It is springtime here on the eastern slope of the Cascades, though you would hardly know it with overnight temps in the high teens, bitter north winds, and occasional, almost angry, blasts of snowfall. Still, when the wind stops blowing and the skies clear up, there are hints of warmth in the sunshine spilling through the ponderosas.
Best of all, out on the scab flat behind the Figure 8 great fields of wild yellow flowers are in bloom.
Springtime here means work. Over the winter months I make a long list of things that I know I will need to attend to when the weather finally turns, like it or not, and that list never seems to grow any shorter. So when those first rays of light break through the winter gloom I have to get to work quickly, or I will fall behind and never catch up.
The growing season here is drastically short, and every second counts.
To that end I’ve got three separate building projects underway: a new run for the turkeys, a long-overdue, kickass three-bin compost stall, and a deck for the spike-tent we set up each summer. I call the spike tent my “Field Headquarters.”
I prefer to sleep outside whenever I can. It is perhaps the only place I can actually get a decent night’s sleep, though I’m not entirely sure why. In the tent I can build a fire in the 3‑dog stove, make a pot of tea, and feel the night breeze blow in. I can sit at a small table under a lantern writing and reading and listening to the night sounds and even start to believe I’m US Grant in the field at Vicksburg, scratching out dispatches on the long and impervious slog to victory.
Speaking of Grant, military historian John Keegan — for my money among the very finest of them all — wrote of Grant’s powers of concentration in the field. It was said that when at his desk, sending orders, receiving reports, he would occasionally rise from his chair to find something on another table, and then return to his chair, without ever looking up or leaving the sitting position. I’ve always enjoyed that image of Grant in the field, spattered with mud, reeking of cigars, and sweat, and dirt, fighting the demons of a raging alcoholism, while the field guns were booming.
At any rate, there’s a lot of work to do here, and in the pursuit of the dream my writing schedule naturally suffers. There is a positive element to that. While out with the chainsaw thinning trees, or pushing seeds into a starter tray, or currying great balls of hair off the horses, the well has time to fill back up. My hands get dirty. My heart and soul get clean.
So this morning I offer you a column I wrote last spring for The Nugget Newspaper, which says something about the changing of seasons, a bad winter, and our lives lived quietly under the patient gaze of mountains covered in snow.
Under the Volcano
Yesterday, encouraged by the bluest skies, I bravely opened the door to our shop. Our shop, where I like to futz and putter and try to make things, or fix things, or think about things, had become a desultory crypt of neglect.
That’s my fault. It’s been something of a challenging winter thus far, as you may have noticed, and I’ve tried to conserve and focus my energies on more pressing concerns, which means that sometimes, more often that I would like to admit, I’ve tromped through the snow, opened the shop door, tossed something in, and then closed the door.
But there it was: a big, dark, yawning disaster of disorganization. Fuel cans, battery chargers, scraps of lumber, piles of hunting gear, tools in all of the wrong places, a landfill of my own making. And now it was staring back at me, punctuated by the grating irritation of the talk radio I leave on inside because I believe—with zero scientific evidence—that mice are united in their hatred of The Lars Larson Show, and will seek other accommodations.
So I went to work. And for some reason—probably because our own volcanic peaks were standing up so perfectly in the rarified sunlight—I started thinking about Malcolm Lowry’s excellent novel, Under the Volcano.
If you’ve not read it, the book follows the last day on earth of a British diplomat in the town of Quauhnahuac, Mexico. It is a difficult, sometimes sordid drama, and plays out to its tragic end under the quiet eyes of two ancient and enormous volcanoes.
The volcanoes are important to the story because they lend the perspective of time. They suggest durability, and wisdom—there is nothing happening below that they haven’t seen before–and they are a reminder that the hard hunt for the longer truths often evades us down here, in our little shops and villages, as we scheme and muscle through the daily sturm and drang of an increasingly synthetic 21st century.
It was fitting enough, then, to think of that book while deciding why I actually need an entire drawer full of rusty pipe reamers, or how a box full of .280 Ackley handloads—missing for several months–ended up with a jar of wrecked paintbrushes—all buried under a pair of old hip-waders. It was fitting, I think, because we live in the shadow our own geologic sentinels. Mountains that, when the sun is out and shining on all of that snowy transcendence, we can meditate on just long enough to experience the sublime frisson of our own impermanence.
That should–but mostly doesn’t–spur us into a different way of thinking about things. It might even, in a best-case scenario, cause us to think differently about how we intend to manage ourselves during the Cold Civil War we are apparently descending into.
We can learn a lot from just looking up. There is an old story of a Japanese water colorist who sat outside each morning, staring through the mists at a mountain across the valley. He did this every morning for decades before he ever tried to paint it. And when he finally did paint the mountain, it was a masterpiece finished in minutes. Or so the story goes, and the larger part of me wants very much to believe it is true.
True or not, it was not the story in our shop. Some part of me toyed with the idea of just staring through the mist of the mess a little longer, on the outside chance it would organize itself, and that the great invisible Lord of the Volcanic Cascades would somehow find pleasure with my conviction. But I don’t have those kinds of powers, or whatever that magic is called, and so it was back to unraveling the mystery of how, over the years, I have managed to collect so many combination locks, without recording—anywhere—the combinations, and why they were all in an old ammo can marked: Tape and Glue.
The volcanoes in Lowry’s book are monoliths. They are the Romantics’ notion of negative capability. They say everything by saying nothing. As do our own. They aren’t even noticeably bemused by the strange and grinding duplicities we put on display each day, and that we seem to be insisting on. They just watch. And listen.
It occurred to me, as I performed a kind of kabuki dance with the ponderously heavy and awkward bag containing our spike tent, grotesquely dragging it from one corner of the shop to another, that the vows of silence adopted by various religious orders are increasingly understandable.
What, really, is there to say?
Walt Whitman, who was ahead of most curves in life, wrote about an alternative, and offered a kind of salve for the sharpened dilemmas of modern duplicity that keep stabbing me in the side. He wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” So that’s another way to go, if we can keep our multitudes honest. I don’t know if we can. For certain, the mountains won’t care one way or the other.
In the meantime, down here under the mountains, I was able to get the shop arranged in some kind of working order. It took some effort, and discipline, but I persevered to inject some logic back into the equation. And that kind of work is always its own reward. But this morning, naturally, in a rush to be somewhere else, and forgetting everything I had so laboriously learned, I opened the door, tossed in a bag of ice melt, and abruptly closed the door again.