail (now you know why it’s called a “pail” before “lunchbox” came along), and pulls out a thick slice of homemade bread, wrapped in cheesecloth. There is also in the pail a ripe apple and a small piece of cheese. He washes this down with water from a tin cup. I can still see Landon’s engaging trademark smile, as he imagined himself to be this simple man. “That was a good lunch.” he says to Mr. Edwards, and they go back to work.

I have not viewed a meal the same since. Balanced diet and three places on the plate and sides and sauces and salad and dessert. Breakfast lunch and dinner. Three thousand calories a day. Where did all that come from? Maybe folks in Pa’s day did not have a well-balanced diet or what we would describe as healthy nutrition. Yet even without modern medicine, folks still lived to be seventy and eighty and who-knows-how old?

I was particularly lucky at lunch today. I am fortunate every day, of course, inundated with more offerings than Pa Ingalls could ever have imagined. Still, lunch is PB & J most days, on wheat bread. Sometimes a hard roll. How extravagant, Mrs. Ingalls would think. I’m not sure they even had much of peanut butter yet. Plenty of jelly though, because you had to make do with what you had. You had to be self-sufficient. You had to live simply.

Today’s lunch was a hot cross bun, warmed by the sun, accompanied by delicious black coffee from the green steel thermos. Icing and dried fruit were a delight.

“That was a good lunch.” I said, to the sparrows and starlings enjoying the wheat bread, a few feet from me and the Funbus. I thought of Pa again.

And who is “better off” I wonder?

Is it the man who enjoys the wealth of the world, jet-setting lifestyles, exciting once-in-a-lifetime highs, a balanced diet and three places on the plate and dessert?

Or could it be the man who can derive great joy from a quiet wood and canine companion, a peanut butter sandwich, the memory of a man who is long dead, and shadows on snow?

To The Wood!

Take care, and keep in touch.

Paz

Earth Life

I’m talking to YOU!

“Rome was not built in a day.” they say.

“All in a day’s work.”

“An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”

We’re talking to you, too.

“Tomorrow is another day.”

“Let’s call it a day.”

Enter Scarlett O’Hara, Margaret Mitchell’s beautiful, selfish, mesmerizing heroine of Gone With The Wind.
“Fiddle dee dee.” Scarlett says, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”

Hello?

“The Day The Earth Stood Still”

“Day Of The Jackal”

“Dog Day Afternoon”

What does a day mean to you?

I’m talking to you, as well.

Do you wait for one day each year to eat?

We’re asking YOU.

Do you take only one day each year to sleep?

I’m just listening.

Do you take care of your home just once each year? Make the beds, clean the windows, rake the lawn and then what? You’re done for another year?

Every day is critical to me.

Every day counts for us.

We embrace the Earth every day.

We’re talking to you, too.

It’s our Earth, too.

I’m trying hard to think of something special, something extra to do for Earth Day.
It seems everything I think of are the things I do every day.
For water, for air, for birds, for animals, for terra firma.
She is my mother, and I love her every day.
Not more on better days and less on lesser days.
I don’t live Earth Day or even Earth Year.

For me, for mother, I live an Earth Life.

Down here. We’re talking to you, too.

We’re in this together.

Trees and water calling, too.

We all share the same planet.

Don’t forget us.

A big thanks from me!

 

Love always,

Paz, Sasha, and Mother Earth

Budding Season

The four seasons called out on calendars are but a repository, a filing cabinet of sorts, for the thousand seasons-within-seasons that we observe during one trip around our sun. Within each quarter-year drawer are dozens of files, arranged chronologically of course. Once in a while, a file will be out of place, and some reference others. The paper calendar and the imaginary filing cabinet lend an air of order, of regimentation. If we look more closely it is sometimes more random, almost haphazard, sometimes chaos in defiance of logic. If you’ve ever had a late freeze, a simple cold snap on one solitary morning in April or May, you will understand. How this will echo and follow you daily, all the way around our planet’s course until next year.

No lilacs. Frozen apple blossoms results in a full year without apples. No little green starters in midsummer. No fruit on which to watch the blush of summer grow redder on its cheek, until it hints at the next season. No piles of apples amid the autumn leaves for deer to nosh on. No soft brown blobs left when the snow recedes, their presence welcomed by those who’ve toughed out a long, frozen winter. Of all the things a late freeze steals from me, I feel the greatest sense of longing for the apples. Fingers cramp from crossing until June.

After a long winter with rather little snow, we have now seen in this second week of April a number of flurries, even a few inches of accumulation which usually lasts only a day. We have a few tulips that have opened on the south lawn, where they bask in full sun beside the stone foundation. Tulips doused with snow somehow look entirely natural, perfectly contented. An April snow is easy to love, as one is keenly aware that it will not stay and pile up and need to be shoveled. It’s especially welcomed this year, to bring up the water table. Spring snowmelt fills our reservoirs and water towers, and starting the year in the hole brings trepidation.

April also brings a breathtaking and captivating burst of growth in nearly every tree and shrub. It is a tiny season-within-the season of spring, and if you’re not watching, you could easily miss the Budding Season among the trees. It’s easy to spot the pussy willows, their fuzzy catkins begging to be petted. So, too, the “Tulip Tree” magnolias will start to show bulges at their fingertips, gently unfolding into pink blossoms. Cherry trees catch the eye with their white flowers, and dogwood glows red in anticipation of leafing out. But if you look up, if you look into the woods, you will see giants in bloom.

 

 

“Redbud!” I declare when first I see them. As if it is a scientific name for this exciting taste of the day-by-day changes spring gifts to me. Red is the most popular color for the earliest leaf buds as they sprout from twigs, just babies. Not yet old enough to produce the chlorophyll that will paint them their trademark green. Some are yellowish, and some are indeed green when first they appear. Some trees will produce catkins, mossy-looking or fuzzy or string-of-pearl tendrils dangling like elegant earrings.  Ready to greet the turkeys for their spring cotillion, a festive display for the dancers in the fields, the bachelors sporting their finest.

It is a feast for the eyes as well as good food for the soul. Even one who embraces winter, and feels woe at spring’s arrival, such as myself, must delight in the colorful profusion on those naked sticks one has viewed since October. Winter is quite monotone, with a few splashy highlights. It’s mostly grey bark and white snow and a trim of almost-drab evergreen, dotted with a blue jay, a red-bellied woodpecker or a northern cardinal. Now these giants are dotted with colors, pale yellow and deep burgundy, and adorned with kinetic energy. Herein is a trusted source and undeniable sign that winter is fading behind us. Not an observant groundhog or college-educated meteorologist’s best guesses, not the reading of signs and recollections of years past. Here is solid proof from the authority.

Flowers, flowers, flowers. From Mother’s Day to the mums of Thanksgiving we love flowers, flowers, flowers. But how many are waiting for that May day to relish in the beauty of blooms? How many are ordering seeds and starting morning glories on windowsills and cleaning out the greenhouse on a mild April day without looking up, looking out, and beholding the biggest display of the present season? Sure, we’ll have fields of wildflowers if you want to wait three months. Sure, we have yet to smell the lilacs and peonies, to be wowed by the locusts, and mesmerized by the honeysuckle. You’ll have all summer for that.

For Budding Season is one of those rare and brief moments in nature, when she’s on the move and swinging into action. Like the nesting birds and calving cows and lambs that dot the farmyards, it is soon to be overwhelmed by all the life and living that summer brings.

It comes along at just the time we need to be reminded that these cosmic clockworks never fail us.

 

Take care and keep in touch.

Paz

A Changing World

March Sunset On The Ranch

As the spring equinox arrives, it brings to a close one season of changes, and escorts in yet another. Winter is not boring. One day is filled with sunshine and crisp, clear air, the next is dark and gray and blowing and ever-so-cold. Like snowflakes, no two winter days are identical.

Snow falls and piles up, mounded by the plow, piled by the shovel. We embrace its uniqueness, especially when new, as it is each year, each snowstorm, each blizzard. We frolic in it, throw it at one another, photograph it as if we’d never seen it before. We lace up boots and strap on snow shoes and skis, harness the dog and don the jorring belt. We marvel at the way it paints the trees, the hillsides and meadows, the mountains in the distance.

In between, the snow will fade. It gets thinner and thinner, some bare patches may be seen. Just when you think it’s safe to put away the snow shovel, a late March blizzard will dump 30 inches of snow on us. There will be in there somewhere an ice storm, which coats everything in our natural world with a glaze of glass.

The ponds evolve daily, our visual barometer of the season and calendar of change. First a small opening appears in the center of the ice. The next day it is twice the size. A week later, ice rims the edges of ponds, and creeks cascade over ice-covered rocks.

Now spring brings another season of change. Here the tulips are popping up through the snow-matted south lawn. We spy red-winged blackbirds and grackles, harbingers of summer. Each day is a guessing game. Do I wear the longjohns? Do I bring the “winter” coat? One day we swear winter is still upon us, and the next we revel in temperatures that call to mind days in May, lilacs and dandelions. Regulating the heat in the Ark can be a challenge. The pellet stove drives off the 34 degree F chill driven by the wind. Then by noon it is 82 degrees F in the kitchen. Pellet stove off. Doors flung open. Other days seem mild, and we’ll leave the wood stove on standby, use the gas heaters, and in the evening we flip a coin to decide if it’s cold enough to warrant a fire.

The driveway goes from a solid sheet of glacier to a massive mud bog, complete with a sinkhole in the middle big enough to swallow small pets. The lawn changes from a pristine field of white carpet to a mess of sticks and leaves and such, previously hidden beneath snow. The sump pump in the basement works tirelessly, pretends it’s a bilge pump on the Titanic.

There will be one more round of big changes as spring barrels its way into our world. Leaf buds on trees, crocuses on the ground, orioles in the air. The first tulips, the first hummingbird.

By comparison, summer can be a bit boring. A little monotonous. Sure, we can watch the peas growing in, we can start cutting hay in June and watch for the next round. We can look forward to three days at the lake. But besides that, it’s pretty much the same each day. Green grass and green leaves and flowers of every color and profusions of growth in all directions. Birds of every kind. Well, I may not see a dark-eyed Junco again until November.

I will bear it only because I know, like all things in this universe, it is fleeting and temporary.

Soon enough, with some patience, my dear friend August will start the first hints. Hints of change. Pumpkins getting large, morning glories climbing.

And I will be glad the boring sunshiny summer is behind us, and I can again be entertained by a changing world.

 

Take care and keep in touch,

 

Paz

 

Three-In-One Mornings

The depth of winter is one of my favorite parts of the year.

Sure, it can be cold and there can be plenty of snow. Both those things are great assets of the winter. The former keeps bugs at bay, and the latter paints the world in pristine white.

Some folks shoot river rapids in a kayak for the thrill of it. Some folks climb huge mountains past the timberline in grueling conditions. Some folks will jump out of a helicopter to ski and snowboard in the most isolated places. For me, there is the challenge of winter. Not just surviving, but thriving. To scoff at temperatures in single digits, and equally dismiss double-digit winds. To wrap in layer upon layer then don snowshoes for a leisurely walk. To stand atop Nishan Hill and be shaken like a sapling by the winds of winter.

Snowy Sunrise

One of my favorite things about winter is the morning commute. In winter, it’s dark when I rise. There’s something about moving about a kitchen quietly, letting the dog out, putting on the pot of coffee when it is still night outside. It’s a special time of night, too. Early night still sees traffic and lights on in living rooms. Late night has its own feel. Third-shifters bound for work, folks at The Snack Store mopping up to close. At this pre-dawn hour, it is much quieter. Only the snow plow rumbles down Engleville Road, and The Snack Store hasn’t turned on the lights yet.

Sassy June wants to go on the long dog run beside the woods, and I cross the driveway to fulfill her wishes. The only illumination is the soft incandescent glow of the cabana lights, casting a yellow hue on the snow. I turn to go in and I am stopped in my tracks by the Milky Way, stretching from the southwest to the northeast across a crystal-clear frozen sky. I stand and stare and marvel at this beauty until the snow creeps into my slippers and I’m reminded I am not wearing a coat.

Eagles In Snow

Dog in, pellet stove fed, Thermos filled, and it’s time to leave. Goodbyes and lights out, and The Ark returns to nighttime as Juney climbs onto my reading chair to go back to bed. Headlights on, three rabbits are startled and dash for the hedgerow. Pulling out, I pause to look back, and call to my angel puppy to join me on the drive. He’ll be gone four years this July, but I think of him every day. I say “Good morning, angel puppy.” to his grave, tell him there’s plenty of room in the car for a ghost. The dog’s grave, the silhouetted sugar maples and the sleeping home fade in the rear view mirror as I grudgingly depart my favorite place on the planet.

Driving in the dark. Most of the world is relegated to a cone of light directly in front of the Fun Bus. There is just enough breadth in the headlights’ beam to light the sides of the road, where my eyes keep constant watch for animals of all kinds. Many critters come out only at night, and others will take advantage of the darkness when they can. Whitetail deer are the main threat, as they move quickly and weigh as much as a man. The “Deer Watch” light is always on in my brain whenever we traverse dark roads. Snow illuminated by the headlights is entrancing, magical.

The night sky is not black. It is a deep, glowing blue. Deeper than blue, maybe. Countless stars fill the heavens, and there are often sightings of our cosmic neighbors, the fellow planets of our solar system. I’ve seen quite a few meteors while driving in the night. The moon dances in and out of mornings. Sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes large and sometimes small, and sometimes none at all. Sometimes it will back light clouds in the sky, and cast warm orange tones on them. Sometimes it is a bright full ball that shines like a beacon, casting deep shadows on the snow like a Hollywood “day for night” shot.

It is an exclusive club this early on the road. Milk tankers haul from dairy farm to dairy farm, heading eventually to the Midland Farms dairy plant, or the Dairylea Co-Op. Farmers are out at all times. I’m likely to see a manure spreader plodding along the side of the road, headed for the entrance to the cornfield. I’ve seen harvesters cutting corn under the lights at seven and eight o’clock at night, but it seems only manure spreaders are allowed before dawn, with the exception of Agway’s huge ag trucks hauling lime to the fields in April and May. Their oversized balloon tires making them bounce as they ply the pavement. We may see a sheriff’s deputy or a State Police cruiser, winding up their shift, heading home to bed soon. Tractor trailers pull out of the distribution center east of the village, bound for stores across the area.

Madrugada

Somewhere along U.S. Highway 20, eastbound, the edge of the night sky begins to brighten. Deep indigo fades to pale blue. In Spanish, the word “madrugada” is used to describe this “time between night and morning”. Birds are waking now, as are people in their homes. Lights come on in houses, and a few more cars join the parade. The first yellow school bus may be seen, heading for the start of the route.

Now we can peer into the fields and see wild turkeys, the occasional coyote may streak past, galloping full speed to the safety of the woods. The monotone world of night begins to see its first hues of the day. The sky becomes brighter blue, displays wisps and ribbons of white clouds. The earliest hints of the sun begin to tone the sky in orange or pink or deep red. Thanks to the snow cover, we can see farm animals silhouetted in fields, cows, horses, goats, sheep.

Somewhere between Carlisle and Sloansville, the big red ball will crest the horizon. Twice a year it sits dead center in the highway as I drive due east. First, the clouds at the edge of the sky will alight, ablaze in red. Then the atomic fireball climbs over the end of the Earth, and I am floodlighted by a blinding beam. Now all the world is red. The sky and the snow, the road and the trees and even the sheep and the goats. Some days, if there’s heavy cloud cover, we will be denied this display. When storm clouds blanket our world, and snowflakes fly.

Dawn Buck

Now we catch the tardy. Those who would be abed by dawn, caught by the sun. A young fisher streaks his way across the corn stubble, dashing for the Schoharie Creek. A possum hastens, as best a possum can hasten, which is not too hasty, and I brake for the wildlife crosswalk. An owl of the night heads for the roosting tree. Birds seem to multiply with the increasing light, and now great flocks of Canada Geese, sometimes Snow Geese, take to the sky with a raucous clatter. After February, after hibernation season, we may smell the skunk even if we don’t see it.

Fisher At Sunrise

I stop just past the bridge over the Schoharie, stunned by the sunrise bleeding through the fog, shadowy arms of trees contrasted against the brilliant light. I have a three minute window to shoot this photo before the Earth moves beneath me and the moment and image pass. Climbing the on-ramp to Interstate 88, beside the field where I shot fifty frames of a mother coyote on the hunt, the rich flatlands stretch out over my right shoulder. The sun is pouring down between ridges, and lights the village of Schoharie with a bright beam. Up, up, up the long draw I climb. Up out of the Schoharie Valley, crossing the ridge, parallel to the Mohawk River Valley, and on into the Hudson River watershed. As I settle onto the flat stretch of highway, the full sun leaps up from the horizon, and the lights come on for a shiny new day.

Sunrise Over Corn

Now it is truly dawn, and the whole world seems to notice. There are more cars on the road, and school buses on the secondaries, red lights flashing. Cawing crows and ravens fly about, and a bald eagle is sighted over the swamp. This is where I saw the bear a number of years ago, trotting out from the edge of the woods, startled to find a road before him. The sky holds one show after another, and I must tell myself I can’t stop and shoot more pictures. I already spent ten minutes by the creek shooting the fisher and the trees in the golden sunrise, and each minute’s delay takes from my employer’s time.

Bus Stop

The light angles steeply into secret holds in the woods, casts a copper glow on everything. In a matter of minutes it will rise up out of the morning show. It will burn off the dramatic fog. It will drive the fishers and possums into their daylight quarters, and rise into the blue sky until this magical time, too, passes, and we are drenched in daylight.

As spring nears, the captivating three-in-one mornings become a thing of the winter past. I’ll rise as the sun knocks at my kitchen window, and in summer the light will stretch out to nine o’clock. Now patience is required. I will have a dozen more three-in-one mornings, stolen in short stints at campsites on a remote lakeshore, or garnered as part of the pre-dawn fishing excursion on Sundays. Then I must wait. For August. Then September. The sun centers itself on U.S. Highway 20 again, and while the rest of the world begins preparing for winter, I drive easterly, a foolish grin on my face, looking like the village idiot.

And I will revel in the darkness that begins my favorite season, and eagerly anticipate another quarter-year immersed in the magic of three-in-one mornings.

 

Take care and keep in touch.

 

Paz

Sedentary Sunday

Feeder Friends

The Mourning Dove is too large to land up on the feeder. He makes his rounds on the ground as the Jay shovels aside the millet and cracked corn, digging out a sunflower seed before flying to the lilac to eat it. The sparrows dodge the heavy traffic as the little gang of Jays mobs the feeder.

The sky is grey and a light snow is falling. Not tiny flakes but not the big fat ones either. Just the right size for viewing. To watch them dance, driven in every direction by the January wind. They flit about on courses not unlike the birds’.

At the kitchen window, I lean my elbows on the counter, rest my chin in my palms, and gaze out at the snow falling, boldly contrasted by the evergreen backdrop. I see Sassy June standing in the driveway. She remains motionless and stares for the longest time. Watching the woods and lawn for bunnies or neighbor cats. I adopt her attitude, and stare myself out into the beauty of the day. Not a look to see what the weather may be, nor a glance to check on the dog, but simple, mindless, timeless staring into the ever-wondrous world.

Snow Cone

Standing by the wood stove, I continue reading between peeks out the south window at the feeder. I’m reading Keith Billington’s book about a reenactment of a turn-of-the-century dogsled patrol by the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. It is famous, or perhaps infamous, among the people and places close to the story. It is known as “The Lost Patrol”, and it is a tragically heroic story of four men in the service perishing after becoming lost in the vast and brutal Northwest Territory of Canada.

Here I sit on a January day, the perihelion having passed just yesterday, and read the account of men who rode off into the Arctic night of December and January, when the sun would refuse to rise for a month. It’s twenty four degrees Fahrenheit here, and barely a dusting of snow covers the ground. Between Fort McPherson and Dawson, the snow piles five feet deep, the temperatures plunge below zero, and winds blow so hard that small rocks and bits of shale become airborne, hurled like so much shrapnel.

Billington’s story is of a reenactment of the ill-fated 1910 patrol. In 1970, he would travel by dogsled with sixty-seven dogs and ten companions, and traverse the rugged wilderness between Fort McPherson and Dawson City. Titled “The Last Patrol”, it occurs at the last chance to see this pristine country as The Lost Patrol had, as the construction of the Dempster Highway, traversing a parallel route, was underway.

In Engleville, the sky remains a sullen grey overcast, then suddenly the sun breaks through illuminating the flakes of snow. Just as quickly, the sun hides, and the winds blow at seventeen miles per hour, shaking the trees, grounding all but the most skilled flyers. I’m called upon for domestic duty. A run to the trading post for essentials; bread, Cool Whip, seltzer water. So determined am I to return to my lazy Sunday reading by the wood stove and counting snowflakes, I pull my pants on over my pajamas rather than don long johns. Upon my return, son-in-law Matt had arrived for a Sunday visit.

Matt on the rabbit hunt

While Billington and his cohorts in 1970 slept shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor of a tiny cabin, and Inspector Francis Fitzgerald in 1910 made the decision to turn back to the Fort, we drank coffee and chatted. We looked ahead at spring projects. We spoke in that January way about getting prepared early, making plans. One can commit to just about anything from the wood stove-warmed January kitchen. Dreams and boasts are equally successful as the frozen ground and frigid temperatures make all the contemplated activities impossible just now. Many of these plans will shrink a bit when spring arrives. When trout streams beckon and spring turkey hunting occupies our thought and time. When the real work begins and we wonder if we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. Matt takes his leave, and I am left again in the warm kitchen, windows on either side and a compelling book on the table.

My over-active brain tries to suggest other activities. Continue sorting the Holiday Closet. Parting with Christmas for another year and breaking out the non-holiday oriented snowmen and other cold and snowy decor. Now that sounds like work, and I did more than my fair share yesterday, anticipating, eagerly awaiting a sedentary Sunday. I could take a hike with Sassy June, but did that yesterday, too. A nice long walk. I could go out and fuss with the Ski-Doo, see if I can get it started for the first time this season, but there’s really not enough snow cover for snowmobiling. The two sides of my brain briefly debate, and my will to sit and read somehow overrides my hyperactivity obsession.

The dog must be let in or let out or given a snack at regular four-minute intervals as I make my way through “The Last Patrol”. Between dog demands, Doone The Cat needs to be petted and given treats and let out to be let in again later. Domestic service and dog service and cat service complete, at least for the moment, I return to the Northwest Territory and mushers making their way across a frozen tundra, or remaining pinned down by gale force winds. At home, the winds pin down the Juncos perched in the lilac. Only crows and jays can be seen flying about, buffeted by the blow, making landings like Alaskan bush pilots.

Standing again beside the wood stove, light from the south window illuminates my reading. I look up to check the feeder thirty feet away. Leaning into the window, I feel the draft between the sashes, smell the snow and a faint scent of wood smoke. This puts me at a desolate and hungry camp in the dark and cold of a January night in 1911, when The Lost Patrol began shooting their sled dogs to feed themselves and the remaining dogs. The entire entourage, man and dog alike, begin sinking into states of starvation, a hundred kilometers from respite.

Billington’s book is a modern story. Men in weatherproof clothing. Airplanes to drop barrels of dog food along the route for re-supply. Billington himself is a nurse, and with the crew are experienced guides, men that have lived here all their lives. Once a week during their month-long expedition, they will see a plane that circles overhead, checking the progress of the journey and safety of all parties. In the sled is a radio phone they could use in a real emergency. Between passages of the 1970 reneactment, Billington punctuates his narrative with corollaries to the ill-fated 1910 mission, including notes from Inspector Fitzgerald’s diary, which he kept up with until his last days. While Billington speaks of his powdered coffee creamer running low, and shares his energy-rich barley sugar candies, Fitzgerald and his party are eating their own sled dogs, boiling leather strips and bindings to eat.

Two of Fitzgerald’s men, Constables Kinney and Taylor, are so depleted, he commands they stay and pitch camp, while he and another constable forge ahead with hopes of reaching rescue and relief. Here, Constable Kinney died from starvation and exposure. Lying in the sleeping bag beside his dead comrade, Constable Taylor was overwhelmed, and took his own life.

I’m sitting in a kitchen chair and it’s seventy five degrees with the wood stove going. I sit in my pajamas and slippers and sip drip-brewed coffee, and think of these men. Try to place myself in my mind’s eye on that frigid, desolate and desperate trail. Fitzgerald’s companion passed from hunger and exposure the very evening the group split. A leader to the end, Fitzgerald folded the man’s hands on his breast, covered his face with a handkerchief, and said a prayer for him. He huddled by the fire, composing a brief will. All of his belongings were to be returned to his mother.

Billington and his party complete their trek without major incident. They intersect the early stages of construction on the Dempster Highway, and spend a number of miles sledding up the gravel roadbed. It’s a celebration of a centennial, and The Last Patrol is greeted in Dawson City like celebrities.  Festivities and feasts and a key to the city mark the end of their journey. They are eager to get on aircraft and return to their families after a month on the wilderness trail. While I draw parallels and make counterpoints between Billington’s trip and Fitzgerald’s, I don’t minimize the efforts of the modern group. It still takes a lot of work and energy and will power and maybe a little madness to set out on dogsled into the untrammeled and unpredictable Canadian back country.

In my mind I travel north and west to Canada, and back through time exactly one hundred nine years, more or less to the day. I try with greatest effort to imagine Fitzgerald and his party. The imagined world in my head is bad enough, and it pales in comparison to the real thing. There is no way to truly imagine what these men felt. The sickening realization that we are lost in a vast wilderness, hundreds of miles from the nearest human being. The horror of deciding we must kill and eat our own dogs, and feed them to the others. At the first, the dogs themselves refused to eat the meat. I wouldn’t claim to be able to imagine the desperation and sadness of Special Constable Carter, who had grossly underestimated the Northwest Territory’s ability to make every mountain and creek look the same as the next, even to experienced men. Starving, freezing and slowly dying in the dark, knowing he led himself and three others to this fate.

And alas, the great weight borne by the leader, the last to succumb, Inspector Fitzgerald. It was his error in trusting that Carter knew the way, in overriding his doubt that perhaps a more experienced guide would be required. In the final accounting, a leader of men feels fully responsible for all in his charge. Causal factors and outside forces may be observed, but for the leader, all responsibility lies at his feet.

The sky is beginning to dim. Clouds sport pink ribbons between purple patches. The dove, the jays and the juncos retire to that place they go when night falls. My journey through Billington’s book, across the windswept Northwest Territory, and following the doomed Lost Patrol, leaves me feeling as if I’d been on the trail all day. Exhausted by the schedule, spent from the many miles, I am happy just to be alive. I shelve the book, knowing the story of both these voyages will remain in my mind. Knowing that, next time I am snowshoeing through two feet of powder, a withering wind in my face, I will think of four men that never returned from their trail.

And I will say a silent prayer for them.

The members of the Royal North-West Mounted Police 1910-1911 Lost Patrol:

Constable George F. Kinney, RNWMP
Constable Richard O’Hara Taylor, RNWMP
Special Constable Sam Carter, RNWMP
Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald, RNWMP

May they rest in peace.

Take care and keep in touch,

 

Pazlo

Fire On The Mountain

Fire Ring

In his song “The Devil went down to Georgia”, Charlie Daniels’ hero Johnny plays the fiddle on a wager, his soul for gold. He plays a medley of folk songs, and begins thusly:

Fire on the mountain!
Run boys! Run!”

The folk song referenced is nested in bygone days, a different time. It doesn’t sing “Call the fire department!”, nor “Dial 911!”. It comes from a time when there was no 911. Here on this mountain, there was no fire department. If there were, telephones do not yet exist, or perhaps have not reached the hills and hollows of sparsely populated rural areas.

It evokes a vision of mother or grandfather, one hand on a porch post, looking across the valley. Smoke is rising, not from a forest or a glen, but from John and Mary’s, or perhaps the Widow Bouck’s. The conflagration is not anonymous. We can imagine Mary’s face buried in her hands, or thankful that the winds are not blowing toward their home. We can see John, the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, face and hands blackened with soot as he beats back the burning bushes to protect his family, his farm, and every irreplaceable thing he has, no one to turn to or call on for help.

The boys arrive, perhaps on foot, perhaps on horseback, perhaps brimming from the bed of a truck we know from episodes of The Waltons, from The Grapes of Wrath.  They are farmers and millhands and pastors and barbers. By twos and threes they race without orders into the fray, disregarding their own safety. With shovels and picks, axes and hoes, these ordinary men confront the beast, shoulder to shoulder. Through the night the battle rages, and at dawn they will kneel together. They will give thanks for all that was saved, or will share tears for their losses.

In the world of 2020, the majority of people live in densely populated communities. Cities and sprawling suburbs and housing developments. Most benefit from full-time, fully-equipped, fully-trained fire departments, whose heroes are no less brave or appreciated than Johnny and his neighbor boys.

According to the 2000 Census, and I doubt it has changed much, the population of the Village of Sharon Springs stood at 547 persons. I live about three miles from the village line, in the larger tract called the Town of Sharon. It is comprised of about 1,900 people, which includes the village populace. When I moved here in 1985, we had a constable. He drove around in an older Plymouth with a big, round gumball machine-looking light on the roof. Once Phil reached retirement age, the position of the constable was dispensed with. The well-equipped county Sheriff’s department would cover the village in his stead.

Our fire department and ambulance squad are all volunteers. So it is for all of our surrounding communities. One would need to drive about fifty miles before reaching a community with paid firefighters and EMT’s. In this past year, my grandson Max began his training to join the Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department. My sister’s parents-in-law were both on the Greater Amsterdam Volunteer Ambulance Corps. My dear late friend Jim Bixby was a Lieutenant in the Middelburgh Volunteer Fire Department. He was honored, as was my daughter’s father-in-law, with a “Final Call” via radio dispatcher, at their funerals.

We had a blow-down last week at the ranch. A twenty-foot, twelve hundred pound chunk of Sugar Maple #1 along the road frontage fell across the end of our driveway. Already a miracle, it didn’t fall six feet to the west and end up blocking the road, nor did it blow over due east, the predominant wind, which would have placed its top somewhere around the second shelf of my grandmother’s curved-glass china closet in the parlor. As luck would have it, I was only three miles away, just over the village line, when my wife called me home. Unable to use my own driveway, I parked across the road at Tom & Lynn’s. Before I got across the road, Lynn was out the door calling to me.

“Tom and Matt will be here in a few minutes. They’re setting up for Paul’s funeral.”

“That’s okay,” I replied, “I’ll just hook onto it with the truck and drag it out of the way.”

I didn’t need to inconvenience Tom or their son Matt, who were doing some of the behind-the-scenes things done for funeral services. They had just enough time to come home and change in order to attend the services for the friend and neighbor.

I went into the house to don coveralls, and before I made it back to the end of the driveway, I heard Matt firing up the chainsaw, his father advising him as to the best approach for cutting the huge obstacle. We worked together, and in less than ten minutes had chunked up and removed the fallen trunk, and cleared the driveway. Handshakes and thank-yous, and they were off to get dressed. Neighbors are such a blessing.

Lester plowed my driveway until one year, at the worst of times, his plow truck broke down, and he found himself in no position to repair or replace it. Without inquiry, another neighbor, Mike, began to plow my driveway for me, refusing all offers of compensation. This year I have my own plow truck, and have had occasion in the last two storms to cross the road and plow yet another neighbor’s driveway. Betsy lives alone and is no shrinking violet. If necessary, she would clear her driveway with a shovel. It will not be necessary as long as I am “Lester of the watch”.

It must be nigh on twenty years now since we had the chimney fire. I have no head for time and find memorization of dates and years tedious. But I remember that like yesterday. Weren’t we lucky to be standing in the kitchen when we heard the rush of the draft turn to a grumbling roar, a gut wrenching and unmistakable sound. Barking orders I commanded my wife to grab the two girls, go get in the van and drive it across the road to Tom & Lynn’s. Here they would be safe. Now I called the Schoharie Fire line, there was no 911 yet.

“O’Connor’s, Box 66A, Engleville Road,” I related the data, followed by the reassurance “They all know where I live.” It seemed I had just hung up the phone and grabbed the fire extinguisher, mere seconds later, Tony (the Sheriff) pulled into my driveway, followed closely by Lester (yes, the same Lester). Then Ray, who delivered our heating oil when we had a furnace. Then Scott, the plumber son of plumber Ruben, whose family built their modest fortune maintaining the famous bath houses of the village. One after another familiar faces arrived, threw a ladder, advised one another on the safest approach, tossed a chain down into a chimney inferno from which flames were shooting fifteen feet into the air. They knocked down the creosote, eliminating the fuel, it’s flakes ironically smothering the fires at the base of the chimney liner.

They laughed with one another as they stowed their gear, called me by name as they bade good night, drove home as if it were just another day. An hour ago I was facing the utter destruction of my home, and in minutes these ordinary heroes saved it all without a drop of water.

 

Blue Light Flashing

The rising wail of the whistle is heard three miles hence,

It quickens one’s pulse,

fills the hills and valleys, an echoing plea,

“Help!” it’s crescendo cries “Help!”.

 

Leaving us to wonder and worry for whom the alarm is raised. 

 

In an instant we see them.

Family sedans, compact cars, and pickup trucks from the farm hasten past,

Blue Light Flashing.

 

We see neighbors racing headlong into danger without thought

Of reward or return, offering up their own safety,

To help neighbors in the grip of calamity.

 

With great gratitude for one and solemn sympathy for the other,

We pray for both.

 

 

Bless you, all you boys (and now girls, too!) who respond to the call: “Fire on the mountain!”

Take care and keep in touch,

 

Paz