14 December 2014

Parade Interrupted

The end of the fall semester and the advent of the winter holidays make for busy weeks and more commitments and obligations than usual.  This past week was typical of this end of the year pace.  Each night grows colder, the darkness falling ever so sooner, and I long for a quiet evening with a book, next to the fireplace, a luxury of laziness that seems elusive.

One evening this week, Arden and I were heading home after dark from a meeting with her Odyssey of the Mind Club.  The sun had set, but we’d been too busy to note if it was worth watching.  All was a dark grey, quickly fading to black, save for the twinkling of Christmas lights in our neighborhood.  I was in a hurry to get home, to get dinner on the table and over with so that I could tackle the stack of grading in my bag.  My mind was racing with the tasks of the evening, looming late into the night.  Arden was chattering away with excitement about her club’s activities, as she is challenged in such a meaningful way by her participation there.  I was only half listening, trying to sort out my thoughts, and get us home.

I turned to head up the hill, nearly home, when at the same moment, Arden and I both noticed a trio of deer in and near the road.  We came to a stop and watched them watch us for a moment.  Then they turned back to the grasses they’d been nibbling.  They hadn’t been startled by our vehicle, surprisingly, and carried on their evening activities as if we weren’t there at all.  Silent, we watched as a young one with immature antlers led the others across the road.  They sashayed as calmly as could be, flicked their tails and dipped their heads.  Eventually, they wandered out of the scope of our headlights and we marveled at how long we’d watched them – which couldn’t have been more than a minute or two – yet it was such a pause in the constant motion of the rest of the week that it seemed stretched.  Normally when we spy deer in the neighborhood, we’ve already spooked them and they bound away in a frantic dash to safety.

As brief as that fleeting moment was on Tuesday evening, it’s sustained me through this week of preparation for final exams, end-of-semester projects, and holiday events.  All I have to do is breathe and recall those three deer, and I’m again removed from the frenetic parade of mid-December, the to-do list fading in the darkness beyond the halo of headlights, the world reduced to my daughter and me, and the deer outside with no other plan than seeking out tender blades before serenely moving on.

23 November 2014

Your Silt Dreams

What you said and what you wanted
were never the same thing.

Later, we wondered what
might have happened if you ever spit out the gravel,
remnants of a dam,
never commissioned but built anyway.
Words washed downstream in the flood
of desires piled up behind it –
silt dreams of what might have been
what you might have been –
if not for drowning yourself,
weighted, pulled under by the current.

Why didn’t you splash,
wave your arms wildly?
How else would we have noticed
your silent distress,
distracted as we were
by the squeals of young ones playing on the shore,
by the kites and birds soaring above us?
we could have thrown you a lifeline,
reeled you in, administered first aid.

But you floated along,
until the undertow we couldn’t acknowledge
lured you quietly out to sea,
your submerged limbs thrashing,
tempting those familiar sharks
that devoured you, slowly, from within,
while on the shore, we built sandcastles
that would be washed away by the tide before dawn.

16 November 2014

Thanksgiving in West Fork

Last weekend, we spent a day hiking the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon, as we’ve often done during my birthday weekend.  It’s one of the loveliest places in all of Arizona, in my opinion, as it’s difficult to surpass the beauty of sandstone cliffs, a flowing creek, and the blaze of fall colors on maple and oak.  It’s a place we’ve come back to frequently over the years, in spite of how crowded it can be.  Once we were adventurous enough to hike the entire sixteen miles, requiring the traipsing of a web of forest roads for a shuttle vehicle to drop us off, a trip I hope to repeat when our girls are a little older.  Today’s hike, though, was a check-in.  Last May, we wrung our hands in helpless horror as reports of the Slide Fire poured in.  We feared the worst – another tragic fire with loss of life and property – and tried to come to terms with the likelihood that our beloved West Fork would burn.  And if it burned, then a second blow would be dealt to the canyon when monsoon rains fell later in summer.  With no vegetation to absorb the run-off, silty ash and debris flows would clog the canyon.  This was our worst-case scenario.

When we heard that the canyon had been reopened to hikers, we jumped at the chance to return.  This year, we were a bit late for the peak of the fall foliage, although there were still gorgeous leaves to behold.  What was most pleasing, and such a relief, was what hadn’t changed.  The sandstone cliffs.  The spruce and ponderosa, the oak and maple.  The majority of the canyon, as judged by the three-plus miles in  that we hiked, remained as it’s always been over the past two decades since I’ve been visiting.

There were a few areas were fire had reached the canyon floor, but the damage was not significant.  Parts of the creek bed were silted in with ash and charcoal, washed down from up canyon.  If anything, these changes served as reminders to appreciate the beauty that still exists, here in this canyon, in abundance, but also elsewhere.  Resilience and constancy, two of our most powerful and yet undervalued traits – both exist and often co-exist within the natural world – which includes, of course, ourselves.  Both will reveal themselves to you if you search for them, smaller, subtler forms of alluring grace that deserve a brief interlude of thanksgiving. 


Dan on the trail

Me & Dan

Sandstone and spruce

Madz & Dan

Maple and sandstone

Ashy silt in the creek bed

West Fork

Grass clumps on stone

Trail lined with fallen leaves

Where we turned around, around 3+ miles in.  Usually this is a deep pool, now partially silted in.

Leaves on the trail.

A narrow section of canyon

Looking up

Three of my favorite people on the planet.
Yellow maple leaves

Red maple leaves


Madeleine & Arden in West Fork in 2007
Madeleine & Arden re-staging the photo from 2007.

20 October 2014


I call Mr. Robert Fuller to let him know I’ve arrived in the small community of Pine, Arizona, to learn the story of his family’s apple tree.  It’s the champion Big Tree of its species and was planted by one of his ancestors about a hundred years ago.  Rain is beginning to fall again, small drops marking my windshield.  A few minutes later, a tall, thin man makes his way across the idle highway from the old house on the other side.  He waves and smiles to me; in a moment he opens the passenger door.  In spite of the rain, which has picked up since he left the house, he lingers outside.  It’s the hesitation of a man who has been raised to make introductions first, before he enters my domain, so to speak.  His eyes are bright beneath his ball cap, and his hands are cold but his handshake is firm and friendly.

He gets in the car and unrolls a packet of papers in his hands.  It’s the story of his ancestors, Mormon settlers who came to homestead this area beginning in about 1880.  Mr. Fuller’s great-great-grandfather, Wyllys Darwin Fuller, also known as Wid, was one of five men chosen to colonize the area, which was a challenging endeavor given the rough terrain and the perceived threat from the Apache.  Mr. Fuller tells me of how his ancestors not only scraped a living from the land, but also how they made it hospitable for their families who subsequently arrived, after a time.  By 1888, Wid held the contract for mail delivery, responsible for the mail route from Payson, to Pine, and on to Camp Verde, a distance of about sixty miles, which his sons, Frank and Alf, delivered via horse.  Sixty miles in today’s vehicles is not far, but on horseback, it was an all-day challenge, requiring multiple exchanges of horses. 

It was Alf, Mr. Fuller’s great-uncle, who planted the apple tree I’ve come to see.  It stands about a half-dozen miles from where we sit, on the sixty acres of land that he homesteaded around the turn of the previous century. 

“Are you ready to see the tree?” Mr. Fuller asks, noting that the rain has let up for the moment.

I nod and we pull out onto the quiet highway, driving north toward Strawberry.  Strawberry is more like a hamlet than even a small town, as I’d describe Pine.  Summer cabins and homes are tucked into the dense ponderosa pines; there is little in the way of commercial business.  We turn and the road dips sharply to ford a now-dry streambed.  Eventually the pavement ends and we continue down a soft, rutted road until we reach a locked gate.  We enter and walk from here, Mr. Fuller sharing stories as we go.  We pass by a modern structure and then turn as we reach a couple of barns made of logs, built by Alf around 1910.  The original home on this homestead still stands, a distance beyond where we are walking.

“There it is.” 

Champion Big Tree - Common Apple 

He points, and on the other side of a small wash, surrounded by a confusion of corrals, is the apple tree.  It is still winter, so the tree is unadorned, bloom-free and leafless, its skeletal essence massive and bulky.  I take a few photos from here before we continue down to the tree. 

Multiple main branches jut from the tree’s trunk and are themselves each the size of a typical apple tree.  The immense trunk, with a girth of more than thirteen feet, rises firmly from the grassy earth.  The bark is pocked and swirls up and around the trunk, and this illusion of movement lends a bit of grace to the tree.  Suckers sprout from the branches, vertical protuberances that cause Mr. Fuller to lament its condition.  At the base, a patch of iris grows, not yet in bloom.  Near this, a granite marker identifies the resting place of Alf’s son, Stanley, and Stanley’s wife Elvira.  Stanley grew up on the homestead; later he raised his own family here with Elvira.  The land now is held in a trust by Stanley Fuller’s descendants. 

Massive trunk

It is easy to imagine this now-abandoned ranch as a home.  The original white house perches on higher ground, flat land beyond the barns.  We are in a vast meadow studded with alligator juniper and large oak trees, cradled all around by hillsides crowded with pines.  In spite of the adversity these hardy pioneers undoubtedly suffered, this land is idyllic and I feel nostalgic in spite of my own childhood in the city.  My parents often took our family to a place not unlike this in southern Arizona, forty years ago.

Mr. Fuller tells me that the apple tree still produces and that the past year was a good one.  He presses these apples, and those from trees on his own property, making cider, which he sells at his honey stand in Pine.  I wonder how many bushels of tart apples this tree has provided the Fullers over the past century.

There are more Fullers in the Pine Cemetery now than in Pine, he says, adding that only one of the original five families who settled here, the Randalls, still have multiple family members living in the area.  He says this without sadness or bitterness.  He accepts that there is little economic opportunity in Pine, other than summer tourism, and his own descendants, as he puts it, are scattered.  But the tree remains, drawing life from the soil with deep roots, just as the Fuller family has for generations.

Mr. Robert Fuller with his family's apple tree

06 October 2014

Letting Go of the Bike, Part II

Madeleine is in my class this year, which has caused shifts in my professional vs. personal perspectives.  But regardless of my own conversations with myself, she had homework to do for my class.  Homework for my class always involves choices.  I give my students five options and they choose two that appeal to their own interests and intelligences.  This week’s included options such as summarizing a current event in a French-speaking country, making crêpes for your family and writing up a brief report about the process, doing an online grammar activity, and more.  Madeleine chose to make crêpes. 

Lately, my daughters have been becoming more and more interested in the kitchen.  Usually they want to make brownies or some kind of dessert, often from a mix.  They haven’t done much cooking from scratch.  Madeleine found a recipe and was ready to begin her project, and naturally, Arden and I gravitated to the kitchen as well.  We were going to help.  Yet, like most teenagers, Madeleine had her own independence in mind.  She kicked us both out of the kitchen.  Arden and I sulked for a bit, and then she went outside to ride her bike.  I continued to sulk, however, letting the worries pile up in my head:  what if she forgets an ingredient?  or doesn’t measure accurately?  or doesn’t understand the recipe?  Does she realize just how hot the pan needs to be?  What if she burns herself?

I fretted away while she busied herself in the kitchen.  I bit my tongue and said nothing, sitting quietly and reminding myself that (yet again) I was letting go of the bike, and that regardless of the outcome, there were lessons for both of us to learn.  Teaching a child to ride a bike is pretty much the metaphor for all things parenting.  I’d assigned my students recipes far more complicated than this one, and they’d survived, right?  Keeping quiet is often the most challenging thing a parent can do.  And perhaps because it is so difficult, it can also be very powerful – usually more powerful to the parent than the child.

Because I was forced into silence quiet, I had to listen.  And so I did.  I listened as she puttered about the kitchen, gathering her ingredients and supplies.  I listened as she left the fridge open far too long, had trouble lighting the stove, and used way too much cooking spray.  But I didn’t interfere.  I didn’t do anything until she asked for help, and even then it was the mundane task of tearing off sections of waxed paper.  I wanted to help.  I wanted to be needed.  Waxed paper?  I could do so much more than tear waxed paper!

But she didn’t need me.  She didn’t need me to do anything because she was fully prepared and ready for the task.  We never know what our kids are capable of until we give them the opportunity and power to do something on their own.  How often do we under- (or over-) estimate their abilities?  And like any complex dance, figuring out those details is the crux of parenting.  Are they ready?  Are we?

When it was time to assemble our crêpes and eat, they were perfectly golden brown and uniform.  We loaded them with fruit, Nutella, whipped cream, and more.  They were delicious, and no one had been hurt, the kitchen was still standing, and I had survived my banishment.   To be honest, her crêpes were far better than mine.