Falling Into Enormity

Lucky Peak Reservoir by Boise, Idaho.  Photo by Karthik Chinnathambi 

(Side track:  I’m still going to write about the first influence on our fear of death as I promised in the last post, but something came up and I wanted to write about it before I forgot. Editor.)  

Ever had one of those moments when the blinders peel back and you suddenly look at the world around you like it’s the first time you ever had eyes?

I had one yesterday.  We were out for our second adventure with the kayaks and, in spite of every reason for it not to, everything felt perfect.  The weather was supposed to be overcast, windy, and cold.  Water levels are low so the part of the reservoir where we’d initially planned to paddle was high and dry.  We got started late and then the scramble for an alternate place to launch made us even later.  And the launch site we did eventually find involved an awkward climb down to the water and broken glass on the shore to boot.

But somehow, none of it got to us.  We didn’t care.  Not because we were trying to stay positive or anything, but because that’s just how we woke up.  We were excited to hit the water again whatever the circumstances, so we brought extra layers of warm clothing, stayed flexible, stepped gingerly, and eventually found ourselves paddling along under much better conditions than we’d expected.  We were gazing up at sunshine and basalt cliffs, green mountainsides covered with wild, black-eyed Susans, and the sweet scent of blooming bitterbrush on a very, very mild breeze.

Turns out the Weather Man was wrong.  Go figure.

Towards the end of a long, lovely paddle we found ourselves a little way up the river that feeds the reservoir, and we finally beached near a grassy meadow to pee.  (Interesting activity in a wetsuit, BTW.)  It was an amazing spot, secluded and silent, surrounded by steep hillsides covered with Ponderosa pine and jutting rock spires.  Once we’d relieved ourselves we just stood there in the middle of the meadow staring, breathing in the heavy scent of pine, watching cumulus clouds blow across the narrow strip of sky above us while a bald eagle flew in and out of it’s nest in a towering, old growth pine.  It was something to behold.  It truly was.

And then, because I was so damn moved by it all, I started to sing, although it wasn’t even a song really.  Just a melody and some made-up sounds because I didn’t know a real song with words that came anywhere near doing justice to the place.  Maybe a hymn could have done it, but I didn’t know any.  Or better yet, a song from the Shoshone Paiute people who were on this land first and took better care of it, but I didn’t know any of those either.  So I made up my own half-song/half-prayer kind of thing, something that sounded more or less like how I felt, and while I was singing it everything around us seemed to get very quiet.  Kinda eerie.

But then I ran out of song so I stopped, and it was just a few seconds afterward that it happened.  That moment I mentioned earlier.  The one where I fell into enormity.

Everything sounded unnaturally still, the way things always do when you stop making noise in a really silent place.  I watched as the last of my song settled down to the grass like an old leaf falling, or a layer of dust.

And then, right after that, the wind started.

We heard it first like a low, sweet note that seemed to come from everywhere all at once, and when I looked up into the branches of a Ponderosa pine standing nearby, I suddenly remembered that what I was hearing was the sound air makes when it moves gently through pine needles.  It hit me in a flash; the mechanism of that sound, the wind through needles, was the exact same mechanism at play when I was singing.  It was the same air moving over my vocal cords and, coming out of left field the way it did, the thought kind of stunned me.  I felt a sudden and surprisingly profound kinship with that tree, a sense of shared beauty that instantly dwarfed my usual identity as a human being.

Please understand, it’s not that I didn’t know the facts before.  Of course I did.  I’ve heard the wind blowing through pines all my life and I learned the mechanics of sound in elementary school.  But that prior knowledge must have only penetrated as far as my head because I never felt the tactile, gut-level sense of sameness before, of what this tree and I were both doing.  Somehow, I’d always thought that because I was a human being, my sounds were different.  Higher.  I was singing, whereas the trees were just making noise.  It was a shock to suddenly realize that I was just making noise, too.  It was only because it was my noise that I knew it meant something.

Then the wind swelled through the canyon, catching the leaves of a copse of young cottonwood trees, making a higher, rustling sound that worked in exquisite counterpoint to the sweet note of the pines.  I felt my heart swell with it, too, and then noticed all the birdsong kicking up, various honks and calls and peeps and cries, and those sounds struck me as a kind of staccato punctation to the deeper melody laid down by the trees.  And after that…well…I pretty much just floated away in slack-jawed wonder, lost in the ebb and flow of the wind and water and the unearthly music they were making.  I was fighting back tears and retained just enough awareness of human world protocols to turn my face away from the hubster in embarrassment.  But other than that I fell deep and hard into another world that was a whole lot bigger.

I don’t know.  Standing there listening to the rich, tenor sound of wind through pines…for all the world like the french horn section at a premier symphony orchestra…I guess I finally just fell out of my head.  The sounds flowing through the canyon turned out to be the very song I’d been trying so hard to sing moments before, only times a thousand.  No.  A million.  It was like they’d all been standing around…the trees, the birds, the mountains, the wind…quietly amused, listening to me struggle to find the right music.  And then, when I couldn’t, they stepped in to play it for me.

It was such a gift, and I think I started crying because I felt…just a little bit…like I didn’t really deserve it.  Like there I’d been standing, subconsciously believing that I was all that.  More evolved than any of them, with a song that was more complex and meaningful because I was human.

Fortunately, none of them seemed to care.  They just circled me up and sang me into their bigger world anyway, and I got to realize where I was wrong without feeling shamed for it.  Which actually, when you think about it, is quite a trick.  I wonder if I could learn how to do that?

This canyon is actually in China, but it sure FELT like this.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

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The Little Kayak That Could

Did I mention we’ve taken up kayaking?

(Kidding.  That’s not either of us.)

It began as a New Years thing (as in I’m really going to do it this time…) and, as hobbies go, is pretty easy to pick up around here since lake and river-rich Idaho is a major hub for paddling sports of all kinds.  (Except sea kayaking.  Obviously.)

We started by renting a couple of twelve foot yaks to paddle around a pond next to the river (from Idaho River Sports for anyone local and interested.  GREAT store.  GREAT people who work there.  Friendly and laid back.  They all LOVE paddling and LOVE sharing their love of paddling.  All you have to do is walk in the door and you’re their friend.)  We figured we’d rent for the summer, try out a few different kinds of kayaks, raise some money, raise some more money, then raise a wee bit more, until maybe we’d have enough to buy our own boats later in the fall or next spring.

But then we got a call.  They said that a couple of used ones had come up for sale (cheap!!…CHEAP!!) and the next thing you know, we were pulling back into the driveway with a couple of kayaks on the car.

(BTW, that’s not the hubster standing there with my arm around him.  He’s standing behind the cell phone camera.  That’s actually B. Daughter who had just dropped by to say hi.)

And then, abandoning all of our careful plans for gradual safety equipment accumulation (actually that should read “my” plans…the hubster, being a strong advocate for spontaneity and adventure, doesn’t have much use for safety planning,) we grabbed the wetsuits and life vests we’d (I’d) obtained so far and bolted up to Arrowrock reservoir on Sunday for a trial run.

Clearly, we survived, as you must have guessed by now since your’re reading this.  And even though we paddled across a fairly large body of very cold water twice, neither the rising afternoon winds nor the wakes from various power boats overturned us after all, thereafter requiring a long, weakening, futile swim into hypothermia, eventual unconsciousness, and drowning before we could ever reach shore again.  (Again, this type of mental scenario is strictly my territory.  I was made for disaster planning.  The hubster’s mind runs along far more optimistic lines and, indeed, is my saving grace.  Without it, by the time I got through envisioning all the bleak possible futures out there, I’d never leave the fricking house.)

But the indomitable hubster still managed to find an adventure for himself, in spite of all my best efforts to avoid one.  We had just pulled the car down next to the water in order to load the kayaks for departure, when a camping fisherman from the next site over wandered by with his dogs for a chat.  But barely had he arrived when he glanced out across the water to discover his power boat…which he realized with some chagrin he hadn’t moored securely enough…had come loose and was floating away down the lake.  It’s canopy was catching the afternoon wind, moving it along at a fair clip.

Then, to my horror, the fisherman casually mentioned that it looked like he was going for a swim.  A swim?  My disaster radar started beeping.  He was going to swim after his boat??

“You can’t!” I blurted out in alarm.  “You can’t swim that far in water this cold!  You’d never make it.  Hypothermia would set in before you could get there.”

At which point the hubster stepped bravely forward, ripped back his wetsuit revealing the large letter H on his chest, and said in a deep, booming voice, “I can get it for you.”

Well, needless to say the fisherman wasn’t turning down an offer like that.  The hubster quickly zipped up his life vest, grabbed his paddle, and launched his kayak again in the direction of the boat.  At first I thought (in resignation) that I’d just wait at the car since my arms had already fallen halfway off my shoulders from the earlier four hours of paddling.  But it didn’t take long (seconds!) for my mind to generate a surprising variety of different capsizing possibilities so the next thing I knew, I, too, was back in the water, paddling furiously after the love of my life, determined to save him from himself if necessary, or at least drown beside him in the ultimate worst case scenario.

In the end, neither were necessary.  Super H reached the boat, tied the dangling mooring line around his waist, and commenced paddling into the wind to try and cover the approximately quarter mile of water that now lay between the boat and the beach.  The fisherman’s girlfriend, sensing the uniqueness of the moment, wisely grabbed her boyfriend’s cell phone and started taking pictures.  This is what it looked like:

The wind eventually proved too strong for the hubster to return it to the beach.  He had to take it into a less convenient part of the shoreline but, all in all (since neither of us died and the fisherman was grateful to land it anywhere) it was tremendous fun.  A great maiden voyage for our new-used, spunky, little kayaks.  We were wondering what we should name them at the start of the day but the fisherman graciously took care of at least one of them for us.  As a parting gift he christened the hubster’s kayak Tug Boat.  In the future we’ll be calling it Tug for short.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

SOBERING UPDATE:  My sister-in-law in Spokane read this post and then forwarded me a link to an article in the Spokesman Review concerning a novice kayaker who died of hypothermia in early April after his boat capsized in wind-driven waves out on a lake up there.  They were exactly the kind of conditions I worried about for us.  I’ll definitely be picking up a couple of tow ropes and a pump before we go out again.  And I’ll have the hubster watch this excellent video on the effects of cold water immersion, too, just so we’re on the same page. 

It’s Still Wilderness Without The Crowds

Okay.  Time to post, no matter what.  I’m being distracted by travel, spring gardening, a writing project, a new hobby, the intense gurgling coming from our dog’s stomach, lint on my pajamas, insecurity…you name it.  I published a post last week, left it up for about four hours, then took it private again because of my old friend, the obsession about Will it offend somebody?  I can handle obsessing about the quality of my writing, I’ve got some protocols in place to keep that one on leash.  But my fear of offending some unsuspecting, trusting reader out there is a lot more savage and last week it leapt out of nowhere and just mauled me.

Which makes it about two weeks without a post, so this…my friends…is gonna be it.  (And probably safe and bland as well.)  Here we go.

We escaped to the Sawtooth mountains again last weekend for some long, gruelling snowshoes through the shitty conditions that always exist up there in April.  It was like seasonal dawn…a transition between stable states.  It wasn’t exactly winter anymore but not full spring yet either.  There was a lot of major snowpack melting down at the rate of a foot a day with all the resulting soft snow and slush, puddles and rivulets, marsh and mud.

This is what it looked like on the first day:

And this is what it looked like two days later:

Who knew snow could melt that fast?  We were amazed.

The great thing about that much mess though, is that nobody else wants to be up there.  The snow is worthless for snowmobiling or cross country skiing, and the area is still too wet and cold for the hikers, backpackers, and river-runners that turn up in droves during summer.  Hunters can’t hunt, ranchers can’t graze their cows yet, and no one can drive off the pavement and not get stuck in the mud, no matter how good their four-wheel drive is.

Actually, I take that back…the Fishing People were already in the valley, which surprised me.  They’re apparently even crazier than we are when it comes to non-deterrence from muddy, boot-sucking conditions and we saw a few of their camping caravans set up in places where the river bends up near the highway.  I wondered at it considering that the Salmon River is swollen, turbulent, and loud with all the snowmelt right now.  I’m not expert but are those really decent fishing conditions?  Or were the Fishing People just fed up with winter and willing to pretend for a while…just to tide them over until the fish really do show up?

Perhaps they were just practicing becoming one with the river.  I’ve heard that’s a big part of fishing, too.

In any case, we had the entire mesa to ourselves, although a neighboring, palatial home owned by a rich doctor from Wisconsin had left a light on again…which drives me absolutely nuts.  I mean, a security light?  Really?  Like…what?  Robbers are going to strap on their snowshoes and trudge two miles uphill to carry off their big screen TV in a backpack?

I really struggle with things like this.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on in the valley where the family cabin has sat for decades.  The Stanley Valley (webcam link) is a relatively poor region mainly populated by ranchers, forest service employees, and a few scrappy souls who eke a living out of the brief but intense summer recreational tourist trade.

It also lies one easy mountain pass away from the extraordinarily wealthy town of Sun Valley, part-time home to Hollywood celebrities, a smattering of billionaires, and an internationally reknowned ski resort.  Over the last decade or so, a lot of that money started pouring over the hill into the Stanley valley, mainly in the form of real estate purchases and second homes/mansions.  This has driven local property values way up creating a serious problem for the less financially-fortunate natives watching their property taxes climb into the rarified air of pretty-much-unaffordable.

With this as our backdrop, now imagine a large mesa perched about halfway down the  valley where the humble family cabin sat in relative isolation for decades.  It served as home base for the hubster’s mother, one of the first nurse practitioners in the state of Idaho who founded and then ran the small, rural medical clinic in Stanley for twenty-five years.  She was a tough old bird even when she was young, on call 24/7, snowmobiling up and down the hill in an area known for some of the most frigid winters in the continental U.S., hiking the two miles up and down in the mud season when neither car nor snowmobile would work, and deeply beloved by those in the region who wouldn’t have had easy access to medical care otherwise.

Fast forward a few years and now multi-million dollar homes have cropped up all around the cabin, making for some interesting neighborhood dynamics.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone who owns up there is united in their deep and abiding love for the entire valley.  We’re all drawn to the place for the beauty of the mountain wilderness, and every neighbor I’ve met is generous, willing to help, and friendly.

But there are natural differences, too, created by the politics of money, the politics of natives versus second-homers, and the politics of environmental concerns versus property and commercial development.

As I’ve watched the building take place over the years it’s gradually sunk in how strange it is…that these days we human beings love our wilderness so much it makes us want to build our homes and communities right in the middle of it, which then, of course, makes it not really wilderness anymore.  We want to be near wild animals so much that we build on the land they need to survive, or we long for the pristine woodland glade so much that we blast a road through the rest of the virgin forest to get there.

It seems so irrational and yet so deeply human, too, to love something so much that we’ll actually harm it to have it.  Like small children hugging a puppy to death, our deep, instinctual need for the beauty, silence, and healing of true wilderness is leading us to damage and even destroy it when that’s the last thing in the world we want to do.

I don’t know what the answer is.  And I have to be careful, too.  Clearly, where the Stanley Valley is concerned, any lofty observations I make about human encroachment are laced with a built-in conflict of interest.  I remember once hearing my eldest brother, a successful real-estate developer around the Pacific Rim, make some acid remarks about how often the first people to move into an area then cite environmental protection as a reason to keep everyone else out.   There’s a lot of truth in that and I feel the sting of it here.  It’s very easy for me, with legacy access, to point fingers at the newbies who only want to do the same thing that we did, only first.

So these days I just try and go up when it still feels most like wilderness to me; i.e. when nobody else is around.  When the silence is still deep enough to catch the faint sound of the river rising up from the valley below, or when the night is still dark enough to see the stars twinkling and shooting outside the window as I lie there in bed for hours staring, unable to go to sleep for the wonder of it all.

That’s why the hubster and I both actually love the shitty April conditions, and why it’s totally worth it for us, hauling a forty pound pack on our backs, uphill, in the dark, through slushy snow and mud to get there.  Just because nobody else is nuts enough to do it.

Except for those Fishing People, but that’s okay.  They’ll never leave the river.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Of Birthdays, Mouth Control, And The Risk of Living

My birthday just passed and the hubster and I headed outdoors to spend the day kayaking and hiking.  We always go outside for my birthday because if I were a compass, the natural world would lie at magnetic north.  This year was particularly inviting because it’s been so radically warm that it already felt like spring.  Everyone was outdoors in fact, not just us.  The young, strong, and nubile were hitting the river in wetsuits, while a caravan of towed motorboats wound its way out to the reservoirs with beach chairs and coolers of beer carefully tucked among the fishing gear.  (We lie somewhere around the middle of this spectrum.)

We’re just starting to kayak…our adventurous spirit is reviving from a near death experience as we finally shed some of this horrible weight…and we spent about an hour on a calm pond next to the river in town trying out different kinds and sizes of boats.  (Or, in the vernacular, “yaks.”)  Afterward we decided to drive up into the reservoir system northeast of Boise to scout for more exciting places to paddle once we spread our wings.

There are three dams on the middle and south forks of the Boise River…Lucky Peak, Arrowrock, and Anderson Ranch…and the reservoirs they create stretch for miles back into the mountains.  Below is a photo of Arrowrock dam with spring flows already being released due to the early snow melt.  Note the sparse snow cover on the mountains back behind.

The lack of snow bodes ill for future irrigation but it was terrific for hiking.  Normally we wouldn’t be able to access the ravine pictured below this time of year…at least without snowshoes…but we caught a great day.  The creek that runs along the bottom was low enough for us to cross since most of the lower snow had already melted and run off.  (The hubster missed one jump and got a shoe wet though.  Fortunately, he survived as seen with Dane the mangy rescue mutt below.)

It was spectacular back there, with snowy peaks capping both ends of the valley.  We had views both coming and going.  This is what it looked like hiking in:

And this is what it looked like coming out again:

As we began our hike we met a couple waiting next to a truck near the trailhead.  The woman, a pair of binoculars in hand, had just slid down a side hill and was engaged in serious consultation with the man.  They explained they were waiting for their three teenage sons who had hiked off along a high ridge running above the ravine some time earlier.  They seemed uneasy as the boys were late returning to the truck.  I got the impression the two weren’t married and that the mother was a lot more worried about her son(s) than the father, a hunting man, was about his.

She asked us to watch out for them and to deliver the message that they were waiting if we saw them, and I assured her we would.  But not before the hubster joked that the word “mother” is embedded in the word “smother.” (Sigh)  He realized from the ensuing awkward silence that it was a glaring faux pas, but couldn’t unsay it at that point.  Really, he’s come so far over the years in terms of filtering the thoughts in his head before they spill out of his mouth, but every once in a while he still just takes a hard right like that and sails over the cliff.

As a mother, I could relate to her worry because…well…that’s just what we do.  We know what can happen.  But at the same time I didn’t take her fears seriously because I was picturing boys in the sixteen to seventeen year range.  Around here, boys of that age with a hunting father are already experienced in wild terrain, so a simple hike on a clear afternoon wouldn’t usually pose any kind of meaningful risk.

We were only about a half-mile in when we sighted them up the trail and I immediately realized her worry was based on something more substantial.  The boys were younger than I thought…more in the twelve to fifteen year range…and her son, a pale, slight boy with glasses, looked to be the youngest.  By the time we met we could see that all three of them were agitated, a little scratched up and dirty, and they pounced on us wanting to know how much farther it was back to the trailhead.

They told us they’d been hiking along the ridge on the other side of the ravine when…for a boyish lark I suppose…they decided to climb down the mountainside, cross the creek, and climb back up to the trail we were on.  They pointed out the spot where they chose to make their descent and my blood went cold.  You can’t really tell from the photos but the sides of that ravine are quite steep and the boys had not only picked one of the steepest spots of all to climb down, it was a rocky, north facing slope that still held a thin layer of snow.  The descent was far more slippery and treacherous than they realized and they all exclaimed that they’d wound up slipping a few times.  If one of them had lost control of their fall, it would have meant tumbling wildly down a thousand feet of hillside, battered against jagged granite outcroppings the whole way.  Even the oldest boy (who seemed to be the son of the hunter) was visibly shaken by the experience.

We gave them the mother’s message and sent them on their way (although not before the hubster…imploding under the pressure of a stern admonition not to…helplessly blurted out to hurry because their mom was crying, which only made her son even more upset.  He then tried to backtrack by calling after their swiftly receding backs, no, no, no, it was their dad crying, not their mom, but both the intended humor and the correction sailed right over their heads.  I was just grateful she’d be gone by the time we got back.)

We talked for a while about boys of that age and how unpredictable they can be, how an older child can so easily lead younger ones into situations that escalate like that one did, and how all three of them now have a great story to add to their growing cache of adventures.   We shook our heads and reminisced about our own early scrapes, marveling yet again that kids ever survive to adulthood at all, and it made me think about the growing trend these days of trying to protect them from more…and more and more…of the perennial dangers that always lurk in the world.

To my eyes, some of these efforts lean towards the irrational, to the point where some regulatory attempts (not to mention some of the things parents are being prosecuted for) can not only interfere with basic parenting but a child’s ability to explore their world as well.  I sometimes wonder what kind of people our children will turn into under so much legislated fear, and what kind of society it might lead them to create in their turn.  Hopefully, the pendulum will eventually swing back to an attitude that’s more balanced…something that moderates the current hyper-vigilance with at least some acceptance of the fact that the very nature of life is, and always will be, unpredictable.

We stayed out for a couple hours and, as we headed back, the setting sun broke through the clouds turning the whole valley golden behind us.  A parting gift from the weather gods.

We ended the day by impulsively stopping by Mon Pere’s house on the way home and catching an impromptu dinner with him, his girlfriend of twenty-five years, and her daughter and grandson.

By the end of the day I was a very happy camper; relaxed and supremely content.  It was a most excellent birthday, to be sure.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Part IX: Out Of Town And Back Again (With Advance Directives In Tow)

(Continued from Part VIII: Advance Directives: Dying Inside Our Big, Hairy Healthcare System)

The hubster and I just spent five glorious day up in the Sawtooth Mountains.

Snowshoeing.  With heavy packs.  Uphill.  Both ways.

Kidding.

It sure seemed like it though.  The snowshoe into the family cabin at the beginning of any trip is always a bitch and this was no exception–a two mile trek from the highway to the cabin, uphill with fully loaded packs, after a four and a half hour drive to get there. The bad news was that the trail wasn’t groomed like we were expecting so Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt (with bad knee and brace) started really struggling in the deeper powder.  (He made it though, and we’re more confident about his knee now than we have been in a while.)

The good news was that we got a late start leaving home so we didn’t actually strap the snowshoes on and start up the hill until about 8:00 pm.  It was already dark and the stars that night…the stars my friends…were outrageous.  It was one of the clearest nights we’ve ever seen and that’s saying a lot.  We rarely use flashlights because 1) you really don’t need them once your eyes adjust and 2) the electric light is so bright it dims the night sky.

As you may have heard, there was a spectacular crescent Moon/Venus/Jupiter conjunction going on last weekend and, sure enough, that trinity was hanging just over the silhouette of snow capped mountains as we got started.   However, the moon set after only twenty minutes so we had to content ourselves with a radiant swathe of Milky Way arcing over our heads from horizon to horizon while thousands of other constellations and stars filled the rest of the sky bowl curving down to the ground on either side of it.  (We made do.)  Meanwhile, the snow reflected all that diffuse light back into the air so that after a while it felt almost like we were trudging through a softly glowing snow globe.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  I just couldn’t.  I’m sure my face would have gotten frostbite from staring up through the bitter wind for almost two hours, except that my skin was too hot to freeze.  The heavy exertion was making me huff and puff and sweat like a pig.  (The hubster loved the stars too but was more preoccupied with trying to recall what were the exact symptoms of a heart attack.)

(Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson)

We’re getting older.  There’s no denying it.  And we’re not sure how many more times we’ll get to have these kinds of adventures.  Physical limits are getting harder to ignore.  But so far we’ve pushed on anyway because when you think about it, there are far worse ways to die than collapsing cradled in the wild beauty of high mountains while gazing up into pure, celestial wonder for the last time.

But not until we’ve finished our advance directives of course.

We packed these documents in along with everything else and spent one of our days at the cabin, pens in hand with a snowstorm raging outside, finally filling the things out.  It was surprisingly emotional.  We found it was one thing to sit and diligently read through them over the course of a few weekends, and something else entirely to actually write in our various notations, initial the desired boxes, and sign on the dotted line with each other as witnesses.

Everything suddenly got very final and real, and I kept hearing a heavy door swing shut with a key turning in the lock.  At first I struggled with the feeling that, by signing the thing, I was somehow giving up all my rights and instinctively, I started backing away and questioning the wisdom of the whole project.  I was surprised at how powerful…how primal…the wave of fear was.

But then I remembered something we’d read earlier, that if worst ever comes to worst and I’m finally lying unconscious and helpless and vulnerable somewhere, Somebody is going to step in and start making decisions for me. Whether I’ve filled out an advance directive or not.  Whether I’ve picked them to be the person or not.  Whether they know what I want or not.  And I suddenly got it…on a deep, gut level…that my advance directive is not the thing that will strip me of control and make me silent and helpless, it’s the thing that will help protect me in case I ever am.

That helped my resolve firm again and I was able to continue.

The hubster told me later that the fear he faced arose from a sudden and overwhelming realization that he will, absolutely, someday just cease to exist.  Poof.  Evidently, it was a huge moment for him but I never would have guessed it.  He didn’t look like he was sitting there reeling from the blinding, existential awareness of total, inescapable, physical annihilation to come.  From the outside he just looked absorbed.  Studying the paper in his hands, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.  It’s not that he was trying to hide his fear from me, that’s just the way he is.  His courage is so unconscious most of the time that he usually doesn’t even realize that’s what’s going on.

We read and scribbled and talked about things for hours.  Sometimes we laughed, I cried some, but mostly we took turns trying to explain what we were afraid of, what we longed for, and how much we loved.  The process flushed out things that had been hidden and dormant for a long time.  Tenuous hopes and secret dreads, things to be examined, cradled in tender hands, and then placed into each others’ keeping in a final gesture of deep trust.

I’ve been really surprised throughout this whole process at the huge relationship component involved in filling out these forms.  Maybe because it was also a research project for me and we took so much time with it, maybe because we did it together as partners, I don’t really know but I tell you, it’s added a whole new level of meaning to Till death do us part. Overall it’s been a healing journey full of deepening intimacy for the hubster and I.  We’ve shared things we didn’t know we hadn’t shared, and revealed things we didn’t even know ourselves until now.

I guess if there was any advice I could give out of everything we’ve learned so far it would be this:

Do your advance directives together.  Find someone else who hasn’t done their’s yet, or who hasn’t looked at it in a long time if they have, and hold hands as you walk through it.  The person you pick doesn’t have to be the same person who will be your medical proxy.  (Although, if experience is any guide, you may want them to be by the time you’re done.)  And it doesn’t have to be only one other person either.  It could be a group…if you could find that many people brave enough.  I strongly suspect that this is one area of life where the maxim There’s strength in numbers holds especially true.  If you can possibly help it, don’t try to take this journey alone.

And take your time with it.  Break the process down over a few days or weeks.  If you let yourself sit with the questions for a while, you may be surprised by some of the answers that come up.  I know we were.

Y’know, it’s kind of funny.  In walking through our advance directives, it almost felt like an opportunity to practice for the real thing…for dying…from a safe distance. Emotionally speaking I mean.  In our imaginations the hubster and I got to slip on the experience of profound vulnerability and dependence that goes with dying temporarily, while we’re still healthy and vital and strong.  It was scary in some ways, but far less so than what I’d imagine it would be like facing it for the very first time in extremis.

And we got the chance to start honing a couple of the emotional skills that are essential to have during dying…things like the ability to surrender to the inevitable, to be openly vulnerable and reveal our needs to one another, to gratefully accept the help that’s offered and to be dependent gracefully.  Things that, in our culture anyway, we tend to think of as weaknesses or failings, and yet they’re not.  Those are things that actually require tremendous courage and strength.  I didn’t realize how much before.  To openly accept the willingness of another human being to step up and care for us isn’t easy, and accepting it with dignity is rare.  (Especially for somebody as controlling as I am.)  And yet the hubster confided a couple days ago that, during this whole process, he’s felt increasingly overwhelmed and touched by the depth of my trust.  Our willingness to open up and be vulnerable with each other turned out to be, not a burden, but a gift.

So anyway, these are just a couple of the things we discovered while filling out our advance directives.  It’s been a beautiful, frightening, surprising, hard, uplifting, sorrowful, strengthening, sobering, illuminating and profoundly intimate journey for us both.

And it’s still not over!  Next, we’ve set up an evening to meet with the people whom we’ve selected as our alternative medical proxies, to get their consent and share our advance directives with them. Then we need to get the forms notarized, witnessed, copied, distributed and filed. (Note: Because Idaho’s laws place unusually high hurdles to a simple, low intervention dying process, we’re taking precautionary legal steps with our advance directives that wouldn’t be necessary in most other states.  It’s extra insurance against something that probably won’t happen but still…better safe than sorry.)

And then, after we get ours taken care of, I’ve got the kids in my sights for theirs.

To wind this up, here are a series of photographs taken of some icicles hanging outside the cabin window during our recent stay.  The changes they went through over the days we were there feel similar to the changes the hubster and I have gone through on this whole journey with advance directives.

Stage One:  Glowing and happy from the previous night’s starlit adventure.  Delicate, sparkly and naive:

Stage 2.  Advance Directives Day–blasted by the elements, bewildered, and storm bent.  Not so sparkly anymore, but still…multiplying and stronger:

 Stage 3.  Skies are clearing, brunt of the work is done.  The amount of growth that happened during the storm is kind of surprising.  Thicker, longer, and a lot more:

Stage 4.  Older, calmer, wiser, stronger.  Not so much sparkling as glowing. We’re a lot more confident now that we can weather the storm. 

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Christmas isn’t always merry and New Years isn’t always happy. And that’s okay.

Life wasn’t designed to conform to a strict holiday schedule.

Somehow, someday, everyone who lives long enough will hit a rough year, and maybe this was one of those years for you.  You might…for very good reasons…be feeling sad or lonely, uncertain or frightened, angry or bitter, overwhelmed or numb, and I’d just like to say that if you are, whatever you’re going through and however long it lasts, you’re still just as welcome in this Season of Miracles-That-Come-In-The-Night as everybody else.  In fact, maybe even more so.

Because feeling low doesn’t mean there’s not still gratitude or appreciation, wonder or love, lying underneath.  It just means that those things are buried and resting temporarily, like a landscape hidden beneath a mantle of snow.  They’re down there waiting patiently while winter does its different yet equally important job.

I guess this is one of those holiday seasons for me.  The last year held a variety of hits and scares that were tough for me to navigate and, while none were catastrophic and all will eventually work themselves through, the cumulative effect evidently took a lot more out of me than I realized. This is the first Christmas since 1995 that I haven’t written my annual Thoughts From The Yuletide letter to slip in with our Christmas cards because, with all the good will in the world, I just couldn’t burrow down to where my hope and light are usually cached.  (And I wasn’t about to send out the crap I was digging through to get there.)

So, since the main bulk of my twinkling words remained out of reach this year, I thought I’d borrow somebody else’s instead (along with music and breathtaking photography.)  Because whether I can currently reach it or not, this is what always lives in the deepest place inside me, and it’s what I always wish most for you, too:

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Blip 3 From The Book and Sugar Plum Fairies

Happy Thursday!  I’m actually getting Friday’s post in a day early this week.  Still working on the writing class and trying not to get distracted by the blog.  In that spirit, the following blip is from a section of the book where I describe a walk we took along an Oregon beach during some residual storm surge.  The echoes of dying are just about everywhere, if only we allow ourselves to listen.

We stayed close to the cliffs rising at the back of the beach, scanning their sides for escape routes just in case.  The litter of driftwood at their base was a wildly tossed collection of enormous pilings and giant tree trunks ripped free from prior moorings by lashing waters of extraordinary force.  The evening before they’d all rested in settled places, tumbled long ago to fit tightly along the feet of the cliffs, bone dry and sun bleached, high above the tidal reach.  But after the night’s wild surf they were tossed about and water soaked.  Embedded with wet sand.  Some of the old pieces had been picked up and scattered down the beach or washed away entirely, while other ones were only freshly arrived.

Picking our way we came across the damp carcass of a sea lion, headless and beginning to decompose.  At first I mistook her for driftwood but as we drew nearer I saw tufts of fur still clinging to her skin and I was irresistibly drawn to her.  Kneeling, I placed my hand on her side, the damp flesh still soft, giving way beneath the pressure as if she was exhaling.  I felt a mixture of wonder and horror and grief, marveling that I, Dia…woman of Idaho, of inland rivers and sweet water lakes…was touching a sea lion. I might as well have found myself next to a unicorn or griffin.  She was miraculous to me, sleek and tapering, and I ran my hands above the contours of her body, sweeping them along her back and sides, over the folds of her torn fins as if my hands were somehow remembering the deep waters gliding over them.  Endlessly, fluidly tender. 

I wished that her head was still there.  I looked at the wound and was chilled by the neat edges of severed spinal bone where someone had clearly sawed through it.  I felt agitated murmurs fluttering up from the sand around me and I shared in the distress, made uneasy by those who move easily in the darkness, desecrating the dead.  

I spoke to her gently, whispering final words of farewell and gratitude.  But then a sneaker wave rushed up, driving Cal and I onto the higher rocks behind her.  We watched as the water surrounded and lifted her, washing her back down the beach out into the waves where she swam again one last time, headless and vulnerable.  She got stuck, tossing about in the turbulent zone where ingoing and outgoing waters meet and I wished she could somehow get past the waves and return to deeper waters.  We stood helplessly as she tossed and rolled, back and forth, trapped and jostled in the limbo zone created by conflicting tides. 

But finally, when I could barely stand to watch anymore, a strange, lone ripple of current heading away from shore washed past her and for a moment it seemed like whatever was left inside her washed away, too.  I thought I glimpsed a shimmering sea lion, whole again and beautiful, swimming just beneath the surface, riding that ripple back out to sea. 

And then it was gone.

I’d like to end this post on a completely different kind of beautiful note. Here’s a video of a couple of Polish musicians playing Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy on the most surprising instrument.  It’s both entertaining and exquisite.  Enjoy!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Blip From The Book and A Love Story That Feeds The Earth

I’m participating in a tele-writing workshop which runs through the middle of January so I’m transferring most of my writing attention over to the book for the next six weeks.  (A badly needed redirection I might add.  As most of you probably know, blogging can get a little addictive.)

What I thought I’d do to keep up here is post bits and pieces of whatever I’m currently working on for the book as well as (of course) any other odd and unrelated beauties I stumble over during one of my inevitable distracted periods.  Today, I have one of each:

Here’s a passage from the book that talks about what I went through after the first time I told someone they were dying:

“But even though that’s what I would have preferred, there was no time left for it.  To question slowly requires time, but what if Elsa wanted to know before it was too late?  What if she wanted me to tell her?  What if she said that to me because she saw me as a person who would be straight with her and deliver the news, bad as it was?  Someone who would help her understand what was happening and alleviate her growing confusion?  Help her back to the core and strength of who she was; a woman who preferred the truth.  Who preferred straight dealing.  Who didn’t want anyone to protect or pity her.  A woman who needed someone to respect her strength and treat her like a competent human being rather than an invalid.

There were other times, other days, when I offered slow questions.  Like the day I asked her if she knew that I worked for hospice, or the day I asked if she believed in an afterlife.  Those questions were my bait, asked with the hope of luring her into a conversation about what was happening to her, but on those days she clearly didn’t want to know.  She shrugged them off and changed the subject, letting me know she wasn’t willing to discuss it. 

And I respected that.  I wasn’t attached to her believing that she was dying.  I had no problem with her passing away in the midst of denial if that’s what she preferred.  I was a little uncomfortable when she talked about all the things she’d do when she got better, uncomfortable pretending…but not much.  If that’s what she felt like she needed then I was O.K. with it. 

After all, it was about her.  Not me.

But then that moment came and it blindsided me, when she finally wondered.  When she looked at her belly and stroked her long-fingered hands softly along the sides and said in that small, bewildered voice, “I don’t know why I’m not getting better this time.”  And for one brief, fraught moment she was clearly lost.  Vulnerable.  As if she’d thought she was traveling through familiar terrain and suddenly looked up to find herself in strange surroundings.  Pausing. Suddenly uncertain.  Puzzling softly.

“It’s never lasted this long before.”

It was a fork in the road.  A split second when she could have gone either way, back into denial or forward into truth.  For a heartbeat, a blink, a breath she was open.  Lined up.  In range.  Positioned to receive a message should one happen to come and in that brief moment the responsibility for making a choice of whether to send that message or not fell on my shoulders.

Fuck.

In the moment it seemed so simple…because I would have wanted the truth if it was me, because she had just told me how she preferred straight dealing, because that was how we had been with each other all along…I chose to tell her that it looked like it was her time to go.  That she was dying.  And because it was my choice, my responsibility, and my burden, I was required to look into her eyes and see what it means to strike a mortal blow.  To snuff out hope.  To feel her hand suddenly slip from mine and watch her fall silently away into a dark abyss, her eyes stricken, locked on mine as she grew smaller and smaller.

Is that my penance here?  Is that the asking price for dabbling around the brink of infinity?  Is it a stern reminder that I need to tread more carefully?  That grace is love, yes, but also incomprehensibly vast and unknown and terrifying?  Somewhere in the back of Elsa’s eyes I saw something looking back out at me and warning:  Be careful, Dia.  Always be careful with one another.

Was I wrong to say anything?  Should I have withheld the information and kept my mouth shut?  I don’t know.  I don’t know.

I don’t know.”

Breathe…don’t forget to breathe.

And then here is an oddly beautiful thing I found and just had to share.  It’s a video by Louis Schwartzberg called Wings of Life that “is inspired by the vanishing of one of nature’s primary pollinators, the honeybee.”  It’s absolutely breathtaking…slow motion cinematography of brief and tiny lives…and I highly recommend watching it if you’re feeling any heaviness after reading the above blip.  It’s really just all part of the same Life, y’know?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

That “thing” in the header

Someone has finally asked about it.  I was beginning to wonder.  It’s been up for the last…what?…nineteen months now, and just when I was concluding from the uninterrupted silence that nobody else found it as arresting as I do, Nel over at Life’s Infinite Possibilities (with stunning headers of her own btw) said…

What’s that “thing” (for lack of a better word) on your header?

Here she is in full.

I believe she was an arthropod of some kind but I can’t be more specific than that.  I found her exposed just as pictured, over on the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula three or four years ago. A seagull–or perhaps one of the many eagles that inhabit the place, I don’t know–had taken a couple bites out of her before being interrupted, maybe by the hubster and I as we meandered up the shore.

By the time I reached her side, she was still alive but mortally wounded. I found her extraordinarily beautiful…the colors so vibrant on an overcast, dreary March day that they took my breath away.  She was a tiny, dying spot of brilliance in a wild landscape of muted grays.

She also vaguely reminded me of female genitalia.  Like orchids do, only with an arthropod’s twist.  It both tickled my sense of humor and made me ache for her vulnerability all the more.

After I took the photograph I cupped her oh-so-gently in my hands, walked down to the water, and placed her right-side up again in the sea. She curled a little when she felt the stones beneath her…the cradling of the water…and I like to think she was happier there. Safer. Like the difference between dying peacefully at home, surrounded by the familiar and loved, versus upside down and alone in a car crash on the side of an anonymous interstate.

Here she is right-side up and back in the sea.

A little farther down the beach we also found a dead seal that was only beginning to decompose.

I originally planned to use this photo in the header but it never felt right.  Looking back now I think it’s because my primary focus here is on dying rather than death.  Both are profoundly beautiful to me, but with as much as I love the stars and stillness of deep night, it’s the elusive magic of twilight…that impossible alchemy that occurs as something is changing its very state of being into something else…that haunts me.  I guess that’s why I’ve always been drawn to transitional environments like coastlines and twilight hikes and storms and hospice. Because they provide portals into the strange, limbo world of transmutation where I can then observe and try to document its mechanics, firsthand.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Disappearing Pools And Our Deep Love Of Places

Sunken Gardens inside Lehman Caves

Editor’s note:  This post is a sad one.  Sorry.  I tried and tried but just couldn’t get it to come out any other way.  I know a lot of people who are struggling with these kinds of losses right now (I don’t know, maybe we all are to some degree, there are certainly sweeping changes afoot…) and, while fear and anger are perfectly natural responses, I personally just needed the room to feel sad.  Thought I should let you know.  Dia 

Sometimes we develop relationships with physical places that feel as intimate and necessary as anything we share with people.  It can happen with a childhood home, the family farm, a neighborhood, a church, or a sports stadium.  A stretch of coastline or a forest behind the house.  A garden, an old tree, a park, or a mountain.

Opportunities for this kind of bonding are pretty endless.

And once we sink our roots into one of these places, losing it for any reason can also be as wounding as the loss of a human relationship.  Yet these kinds of wounds are seldom recognized or acknowledged for as serious as they are.

I’m not sure why we’re so resistant to admitting that losing anything other than a first generation relative can be devastating, but we are.  I’ve seen people reel just as much or more from the death of a friend, a pet, or the loss of a home, as from that of an immediate family member.  I’ve watched them struggle just as hard to climb back out of the resulting hole and rebuild their lives afterwards.  But I’ve rarely seen them granted the necessary room to grieve.  Our reluctance to accept and dignify these other losses is both powerful and entrenched.

(But then again, we barely give each other room to grieve the loss of a close family member so I suppose this isn’t surprising.  Y’know, we really need to stop doing this to ourselves.  Communities riddled with chronic wounds aren’t healthy for anyone.)   

I bring this up because I lost a place like this a few years ago.  It was a still, dark pool hidden in a cavern deep underground, and the loss of it is still haunting me.

My mother’s people come out of Ely, Nevada in Spring Valley.  It’s one of those little towns out in the middle of nowhere that you drive through and wonder Why in the world would anyone live here?  Five generations of my family have though.  Four inhabit the cemetery.  Seven have walked the streets of the place and, even though I never lived there myself for longer than a summer, I bonded to it like it was home anyway. It was the central, unchanging hub of my early nomadic life, the one and only place my family returned to again and again, no matter how many times we moved or how many homes we abandoned.  Its high desert, mountainous lands became the geographical North Star off which the rest of my life was mapped.

Surprisingly, underneath those dry, desert lands…winding through a vast system of tunnels and caverns carved out over millions of years…is water.  A lot of it.  And when these subterranean aquifers are relatively full (as they have been for aeons), they seep up to the surface as springs, creeks, and small lakes that support an ancient and delicate ecosystem that would quickly perish without them.

This secret water also collects in countless pools underground that are, for the most part, eternally hidden from human view.  But a few of them are accessible.  When I was growing up there were a number of such pools in the Lehman Caves at the base of Mt. Wheeler which is a little over an hour’s drive from Ely.  The caves were discovered back in 1885 and when my great grandparents first moved to Ely in the early 1900’s, they used to go over and take the “tour” that was available back then.  It involved miner’s carbide lights and crawling through tight cracks (with colorful names like Fat Man’s Misery) to access the spectacular caves that are a part of the system.

Lehman Caves, Mt. Wheeler, and its surrounding lands are such a treasure in fact that they were placed under protection in 1986 and declared Great Basin National Park.

Every generation of my family since the great-grandparents has toured the caves, and it was during my own childhood visits that I became acquainted with a particular pool.  I could never see very much of it because the water stretched back into a recess outside the range of the electric light illuminating the walkway.  But what I could see of it was dark and absolutely still.

Now, some of the pools in the caves tend to ebb and flow with outside water conditions, but this pool had been there far longer.  It stirred something old and unsettled inside me as I learned about it.  How the pool was thousands of years old.  How it had always existed in total darkness and never reflected anything.  How it had never known a current because no wind ever touched it, no living thing ever swam in it, and no water ever flowed in and out to create one.  It seemed so lonely and pure to me.  So dark and foreign.  And yet, in some deep, secret place way down inside me, it was familiar, too.  Like being so sad, for so long, that finally you don’t even mind anymore, and so can be happy again at the same time.

Everything about it mesmerized me.  I wanted to slide my fingers into the water and wiggle them in that dark wetness but didn’t, because the rangers said it would harm the pool somehow and I didn’t want to hurt that still, silent, ancient thing.  It had a tangible presence that enfolded me in a sense of age and weight and peace.  It both soothed and suffocated me a little at the same time, and as a child I responded.

I fell in love with it.

Eventually, I grew up though, and there followed a gap of decades where I didn’t return.  When I did finally go back, I discovered something unexpected and devastating.  My secret, ancient pool was now half empty.  It was slowly draining away.

As the explosive growth taking place hundreds of miles to the south in Las Vegas demands more and more water to support its expansion, aquifers from farther and farther north are being tapped to supply it.  The local water tables are dropping as a result and the dark, beautiful pool I fell in love with as a child is just one small example of a much larger kind of collateral damage taking place.

The system of large, interconnected aquifers that exist throughout the Great Basin is fragile.  If more water is pumped out of it than is flowing back in, the system sustains structural damage.  Caverns can collapse without the support the water gives them, but an even greater harm comes when the layers of soil dry out and ground subsistence sets in.  The sinking, hardened, compacting earth no longer allows enough water to filter down from the surface to refill anything.  There comes a point where the aquifers can no more be recharged with water than a dead human skull can house another living brain.  As with biological life, the ancient, geological processes that created these systems only work in one direction.  In a very real sense, aquifers can die.  Indeed, this has already been the fate of the aquifers of the Las Vegas valley itself, which is why the desperate city has been thrusting its pipelines northward.

And standing there that day in the Lehman Caves, watching my dear little pool slowly drain away, I couldn’t bear to think about what was happening, much less see the evidence of it with my own eyes.  I finished the tour, climbed in the car, and then left the cave, the park, and the state behind me and stayed away for a few more years.  Eventually though, I couldn’t bear that either and I’ve gone back to the park a number of times recently, but I still haven’t been able to make myself go down to the caves.  A park ranger told me that the pool I loved is gone now and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever go back in.  I spend my time up on top of the mountain instead, where the vast changes taking place below haven’t shown up yet.

In my years with hospice I learned how to be around human dying, how to navigate all the emotions that our final passage entails, but this is different.  Geological dying is so achingly slow.  When a person dies, no matter how important or how beloved they are, it happens and then it’s over with.  Even a long dying process finally ends and then survivors can move on with the tasks of grief and rebuilding.  Sooner or later they can climb back out of the shadowlands into sunlight.

But this? These aquifers, these ancient systems, take so much longer than that.  The disappearance of my pool was only an early symptom of a dying process that could continue for…I don’t know how long.  I don’t even know how to define when they’re alive and when they’re dead.  What does the death of a geological system look like?  They don’t have heart beats and brain waves so what am I supposed to measure instead?

I think that I’m still reeling from the loss of that pool because on some deep, genetic level I can’t make sense out of it.  I don’t have any ancestral memory for this kind of thing.  My predecessors didn’t survive global shifts of this magnitude and speed often enough to pass down the instincts I now need to navigate them.

I guess what I’m really trying to understand is this:

What am I supposed to do now?  What is the last person standing at the end of a thousands-and-thousands-of-years-long line of people supposed to do when the music suddenly stops with her?  What is my duty as witness here during the dying of a small, dark pool and the larger changes that it entails?

And as I wrote that last sentence the answer suddenly came clearer.  I guess that is what I’m supposed to do now…just bear witness and continue to love these places.  I need to do the same thing I did while working with hospice.  I never turned away from those rooms, never refused to look at those who were dying or tried to pretend like they weren’t.  I didn’t ignore or abandon them.  I was there to help and to care.  To listen and touch them as many times as they still needed to be heard and touched.  To witness their dying and affirm their lives, and to catch and contain as much of the wonder and miracle of them as I possibly could, so I could carry it forward in my own life afterwards.

I guess it’s time for me to return to the empty pool now.  I need to go back and touch its dry, limestone bed, to remember and say good-bye, thank you, and I really, really miss you.  And, for both our sakes, I also need to keep visiting, touching, and caring about the caves and mountains and high desert lands that I love so much.  Because no matter whether it happens in my lifetime or some far-off day in a different age, the dying of these places was never meant to stop my loving them.

In closing, here’s a photo of one of the larger, ebb-and-flow pools.  Beautiful, no?

Great Basin National Park Photos, Lehman Caves

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Links about the impact of a pipeline:

Will Federal Study Save Great Basin National Park?

Sparks Tribune:  Wandering Water

The Garden That Got Me To Settle Down

Gardens are not static environments.  You can’t just plant a flower bed and a tree and then expect them to stay put like, say, an arrangement of furniture.

No.

Those lovely flowers will instead grow (hooray!), bloom (yowza!), get spindly (huh?), wilt (wait a second…), and die (ugh) before scattering their seeds to areas of your property you wouldn’t have thought possible (WTF?!!).  At the same time that tree you planted will also grow (and grow and grow) until it eventually shades out the flowers below and the seed scattering which seemed like such a problem in earlier years will no longer be the issue.  It’s now the bare dirt where nothing survives.

Even though I fell in love with growing green things in adolescence when my first, obliging houseplant survived, I didn’t discover this longer-term, dynamic garden relationship until my forties.  This is because, for the first 37 years of my life, I didn’t live in the same house for longer than three and a half years.  For the first seventeen, I was a Marine brat and that’s how often my father was transferred.  The next six years of migration were the result of my on again/off again college attendance.  And the last fourteen involved first one husband who bought and fixed up properties (our homes) for resale, and then a second husband who was adventurous and highly mobile.

Due to this nomadic lifestyle, I’d never had a long-term, committed relationship with a garden before.  Oh, sure, I’d dated quite a few, but always with the understanding that it wouldn’t last.  I was basically in it for the botanical sex; sticking my seeds of choice into the fresh, fertile soil and then devouring the resulting, delicious fruits of the tryst before cinching up my roots and moving on to the next plot.

I was a confirmed bachelorette of the garden world…and perfectly happy with the life.  So when the hubster (adventurous husband #2) and I made our fifth jump in five years and landed in Boise, I had no reason to think this garden would be any different.

I went ahead and sunk my heart and soul into tearing out all the old landscaping (i.e. roses and grass) and replacing it with something more eclectic, but mentally, I always kept myself ready for the next move.  For the first five years, I told myself I could still dig everything up and take it with me when we moved again.  Then, once it became clear that this plan was delusional, I resigned myself to taking a smaller collection of favorite things; a few large rocks, all the container plants, and the old bathtub I’d rigged up as a fountain.  (Basically anything that weighed more than a quarter ton.  The hubster usually fell silent during this part of the conversation.)

This lie survived for eight more years before transitioning into the final period of denial where the hubster and I no longer talked about moving at all, but didn’t realize we were no longer talking about moving.

And then, in 2008, I suddenly realized I was trapped.  I’d held still for too long.  My roots…which had been kept oh-so-carefully tucked up in the belt for decades…had slipped loose while I wasn’t paying attention, snaked their way down into the soil, and transformed this house and garden from temporary way station into permanent home. We’d accidentally and unintentionally created something I could no longer afford to lose.

I had no idea until that moment just how badly I’d needed a home that I wouldn’t have to leave behind.

So.  That’s the story of how, over the last sixteen years, the garden and I (I call her Redbud) have become intimately acquainted.  She’s the lady who landed me, the one who finally got me to settle down.

But, as with any good relationship, I’m always discovering something new, too.  Redbud’s microclimates are constantly shifting with the changes in tree cover and watering experiments.  (I do so love to tinker.)

One of our recent successes involves a narrow strip of side yard on the north side of the house which leads from the front yard to the back.  It’s barely eight feet wide and, for the first nine years we lived here, I mistakenly assumed that nothing would grow there but shade plants.

Upon closer study I realized about half this strip actually receives direct sunlight from May through early July, enough time for any seedlings planted to get a good head start.  So I began to think vertically.  I suspected that if I built a trellis tall enough, any vines started in May would be able to to chase the southward shifting sunlight high enough to escape the return of shade in mid-summer.

And lo and behold, I was right.

You can see how the lower squash leaves die off from lack of light (on the right) while the vines on top flourish. This year has been good for butternut squash.  I have six vines and will probably get fifteen or sixteen squashes.  I try and alternate years between winter squash and pole beans.

To utilize growing space, I planted four shade-loving Schisandra vines on the shadier (left) side of the trellis.  (They require both a male and female for cross pollination so the more vines one plants, the better the odds of getting one of each.)  Schisandra berries are supposed to be a powerful herbal remedy but I wouldn’t know anything about that.  After four years I’ll finally harvest a single cluster of berries this fall, which is not enough to have an herbal effect on anything.

Since the fence that continues along the northern border of the backyard has the best southern exposure on the property, I’ve lined it with espaliered fruit trees.  There are two pears and two apples, which all failed to produce this year because the f—g squirrels bit off almost all the fruit buds in late April.  Here are the espaliered pears:

The two muslin bags in the lower right corner are protecting this years crop–two pears–from further depredation.  It’s working so far.

I’ve had better luck with the peaches; so much so in fact that, despite early fruit thinning, three branches have broken so far under the weight.

The squirrels are chewing off upwards of ten or fifteen fruits a day now, so I’ll probably revert to last year’s strategy and strip the tree early, allowing the green fruit to then ripen in a protected area.  While the taste is inferior that way, at least I win. Gardening, like any good, long-term, committed relationship, is full of compromises.

Redbud’s grape predators are threefold; squirrels, robins, and Dane the mangy rescue mutt. Muslin bags have been an effective deterrent for all three.

Occasionally, a frustrated squirrel will chew through the stem causing a grape cluster, bag intact, to fall to the ground.  Dane has discovered that if he picks these up and delicately mouths them, he gets a delicious shot of grape juice.  He therefore leaves the squirrels unmolested when they’re working around the vines.

Dane is the sole predator of garden tomatoes.  He stripped the bushes once this year.

We were forced to cut down a couple of beloved but badly misplaced trees this year.  We decided to create pedestals out of them.  The driftwood are pieces we’ve collected from various spots along the Pacific Northwest coastline.

 

 

Clearly, there is no tree stump involved in the last photo but I like the driftwood and figured I’d toss it in anyway.

And now, I apologize for the abrupt ending but Redbud calls and I must away.  Happy gardening to you all!

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

 

 

 

The Danger of Blowholes

This photo was taken moments before the man behind the water spray was sucked down a blowhole on Maui last week:

Photo from the article in the Daily Mail.

Sadly, he only came back up to the surface once before being dragged under again and disappearing for good.  At the time the article was written, his body had still not been found.

It’s an odd way to go, death by blowhole, but that’s not what grabbed me.  My eldest brother was also sucked down a blowhole, decades ago now, also in Hawaii only on Oahu, not Maui.  It was during a high surf alert generated by an earthquake on the Asian side of the Pacific rim and, as soon as they heard about it, Bro (an occasionally professional surfer), his girlfriend, and another surfer friend drove up to Waimea Bay to check out the waves.

They weren’t going there to surf.  The waves were coming in around thirty feet and big wave surfing wasn’t yet as popular as it is today.  No. They were just heading up to watch, because waves that big are a rare phenomenon and, like solar eclipses, tornadoes, and eagles mating, sightings are a privilege and opportunities shouldn’t be wasted.

The three were standing up on the cliffs overlooking the bay, admiring the monster surf, when they first noticed it.  Huge spray coming out of a blowhole none of them had ever seen before.  It clearly had a long tunnel, starting down in the bay and running all the way up through the rock to its exit farther out on the point, and no one had noticed it before because it was inactive in smaller water.  It took seismically generated waves to finally send water all the way up and out the top, and Bro and company were understandably excited by the discovery.  They wandered out to take a closer look.

Now understand, these were experienced island people.  They knew about blowholes.  They understood how strong and deadly water that only reaches up to your ankles can be.  But somehow, in spite of keeping what they thought was a safe distance, the wash coming out of the hole suddenly snaked across the cliff, wrapped around Bro’s feet, whipped them out from under him, and sucked him struggling and clawing back to the mouth of the hole, over the edge, and down inside it.  Just like that.  Blink of an eye.

The Hawaiian Akua are known to be mischievous.

He had just enough time before going under to grab a lungful of air and, because he was a surfer and accustomed to spending long periods of time held under by powerful waves, his lungs could hold a lot.  He began the descent and traveled deeper and deeper down the wormhole, with no idea where it would come out or even if it would remain large enough to allow his passage all the way through.  What he did know was a long, narrow, hurtling slide down through water, rock, and darkness, with a steadily growing pressure in his chest as his air started to run out.

Finally, as he was beginning to think he might not make it, he felt himself whoosh out the bottom of the tunnel into open water. He immediately struck for the surface and when he broke into open air, found he was so far out in the bay he was actually past the surf line.

Needless to say, Bro’s girlfriend and friend were freaking out back on the cliff, and they failed to spot him where he came up because they were looking closer to shore.  But eventually someone sighted him and called the Coast Guard who quickly launched a rescue.  I’m delighted to tell you that my brother survived to tell the tale.  Because he was a strong swimmer, and because he didn’t lose his head, and because our Aumakua were protecting him, and because…well…it just wasn’t his day to die.

Working with hospice is about working with those who die slowly, navigating the process as it gradually unfolds, step by step, over a period of time.  Sudden death is different.  When a person dies abruptly the laws that govern the dying process are moving so fast that it becomes impossible to see the underlying physiological sequence in action.  It’s still taking place mind you.  Every physical body has to go through a shutting down process on it’s way to death.  But while a wasting disease takes us through those stages one at a time, sudden death strikes every point along the sequence simultaneously.

Why is this important?  Because even though these stages of the dying process are the only part we have any control over, we leverage this control into an illusion that we actually have some power over death itself. (We can save lives!  We can!!)  But when a sudden death comes along and collapses the various stages into a singular, catastrophic event which is beyond our ability to influence, then our illusion of control over death is instantly vaporized.

Poof.

The shock of this is absolutely terrifying.  As a people we are very, very, committed to both our denial of death and our illusion of power over it. Pretending like we can somehow conquer it by throwing billions and trillions of dollars into ever-escalating research, treatment, surgeries, medical insurance, regulations, legislation, screenings, hospitals, and drugs has become one of…if not the…central tenet of our modern society.  The pursuit of this illusion has actually now taken over the bulk of our economy.  It’s consuming more and more of the healthy parts of our individual lives.  It’s really, truly massive.

Which is, of course, what makes those moments when the illusion shatters so horrifying.

While medical/technological advances are granting us a greater level of confidence and control than we’ve ever known before, that control is not…and never has been…over death.  It’s over time.  Yet we constantly forget this.

What I’m trying to say here is that dying is negotiable, but death is destiny.  When it’s time to die, it’s just time, whether it’s at the end of a long illness or on the lip of a blowhole.  I realize that saying something like this sounds superstitious in a society that prizes rational thinking, analysis, and control as much as ours does, but only as long as we’re speaking in today’s relatively young scientific language.  In other, older languages this understanding of death as destiny is common.

Try talking to soldiers who’ve seen active duty on the battlefield, or emergency room personnel working long shifts in busy, urban hospitals, or 8,000 meter mountain climbers who’ve seen a lot of companions die climbing, or morticians, or clergy who work with the bereaved, or anyone else who’s been around it a lot and gained an intimate knowledge of the mechanics of sudden death.  They’ll say pretty much the same thing I am; while devastating to watch, the experience also grants one an expanded perspective of reality, an aching grasp of the limits of life, and a deeper understanding of mystery, than all the long, hallowed hallways of science strung together will ever be able to deliver.

To close, here’s an outrageous video from Neptune Surfing.  It was evidently taken at Waimea Bay in 2009 during a storm surge that was creating more monster waves.  Yeah, baby.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Saving Valentina

And finally…on this blog devoted to talking about dying…here’s a story of something that didn’t die.  This big, beautiful girl came very close but was ultimately saved from drowning by a handful of people (who took a huge risk in doing so I might add.)

On Valentine’s Day earlier this year in the Sea of Cortes down in Mexico, Michael Fishbach was in a small boat with his family and a couple of friends when they came upon a young, humpback whale severely entangled in fisherman’s netting.  At first she appeared to be dead.  But then they saw her exhale and realized she was exhausted and frightened but still alive.  Her tail was weighted down about fifteen feet by all the fishing gear, both pectoral fins were pinned to her sides, and the net went up over her back forward of the dorsal fin.  I can only imagine the thrashing and rolling she must have initially executed in her attempts to get clear of the net that led to so severe an entanglement, or the terror she must have experienced as it tightened around her.

At this point they had to decide whether they were going to watch helplessly as she slowly drowned or try and help her.  Amazingly, as you’ll see in the video, Michael slipped on his snorkel, grabbed the one small knife they had in the boat, and swam slowly over to where she was floating to assess the situation.

At this point in the video I heard a weighty, entangling, and suffocating voice in my own head begin it’s droning about how stupid and dangerous it was for him to even try, but then the girl with wild hair inside me who adores the sea slipped past and ran to the edge of the boat, pumping her hand in the air and cheering Michael on.

Because sometimes safety just isn’t the most important thing.

What follows over the next few hours is a series of courageous attempts and lucky accidents that lead to the saving of a gigantic, and unspeakably precious, young life.  There were so many things that could have gone wrong, things that would have made the situation far more tragic than it already was.  But surprisingly, none of those things happened which confirms yet again what my grey and grizzled father–career warrior, survivor of three major wars, and witness to countless weird and miraculous events on the battlefield–has always told me:

Dia, if it’s your time to die then it’s your time to die, and nothing can save you.  But if it’s not your time to die then it’s just not, and nothing…nothing…can kill you.

Clearly, it wasn’t anybody’s time to die in the Sea of Cortez last Valentine’s Day.

Here’s the video, Saving Valentina, if you get the chance.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Surprise Worms On The Trash Can…a.m.

I walked into the kitchen this morning to discover a batch of small, white, maggoty-looking worms crawling across the stainless steel lid of the trash can and rolling their plump, fleshy, little way down the sides and across the kitchen floor.  It was disturbing.  Especially coming straight out of a deep sleep.  From my initial fog, I wildly wondered how the stripped carcass of a cooked chicken I’d thrown away last night could possibly decompose that fast.

However, upon reluctantly opening the lid with my latex-glove-protected-hands, instead of the fetid stench I feared my quivering nostrils met an almost minty fresh aroma.  I realized with dawning relief that these were not maggots after all, but a type of garden pest that is usually invisible, hidden within the cell walls of a leaf.  I’ve been battling an infestation of these tiny creatures among my spinach and swiss chard crops, and these ones must have hatched off a bunch of infected leaves I threw in the trash a couple of days ago.

My friends, I give you a rare (low-video quality…sorry!…) glimpse of the leaf miner adult worm stage.

Shark Whisperer

I just stumbled across this three minute, somewhat-unnerving-yet-deeply-moving video of Christina Zenato, a woman diver, interacting with sharks down in the Bahamas.  Frankly, I didn’t believe this kind of gentle relationship was even possible and yet here it is anyway.  Sometimes it feels so good to be wrong.

Disclaimer:  Evidently she’s a pro, so I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home. 


What fascinated me most was what happened in my brain while I watched.  I swear I could feel it rewiring.  Some deep and unquestioned prejudice against sharks took a hit here.  Big time.

(Which was strange, because I thought I was already fairly enlightened in my attitude toward sharks.  The hubster feels a deep affinity for them and his love for them has rubbed off on me over time, so it was surprising to discover these deep underlying layers of stereotype still lurking in the shadowy recesses of my mind.)

Initially, I admit I thought this woman was an idiot, especially when she started feeding them by hand.  But by the end I realized she has a much fuller understanding of sharks than I do, based on actual, nourishing, beautiful and real life interactions with them.   Something I totally lack…which is probably why my bias has thrived.

Prejudice is funny that way, isn’t it?  It feeds on unfamiliarity.  It doesn’t tend to fare as well when faced with living, breathing, sentient beings.

(Stray thought: Believing in stereotypes is like eating cheap carbs.  They’re like white bread, candy, and soda pop for the mind, not very healthy but what a rush!   Relationships with living, flesh and blood creatures, on the other hand, are more like whole grains; harder and slower to digest but far more nourishing in the long run.)

Once again I’m reminded that all creatures tend to respond positively to understanding, patience, respect, and intelligent handling.  I don’t know why I keep falling back into the default belief that some creatures (including some humans) are impervious to kindness and love…that monsters are real.  That kind of early conditioning is hard to shake I guess.

The video is only a couple minutes long.  If you get the chance I highly recommend it.  It’s soothing and inspiring.

About the technique she employs at the end of the video:  “Practicing a little known technique of rubbing and manipulating her fingers across the ampullae of Lorenzini, the visible dots [electro-receptive sensory organs] all around a shark’s head and face, she induces a tonic immobility. To the observer, this looks like a shark falling asleep right in her lap.”  

copyright Dia Osborn 2011