Karen Stevenson: Montana

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Land Snorkeling Notes – July 2012

The earth crunches under my feet as my dog and I go on our morning meadow walk. Even though it is five in the morning, I feel the air heavy with accumulated heat of day after day of ninety, one hundred degrees. The cows we hired for the summer have done their job, tromping last year’s tall clover stalks onto the ground, something a snow pack should have done. They’ve mowed the grass on the hillside around our house and in the pines before it could cure out, lessening the fire danger. The grasses now lie dormant biding their time for moisture while the cows have moved on to the next section of ground. We hope there will be enough grass to keep them the summer. We hope the spring will continue to flow with enough water for the cows, for our garden, for our household use. We check it every day and hope.

As I walk my mind scratches on those worries. I visualize the roots of the native grasses, hunkered down, waiting for rain, biding their time. There is no canopy of tall grasses and patches of Echinacea or arnica hiding secrets on the ground. The earth is bare, revelatory. I find the meadowlark nest under a clump of dried grass where weeks earlier I had counted five eggs. I bend down for a closer look. No eggs, not even the broken shells. As I stand I turn and see the snake’s head framed in the vole hole just feet from the nest and my feet. Its tongue flicks as it detects my body heat and I back away not wanting to find out if it is a rattler or bullsnake. I will leave this serpent to its underground condo and drive-inn diner.

I watch the ground carefully, side-stepping little holes that hide snakes, and that’s when I notice the gray chipped rocks no bigger than my thumb. The bare meadow reveals evidence of an encampment hundreds of years ago. I pick up a working, and look at it closely, seeing each divot, chipped from the stone, a triangular shape lacking a point that must have broken off and then discarded. I hold it in my hand, rubbing the stone like a genie’s lamp, trying to invoke the hands that worked the stone, trying to visualize an encampment waking before dawn, dogs barking, a baby’s cry, horses stomping their feet, swishing flies away as they crop the grama grass and little bluestem. I continue rubbing the rock and look over the meadow. I see teepees and cook fires and people in buckskin walking down the hill to dip their bowls in the cold spring water, splashing their faces in the refreshing water. I see an old man sitting outside the teepee, a young boy squatting beside him, watching intently as he holds the rock just so, cleave it with gentle force, chips and turns it over, rubbing it, feeling the texture, the cleave, visualizing the arrowhead within the stone, slowly letting it reveal itself. Slowly. Patiently.

I give the stone back to the earth. I, too, will wait, patiently, for the vision of green grass and the rush of cold flowing water from the spring in the draw.

Winter’s End – March 2011

Winter is melting into spring! As I stand on the deck of our house I hear the distinct sound of wind soughing through the pines yet the branches are perfectly still. Then, I realize, it is the sound of running water.  My dog Loki and I go exploring.  The snow in the upper meadows melts into a large pool before gushing through the culvert and then rushes down a narrow draw.

I imagine the newly formed creek as a raging river running down a great canyon; scoria rock outcroppings become mountains covered in hues of orange, green and gray lichen, like a coral reef above ground.  As the snowmelt cascades over a cut in the ground it reveals several vertebrae, remnants of winterkill long past, that shimmer and sway like a prehistoric fish peering out from behind the waterfall. The river winds in a legato curve around a pine tree; bubbles glub-glub to the surface, sounding bass notes in a symphony of water music as glorious as Handel’s composition.

I jump the creek and roam near its bank where, scattered under a pine tree, I find owl pellets, tiny white bones and gray fur in a tidy regurgitated ball. For a month I have listened from my deck to the great horned owls’ hoot that questions the setting sun and challenges the moon to rise; perhaps this is a nesting tree, a nursery for the fledglings that will soon be looking for voles in the fields.

Loki follows his nose, a fresh scent to a ponderosa pine and stares up into the branches. I finally see the porcupine, trying to be one with his dinner, trying to look invisible as he hangs tightly to a top branch. I greet my prickly friend with a neighborly ‘hello’ and then ask him to please curb his appetite just a little as he nibbles his way through this stand of forest on the eastern Montana plains.

As Loki and I slog our way back home through the sodden meadow I spot a flash of blue. Oh, joy! Bluebirds! The deal is sealed. Spring is here to stay. Next, the search for the first crocus!

Snorkeling Notes#1:
Daybreak. Fingers of sunlight reach through the fog, poking holes in the gauzy curtain over the landscape. Birdsong filters from the treetops. And then, in the tall grass, a ray of light illumes an orb spider web. Tiny dewdrops sparkle like magic. I kneel in awe to see how the web lines fasten to strands of grass, an engineering delight! Standing, I notice another, and another. I am surrounded by hundreds of glistening spider webs as big as dinner plates and I feel the tensile pull of wonder in each strand anchor in my soul. Land Snorkeling – my world wide web-site!

Snorkeling Notes#2:
Autumn walk. Feet crunch on dried grasses. Ash trees rain gold leaves and then, I find two crocuses, spring flowers, blooming tiny purple petals. Finding spring in autumn. Finding courage to bloom, again, in my middle age.

Snorkeling Notes #3:
I stand outside and hear a symphony of sound. Katydids’ whir, the wind plucks rustles from the bluestem and wheatgrass and soughs a melody through the pine trees. The flute song of meadowlarks. A nuthatch beeping in triplets and the pinyon jays raucous chorus. I take my shoes off and feel the hum of the earth. And I join in the song.

Snorkeling Notes#4:
Walking the shadows in a narrow draw, slowly feeling my way over hidden rocks covered by heavy lofting grasses.  Looking down, white patch in humus, I see a small skull.  I hold it, nesting in the palm of my hand, large eyeholes staring at me, teeth sharp for biting, tearing.  Badger ?, Raccoon?  Further on, a glistening snake skin stretched long under the leafless sumac like a ribbon of parchment paper.  Downy owl feather caught on a blade of grass.  A trail of turkey feathers leading one home.

Karen Stevenson, author of Elsie Fox: Portrait of an Activist