The book of prairie is broad with stories
and platters of bottom land, bald eagles
in the cottonwoods waiting for another day
to fly. This is how we know a winter front
approaches and what we want
is to climb the plateau’s cliffs before the snow
arrives, which we’ll do in four-wheel low,
on a barely discernible path
at mile marker nine, to reach the briar bushes
and game trails, the vista and the fields
combined and tilled impossibly within six feet of the brink.
Up there we’ll almost hear the happy times
of an abandoned homestead a thousand feet below,
music from the femur of a cave bear. We’ll see forever
and yet the town we came from won’t be visible.
It’ll still be a hundred years away.
The book of prairie is broad with stories
There’s a difference between everything. It’s easier to notice (pick apart) the differences, but a little harder to spend time noticing the similarities. If I haven’t anything else to dwell on, this is my latest go-to-mull: Time and space are one fabric.
That’s what I think about when i look at this iphone photo I took of my daughter sleeping a few months ago when we were traveling from here to there and back again. This is the area of Montana where people who love the landscapes in western Montana claim with dismay, “But there’s nothing to see in Eastern Montana.” I’ve never learned how to reply to that. There is so much to feel when you push through landscape like this. The landscape pushes right back through you, becoming a molten field of wheat bisected by iron tracks laid down for the railroad in the 1870s.
And if you slow down your processing unit in your head, the telephone pole will appear. And so will the street sign along a country road that says, Aqui Esta. Which happened yesterday when we were driving home from visiting my sister’s sheep farm. My daughter was maybe thinking about leaving her new puppy behind at my sister’s for a week while she travels out of the country. And my mind was dwelling on both my kids soon boarding a plane to another country and what if this was the one time a plane blows up in the sky with them both on board. How will I survive my children? Which is different than the thoughts I’ve been processing for the past many months, fighting for good health, wondering how my (adult) children will survive me if I fail in this fight. What will become?
But remember: Every river has its village. And each smart phone has its weather alerts. Once your life’s circle includes weather alerts, you become aware of more perils. Areas you’ve heretofore not heard of are in danger of flash floods now that snow-melt is meeting with spring rain. Areas you didn’t realize you knew are subject to high wind warnings with quarter-size hail predicted. And in the middle of traveling from here to there, from delivering the pup to the sheep farm and returning, from worrying about dying to realizing you are living, you drive through the Blue Creek flood zone and realize there is no flood, no high water. Just that reassuring green street sign in the rural subdivision: Aqui Esta.
Songs sing through the radio or through the chimes hanging outside my bedroom window, and tell me there will always be things I will never know. It’s not possible to take it all in. Not in one lifetime. Last week, driving my same daily route to my day job, I drove past the elementary school in the old part of town. For how long now has the new addition been being built next to the original one-hundred-year old brick school building? The blue-tarped chain link fence keeps us from watching, but I found if I parked in the Road Closed to Through Traffic portion of the neighborhood I could watch the scaffolded brick mason methodically add a thick layer of brick to the plywood exterior. Since that day when I was late for work because I stopped to watch the mason, I have been moving through my world once again reminded we live in a world of many layers.
This photo was taken near Judith Gap, Montana en route between Montana’s two biggest cities. Both cities were enjoying regular spring weather, nothing that would cause a weather alert to flash across your smart phone. Neither city was aware that there was a weather disturbance halfway between them. But we were aware a front was building as we packed for the return home. Could we get through Judith Gap and its dinosauric wind farm before the front did?
If you were to drive through Judith Gap, you’d wonder just as we do why that town is where it is. And there is (there was) a small lumber mill there. Not a tree in sight beyond the few hardy cottonwoods that homesteaders planted in the early 1900s. Why the town, why the lumber mill in the middle of a high prairie? But on a windless day you can see all four corners of that world. And each corner is pinned down by a set of forest-laden mountains. It’s just that you are never aware of the mountains when you pass through this town. Until you see the sawmill.
What I didn’t know: Islands sink and some of them disappear altogether. It’s easy when landlocked to not realize the properties of water. But maybe this is a property of land, and if so, maybe I know more about islands and sinking than I realize. But what I’d rather think of are the islands we could experience if we would just dip beneath the water’s surface. Some of you know who you are, you are already the surface dippers, already you have explored those islands.
Wait for me.
Some things, the art museum director says, are white light elegant. He sweeps his hand towards a width of wall waiting for the next exhibit. In some cultures, white light is considered to be of the spirit. He might be thinking of watercolors and oil paintings, but I think he also means to include the way lengths of light can wash over us. It’s why he works where he works, why he likes blank walls.
And I think, then, of white light and shore. Which leads me to my mother and how to this day she is both light and shore to me. I doubt she knows this. I could tell her, and in fact I do, but like a sweep of her hand sprinkling flour on her pastry board, the notion comes and goes away for her. She always gets back to rolling out the next pie crust. I’ve come to count on this while fighting an ailment for how many months now. She calls frequently to do the long-distance-lips-to-my-forehead-test to see how I am feeling. We catch each other up.
Mom bought a bag of tulips when she bought her Christmas tree. She tells me this in March, asking “Did I tell you about the bag of tulips?”
December was a warm month for Montana and when she got home with the tree and the tulips, she realized the ground wasn’t frozen yet. It’d be nothing to get her little garden shovel and plant most of those bulbs. And so she did. And wouldn’t it be just the ticket to bury bulbs in December and get to see them bloom in March, or maybe April?
She tells me this while I am huddled in my quilts, a stack of poetry beside me, medicinal aids surround the nest of contemplation I have built to see me through recovery from something doctors haven’t been able to diagnose. The scent of a tool shed comes to me, the way earth smells warm inside a cold December shed, her wood-handled aluminum hand shovel on a shelf next to empty clay petunia pots. If she in fact has a garden shed, I’ve never been inside, but no matter, I’m inside it now.
And I think of leaving this story right there with you. Imagining wood and soil in a shed, picturing her hands at work, waiting to see what color the blooms will be.
But there is a little more to her story because she didn’t plant all the bulbs. There were 42 bulbs and she only planted 30, leaving 12 in the paper bag. Christmas started up and she and my father got busy with the tree and the stockings. Later, when she went back to her bag of tulip bulbs, it was nowhere to be found. Gone, but not tossed out with the trash.
“Oh, hang on,” she says, “I need to go stir the chili.”
I switch my cellphone to my other ear and listen to her set the phone down. It’s a land line, the good one in the living room where you can hear better than on the cordless phone kept in the kitchen. I can almost count the steps from her brown sofa, across the blue carpet, around the corner to the smooth expanse of white linoleum, to reach the stainless steel pot of chili on her black stove. Stir, stir, taste, add a little salt.
And then I picture her coming back to me, around the kitchen corner, across the blue carpet to the sofa with a large oil painting of a white cat hanging above it. The phone crackles when she picks it up and she is laughing about the bulbs. There are so many places they could be. Green shafts sprouting through cracks, finding just enough light to reach for. Undaunted.
I offer to help look for the bag when I come home next, but she dismisses that with her sweeping hand. She’s looked in the obvious places and now it’s time to sit back and let the bulbs be. One day they’ll be discovered, she says. And when that happens, they will be in bloom.