Choice words escaped my lips, rendered like a battle hymn. The reason? At last, I’d confronted the thieves who’d been raiding my backyard. Allow me to explain:
A number of years ago, I planted what I now refer to as my two-vine vineyard, a modest little duo whose moxie I admire. My grapevines thrive here at 47 degrees north–where the faint glow of distant aurora borealis can sometimes be seen on the horizon, just a few hours from the Canadian border–as if nestled in Napa’s hallowed soils. Deep down in my transplanted roots, I can relate: More than once, I have looked out my kitchen window on or about Aug. 31 and been startled by the sight of a 9,000-foot mountain newly dusted with snow. Like my two grape vines, I am foreign to northern soil. Still, I have stayed on and thrived these 20-plus years since my arrival to this place.
This year, I’d been thinking of pressing a little juice from the last of the grapes or even experimenting with wine. But when September ended, I discovered that most of the grapes had vanished. Only anemic bunches could be found. I mourned.
Deer? Always likely suspects around here. They’re the reason I can’t have a lot of pretty flowers. A bear? Unlikely. My neighbor, awakened by his excited dog at four in the morning, saw one in my yard last August. But I’d never had a bruin here before (that I knew of).
Thursday’s afternoon light revealed the backyard bandits, a pair of raccoons, caught red-pawed during their daring, daytime raid.
It takes gall. I’ll give ’em that.
But my gone grapes? Didn’t willingly give ’em those.
And so the language lesson began. Somewhere in mid rant, I looked over my shoulder and saw my teen-aged daughter watching the raccoon ruckus from behind the patio door glass. I hoped she hadn’t heard my unfit-for-print harangue.
Rattled (sensibilities offended?) the guilty parties ran for it, scurried up one of my maple trees. But not before I grabbed my Canon, twisted on a long lens and snapped a few pictures for my rogue’s gallery.
I had my lunch in the shadow of a ponderosa pine older than America. I could smell wild mint in bloom and hear wild trout at work in the Bitterroot River, just feet away from where I sat. But I’d promised myself a little reading before returning to the rising, splashing fish.
Recently, I’ve started keeping a little Jack London in my day pack for times like these. I probably first read Call of the Wild and White Fang in the fifth or sixth grade. As many children have done, I lost myself in those twin tales of life in the frozen North.
But the first book I remember reading outside of a classroom was Longhorns to Abilene. I remember it as a pulpy Western filled with wild and reckless adventures along the Kansas-bound Chisholm Trail.
Stampeding cattle, bad outlaws and frightening thunderstorms inhabited that little book, and I loved all of it.
Impossibly blue skies and luscious seas of grasses lived within those pages too. The prairie picture that filled my mind evoked a sense of hope and optimism. I saw a landscape vastly different from the tamed agricultural lands and blue-collar cities of the California valley where I then lived.
I rejoiced in a faraway land. Free. Big, open, mysterious country still stirs my soul that way.
My son has recently discovered this transportive power of books. In his case, the Percy Jackson series, rather than dime novels about dusty cattle trails. I smile whenever I see him lost in his own adventures and myths.
When I read Longhorns to Abilene, I was just a boy. So, too, was the book’s protagonist. I realized this today when I looked up the title online. Somehow I’d forgotten that. Something important had been lost to time.
But if I live to a hundred, I hope I never forget the childhood thrill.
August be damned, it’s cold on the way to Blue Mountain. In the cab of my SUV, the heater hums along in the night. Dashboard gauges glow in eerie light. AM radio signals out of Canada crackle across the border in kilohertz, bringing a roundup of Alberta news.
Headlights illuminate a trailhead sign as I swing into a vacant lot. Door hinges squeak, and I step out into the darkness just beyond the galaxy of Missoula, Montana’s, city lights. The air is perfumed with pine needles, dust and summer grasses.
By day, this place is a gateway to a network of heavily-trafficked hiking trails. Tonight a lonesome landscape lies beneath a diamond-chandelier sky. At the edge of that gushing Milky Way, one star outshines them all. For several nights in a row, it’s been the first star I’ve seen at twilight.
Star light, star bright. And yet it’s no star at all.
In grade school, I learned that Jupiter is our solar system’s largest planet, a stormy gas giant with a weird Great Red Spot. I had the means to take a closer look if I’d wanted to. My parents, not long before they divorced, surprised me with a telescope one Christmas morning. I remember gazing at shadowy craters on the moon and reeling with delight.
One day, I trained that telescope upon a little brown house at the far end of a wild-oat field behind my house. I knew the boy who lived there, a tough kid with a buzz cut from school whom I feared. I’d hoped to catch a safe, secret glimpse of him moving about his yard, far off and quiet, like in a silent movie. I never did.
I also never used that telescope to see the light of Jupiter up close. Had I done so, I might have seen the startling thing that got Galileo in trouble: Jupiter has many subservient moons. Galileo saw them in the 17th Century with his newly invented spyglass, and you can see them with a backyard telescope. Jupiter, not the Earth, is the center of that little universe.
Instead of making such discoveries, I spent most of my life mistaking Jupiter for a burning star, a searing sun, rather than a nebulous world.
On summer nights, its starry reflections quivered on the waters of the canals where I caught fish and frogs and bravely skinny-dipped. I saw that light, too, in a Joshua tree desert the night I slept on the hood of a Ford LTD. I was young, maybe 19, and free to wander the universe of Highway 40.
One night in an orchard, though I can’t be sure, I think Jupiter was the last light I saw before I closed my eyes and leaned in for the first kiss that counted: a country girl with almond eyes who sang Coal Miner’s Daughter into a hairbrush and perfectly cracked my teen-aged heart.
Jupiter is out tonight up on Blue Mountain. And to all the world it’s a star, except it never blinks first.
As children, most of us learned that stars twinkle, planets do not. I have read that planets do something else that stars eschew: If you watch them closely enough and often enough night after night, they appear to move across the sky, relative to the background stars, along an apparent path called the Plane of the Ecliptic. Ancient Greeks had a name for stars that wouldn’t sit still. They called them planetes, or “wanderers.” You can see five wanderers without a telescope: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
I didn’t know these things when I was young. I came to know them only relatively recently. About 10 years ago, something got into me and I began reading voraciously about the night sky. I began to learn my way around it. At least well enough to recognize the brightest objects.
Now I pass some of this knowledge to my children. I’ve taught them to find the North Star by way of the Big Dipper; to watch for the “W” of Cassiopeia; to spot the bold belt of Orion in the winter sky.
Sometimes we drive out here to Blue Mountain and look for shooting stars or, occasionally, faint northern lights. One perfect evening, we bought ice-cream at Dairy Queen and then came here to see comet Neowise, which had been all over the news. We watched it slow-dive over the horizon, aware that another 6,800 years will pass before it returns.
After checking out the comet, my youngest chased his older sister in the dark. It was some kind of game. Laughter echoed. I lost sight of them but could hear their happy footfalls.
I imagine a coyote, somewhere in the tall grass, heard this commotion too. It cocked its head, twitched an ear and momentarily felt a primeval yearning to sing out. I have heard their canine chorus here many times after dark.
I want to sing out too, when I’m here with my children, when I hear their laughter, watch their play, under the stars. But they’re out of state at their mom’s. A house is quiet. So here I am, out communing with stars on a cold, summer night.
The children have endured a house divided, a post-marriage reconstruction era in which a brother and a sister inhabit different zip codes. We’ve all managed surprisingly well. They seem for all the world resilient. It’s what’s inside that keeps me up some starry nights.
To look up at the heavens is to travel time, since the light that reaches our earthbound eyes left that place long ago. An eternity in the case of stars beyond the last lighted edges of the unknown.
But there is no seeing forward. No perfect parenting. No going back.
There are, however, times when you will eat ice cream on a star-dusted night, knowing that a coyote is listening at the foot of the mountain, and that children’s laughter fills his wild, singing heart.
Last night, the moon came rolling down a mountain.
Or so it seemed to me: a bowling, rolling orb, sliding along a sloping night-black foothill across the river from town. I’d gone outside to let the evening breezes cool my skin when the horizon sky began to glow, like a little band of northern lights.
Elk range on that moonstruck slope. On winter days from my deck, I have watched their upside-down forms through a telescope with mirrors meant for the stars. Upside down because space has no up or down, needs no such worldly orientations.
A little Googling (you’d be amazed how many sites keep tabs on our natural satellite’s comings and goings) tells me the moon will rise again tonight at 37 minutes after nine o’clock. It will rise at a point 119 degrees on my southeastern horizon. (Nearly an hour later, I’m still waiting for a hint of moonglow to clear the mountain). People of the prairies do not have to wait on a moonrise or let go the sun early, the way those who live among mountains do.
Oh, but the moon last night. The brightening glow I had not expected. No Google search had told me to find it, where to look in any direction. I was simply out under the night canopy, and there it was:
Tycho and Copernicus craters.
Sea of Showers.
Sea of Tranquility.
An impromptu celestial encounter; improbable light before my eyes.
Now I will say a nearly full moonrise is impressive, even from 240,000-plus miles. But I think I prefer moonless nights when a diamond Milky Way washes a fool’s gold through the Summer Triangle.
Still, I wonder how an elk, or any living thing without a telescope or a compass or a search engine, perceives a rising, second sun from up there on that mountain.
Wild mountain berries will keep their promise for you. It’s August now, and in another week I will find them, like I always do, among the kinnikinic and elk tracks by the Idaho line.
Would you remember the way? Our purple-stained hands and hearts, our footprints, still, like lovers’ letters etched in ancient dirt beside a Forest Service road?
I thought of that place this evening, down here in the valley between mountains, because the sky was that same crazy color. I’d stayed out late, in a river, with the mayflies falling softly and the trout circles rising wildly ’round my naked legs. A pair of sandhill cranes sounded in the sky, and it was time to start walking toward the lights of town.
When I got home, I sat out back and watched the last of the light fall away. It fell through a mountain gap, that same bygone buffalo road we drove from the coast the night a mountain lion slipped from the forest and we looked at each other.
The light that left here lingers over the Lochsa, the Clearwater and the Columbia, bound for sagebrush seas.
I imagine you making dinner late in your kitchen; your tender hand turning a faucet, just as you turn toward a window, your gaze falling on a wild, huckleberry sky.
Tonight the moon is a dusky disk; I can see it through the maple tree. Somewhere a wildfire must be burning.
A heatwave has me up, all sweat-soaked and coiled up, like someone in a Tennessee Williams play. I turn to bed as oscillating fans in the night spin dreams.
Come along for a walk down a well-worn trace beside the Bitterroot River, and you’ll soon find a windfall cottonwood in your path. Go over or around this fallen shade-maker if you wish to press on, eventually looping past a long-ago corral and a fallow field frequented by white-tailed deer and ruled by a predictably present coyote.
Or, should your hand grip the cork of a 5-weight fly rod, you may choose to stop at a generous trout-fishing hole that I know well, just around the next river bend.
Look far and wide, whichever path compels you: bands and clusters of cottonwoods.
Mature cottonwoods are tall, stout trees with wrinkly bark. Their broad, heart-shaped leaves freckle in the sun as summer grinds on into wildfire season. By then, you already begin to feel it in your heart that the early, high-country snows of September aren’t too far off.
In Montana, cottonwoods often mark the paths of wandering, flood-prone rivers, like the Bitterroot, with which their life cyles intimately intertwine. Lately I’ve been learning more about that river-tree marriage: In spring, these rivers nearly burst with mountain snow runoff. Sediments produced by high waters prepare a silty nursery for the cottonwood seeds to come. Their annual emergence resembles blizzards of snow. Like ethereal fairies, the cottony seeds ride the wind until they come to rest in the soft sands left by the retreating waters.
Magically, many critters dwell among cottonwood forests, including more than half of Montana’s bird species, according to Montana Audubon.
I will tell you of one: the pileated woodpecker, whose machine-gun labors echo here. It’s a thrill to see (and hear) one of these pretty birds hammer a flashy red head against a cottonwood snag, wood chips flying this way and that way, on a sub-zero morning. An avian chef banging his pots and pans, wildly sifting and flinging flour. Voila! A bug breakfast is served with a clamor.
A downed cottonwood can show you the way to other magic.
All that’s needed is to stop on a hot July afternoon alongside a river out West, as I did recently, while out on a walk with my son and daughter. Seated in the shade, I found the cool, lichen-speckled bark a fair-enough rest. As I straddled the log, I saw my son—arms straight out, airplane style—gracefully walk its entire furrowed length.
I breathed in sweet river breezes as he bent his knees and launched feet first into the shallows. I have a photograph of that moment now that I will treasure.
School was out, and yet a classroom had been discovered. The lesson? It was enough to thrill a boy of 11 all the way to his wet, sand-coated toes. He understood something, as all children do. His face told me that.
A fallen cottonwood (any tree or boulder, for that matter) can be more than a speed bump on a trail you follow by a river that flows just a mile from where you lay your dreaming head each night. It can be a blessing as big as a battleship, as fantastic as a frontier fortress, as enchanting as a castle.
Look far, look wide from this seat among the tall, leafy trees. Not even the distant edges of September can yet be seen.
A bathroom light switch stopped working last night, so I’m off to the hardware store. But I’d rather sit under the maple tree out back and study the sky for a sign. For a time today, the sky looked like the sky in the photo below, taken a year ago. (That’s the roof of my Chevy Blazer).
Skies like the one in the photo remind me of a line from the Johnny Cash song, “Any Old Wind that Blows,” which DJs were spinning back in 1973, when I was still a boy. The lyric in question mentions “cotton-candy clouds that sail the day, slow and free.” The song, of course, is about a restless lover and the man who tries to come to terms with her vagaries.
But the sense of movement and freedom in the song’s imagery resonates with me whenever a cloud flotilla sails by on breezy, blue days.
Scientists call our tendency to see familiar shapes in everyday objects, like clouds, pareidolia. It seems our minds seek order in randomness and chaos.
It’s why some folks see a butterfly or a dragon in a cloud on high. Or a Rorschach schooner en route to Australia.
As I write this, the top branches of the big maple out back catch a westerly wind, wave farewell to the cloud ships that sail for the Sapphire Mountains. They’re bound for who-knows-where beyond the Great Divide, maybe even out past Custer, Lame Deer and Miles City.
Perhaps one wayward cloud will take a hard left at the North Dakota border and head for Saskatchewan.
Meanwhile, down here on terra firma, mortgages need paying, children need raising, things need fixing—in our mundane lives and in our deeper hearts. As well, like sails, our restless spirits need mending and tending. Landlocked as we are, our minds, too, may at times require deeper understanding of others’ longed-for oceans.
But I can’t think of that now.
Time to boot up, hit the hardware store; time to roll up sleeves, even if I’d give my heart to remain in that Sunday shade a little longer.
And so we wait to let loose our hearts, like Cash’s uncaged clouds.