Cutting a slice of watermelon, the steel blade slipped through red and released cool sweetness summoning a complete encapsulated moment of childhood summer. It burst open with shorts and a tee-shirt, with salt water and blue sky, with an untroubled tangle of uncombed hair. And then it was over, leaving me with a plate of sliced watermelon.
I ran into a young man I know at the bar. We talked the usual pleasantries: time of year, weather, ranching. He complained of summer after the 4th of July. “So dry and hot,” but admitted to spending July in an air-conditioned swather. He told me he’d decided to listen to Jane Austin’s novels while haying last year... classics he’d missed. It began as a curious exercise, but he found himself staying after work to keep listening. We talked books for a while. He is a fan of Ivan Doig, but hasn’t read A.B.Guthrie or Zane Grey. He surprised me with his one complaint of Doig. “He portrays his Montana characters as literary, quoting classics in any situations. It’s not that way,” he said. This young man is certainly more Montana than I will ever be and knows so many more Montanans than I ever will know, but I have seen a copy of The Odyssey on the bench seat of a ranch truck. I have heard a rancher’s wife quoting poetry. And I now have a vision of this young man sitting in a parked swather listening to the last bit of a chapter of one of Austin’s piercing and humorous looks at English country life.
In rural Montana everyone is invited. The newspaper publishes what is going on: weddings, anniversaries, funerals, graduations, reunions. All are welcome. We never met Bonnie Moore Willis, but we went to her memorial because she was the sister of Jim Moore, who we did know. And she was part of the fabric of Two Dot. We joined her relatives and friends and other community members on a sandstone ridge on her family’s ranch and later gathered at the bar for a meal. There were maybe 75 people there, the number matching the ranching population of Two Dot if not matching them person for person. We talked with people we know and some we didn’t know. Bonnie’s family said she would not have come to her own memorial... too many people. Perhaps this is why I never met her. I had never even heard stories of this private Montana horse woman who was by parts tough, cantankerous, accomplished, brave, and competitive... a real adventurer. I would have been terrified and thrilled to meet her.
A baby rabbit has claimed our two orange mowers as its home. I am terrified of running over it. We coax it out whenever we have to mow and it reluctantly moves into the shed. Early in the mornings it is out next to the mowers eating grass. We’ve grown fond of it, checking on it throughout the day. We call it Bun Bun. It is a pathetic name, but nothing else comes to mind. It doesn’t seem to belong to anyone or anything except the two mowers. I try not to think of the circle of fur in the grass near by.
I look to the sky and at the earth and straight ahead
and since then I’ve been writing a long letter to the dead
on a typewriter with no ribbon just a horizon line
so the words knock in vain and nothing sticks.
- from Baltics (section v) 1974, Tomas Tranströmer
I came back to these lines for the images. Was it a mistake to read so many reviews? I am timid with poetry... so much expectation of translation, interpretation, unpacking, digging deep. But I couldn't let the image alone. The conflation of horizon, the place where sky and earth meet, and the impression of a horizontal line banged out on a ribbon-less typewriter. I guess it is an easy leap from words creating no tangible line to the understanding that the place where earth and sky meet is intangible as well.
Back with Tranströmer’s Baltics, I notice today that it is a long letter to the dead being written on a ribbon-less typewriter. All of my love of the image and all of my review-reading missed this. The images came first, and now the gesture. Offering language to the dead is not something I haven’t thought about. It is my idea that it is not in vain, though Tranströmer writes that it is.... “nothing sticks.” I am not so sure... the horizon line is only visible from where I stand, the words written known only to my hand. Not there and yet... there.
“For blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. Likewise, it leads neither toward justice nor away from it. It is pharmaken. It radiates. “ - Maggie Nelson, Bluets #164
After a solstice fire of blue flames, I slept soundly but woke up feeling like the blue had inhabited my body. Am I sensing the turn of the sun? Blue skies of summer giving way to the blue light of ice? It is not the middle of summer, but it is the shift in the cycle of light... dear old sun.
The fire was still burning in the morning. A man, who looked to be covered in soot, walked around the site. Had he been there all night? When I’d gone to bed the fire had been the size of a small house. Tall flames burned through the night and I slept badly. What was burning... debris from the remodel next to the bar or something more secret? Eventually the soot-covered man drove his truck back down the railway line and left a few flames and a stream of smoke running low across the filed. The smoke was nearly blue, not like the blue of a hot fire, but blue like milk with all the fat removed, or the sky at the horizon where the intense blue light has already been scattered. What ever had been, was there no longer.
Every leaf is pointing east. The trees bend and the building moans, all yielding to the unseen prevailing wind. It is another day of weather. I have turned on the heaters in each room and crawled back into bed with the cat at my side. From here, I look toward a day on my own in the studio. “What are you working on?” people ask. It is a simple but difficult questions. I will leaf through some papers, watch for the sun, read something, maybe write a few lines, shuffle some objects on my work table, and look out the window. It looks like idleness.... especially compared to irrigating, plowing, feeding, or balancing books. But it is only idle to the chastising voice in my head... when I let her speak.
The windows have been closed against strong winds and cold temperatures. I barely heard the call. It came out of the twilight, the wind having calmed after two days of agitating everything in its path. I cracked the window to hear better. Was it an owl? I hear mourning doves every day with their owl like calls, but this was different. I followed the call from window to window. When it grew too faint to discern, I went to the internet to confirm what I thought. There is something slightly offensive to me about spelling out bird calls. Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo, does not remotely describe the wildness that comes from an owl’s bulging throat and syrinx. Or worse....translating calls to human language., “Who cooks for you?” or even Shakespeare’s lyrical, “To-whit; To-who.” The great horned owl out my window was clearly untamed and uncultivated to human speech. It was the owl’s own innate animal voice that drew me to listen, stirring affinity and estrangement at once.
Driving back from Bozeman with the passenger seat empty, I watched the clouds. It will be eleven days before I retrace this road to pick up John on his return from Seattle. Alone, I pulled off the road at the entrance to the Lennep Memorial Cemetery where the stratocumulus clouds rolled away from my camera and over the hills. They were dark at the bottom with white swells at the top, laid out in a pattern. I’d been listening to Jason Isbell’s “Something more than free” in the car and the clouds matched the melancholy-yet-hopeful mood of the album. His ballads don’t shy away from difficulties, but they are equally not afraid to hint at promise.
With the camera put away, I turned toward the cemetery, unlocking the gate and letting myself in without thinking. It was neatly mowed, had tall trees. and graves dating from the 1800’s to now. There are many Volseths and Bergs on the headstones, names that I know well. Norman Volseth was buried here just a few years ago. I have listened to Norman tell stories of the area. Now it will be up to the next generation to carry those stories forward. Past and present, lost but not forgotten, melancholy and promise.
Montana is my mistress, the one I keep without giving up my first love. She is the one I see whenever I can. I have only recently thought this idea... wondering if I should hide the fact that I have two loves rather than flaunting them. The thought came to me when I was buying plants for my Montana place. As the nursery owner was tallying my bill, I brought out photos of my lush Seattle garden. “This is the garden I left to be here.” I tell her... quickly followed by statements of love for my Montana garden as well. It was as if I were trying to justify the sincerity of my love to the parents of my mistress.