Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The end of the decade?

Articles filling the papers and wrap-up shows on TV as we come to the end of 2009 indicate we're not only ending a year, we're also finishing a decade. Which leads to the question I consider at times like this - When does a decade really start and end?

Since we start counting with one and not zero, it's a good argument to say a decade begins with the year one and ends at the end of the year 10 - not at the beginning. But common use shows that we talk about 'the 50s,' 'the 60s,' 'the 70s,' giving the nod to keeping everything tidy based on the initial number of the decade.

I was struck by something the Wizard said in Wicked. I am paraphrasing, but the gist was this: The truth has nothing to do with facts. The truth is what we all agree on.

In this case, it appears the media agree the new decade begins on January 1, 2010, so we're all carried along. And it really isn't worth fighting over, I don't think. Time being an arbitrary function created by humans to bring some order to our lives and to make us think we have some control over something.

But the Wizard's comment was funny at the moment, thought provoking over time, and a tad scary upon reflection. How often do we succumb to group think? When we start down the slippery slope of ignoring the facts, where do we land when we stop sliding? What really are the facts?

Something to think about as we finish another year. And maybe another decade.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Listening to winter quiet

I returned from a pre-dawn walk through three inches of new powder, breathless from the exertion, warm in spite of frigid temperatures, the sound of snow crunching with every step.  The snowplows hadn't passed yet, so the snow was clean and fresh. Christmas lights left on all night twinkled in the untrampled crystals. This was as pretty as a winter morning gets.

Reluctant to bring my morning journey to an end, I stopped outside our door. The crunch under my shoes echoed, then faded. My breathing calmed. The air settled around me, and I listened. Nothing. I heard nothing. There can be nothing so quiet as a winter morning under a snowy blanket. Even the sound of a passing car is muted. Dawn would not break for a few minutes and I soaked in this deep silence.

Seldom do we experience complete silence. Radios, TVs, traffic, phones, lawn mowers, the furnace blowing, the dishwasher cycling, devices of all sorts plugged into our ears. We are wired with sound. And even when everything external is turned off, it's hard to escape the internal noise  - a remembered tense conversation, a project gone off track, a looming deadline, the mounting 'to do' list, a calendar teeming with meetings - all clamoring for mental space. When can we ever just be quiet?

Winter night is so different than summer evenings when crickets and frogs and cicadas fill the dark with their cacophony. When wind ruffles leaves. When windows and doors are flung open and everyone's sounds fill the night air.

This morning, in spite of a temperature that hovered in the teens, the quiet invited me to stay outside to revel in clean, pure, sweet, quiet. Then to wait and wonder when something would break the silence of the black and white morning.

Finally it came, the clear call of a cardinal.  I looked around, following the sound. There he was, a tiny dot of blood red on a distant limb. Not long after, a junco flitted by. The birds do not sing in the winter as they do during the summer when the competition is on to attract mates, but just as surely, the birds are here, giving voice to the morning.

As the sun rose, so did the birds. Blue jays. Crows. Gold finches turned winter gray. Their calls brought life to the winter morning. Following the lead of the birds, getting busy with the day, I grabbed the snow shovel and went to work clearing the sidewalk.

Those few minutes of pure quiet calmed my mind, refreshed my body, raised my spirits. Pure quiet. What a gift.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hidden on a windswept plain

My intent has been to write about my prairie at least once every month. But sitting here in my office, looking out across the area where I so hopefully planted a prairie last spring, all I could see was snow. White, windswept, barren. What's to write about there?

Last week's blizzard threw a white blanket over everything. From several hundred yards away, my prairie looked no different than the lawn that surrounded it.

Landscape designers talk about including plants that add 'architectural interest' even in the winter. I've planted bushes - Brilliant Red Chokeberries and Royal Star Magnolias - in my gardens to do just that. And I leave the blackened seed heads of Purple Coneflowers and Blackeyed Susans standing through the winter both to feed the birds and provide interest against the snow. In the prairie? Well, it was apparently just too early for there to be architectural interest on the prairie. But I miss my walks in the prairie, so I pulled on my boots and waded through the drifts to take a closer look.

Turns out there was more going on than I could see from my office. I found a single sunflower that had been blooming right up until the snow. Less than a foot tall, it braved the wind and cold. A hint to the tall plants that will mark the prairie in future years. Tiny grasses reached above the snow. Probably crabgrass! But I was remarkably glad to see them anyway.

Because crisscrossing the prairie, invisible until I was right on top of them, were tracks of rabbits and squirrels and even smaller animals - field mice? voles? The tracks reminded me that even in its early stages, the prairie is hideaway and home and food store to animals and birds. Who knows what is going on underneath the drifts?

I'll walk across the prairie again this winter. Often, because even in the winter, my prairie is teaching me to look close.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The real deal

Nature dumped 15+ inches of snow on Des Moines this week. Fifteen inches of snow followed by winds gusting to 50 miles per hour. Snow swirled in whiteout waves. Drifts mounded up to window ledges. Temperatures dropped to bitter lows. A blizzard for the history books. And boy was it cool to watch!

So often we get hype. The forecast promises something big. Weathermen warn us off the roads. Reality is often so much less impressive. But this time, we got the real deal.

This blizzard brought to mind a blizzard that swept the Plains States on January 12, 1888, one that came to be called the Children's Blizzard. Unexpected, fast and furious, that blizzard caught people unaware and unprepared, particularly the children in one-room schoolhouses. Many set out to walk home, often without coats because the weather had been so warm up to that point. Stumbling through snow drifts, lost in whiteout conditions, unable to make it to shelter, hundreds died of hypothermia.

Our modern weather forecasting systems, our good roads and powerful vehicles, compounded by our NEED to go out, give us confidence. Surely we can make it.

Farmers used to run a rope between the house and barn so they didn't get lost in a snowstorm when they went out to take care of the livestock. My husband and I joked about tying a rope to the door and holding on while I walked to the mailbox. It's almost a quarter mile out and back. I didn't. Of course I could make it. I was shocked when I returned to the house exhausted from wading through the drifts.

Sitting in the warmth of our home, wrapped in a blanket in front of the fireplace, sipping a cup of tea, watching the blizzard rage and the snow pile up, brought back memories of the big storms or my childhood. And I love a good snowstorm. But I realize it's easy to enjoy a blizzard when you're safe in a warm home.

It's worth remembering: Sometimes you get the real deal.