The stress and expectations of the holidays are over. Snow could still happen. Winter has not yet worn out its welcome. It’s too early to dread the tasks of spring. Sunrises are spectacular. There is fog. Rainy cocooning days are abundant, yet interspersed with crisp sparkling sunny ones—but not too many. What’s not to love about January in the Pacific Northwest?
True, the spring-is-not-imminent bubble is broken when seed catalogs show up in my box, and when my neighbor starts pruning his apple trees and mine haven’t been attended to in four years.
Last weekend, much to my regret after a stormy week, the sun came out and the temperature rose. After ignoring it for a couple days, I couldn’t avoid spending Sunday outside when I really wanted to stay in and paint a wall or work on my newest writing project or finish reading my book (Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens—a beautiful book).
I wasn’t going to go crazy. I was just going to accomplish one long-avoided outdoor task: get the St. John’s Wort under control. I am missing the stone retaining wall buried under it. It was harder than I anticipated. It did not pull easily, even out of rain-saturated ground; and pulling it from the downhill side of the wall caused the large stones to drop and roll, endangering my feet; and necessitating carrying them back up the slope.
I gave it up after realizing it was going to wreak body havoc and I can’t take ibuprofen because I’m having everyone’s favorite cancer prevention procedure this week—and I don’t mean mammogram. I left the piles I had created, that didn’t put a dent in the job.
I moved on to cutting down the large dead rhododendron to add to the pile my helpmate is going to pick up for disposal soon. (He came on Monday! Two pickup and two trailers full. I created it all.)
I do love opening up space, which is kind of what January is about for me.
Dragging the branches up to the pile, returning for more again and again, I tried to turn a blind eye to all the other tasks that need to be done before the commencement of spring adds to the list. Only sheer willpower kept me from sitting down in the driveway and crying. It’s too much. It needs a blanket of snow—out of sight, out of mind. I should live in Alaska. Or Siberia.
My mother, after my father died, hired people to do it all. I don’t have her resources. She did a yeoman’s job keeping up the house and the myriad repairs needed by an aging structure. She hired it all out; but as evidenced by the complete files she kept, it was a huge task. She got multiple quotes then followed workers around—probably with a clipboard—checking on their work, inevitably writing letters of complaint to superiors, challenging the cost, making follow-up phone calls.
Not me. I have a hard time asking for help for something I can do myself. It’s not a virtue. But when I hire someone (by webbing out from one person I like to the next), I tend to trust them to know their trade and to set a fair price. Maybe I could use a wee bit of my mother’s micromanagement, but so far this is working for me.
Returning to the St. John’s Wort to pick up my piles, and rake storm debris out of the yard—dumping the loaded wheelbarrow over when a bolt fell out of a leg—I wondered how my father did it all. I had asked my mother if he hired any help. “No,” she said, “never. And it killed him.” We’ll never know if it killed him or saved him, but what I really want to know is did he resent the time the endless tasks took him away from his beloved workshop and creative endeavors?
This property was my parents’ life. I see that now. It had to be. I love it beyond measure, but it can’t be my life. My mother dealt with the overwhelming tasks beyond the yard by saying, “I didn’t want it to look like a park.” I’ve believed it was her rationale for letting go of what she couldn’t deal with. I do want it to look like a park; and it’s in danger of looking like back country wilderness if left on its own. But I’m overwhelmed. Hard choices are going to have to be made. I don’t know that I’ll make it to my 2027 exit plan.
Piles and branches picked up, fir needles and cones blown out of the carport and across the parking zone to add to the wet needles and leaves that need to be scraped off the edges of the driveway before they turn to soil, I was ready to call it a day. Then I remembered the roof. Holy crap. After the not-quite-epic Epiphany Storm, it had to be cleaned off. Sighing, I dragged the ladder down the stairs, positioned the wheelbarrow for dropping into from the top, threw the broom and bucket onto the roof, and climbed up. It was a mess. I shouldn’t have left if for last, when I was exhausted.
I took two of my mother’s extra-strength Tylenol, only slightly past expiration, plugged in the huge heating pad I finally found for her too near the end of her life, and was in bed at 7:30. How many days until the rain comes back? Could it stay January for a few more months?
P.S. The dreadful procedure is over—”yucky,” as the littlest little is fond of saying—and all is well. The drugs were good, and I got to spend the afternoon napping instead of working outside. Unlike pulling blackberry vines, I won’t have to repeat that for a long time.
Today the rain is back. Yehaw!
To Love January
I clasp January to me giddy
with hope for its newborn
cry that clears away the worn
out year like so much tinsel
carted off to storage.
I love January’s uncluttered room,
its freshly laundered calendar innocent
and white beneath a pure blue sky
grazed by bone-clean trees.
To love January is an acquired taste,
like learning to let the tongue curl
around the slow, sweet burn
of Tuaca’s golden fire.
I do not want to wait for April to fall in love,
July to run with a salty sea,
October to be crowned
in color. I want to drink it all in now
when everything is possible
and I and the world are infants again
babbling, listening for birdsong.
(Thank you to Joanna Powell Colbert and those before her for sharing this poem.)
I sit in my father’s old recliner in the corner of the living room at dawn as the sky turns a rosy glow behind the silhouetted mountain alternating with whiteout conditions when the valley fog rises to fill the sky then sinks back down to the tops of the shrouded firs and back up and down and up and down while the copper maple leaves the color of the bottoms of my mother’s old Revere Ware pots let go of life and float downward pausing when a branch momentarily stops their fall as if to say “see you soon” to leaves still pointlessly clinging to life before continuing their inevitable fall to the ground as birds dance limb to limb accompanied by invisible cows bawling in the valley and a vee of geese honking across the pale blueing sky crossing the thin pink stream of a jet flying south; and I sigh in gratitude to be witness to the beauty in this cyclical time of death.
Okay. Done that. Check it off my list for this century. I’m a mountain girl, not an ocean girl; but it’s been so hot, the beach seemed the place for my adventure this week. I do try to go once a summer. I love the Olympic Peninsula beaches with their drift logs, stone beaches, tidal pools: Ruby (my favorite), Kalaloch (my parents’ favorite), Rialto and LaPush (farther afield); but since I’m camping at Oregon’s Mt. Hood at the end of the month, I decided to explore the Oregon beach too.
Here’s the thing: Oregon beaches have beach towns. Beach towns have people. I am not a fan of either. What was I thinking?
Cannon Beach was still socked in with fog when I arrived at noon, and crawling with tourists from full-up motels and rental condos, no parking. I figured I would find lunch, check out the beach access, drive farther down the coast if it didn’t look interesting there. Short version: Getting lunch took much longer than anticipated, beach was boring and crowded, drove on.
I parked in a nearly full state park lot and headed to the wide, sandy beach, fog still hovering just above the water. Why is it that people congregate at beach access points? It was swarming with beach umbrellas and towels, kite flyers and sand castle architects, dogs and coolers, a not-in-use volleyball net. Not many in the water: frigid, no doubt. These people would love the southern beaches on either coast. But in the PNW you don’t wait for appropriate weather, especially if you’ve forked out the bucks for a condo vacation.
I walked down the beach and was quickly beyond the hoards. There was no wind—unusual at the beach in this corner of the country—so not uncomfortably cool in spite of the lack of sun, and that I left home in a hurry, forgetting a jacket.
It was a black and white photo day, even without adjusting the setting on the camera. I loved it in the end; and I’m not a fun-in-the-sun beach person anyway. It’s the kind of undistracting weather that gets me into myself. Here’s where this tale gets interesting.
I walked until I got to the “haystacks” and to where the headland stretched out into the sea. I hadn’t checked the tide table, and the fog-shrouded haystacks and the secrets their tide pools hold were out of reach.
Clambering over the rocks, I found a private beach, save for the gulls. Though it’s true that I saw only a half dozen people since I left the crowd at the access, from here I could see no one nor be seen. Sadly I saw no puffins; maybe if I’d had binoculars, or been looking harder.
I didn’t stay long; I wasn’t sure if the tide was coming or going and I didn’t want to get stuck. But it was long enough to get my heart going in love for this wild paradise I have come home to. The waves rose and broke as they crashed against the rocks off shore. The gulls shrieked. The trees high on the cliffs above me, permanently bent in the direction of the relentless prevailing winter winds, are evidence of who is in charge here. And it’s not the humans.
A friend asks me over and over what it is that brought me back here. “It’s home,” I tell her, “it’s where my soul needs to be.” “But what about it?” she persists, urging me to get to the bottom of it. She’s not satisfied with my vague response: the mountains, the trees, the hills, the valleys.
I love it here because I grew up here. Like other people love Texas or Kansas. She tells me she is from here—well, from the other side of the mountains, which is not the same—but she doesn’t yearn for “home.” She most feels home in England, where she has never lived. She tells me she loves England because of its history, she felt it in her bones and in her breath from the moment she arrived on its soil at her first visit.
Finally, walking on this beach, I got her question; and she’s been hinting at the answer all along. It’s not that my answers were vague or untrue, but they were the “what,” even I wasn’t feeling the “why,” other than it’s home.
I love this land because of its history too; but because of its natural history. I love it because it’s “new.” I love it because it’s not ancient ruins and because—except for the Indian Wars, a horrific exception that can’t be overlooked—it isn’t built on a long history of generations of spilled blood. It was built from nothing, on the backs of hard-working, courageous men and women. There is no history other than the giant ancient trees that fall in the rain forest and become mother logs to new trees; the trees that fall into the ocean and move in and out with the tides, until they are tumbled bare and finally thrown up onto the shore where children play on them for a few seasons until they are washed back out in the next massive storm; the mounds in the earth from ancient volcanic eruptions; the mountains that still erupt. No one has tried to tame anything, beyond what they need to survive.
On “my” beaches farther north, there are no beach towns, no condos. In my mountains, there are no Gatlinburgs or Dollywoods. If people want to visit these places, they have to be okay with inconvenience and the whims of nature, maybe crappy roads. They have to be content with entertainment in the form of hiking and walking on drift logs. No one owns the land, other than the American people, and maybe some timber companies; at most some mom and pop cabins for rent.
Visitors come because they love the mountains and the sea. There’s no Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, no putt putt golf, no Waves beach stores. Even restaurants are hard to find at the Washington beaches and mountains.
My mother loved the Appalachian mountains of her youth because you can touch them, be one with them, climb them in a skirt. I love my northwest mountains because they hold all the power and we humans are small and insignificant. These wild places are impervious to and untamed by humankind.
It’s not because I grew up here, I realized as I walked down the beach, back to the crowd a few safe yards from their beach town. I am my parents’ daughter. My father grew up in the mid-west and as a boy, dreamed of moving west “until he was stopped by the ocean.” He’d never been west. My mother, at the beginning of America’s entry into WWII, put in for a civil service transfer to the Territory of Alaska. She’d never been west. (She only got to Spokane that time.) She was participant with my father, as they dreamed through the mail during the long years of war separation, that they would settle in the far west.
Love for this wild, nearly untouched land is in my DNA. No wonder I felt like a stranger in a strange land those 36 years in the southeast. I’m home now. My heart beats strong again, my lungs fully expand. My soul hums.
This is why I adventure, to access what I know. It’s never wasted time, even at an unfamiliar beach in the fog. Still, I’m sticking with the wild coast of the Olympic Peninsula and the not-to-be restrained mountains. Sayonara, beautiful tame Oregon.