The Wonder of Winter

Chico Candle There is a time for everything.

I know this. I believe it. The thing is, when a sliver of life overwhelms me, I forget it.

I tend to operate on the assumption that whatever is going on in my life–good or bad, joy or sorrow–will last forever. The seasons, especially as they change, remind me that this is not true. Seasons give me hope. They prompt me to take stock and be grateful. These are the silver linings, the small wonders, the little comforts that have contributed to my sanity in this season of cold, of short days and long nights.

  1. Snow. Just snow. It makes it so much easier to endure the cold.
  2. Darkness. A blanket of comfort.
  3. The fox who regularly treks across our frozen pond, occasionally diving below the snow.
  4. Wood burning in our stove. (And the men who provide it.)
  5. Indoor hot dog and marshmallow roasts. Just for fun.
  6. Sunshine. Especially after long strings of grey and gloomy days.
  7. Snow days. Every single one of them. They were gifts of unexpected time, even–or maybe especially–the ones that pried my grasping fingers off of the Very Important Things that the snow interrupted.
  8. Bananagrams. We play after lunch, after dinner, or when it just seems like a good idea to circle the wagons for a few minutes of lighthearted together time.
  9. Homemade marshmallows. This recipe is simple and delicious. Also, molten when roasted: consume with care.
  10. Crockpot Chicken Wild Rice Soup. So much more manageable to make a quick roux at dinner-time than to begin anything at that weary time of day.
  11. Birdsong. I heard it on Sunday morning, an unmistakable reminder that spring will come.

What comforts or wonders or silver linings has winter brought your way?

For everything there is a season

Sharing this week with the writers at Small Wonders and Thought Provoking Thursday.

On Bison and Geysers

IMG_1511Our breath bit our lungs as J and I trudged toward Norris Geyser Basin, our boots squeaking beneath our feet. Yellowstone’s winter landscape of sculpted snow stills and silences the atmosphere around it. To step outside even the quiet of a single family cabin is to enter a world that, in my dad’s words, “almost sucks the noise out of your head.”

I could use a little more silence like that.

We were on our way to Echinus Geyser which, at that time, erupted on a regular, predictable schedule with regular, predictable indicators. It began with the gradual filling of its earthen bowl–from the bottom up–until the water spilled over the top and spread out across the slope followed by sudden bursts of steam and water forty to sixty feet skyward. Then the bowl would drain and thirty-five to seventy-five minutes later, it would begin again.

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We arrived at Norris on rented snowmobiles with four-stroke engines, quieter than the traditional two-stroke now required in the park. The quiet, so much a gift to a weary human mind, is for the animals–an attempt to disturb less their efforts to survive Yellowstone’s harsh winter. We left the parking lot and walked through the deep winter cold over the boardwalk. It wasn’t shoveled and we made our way over a path of packed snow left by visitors who came before us.

Provided you have some way to keep from getting lost, it’s permissible to wander off-trail many places in Yellowstone. In the thermal areas, however, both rules and sense require that you keep to the boardwalk. The surface is thin in these volatile places. Some who have gone cross-country in thermal areas have gotten burned or even died.

The animals get to go where they will. During the winter, warm ground and steamy air draw the bison in. There they’ll be, gathered near a pool, or a spring, or a geyser and resting on a plot of thermal earth, hoar-frost built up on their fur like suit of armor.

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When I see them converged around a geyser I always wonder what they do when it erupts. I wonder if instinct tells them it’s coming. Or if somehow they know how close they can get. If they get scared and run away. Or if they just get burned.

When we arrived at Echinus, we took a seat to wait for the eruption in company with a small group of bison congregated at the edge of Echinus’ bowl.

Some sat on the snowless ground, their legs tucked neatly under their bulky bodies. Others stood motionless in the rising steam. The bowl began to fill. The bison did nothing. The steamy tower thickened and grew in size. No visible response from the bison. Hot water overflowed the bowl and spilled down the slope. The bison just sat there. And then superheated water, trapped in the earth long enough that it rose above the boiling point, burst from the bowl and into the air.  Finally, after years of wondering, I learned what bison do when a geyser they are perched next to erupts.

They move. Slowly.

They hoist their immense bodies up and lumber away, just out of reach of the water.

It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I expected because it’s not what I would have done. I would have rushed.

But they just moved away, and not until they needed to.

Just like I could use some of Yellowstone’s winter silence, I could use some of that slow, timely movement. Because here’s what happens when I rush: I run right over the most important things and like the saying goes, The most important things in life aren’t things. They’re people. And while I don’t usually run directly over them, I squash their feelings. I miss the details that matter to them. I miss them.

So here’s what I’m trying to remember today: Just move. Slowly.

Sharing today at Thoughtful Thursday and Small Wonders.

 

 

 

On Breaking Trail

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We pulled into the gravel parking lot at the base of Bunsen Peak, piled out, grabbed day packs and water from the back of the vehicle, and set off. Dust had barely begun to accumulate around our ankles when we saw him: a lone bison, a bull, just twenty-five feet off the trail.

Someone was going to have to change trajectory and it was going to be us–my husband, our children, and me.

First, because it’s the rules. The park service has clear regulations about how close visitors can get to animals: Approaching on foot within 100 yards of bears or wolves or within 25 yards of other wildlife is prohibited. It’s up to the humans to keep the distance. Second, because J and I once visited with a ranger who had worked in close proximity with grizzlies in Denali National Park who told us that she found the bison’s irritable and unpredictable nature to be more dangerous than that of the bear.

So we stepped off the narrow dirt path and began to pick our way through the tangled grass and sage of the hillside. It was hard. It was slow going. And because I was dressed to walk down the trail and not to break it, it sliced up my shins. I don’t like breaking trail.

Apparently bison prefer not to, either–at least in winter.

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That’s just opinion, formed after sharing the groomed road with bison after bison. We weren’t on foot that day; we were on a snowmobile. The twenty-five yard rule didn’t seem to apply, but even passing them on the furthest available centimeter of road frightened me. They trotted down the groomed lane–sometimes toward us, sometimes beside us–their unsettled eyes level with mine.

If one decided–and they occasionally do–that they’ve had enough of the pesky, noisy machines that invade their space, their thirty-five miles-per-hour charge was faster than we could weave our way through the small herds that spread across the road.  The air and my snowmobile suit provided no armor against a horned and angry thousand pound female or two thousand pound male.

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Bison are made for winter. They are well insulated against the elements. Their shiver response, according to the snow-coach driver who took us from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful last winter, begins–begins–at forty degrees below zero. Their massive heads work like a bucket at the end of a crane, shoving deep and often crusted snow away to expose last year’s grass underneath.

Last year’s grass.

Not a lot of nutrition there. Spring finds them thin and bony, their fat stores depleted. About ten out of every one hundred will die.

Even though they’re made for the rigors of winter, it’s a hard life.

In her book, Yellowstone Has Teeth, Marjane Ambler writes that in the years after the park service began grooming Yellowstone’s roads for snow machine travel, the bison herd grew from two to three thousand. Perhaps not continually breaking trail has its advantages. Walking from one feeding area to another over a road expends far fewer calories than wading through deep snow.

We’re continually breaking trail in our lives because something is always changing. And while we may not be sporting pollen smeared cuts on our legs or wading, hip deep, through crusted-over snow in search of something inadequate to fill the gnawing hunger in our bellies, we’re constantly moving along a section of road we’ve never taken before.

It’s hard. It’s slow going. And it wreaks a little havoc.

No wonder we’re worn.

At our house we’ve been away from the ease of the established trail for awhile now. Even though breaking a new one is hard, and progress is slow, and it wreaks all kinds of havoc with the emotions–it’s how we get from here to there, from where we are to where we’re going. We are not alone. Even when we’re weary.

No matter if you are on an established trail or finding your way through a brambly hillside, no matter if you are in an effortless summer or under a deep winter, even if you are stumbling through the dark over an unknown terrain, you are not alone.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9

 

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Everywhere

We’ve taken to watching a little football at our house on Sunday afternoons and when the talk turns to the Super Bowl, I remember the day I found some unexpected beauty in Yellowstone. Oh, I expected to find beauty, but not indoors, not around the television, and not watching football.

In memory of that day, a repost–because great good is on my mind, and it can be found in the most surprising places.


We DSC00291dragged ourselves into Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel according to plan, just after midnight Sunday morning. We’d driven twenty hours and that last one was hard. We were all road weary and my husband, who had driven most of the way, was done.

I took the wheel as the temperature plummeted, the wind whipped up and the clouds descended, alternately perching atop our vehicle and on the road in front of us . As I drove, the temperature climbed from fourteen below zero back to thirteen above, the clouds lifted, and snow began to blow across the road, shrouding it more fully than the clouds had done. This cycle–plunging thermometer, cloud-cloaked roads, warming temperatures, and blinding ground blizzard–repeated itself once more, then cleared as we entered Yellowstone through the Roosevelt Arch.

The next morning we slept as late a family of early and late risers crammed into a hotel room could expect to sleep and spent the dawning hours of Super Bowl Sunday walking together through the small community at Mammoth Hot Springs. Soft and substantial flakes floated to the ground, joining the fresh few inches that had fallen in the night. It was cold, not polar vortex cold, but crisp and clear and lovely.

My parents introduced my brother and I to Yellowstone’s winter when I was in high school and my husband and I made a winter’s visit a few years into our marriage. This trip with our children had been brewing since 2002. As much as we enjoy Yellowstone’s autumn, the intense beauty of Yellowstone’s winter is unsurpassed.

We returned to our room for warm layers suitable for exploring away from the civilized settlement. Our destination was the mountainside hot springs of the Upper Terrace. Just two miles away, it was where the grated road ended and the groomed one began. We drove to the end of the road, strapped on our snowshoes, and spent the late morning on our family’s first mountain snowshoe expedition.

The hot springs at Mammoth are different from others in the park. At Mammoth, water rises through limestone and becomes saturated with calcium carbonate along the way. When deposited at the surface, it transforms the constantly growing and changing travertine terraces. Some springs are grey and dry, some white, and others, hues of orange and red, colors indicative of the thermophiles which reside within.

As we walked along a steamy stream of thermal run-off by the road-turned-trail, two mule deer peeked through the trees, then darted deeper into the forest. Our youngest daughter had to be coaxed up one hill, where we found the source of the stream, a spring which resembled Snuffleupagus in both color and shape.

Upper Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone National Park

Upper Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs
Yellowstone National Park

The excursion, was enough for the girls. My husband and son drove Yellowstone’s one open road deeper into the park in search of a more challenging trail to conquer and we went to the map room at the hotel where we read and played games. It was Super Bowl Sunday, so at 3 p.m. an employee entered the map room, unlocked the hotel’s one television, and found the game.

No matter where I am, I never really watch the game. I sit near the game. I visit. I watch the commercials and the half-time show, but I don’t watch the game.

Today was no different. As I read, I heard Queen Latifah’s soulful rendering of “America the Beautiful” and I absent-mindedly wondered where our national anthem had gone. Buried again in my book, I eventually heard its familiar melody and I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. People were standing. It could have been a replay of every high school athletic event I’d ever attended.

This, though, was different.

Of the thirty people gathered on couches and around tables, almost half stood, heads bereft of hats and hands covering hearts. They stood, not because they were surrounded by standing spectators; over half remained seated. They stood because apparently they thought it was right and good and were compelled to do it. As I watched them, I saw the American flag flying between the Post Office, the Visitor Center, and Federal Justice Center through the map room’s paned bay window.

It was beautiful, and it made me wonder how long it had been since I had been compelled to do anything. It was an uncomfortable question.

DSC00288 You know I’m watching. My eyes are open. I went to Yellowstone last week and expected to see beauty, but I was looking outdoors. That I found it indoors, in front of the television, surprised me. And that, I suppose, is something I needed to learn: inspiration is everywhere.

If you’re watching with me I’d love to hear what you’re seeing.

 

A Great Deal Of Good


Sun and clouds

Two Septembers ago my family spent a few weeks in South Dakota. It wasn’t a vacation; it was a working trip. My husband tucked us away in the hills and commuted every morning into Rapid City. The kids and I did schoolwork and read and whiled away the remains of the day until he came back home. What we did not do was spend much time outdoors. At least, we did not spend much time outdoors without him, thanks to the overzealously detailed Beware of the Mountain Lion literature prominently displayed in the home we rented.

Two pages of tiny-typed description featured six photographs of poses a mountain lion might assume, the meaning of each one, and the appropriate human response. Loosely paraphrased, it spiraled down this way:

  • Number 1:  Look! The feral kitty is curious about you. 
  • Number 3: That cat is interested in you, maybe too interested. Reign in your children and keep ahold of them.
  • Number 5: (And please note that this is a direct quote.) “If you have a lethal weapon at your disposal, take careful aim, and use it now.”
  • Number 6. The lion has decided that you will be lunch. 

They had me at number 5.

Occasionally I sprung the family from the indoors by dropping my husband off at work and driving the rest of us to places we could look around without fear of being eaten. The Geology Museum. Tourist towns in the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore. The Badlands.

Along the road which wound through the Badlands I saw a sign I’d never seen before: Viewpoint Ahead. It was an announcement and an invitation. Attention! There’s something to see here. All you have to do is stop, get out of your car, walk over, and look.

IMG_0204Such a sign seems unnecessary in such a place, a place preserved for its beauty, a beauty at once unique and harsh and lonely. At least, it’s unique until it becomes the passing landscape for a few miles. Until we get used to it. Until it all begins to look the same and we get a little bored. Before long we stop paying attention to what we see.

It’s a little like the landscape of our lives.

Our todays resemble our yesterdays and our tomorrows. We get used to it, a little bored even. It doesn’t take long for us to stop paying attention. The sights and sounds, the people and problems that create the texture of life cease to be something to see.

In his commentary on Matthew 6, Matthew Henry wrote There is a great deal of good to be learned from what we see every day, if we would but consider it. 

Lilies. Birds. Heavens. The whole of creation. The good is there, in the little things and the big ones. We just have to watch for it.

There is great good that comes from paying attention. It’s how we see. It’s how we consider. It’s how we learn. Or learn again.

Oh, that we would open our eyes.

There Is A Great Deal of Good to Be LearnedSharing this week at Small Wonders.

A Little Thing

Hope

The littlest things make a difference, little things such as bits of scarlet in a tangle of brown on a winter’s day.

It’s often true, what Blaise Pascal wrote: A little thing comforts us because a little thing afflicts us. A little thing can make all the difference.

What little thing is making a difference for you today?

Sharing this week at Thought Provoking Thursday and Unforced Rhythms.