The Heronry

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Why this story; why now?

I wrote this memoir piece on the last gasping breath of the 1980s. In those days, I was more serious about trying to sell writing, and I sent it out various places late in 1989.

I spent the summer of 1990 in Missoula, Montana. I lived in a little apartment down by the Clark Fork River, and every day I walked to the post office–mostly for the walk, and also for whatever letters or bills might have winkled me out. One day, I found a check in the mail from First for Women Magazine for $1500.  I was over the moon! It was my first big sale (yeah, okay, my ONLY big sale, like, in my entire life), and I ran screaming down the street waving the check in the air.

I worked with a line editor over the next few weeks, and the story came out for Father’s Day in 1991 (no, that can’t be right. Maybe I was in Missoula in 1989…? Scary how the years run together…). It was liking dropping a manuscript from 13,000 feet– I never heard it hit. That magazine has millions of readers, and only one stranger ever said anything to me about it. An author my editor said was well-known complimented her on my story saying it reminded him of E.B. White’s classic 1941 memoir essay, “Once More to the Lake.”

In September 1968, I was in my frosh year at Washington State University, and I enrolled in the required introductory writing class (one I have now taught myself literally hundreds of times). The first essay Dr. Taylor assigned was that same E.B. White essay, “Once More to the Lake.” I learned the art of deep reading on that essay, and it went in deep, too–all the way into my writer’s RNA.

Did I remember that essay while I was writing “The Heronry”? No. “The Heronry” is a true story, and I was struggling to put it down detail by detail, trying hard to get it right.

On retrospect, do I think the shape of the story was unconsciously influenced by E.B. White? Absolutely.

Recently a friend, John Gray, and I were reading the same essay by Natalie Goldberg, “The Lost Purse,” in her new book The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life. It seems to me that the story has so many elements that echo, bounce off, run parallel to “Once More to the Lake.”  John’s question was whether or not Goldberg would be aware of or acknowledge the correlation. My answer is in my experience.

Rare is the writer of my generation who hasn’t read White. We all have him down there in our unconscious minds along with the rest of the Norton Anthologies that were standard in the English major curriculum. This stuff doesn’t have to surface consciously for it to shape our thinking and creating. I have no doubt if the similarities were delineated for Goldberg that she’d get a big kick out of seeing how that magic continues to work.

I, for one, love this back and forth weave of just one story strand in and out of my own life, adding strength to whole.


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(Originally published as “To the Lake,” in First for Women which started out as a decent magazine that included fiction and memoir. It has turned into something else, I’m sorry to say.)

THE HERONRY

By Sandy Brown Jensen

There is a lake called Moses in Washington State, and the Great Blue Herons come there to nest and breed in the cold, sharp spring.  They feed on fish and frogs and salamanders.  The fisherfolk say that the herons catch the trout before they can get around to it themselves, and for that reason they dislike the birds.  The tall herons with their awkward grace and unseemly nesting habits fascinated my father, a half-hearted angler at best.  He liked to photograph the birds as they flew up the Wenatchee River by our house. This seldom happened, however, for although it is nothing for the herons to fly 30 or 40 miles on a hunt, the Moses Lake heronry was twice that distance from our home and we saw only the occasional lone hunter.

So one morning when I was 15 years old my father and I lashed our red, eight-foot fiberglass boat to the roof of the car and drove over the Columbia River Bridge, and east across the Columbia Plateau to Moses Lake.  The day was cold with a thin March sunshine.  I was looking forward to this outing in my father’s company, a thing which had never happened–not just him and me without the surrounding activity of Mom and the other kids.  I was shy with him and didn’t know how to make conversation, or how to ask the questions that burned in me to be asked.

He didn’t much know what to make of me either. I swung hourly between incessant chattering and agonized shyness.  Clothes didn’t fit, ideas didn’t fit.  I wanted to think of myself as graceful and was humiliated when someone saw me drop a plate or trip over my own feet.  I, like all adolescent girls, yearned for something from my father that few men know how to give.  I wanted him to reassure me that I was beautiful and intelligent, when in fact I was neither.  I wanted to be given sexual poise and adult status yet retain the amniotic blindness of childhood.   I longed for intimacy of the spirit, yet was surprised when it came.  

    “Tell me about the herons.”  I considered this question many miles before I found voice to say the words.   My father was beautiful and intelligent, and I was all but inarticulate before him.  The question broke the silence.  His blue eyes wrinkled at the corners and his blond head kept turning from the road to me as he talked. At first I didn’t think he was looking at me; I thought he saw something out the window on the other side of my head.

He pointed to a flock of long-legged birds flying low across the marsh, against the pewter sky. “Those are Great Blue Herons, the tallest native bird. You can tell them apart from cranes by the way they fly.  Look.”   The car slowed.  “See, the cranes fly with their necks straight out.”

I knew the difference between herons and cranes by the time I was six years old, but my father was a walking encyclopedia and taught us by repeating information over and over in different combinations, in different settings.  While riding long-distances in the car (to photograph a flower in Mexico that bloomed only once every seven years) Daddy would amuse himself by asking us the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool, a dove and a pigeon, a robin and thrush–or the common name of ranunculus glaberimus.

He stopped the car and we got out.  From an island a few hundred yards offshore came the boom of wings. A flock of forty birds circled over the road. Daddy handed me the binoculars.  Pointing, he said,  “Those are the Great Blues.  See how they fly with their necks folded back in a flat “S” loop?

I brought the field glasses back from the flying herons to the island rookery.  The bare trees were full of huge scraggly nests.  I spotted the young birds.  Excited, I handed the glasses back to Daddy, “Look, you can see the chicks with their beaks open.”

He looked for a long time.  “Good eye,” he said.  I blushed with the casual praise.  My father seldom complimented me on anything I can remember, except my powers of observation which became so much like his.  Vision was his gift to me, the ability to observe the natural world, its health and beauty and intricacy.

GBH_tall grass

    “In fact, I think you’ve spotted a good rookery.  We’ll row over together in the boat.  I’ll set up a birdblind at one end and you row back to shore. The birds know enough to see a boat come over and that disturbs them; then they see a boat return and they relax.  They don’t count two people coming and only one going back.  If I’m careful they won’t spot me and I can get some good pictures.  You come back in a few hours and pick me up.”

My disappointment was sharp. I had looked forward to spending the day with him.  I felt I was being abandoned.  But my logical mind knew he was treating me like an adult, trusting me with the boat and the day.  If I yielded to my emotion, showed him my need, no doubt his response would be warmer–but the results would be the same: I’d leave with the boat.  Or if he let me stay with him, the birds would be disturbed and I’d be responsible for ruining his outing.  

The shoreline was steep here–huge tumbled boulders falling straight off into deep water.  I was barely strong enough to handle my end of the boat as we maneuvered it down the rocks.  Finally settled on the water, the boat bobbed like a red fisherman’s float, the large white name, “Tonalea,” painted in block letters on the stern.  Tonalea was the name of a remote desert town, symbolizing the edge of frontier, the beginning of wilderness to my parents who felt that indeed in wildness is the preservation of the world.

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Out on the lake my father pointed out terns, mallards, grebes, shikepokes and goldeneye to me.  The lake was alive with birds, their voices carrying in graaks and whistles and creaks across the surface.  Daddy stopped with the oars in the air so I could look down and see the dim shapes of fish far below in the green and black water.

    “Rainbows,” he said, “Bass, crappie, sunfish.  In the summer we’ll go to Ol’ Sullivan Dam at the other end of the lake and catch sunfish and grill them on a greasewood fire.”  As I listened to him my mind opened and I received the images of the world that he described as well as the words.  I saw how the interconnected strands of the natural world were like a spider’s web–each movement along a strand was conveyed to every other part of the web. The day was movement, flux, and light, from the smallest insect to the birds and lake and the weather above.

We landed on the south end of the island, together pulling the boat, one hand each, side by side on the gunwale, black sand grating under the hull.  We hiked into the central thicket of willow and built a birdblind there.  The noise of the heronry was terrific, all grunts and squawks of old and young birds.  The smell of cottonwood mixed with the decaying remains of infertile eggs, lost food and other waste materials from the nests.  The herons were not tidy housekeepers.  Their nests were enormous, untidy architectures of broken sticks.  The air churned with constant movement, the birds well aware of our presence.  The adult Great Blue herons stood about four feet tall and had long sharp bills that Daddy said could be a dangerous weapon when the bird is attacked.

 I left Daddy crouched down inside the blind setting up a tripod.  “Let’s synchronize watches,” he said, “Why don’t you come back for me at 4:00 and we’ll have lunch on the way home?” I was hungry then, but felt there was a communion in shared meals and would have starved for a week to sit in a car and share a sandwich with my father.

I rowed back over glassy water.  Daddy pointed out that the lake had a strong current north to south and suggested I row uplake so that on the way back it would be easy to hit the island.  The going was smooth so I landed a half mile upshore from the car.  There were no sticks to tie the boat to so I wrapped the tow rope around a rock and built a cairn over it.  Tonalea bumped against the rocks, but the tough fiberglass was all but impossible to scratch.

The climb to roadbed level, combined with the row, left me breathless and warm.  I looked back at the island and tried to spot Daddy in his birdblind. From the place where he was an exceptionally large heron flapped gently skyward.  I had heard from the Indians around Colville about totem animals–how the spirit of each person has affinity with that of an animal, and on occasion, if the light is just right, or the time of day holds suspended, then the person can become that animal and learn their ways, see the world through different eyes.  I wondered if I was seeing my father turn into a Great Blue Heron, flying with dignity northward up Moses Lake, his neck folded back in a flat “S” loop.  I knew he was looking down from his great distance at the rainbow trout and bass and sunfish.  I knew he could see me and thought he nodded his feathered head.

egret_GBH

On the other side of the roadbed the marsh opened up.  There I spent the day with the red-winged blackbirds and the horned larks among the tule rushes and cattails.  The earliest spring monkeyflowers grew red and yellow along the streambeds, and there were toads and crawdaddies and salamanders.  I especially liked the waterskippers because of their bear-paw shadows.  It was an easy world to get lost in.  My mother and I used to play the game of imagining we were tiny skindivers, exploring the aquatic landscapes created by rivulets and other miniature flows of water.  Now I played this game in the life-and-death fastnesses of the marsh.  I braided feathers and reeds together, performing small ceremonies on mossy promontories.  A raft with two spiders set sail on a blue stream.  Slowly the day around me began to lose light and what little warmth there was.   Clouds that must have gathered earlier on the horizon marched forward and started to mill briskly around each other.  I looked up from my play when I felt the temperature drop quickly.  Shivering, I remembered my mission, my father, and the island–and ran for the boat.

White caps tipped the waves and the wind ran south with the lake current. Frightened not so much by the change in weather, but by my failure to notice it earlier, I got the boat out on the water, pulling as strongly as I could for the island.  The few hundred feet seemed like a mile.  Halfway across the rain came down, slanting across the dark water, obscuring the shore.  The current pulled me south faster than I could row.  If I missed the island it was rough open water all the way to Ol’ Sullivan Dam.  Turning to look over my shoulder I saw Daddy on the southernmost shoal, wading out into the lake.  I was rowing like an Amazon, strength coming to me like a force of nature and I was still going to miss the island.

    “Throw me the rope!”  His voice blew downwind to me, seeming to come from inside my own head.  I clambered forward, quickly coiled the rope like a lariat and threw it upwind.  It landed a yard from Daddy who lunged, wet to his waist, to catch hold of it.  He hauled me in and together we loaded his expensive camera equipment in under the gunwale, securing it with a tarpaulin.

    “Pull the boat!”  Daddy shouted at me.  Together we towed the boat the quarter mile length of the island.  I was not used to physical hardship.  Rock and mountain climbing, horseback riding and canoeing were all part of my daily life, but hard work was always for the men.  I didn’t know about strength, about stamina or where one found such things in oneself.  I was a frightened adolescent girl feeling her weakness against the storm, yet surprised by what strength I had found in the rowing.  I felt like a leaf or a twig torn off a cottonwood and flung into the wind, abandoned, exhilarated.

At the top of the island Daddy and I got into the boat, sitting side by side, each with an oar.  The rain turned to sleet.

    “Pull,” he said, “Pull.  Hard.”  We quickly got a rhythm–no doubt he adjusted the power of his stroke to mine, and we headed for the opposite shore. Halfway across the current pulled us south of the car, and then we were south of the island, headed rapidly downlake and still rowing deeply, steadily, with concentration.  I felt the cold wind and sleet against the side of my face but I was warm in the shadow of my father, and there was nothing on my mind but keeping my body and oar synchronous with Daddy’s. I am aware now of the sexual power there was in that struggle against the storm and I think that it is this that fathers have to give their daughters:  experiences of union which teach the pleasures of fearlessness, intimacy and power in the most innocent ways.

We completed the few hundred yard crossing a mile south.  The roadbed was not directly above us, for it turned inland a few hundred yards from where we had parked.  There were no choices–we had to tow the boat back over the interminable boulders, crawling up and sliding down, looking for footings, the two of us sharing the weight of the tow rope on our shoulders.  The wind and sleet settled down into a continual, cold opposing force.

    Daddy turned around once and asked, “How’s it going?”  My shoulders ached, both of them, as I kept switching the rope from side to side to relieve the pain, but it was useless to mention it–it wouldn’t change what had to be done. I nodded my head and half-panted, “Fine.”

    “Good girl.”  When we rested it was in the lee of a boulder.  The wind changed direction and the clouds broke up.  Daddy pointed out a huge ragged heron hung suspended in the north wind, effortlessly, as if preoccupied by some profound thought or image.  The long legs trailed out behind, acting as a kind of rudder, holding the long, tucked-up head into the wind.  I felt I was in the primordial place where creation is made.  Within the surround of the invisible wind and the cold water and the warm will of my father all things were possible. I was in girl form  but the life of a heron was comprehensible to me, its wildness, its strand of belonging so woven into the web of life at the lake.  My father and I were woven into that web:  the wind was our thought, the water our depth. We had the heron’s eyes and saw far out over the land.

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The cold kept us from resting too long.  After a while it got dark and the storm continued.  I couldn’t guess how Daddy would know when we arrived at the place where the car would be above us on the road.  The journey with the boat on my back was like my journey into adulthood, and hence was to have no end.

    “Here,” he said, pointing, and I recognized a boulder blacker than the others, a chunk of vesicular basalt that was rough rather than rounded like the others.  It wasn’t the end, though.  In a final effort, we hauled the camera equipment to the car, then returned for the boat, which the lake preferred to take as sacrifice and was reluctant to yield up.  Against the pressure of a steady wind and the sucking of the lake, we turned Tonalea over like a canoe and began carrying her up the steep boulder slope.  Daddy would go up one boulder, then brace the boat while I scrambled down and up onto another. Wrestling the boat was like trying to manhandle a fiberglass leviathan.  The wind and our fatigue battled us, causing us to drop her several times.  When we reached the roadbed and had to heave the boat on top of the car, I couldn’t do it.  Shaking all over, my arms limp with exhaustion, I leaned against the car door, sweat chilling against my skin as it dried.

    “Let’s catch our breath,” Daddy suggested, “then try it again.”

The second time strength surged up from my spine and the boat fell into place.  I managed the latches and ropes on my side with blue, numb lumps of fingers.

We got into the car.  Daddy turned on the motor.  Soon the floor heater was blasting.  I was shivering uncontrollably, teeth chattering.  I was delirious with fatigue and cold and what I had seen out on the lake of both myself and my father. I had seen that on the lake he and I were equal–we each faced the storm and the task alone–and yet together.  I’d learned something about my own strength, that it was a force of nature no less than the wind. And I’d seen how my father was essentially wild and beautiful, like the birds. Daddy unwrapped tamale pie sandwiches and handed me one.  We had graham crackers with chocolate frosting and, although I had never tried coffee before, Daddy poured us each a cup from a thermos.

  “Feel better?” he asked, pulling out onto the road. He turned his head and looked at me, then winked.  We were in this together.  As we reached the far end of the lake a long line of Great Blues flew low in front of the windshield, the headlights shining on their long wing feathers.  One by one they turned their heads to peer curiously in at us, then banked sharply up and over the car, heading back towards the dark lake.

    “Did you see that?”  Daddy exclaimed. “Did you see that?”

We saw the herons again many times during that difficult year–is 15 ever easy? We saw them wading in the shallows at the Quincy Potholes the week after my first date.  The young man had taken me roller skating and I was still nursing bruises and floor burns.  I watched the herons through Daddy’s binoculars.  I felt there was a special affinity between me and the birds. Their awkward lift-offs and landings were understandable to me–I knew a lot about being all arms and legs.  It was their flight I envied, that clarity, their economy of wingbeat.

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Image by Mike Peters / Luling, LA. All others by Sandy Brown Jensen

Over a year later, in May, I thought my father had forgotten the incident at Moses Lake, but on my 16th birthday he gave me a black and white print, grainy and moody, in very high contrast, on a clear German paper.  The photograph was of a young heron poised on the edge of the nest, halfway between awkward and grace. Its wings were outstretched, reaching for air.  One foot was already off the mess of sticks that was the nest, the other foot was on tiptoe, elongated like a willow limb.  The parent bird was in front, flying, and through a trick of the photographer’s exact timing, was looking back over its shoulder at the fledgling.  It was a photograph of precise vision and infinite understanding.

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A Heart for Any Fate

Orienting Note: I am part of an online, ten week cadre exploring digital storytelling through the lens of the genre of westerns. At the end of Week One, known as Blog Ridin’ Camp, we were asked to write a on the topic, “What do Westerns mean to you? Do a blog post about your familiarity or experience with the genre Western.”


 

“West… The sound of a wish in a single word.”

Linda Crew,  A Heart for Any Fate

“Sandy, what I remember most from when I was a little girl was living as a homesteading family in Princess, Saskatchewan. Even now when I am very old, my mind so often returns to that log cabin that Father built by the river, all my brothers and sisters still alive, and how we had nothing but we kept the blood lines so tight. I remember the old Conestoga wagon sat in the yard, and we played on it pretending we were in one of the great wagon trains my parents and my older siblings drove with across the Canadian prairie. When we left Princess in 1901, we went to Independence, Oregon by train.   Now, Princess doesn’t even exist on a map. When I die, even its memory will be gone.”

My Grandma Ellen used to tell me such stories, and I was so young that the stories often jumbled together in my brain. It took me a long time to realize she had been born in Princess and hadn’t herself been on the wagon train with, as I thought then, her blind mother and twelve siblings.

girlmeditating_Wenatchee
I used to sit in my favorite place high up on a steep sagebrush hill overlooking the Wenatchee River imagining a blind mother with all those kids–my great aunts and uncles–crossing the northern plains in a wagon train.

Later, as I began researching who exactly the blind relative was and so on, I realized I had conflated facts and details in my young mind, but that story, my version of it, got firmly lodged in my subconscious as part of my “Myth of Me as a Native Pacific Northwesterner.”

A view of my home town, Wenatchee, in Eastern Washington. The river seen here is Mighty Mother Columbia. The Wenatchee River, where my family lived, enters her at bottom right.
A view of my hometown, Wenatchee, in Eastern Washington. The river seen here is Mighty Mother Columbia. The Wenatchee River, where my family lived, enters her at bottom right.

We didn’t have TV when I was growing up. Rarely, I saw Lone Ranger at my cousin’s house on a tiny black and white TV. I preferred other kinds of Westerns: Fury, Lassie, and Sky King. Somewhere along the way, I picked up random episodes of Bonanza and The Big Valley, but maybe only four of five episodes each. I read as much Zane Grey as I could get my hands on; plucky real-life heroine Betty Zane was my childhood heroine.

Martins Ferry maintains two historical cemeteries. The older of the two, Walnut Grove Cemetery, is located at the end of North 4th Street just beyond East Ohio Regional Hospital. Dating back to 1795, the cemetery is the final resting place of Betty Zane, heroine of the last battle of Fort Henry (now Wheeling, West Virginia).  Visitors will see the statue of Betty Zane carrying gun powder at the cemetery’s entrance.
Martins Ferry maintains two historical cemeteries. The older of the two is Walnut Grove Cemetery. Dating back to 1795, the cemetery is the final resting place of Betty Zane, heroine of the last battle of Fort Henry (now Wheeling, West Virginia). Visitors will see the statue of Betty Zane carrying gunpowder at the cemetery’s entrance.

September 11, 1782, the Zane family was under siege in Fort Henry by American Indian allies of the British. During the siege, while Betty was loading a Kentucky rifle, her father was wounded and fell from the top of the fort right in front of her. The captain of the fort said, “We have lost two men, one Mr. Zane and another gentlemen, and we need black gunpowder.” The gunpowder was in another house outside the garrison and in full view of the attacking Indians. Betty volunteered and ran 40 to 50 yards to retrieve the gunpowder, then returned safely–because the Indians could see she was an unarmed woman.

THAT is the western genre I loved–real life stories of the westering women. I have never been entranced by the male western genre–never a fan of Western movies because they so violent and noisy. I’ve never actually seen a spaghetti Western from start to finish. I don’t care what iconic works of art they are, I just don’t care about male (or female) revenge fantasies. There’s no bell in me to resonate with that particular cultural chord.

I am much more interested in the mythos of the real West. I was born and raised here in a family that is going on six generations in the Pacific Northwest. I was raised on horseback. I go to rodeos.

The Barn at Finley National Wildlife Refuge, Corvallis, Oregon
The Barn at Finley National Wildlife Refuge, Corvallis, Oregon

I wander the outback visually in love with all the old barns and fences and windmill-in-the-sunset pictures I can find to take.

I love stories about the pioneering women like:

Called by locals "The Big House," The Charles Applegate House (1852) is on the National Register of Historic  Places
Called by locals “The Big House,” The Charles Applegate House (1852) is on the National Register of Historic Places

 

 

Called by locals "The Big House," The Charles Applegate House (1852) is on the National Register of Historic  Places
My extended family by marriage/divorce/modern blending is the sprawling Applegate family, whose immediate ancestors forged the famous Applegate Trail. Shannon Applegate’s book Skookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family’s History and Lore chronicles that fascinating family history, which all took place right here where I am now.
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Eugene Skinner first wanted to call Our Fair City of Eugene, Oregon, “Skinner’s Mudhole,” but the sun came out, and saner minds prevailed.

I live in the Willamette Valley, the promised Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail. My town is soaked in this 170 year old pioneer history. From the Pioneer Cemetery up on the University of Oregon campus, to the street names of pioneers, to the Eugene City founder’s little log cabin I pass everyday on my walk, the past is a permeable membrane to the present. Like this winter’s persistent (and much needed) rain, I am soaked in the western past and present, its tough reality, but, too, the very strong myth of westering held by the pioneers and their descendents, my neighbors to this day.

 

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On top of the Oregon State Capitol building is a gold man called the Oregon Pioneer. He’s not an empty shell–he still holds the drawing power of his namesake–from Eugene, known as a hotbed of tech innovation, to the sprawling ranches of Eastern Oregon, to the fertile wine country–
John Fremont
Contemporary history is careful not to romanticize the Old West and the Oregon Trail, but that can’t be totally excluded. Here is explorer John Fremont observing a wagon train at rest in the evening along the Trail, 1845.

 

Alfred Bierstadt Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German-born American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West. To paint the scenes, Bierstadt joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion. Though not the first artist to record these sites, Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the 19th century.
Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German-born American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West. To paint the scenes, Bierstadt joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion. Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the 19th century.

The dream of something better in Oregon is still a powerful archetype driving the state forward. The myth, the dream, and the reality live on and move through time.

Let us then be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate…

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Voices of the Night”

 

Snowshoe Christmas

This could be my dad in those old school rawhide snowshoes, and this country is very similar to the Cascade wilderness where our family did our Christmas Tree hunting.
This could be my dad in those old school rawhide snowshoes, and this country is very similar to the Cascade wilderness where our family did our Christmas Tree hunting.
This could be my dad in those old school rawhide snowshoes, and this country is very similar to the Cascade wilderness where our family did our Christmas Tree hunting.

A SNOWSHOE CHRISTMAS
By Sandy Brown Jensen

Published Dec. 16, 2015 Setting Forth 

I tried stepping on both snowshoes at once and buckling the elk leather straps with my liner gloves on, but after fumbling with the elk-hide straps, I finally pulled the gloves off with my teeth. The leather had stiffened in the wind while riding on top of the car, so now they twisted backward on the bias. A couple of yanks and some nimble opposing thumb work later, and I straightened up, pulling my thick moosehide mittens over my liner gloves. I stamped a couple of times to check that the long, 48-inch, rawhide-laced snowshoes were on securely, slipped my hands through the straps of the wide-basket poles, and was ready to hunt for that perfect, high-mountain Christmas tree.

Dad’s stocking-capped head was bent over my eleven-year-old sister Toren’s feet, where he was helping her strap on a shorter pair of bear-paw shoes. He looked up, “Everybody ready?”” He picked up his big, double-bit axe and his camera, and we were off on our annual hunt. My brother Lisle had shuffled a trail through unbroken powder snow toward the pine forest, and we followed after.

The day was clear and cold as the Babe the Blue Ox’s nose. We were high on the eastern slope of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. The view from the ridge was of more ridges and peaks in the increasing distance, more pines. Black basalt outcroppings stood in eye-aching contrast to the snow and sky. Far below, the silver ice thread of a river flashed in and out of view like a mirror snaking through the trees.

In this high country the pines grew individually. The first one we passed looked perfect for our front room, tall, round and redolent. It was also over twenty feet tall, Daddy pointed out; we needed one half that size. Fortunately, that meant wandering deeper and deeper into the landscape until the bright orange splash of our International Harvester (a kind of very large, early SUV) disappeared and the glass shard sparkle of snow surrounded us.

Lisle led us on a healthy huff uphill and around to a south slope. When we stopped for breath, Daddy pointed his axe handle at the base of a big pine. “Be careful, “ he said, “The south sun melts the snow next to the tree trunk and makes a hole. Then the next snow blows over it, so you can’t see the hole.” He banged the axe on the ice rim at the base of the caramel-scented ponderosa. The ice and snow caved away, and we couldn’t see to the base of the cavern that yawned beneath the trunk. “We’re up on a variable ten to twenty foot snow pack on this side of the hill, so it’s a long way down.”

Only one person fell into an ice well that day, and that was me.

At one in the afternoon, Daddy suggested we spread out across a likely looking area and shout when we found a tree. I always liked going out of sight of the others to be alone with only the sound of silvery ice bits sifting down from the big trees. I rounded a south edge of a ridge and immediately spotted the perfect tree—round and full, and short, only about ten feet tall. I shuffled closer to take a look, and my shout of discovery turned into a shout of surprise as the ice caved away from under my snowshoes and I tumbled deep into the well.

The first thing I noticed was that the tree wasn’t ten feet tall, it was twenty-five or thirty–maybe a hundred from this perspective. I had landed splayfooted, twisted, looking up. I tested all my limbs; everything was in working order. My snowshoes were jammed crosswise in the well, so the next order of business was to take them off. The buckles were frozen into icy lumps, but by taking my mittens off again, I worried them free, propping them one by one against the tree. Now what?

Various resourceful heroine ideas came to mind: climb the tree and get off on the uphill side? Nah, too sticky, and I couldn’t leave my snowshoes behind. Kick steps into the snow wall? Daddy had taught me how to get out of an ice crevasse using a roped technique called prussixing, but I didn’t have a rope. I kicked experimentally. The process of melt and freeze had created dozens of layers of rotten snow crusts, so a kicked step that at first seemed solid would collapse when I put my full weight on it; still, the step could be solidified with more kicking and stamping. Snow sifted down from the tree looming above me, its crown high above in bright sunlight. The walls of the ice cave glowed an eerie blue, and I shivered in the shadowy cold.

I made it halfway up the near vertical wall of snow before my Dad’s head popped over the top. He was stretched out on his belly looking down at me. “Anybody home down there?”

“I’ve almost got it, “ I said, panting.

“Hand me up your snowshoes.”

Lisle and Toren’s heads appeared over the hole. “Cool,” Lisle said.

Toren asked, “Are you going to get out and come see the Christmas Tree?”

I hoisted the snowshoes one by one over my head, and Lisle snagged them up with his basket pole. Daddy inched his big axe with its sturdy leather sheath over the edge. “Grab hold and keep kicking. Don’t put all your weight on it, or there’ll be two of in the hole.”

The axe steadied me as I kicked my way up the last few feet and finally felt the afternoon sun on my hat again.

We all stood around looking into the hole while I buckled back in.

“It’s a long way down,” Toren said admiringly, “It’s sort of like a secret fort.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t break anything,” Daddy said, and then led us back around the hill where the chosen tree smelling of Christmas lay ready to have four ropes attached. We hauled it out of the woods, leaving a long trail behind us.

The Red Horse

"Kiger Mustangs" Watercolor by Cheryl Renee Long

 

"Kiger Mustangs" Watercolor by Cheryl Renee Long
“Kiger Mustangs” Watercolor by Cheryl Renee Long

 

Under the Sign of the Red Horse

By Sandy Brown Jensen

I was brought up under the protection of the Sign of the Red Horse, but this is the Wild West and accidents happen. On my fourth birthday, May 23, 1954, I wandered away from the Western Washington farmhouse, across the shining field toward the looming dark of the cedar forest.

My grandfather’s two-man logging rig squatted in a clearing between pasture and trees, raising up a saw blade twice my size, like a dangerous head. I managed to tumble off the back of the seat onto the blade.
The blow stopped my face from growing. I had the chin, jaws and cheekbones of a four-year-old all those crucial, growing-up years. My coordination was poor as a result, too, “a quarter bubble off plumb,” my dad said.
The real damage was done in school. We had moved east of the Washington Cascades to a home by the Wenatchee River, between the apple orchards and the sage steppes. Bus #15 came down the long hill of Horse Lake Road to pick us Brown kids up first at the most distant stop. Perry Hobson got on a couple miles later at Western Avenue.
Perry Hobson started in on me in third grade and didn’t let up until we both graduated from high school. “Hey, No Chin. Who hit you with the ugly stick? What happened to your face? Looks like you fell on a buzz saw.”
Perry was a mindless bully, the first to claw open that suppurating lesion of the heart that few girls grow up without—the oozing pus that is fear of men, the raw flesh that is being told you’re ugly, the inflamed edges that are always trying to pull together and heal yet are lashed open fresh and bleeding in the schoolyard.

Mrs. Blumhagen gave me a gentle push. “Go outside, Sandy. Play tetherball.”

I had been hiding in the classroom from boys like Perry. I hated the bloodied knees, the dirt on my pretty dresses, the feel of filthy hands on my bare arms as the boy shoved. He always shouted, “Go home, Butt Ugly!”

I stood in line, dreading the moment I would have to step up in front of the other kids. Finally, I tossed the tetherball in the air, brought my fist around to slam it, and wrapped the chain four times around my wrist. In the sour rain of laughter, I clawed frantically at the chain. I ran to the bathroom and hid in a stall with my face in my hands.

One day I got the idea I could get off Bus #15 before Perry’s stop. He liked to stand up just as the bus was jerking to a halt, pretending the movement of the bus made him fall on me while a swipe of his arm made sure I had to scramble under the seats to collect my books. This time I got off before that could happen.
I had a mile of walking through orchards. I took off my school shoes, tied them together, and slung them over my shoulder. Soft, dry clay puffed up between my toes.

“What’re you doing out here by yourself, Bucktooth?” The Childress Boy was seven years older than me, a misshapen lump of teenager my father pegged as “two bricks shy of a load.” He had a jack knife, and now he tossed it swiftly at my bare foot. The blade flipped in the air, brushing between my toes into the clay.

“Come on, Bucktooth. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” One hand fondled his zipper. I took off running for home. He stumbled after me. The jack knife made the softest hiss as it passed through the hair by my ear.  I ran for my life.

And forever the schoolyard boys yelling, “No Chin!” and “Butt Ugly!” after me. I was always afraid, always bleeding from that heart wound I had no words to say.

When Lance came to live with us, life changed for my siblings and me. It was as if some new constellation had appeared in the sky over our river house. We called our imaginary pattern of stars The Sign of the Red Horse. Lance’s first order of business as resident horse was to get my sister Cheryl, four years older than me, through high school. She graduated just as I tangled with eighth grade. Lance and I now became constant, after-school companions.
Lance was a handsome bay, 17 hands high, half-thoroughbred, half -quarter horse, burnished red with a roached black mane and flowing tail. Each of his front hooves had white to mid-cannon. A white stripe and soft, black muzzle set off those red-brown eyes that spoke a full emotional vocabulary to me. Humor and adventure were Lance’s two favorite moods.

At fourteen, I was a large, big-breasted girl who hid behind my locker door in gym class. The other girls stared at my outsized chest and made rude remarks. I was always last to be chosen for teams and would stand with my head down in the over-revealing gym clothes. The situation in Bus #15 never changed. If it wasn’t one Perry Hobson bully, it was another, shouting, “Fatty, Fatty, two-by four, couldn’t get through the bathroom door!”

By the time I got home every day for my after-school ride, I was churning with despair. Lance spent his mornings grazing, but when Bus #15 came down the hill, he began prancing in anticipation. He met me at the gate, tossing his head up and down, barely holding still long enough for me to get the bridle buckled behind his ears. I rode bareback with a light Western curb bit and a pair of old, soft leather reins. My riding felt like floating on the surging swell of muscle and tide that was Lance.

We raced up the canyon past the bus stop, veering off to lunge up 45-degree slopes between sagebrush and balsamroot sunflower. High up in the hills, I’d slip off Lance’s sweaty body and lean against his big chest while he cropped at the dry cheat grass. Slowly, his heartbeat slowed, and my breathing steadied. I’d put my arms around his neck, and place my bare feet on top of his two front hooves. When he lifted a hoof and took a step forward, I’d move with him. My heart beat with his great heart, and the startled bird of my mind found a quiet roost.

When Lance had me settled down, he’d pull his head up, look at me, and that look meant, “Let’s go.” Sometimes he decided where we would go, and sometimes it seemed like I did. In some way, we had become one mind and ranged over the steppes and buttes of our personal West until the sun went down like a red carnelian behind those mountains called the Enchantments. Lance and I returned home in time to see the first stars come out in constellation. “Those stars are The Sign of the Red Horse, “ I explained to Lance as I brushed him down, “named especially for you.” He tossed his head with a slab of hay in his teeth, spraying alfalfa in a half circle around us

One day the PE teachers decided boys and girls should play a game called sockem together. I arrived red-faced. I couldn’t focus with the boys staring at my breasts. I panicked like a mustang filly at a roundup. Kids were running and screaming. More than one ball was in play. I heard someone yell my name. I turned and a high-speed ball made a direct hit to my right eye.

I was in the hospital for ten days, eyes bandaged. During that week I spiraled down into a black depression.

When I got home from the hospital, I retreated to the back of the pasture. I burrowed into the grass and clay like an injured dog. Lance grazed nearby, rolling an occasional eye my direction.

On the third day, he came over and nibbled my neck with his rubbery lips. His long tongue licked all around the bandage on my eye. He blew on my unkempt hair, then shoved my arm with the side of his head. “Let’s go!” that meant.

Listless, I mounted from the fence rail. We splashed across the river at Sunnyslope, and an hour later, we were at the confluence of the Wenatchee and mighty mother Columbia River. As I stared, the slow, dark animal movement of the river mesmerized me. I got it in my head that we could swim the half a mile to the other side and keep riding forever.

It was, in fact, a dangerous fantasy. Here, the Columbia was forty-five feet deep. Its powerful current flowed by at five miles an hour into Rock Island Dam, downstream around the bend. I felt I wanted to be in that deep water, to be pulled far away from the turbine of my own heart,

Lance went into the water willingly. We were both hot, and the cool water was delicious. I urged him out deeper until the sand bar dropped away. I hung onto the wet reins and floated above him. In fact, I floated above both of us. I was out of my body, finally almost completely disassociated. I saw us swimming; I saw the distance behind and the distance before us. Then we passed the protective curve of slack water and entered the straight line of the current. It felt like a giant eel wrapped its writhing power around our legs and started dragging us downstream. I didn’t understand what was happening, but Lance got it immediately—big water, big current, big danger. He flattened his expressive ears, turned around, and hit the gas, cycling his big hooves against the wrestling tentacles trying to pull him down. I was still confused, not anchored in the reality of our danger.

Lance reached the sand bar and splashed fast back to shore. I slid off while he shook himself vigorously, stinging me with hard pellets of water. Then he turned and looked me directly in the eye. With a snap, I was back in my body, focused, and brought to account. He stared straight at me, and I got the message by direct soul infusion. “No!” that meant. “Don’t ever do that again. Look at yourself. What’s the matter with you?”

No one has ever spoken to me so clearly and directly again in my life, but no one has ever had to. That dangerous depression had to be addressed. Lance looked me in the eye and I saw into the calm, dark lake of his pupils. My face reflected back our deep communication: It’s not okay. You must be a horse now, Sandy, and rise above the darkness. Your heart must now beat slow and steady and true. You are half human, half horse, and it’s time for the horse to balance the human. You can rise above the mindless nips and bites of the unruly colts in your herd. Find a way, but let’s not again try anything this foolhardy and purely dangerous.

Then as so many other times I cried, my head against Lance’s red chest, arms around his neck. He tolerated this, munching grass for a while, but then he gave me a shove. “Knock it off now. Let’s go,” is what that meant. I got on, and we ran until the thundering drum of hooves brought us home.

Lance kept me from choosing a dark fate that day. High in the air on his back, I was closer to the stars and further away from cruelty. Lance watched over me and sent me off to college before turning his attention to my sister, Toren. When I look back, I can still see him whickering at the gate every day after school, ready for my real schooling to begin.    I believe the Sign of the Red Horse still watches over me to this day.


 

NOTE: This story originally appeared in  Horse Healers: True Stories of Courage, Hope, and the Transformative Power of the Human/Equine Bond. ed. A. Bronwyn Llewellyn. Avon, MA: Adams, 2007.

It has just been re-published at “Under the Sign of the Red Horse.” Nov. 18, 2015. Setting Forth Literary Journalhttp://settingforth.org/?p=5402

 

Of Mud & Honey

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Wailua Falls before the rain…

 

Wailua Falls the next day, after a night of rain...
Wailua Falls the next day, after a night of rain…

 

I new Digital Storytelling app called Storehouse just came on the market a few days ago, and I used it to tell the “Journey of Mud and Honey: Up the Wailua River to Secret Falls.

Fire Dancer

Maya_poi2
Maya dances fire poi

My niece, Maya Brolutti, has battled three different autoimmune disorders from the time she was quite young–even younger than her 21 years right now. Twice this year she has danced fire poi at family gatherings. Most recently, she spun fire for our Christmas Eve festivities.

I took her in a back bedroom, turned on my recorder, and asked her what learning fire poi has meant to her and her healing journey.

This video is a rough cut, as digital stories often are, but it catches the immediacy of her thinking, which I love.

This video is an interview with Maya Brolutti, Fire Dancer.

Sometimes

Sometimes my mind needs to drift.

I get too much going on, grading papers, presenting workshops and classes where it is the power of personal focus that draws people into that zone of heightened power where learning can truly happen; and it isn’t that I am either tired or feeling drained, “that is not it; that is not it all.”

The source is the source. We must all go down to the well.

One way down is free play. This little “vlog” (“video log”) shows digital storytellers one way to free their minds and let them play across gathered images: memories, dreams, reflections.

What is one way YOU find your way to the well?

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Blue Moon Birthday

Blue Moon from King Estate
Susan Carkin’s birthday this year fell on the waxing Blue Moon of 2012, giving friends and family an excuse to gather at King Estate Winery for a poetry presentation and the warmth of an August evening.

 

 

At the War Memorial

“Those whose sacrifice this Cenotaph commemorates were among the men
who, at call of King and Country, left all that was dear, endured hardship,
faced danger, and finally passed from the sight of men by the path of
duty, giving their own lives that others might live in freedom. Let those
who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten.”

 

At the War Memorial

The sun was out when I got there. I went out in it, and I saw a young person– a student