Tag Archives: mountain

Stop the Clocks

clock
Stop the Clocks
by Laura A. Munson
(for Erin and Caden)

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden

People die here in ways they probably don’t where you live. To grizzly bear. Mountain lion. Horse…mountain bike…mule pack…off a cliff, launching their humans, avian, for one last adrenaline rush. An avalanche. A capsized river raft or kayak and a class four rapid and a rock or a log jam. A tipped canoe too early or late in the season on a frigid lake. Tractors, chain saws, timbering trees in the forest, no wood for winter for the ones back home. Deer, elk, moose on the lightless almost-empty country roads…right through the window shield into suddenly pulse-less laps. It hurts to think of all the dead in those moments that go so readily from brave to gone. But we like to call these, somehow, good deaths.
People almost die here all the time, and there are hero’s tales at the bar every night that end in toasting and another round and bragging and laughter, like little boys who have stolen something from the school gym. What doesn’t kill you here, does not necessarily make you stronger. It makes you lucky that you got away with being so brave.
Sometimes it makes you a voyageur. Journey-man. Rich in maybe not moral compass, but clairvoyance when it comes to the ways of mountains, creatures, waters, trees, wind, snow, heavy machinery. But still, even with intuition and bravery, in this country, there is an element of dumb luck to your survival. Put it this way: An agoraphobe doesn’t last long in this neck of the woods.
However you choose to describe us in death, there are a lot of ashes sprinkling the forest floors here, sent from not-so-brave, not-so-unlucky hands. Grief hits hard in our little valley. So many ways to live. And die trying.
Shocking then, when the mountains, lakes, rivers, and creatures and trees and machines seem unimpressed. Cold. Cruel. They didn’t ask us to be here. It’s we who came to them. We who invented some things that made it possible to go where we weren’t supposed to go in the first place. Helicopters. Boots. Polypropylene. But they don’t always save us in the end.
You fool.
You beautiful brave unlucky fool. You had a good death. You died with purpose. Doing what you loved. Getting after it, people like to say around here. We’ll say that about you. We’ll need to. We’re getting good at it.
But what will we say about the lives we lost this last day of winter? What will we possibly say?
The Jehovah Witnesses knock at my door and I hide and am glad I’ve got requiem blaring from my stereo. I might not be the only house today that is playing funeral dirges. I hide, still in my pajamas, still without breakfast or clean teeth, and hope they don’t get stuck in the icy steep of my snow-bermed driveway. Again.
Last time I had to spend an hour with them waiting for the tow truck to talk their sedan back from the ridge where it had attempted to jump, head first. I felt like my angle on Jesus might have embarrassed them a little. Trespassing against us, such as they do.
Today the flyer that prowls though the crack in my door has a strapping, well-fed on red meat, Jesus on the cover holding an immodest glass of wine. Blood. Lots of blood in this Jesus.
A car scratches down the driveway without snow tires. I peer out the door at my golden retriever, wagging his tail after it. He liked the man in the long wool coat with the shiny leather shoes. But wonders why he didn’t lean down for a quick good dog and a pat on the head like the UPS driver, the propane guy, the Culligan guy, the FedEx guy, the neighbor who delivers the eggs, the teenager who brings wood with his buddy, mid-winter.
And I wonder if the Jehovah Witness thinks he’s brave. All those doors and dogs. And today, all the dirges. Maybe doors will fling open today, and weeping young people will lift fists at his shiny shoes on their winter-strewn front stoops. Rage at his red-blooded Jesus and all his wine.
There is nothing that helps us with these deaths. They’re deaths we aren’t used to. We have nothing to frame them by—no sense to make of them– nothing that will gather us at the side of a mountain or have us huddled in the woods, somehow thinking about good ways to die. People who didn’t believe in God, are mad at God. People who did believe in God are mad at God.
We reach to out-of-towners for solace and understanding– who live near highways…busy highways…highways that bear commuters and constant chains of serious voyageurs—people who know that there are weak links every day in that chain. It’s their common practice to expect the ringing phone to bring them news they dread…but will swallow…eventually, or maybe even at once, as the way of the world. There will be a proper burial with just family and close friends. They’ll gather in churches, in black, ashes to ashes in a little urn. A party afterward where people will drink wine and plenty of them will get drunk and cry, but no one will talk about a good death. It’s a normal death. A normal tragedy.
Not this.
This was no regular death. This was no normal death. Not to us. Just because it happened on the busiest strip of highway we know.
So I’ll refrain from telling you for a moment more, how she died. They died. How our pregnant she and her thirteen year old son died. On the last day of winter. Here where we live. Because I can’t bear your reaction: Well, accidents like that happen. Dime a dozen. Still, tragic.. And then you’ll launch into all your people, lost on pavement.
I don’t want to feel so normal.
I don’t.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

I’ll add to Auden because it’s the only way I can imagine being brave right now, hiding from the solicitors in a snowstorm on this second day of spring:
Pack up the machines. The inventions.
Bring out the bears.
Wake up and beckon us.
Make us come naked. Without boots.
Make us see how far we can get. And watch us stop and cry.
Because it’s not so very far without boots.
Then comfort us where we fall. By wandering past us.
Sniffing our punctured, leaking bravery. And what’s left of our luck.
Tell us you don’t have the appetite for fools. Even beautiful ones.
Make us listen to the shivering birds.
Who’ve come back, knowing there would be snow and little food.
Make us listen…to the shivering birds.
And mourn now. Normally.
Shivering in the woods.
Knowing that spring will unravel now.
Whether or not we join it.

For however else can we understand a head-on collision on the highway? When a purportedly suicidal sixteen year old, in a fight with her boyfriend, catapults her Pontiac Grand Am into oncoming traffic, and hits a Subaru Forester, holding a pregnant woman, and her thirteen year old son, coming back from a band concert on a Thursday night. In Montana. mother and babe

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Inversion

inversion
Inversion
by Laura A. Munson

It’s lonely in February with just one woodpecker and a few chickadees against the grey. They call it inversion.
Our valley is flanked by the Whitefish Range—foothills to the Rockies– what in summer looks like a towering garden wall. Then winter rolls in from the Pacific Ocean and gets caught along its jagged edges; and we are sequestered here under a low ceiling of grey, from as early as October, to as late as June.
I don’t have the mind for winter much past the end of January. I can’t sleep that long. Day after day of this grey, socking us in, pressing us down, depriving us of vitamin D. I try to work with what is left—with what is not dormant. I become fascinated by paw prints—are those snow hare prints? Mountain Lion? Fox? I go out with a field guide and a ruler. Scat becomes a symbol of communion. Even the deer start to seem exotic. Crows, prophets. The raven, a mystic holy one.
I walk in insomniac circles in the snow to prove that I am alive. Is that the actual dirt of my driveway glinting through the ice? Does the pond look like it’s opening up in the middle—just a bit?
I force bulbs in my kitchen window, missing the wildflowers that
cover the hillsides from June on to the snows—the yellow arnica, the pink roses, the purples of the columbine, wild lupine and geranium, the orange of Indian paintbrush, the blue flax, and on and on until the violet of the asters. The bulbs in my window come up so wan, knowing they are decoys.
I become good with the mawl, splitting kindling, never enough in this undying season. Sometimes I split wood just to hear the echo. Maybe the woodpecker will answer. Maybe it will be a Pileated woodpecker—maybe there will be red in the trees.
It is fashionable to complain. I do not want to complain. I remind myself that it is this precise grey that keeps our valley free from over-development, our hillsides thick with Larch and Fir, Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine– not thick with the “rustic chic” of log-accented condos and private ski chalets. These are not Colorado winters bedazzled with sapphire skies and relentless “champagne powder” days. This is still the great Northwest; fertile and wet and dense. And grey. Perhaps that which is so fertile must sleep deeper. Longer.
I slap skins on my skis and hike to the top of the mountain, above the cloud level, just to see what has been procured for pilots and high-flying birds who’ve had the guts to stay. I strap on skis and climb through the grey to remind myself—my skin, my retina– that there is a color in this world brighter than my orange down parka.
The sheen off Glacier National Park is garish. Like a confection. The sun so sovereign. The sky so blue with infinity. My heart rises then sinks: How could we be so…neglected?
And I remember the gluttony of summer. Dipping hot feet into mountain lakes turquoise with mineral-rich glacial run-off, melting lotion into golden shoulders, waking with the birds at the exact blush of dawn, little bundles of fingers purple from picking huckleberries, emerald green peas in a silver pail.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong.
Maybe we are being protected from something that only the sky knows. Maybe the inversion is a great grey net, preserving us, somehow.
It looks so quiet below. Not sinister.
Yes, I decide. We are being preserved.
I breathe into the blue and slide back down under, and for a moment, as the world vanishes into vertigo, I feel free. Floating in-between acute wakefulness and sleep again; a part of the gentle hand of ozone covering us all these months, year after year.
And then it’s the valley again, cut off at the shins. The lake, a white footprint in the middle of it all. And again, I am on my front porch, chin to the grey, but I am thanking it now.
For however else am I to remember the welcome the wildflowers deserve?

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Stories