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Monday
Nov282016

Day 71: At home in the world

(Note: Another post out of order--this one from November 15.)

Ever since our propane stopped working twice in the cold weather at Malheur, I have been feeling anxious about the approach of winter. We now have a new regulator, which should have fixed the problem, but the predicted winter storm that is supposed to hit tomorrow and Thursday with freezing temperatures, strong winds, and snow frightens me a little, as I am still not sure how robust our little trailer is.

Last night we stayed at a primitive campsite next to the Snake River just east of Twin Falls, Idaho. As we set up camp, I pick up the litter around the site—condom wrappers and their used contents, cigarette boxes, candy papers, beer cans, an empty bottle. After we crawl into bed a car turns into our pullout, stops for awhile with its motor still running, then drives down to the next pullout where it parks, stereo loud. Several times during the night a car or motorbike races by at full throttle on the narrow paved road leading to the campsites, tires humming over the cattle grate next to our pullout entrance. But somehow, unlike the predicted storm, this doesn’t bother me and I sleep soundly.

This morning when I wake there is a glorious sunrise over the blue-gray water of the river. Great balls of starlings flow over the sky in surging drifts. One flock lands momentarily in a tree next to me, then just as suddenly ricochets out again with a satiny, synchronized whir of wings. Across the river, just out of site over the basalt bank, I can hear sounds from a nearby feedlot—cows lowing, tractors grinding back and forth, several dogs barking sporadically. I sit by the river to try to calm my nerves about the coming storm.

As I listen to the sounds of the farm, I imagine the people out doing their chores and it occurs to me, This could be my home and this frosty morning could be just another ordinary day, and somehow this thought brings some peace. There is something comforting about realizing that any of the places we have been could be my home, and I could be here by the river on a short walk from my front door.

As I continue to listen to the invisible farm—the bawling of the cattle, a backup beeper, voices raised to be heard over the engines—I can imagine the life of the farm where I grew up, which is now run by two of my brothers. I can imagine them out in the fields or in the machine shop, taking care of the work of the day, adapting to whatever the weather brings. I imagine my father putting on his insulated coveralls to go out in the cold. I can smell the rich, cool smell of fresh earth in the fall when the fields are freshly plowed. Knowing that all the people I know and love are going about their usual days somewhere helps me get centered again. I can take a deep breath. And another. I can begin to realize that “home” is perhaps not just a place, but also a state of mind.

The question is, can I learn to be at home in the whole world? Can I learn to love it all? Snowstorms or sun, cold or hot, dusty or wet, smelling of cows or sweet sage—can I see that these are all part of life? And if I know this, perhaps I can feel at home wherever I go and whatever is happening.

This reminds me of a story the naturalist Tom Brown tells about asking his Native American mentor why he wasn’t cold in the winter or hot in the summer. His mentor replies:

“I am, but heat and cold do not bother me.“

I asked why not, and after a long pause in which he seemed to be weighing whether or not I was ready for his answer, he said, “Because they’re real.“

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A postscript: After this experience, I realized that the sounds I was hearing from the farm were of the cows being rounded up and herded into the truck to take them to slaughter. Whether something is comforting or frightening depends entirely on your perspective—what is nourishing to the owl is death to the vole. This is not to take away from the comfort I felt, only to add another dimension. Life and death are inextricably entwined.

A few days later, I ran across this poem in a collection of Gary Snyder’s that speaks to this uneasy polarity so well.

THOUGHTS ON LOOKING AT A SAMUEL PALMER ETCHING AT THE TATE

         by Gary Snyder

   Moonlight landscape, sheep,
        and shepherd watching eerie beauty

The broad sheep backs
        resting bunched up under leafy oaks
        or hid in black moon shadow,

Lives of cows and sheep—
        calf mouth that sucks your finger
        the steer that pokes his head through
        pipe iron gate
        to lick lapel, and lightly
        touch and taste
        the buttons of your coat,

Cows that trail you as you cross the meadow;
        silent sheep    slow heads turning
        solemn faces
        hooves fringed in dewy grass.

They stamp and steam in chilly morn
        and gaze at length on clouds and hills

                before they board the truck.

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