Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Frost is All Over

This is a picture I took on my way into work last week. The tree is rather ghostly, don't you think?

Below is another frosty picture I took the other day.

Going north from my little town, out into the wide open spaces, I ran into the following landscape. You can just barley see the mountain in the distance because there is snow in the air.

So the frost is all over. And I'm humming an Irish traditional jig called "The Frost is All Over." That's a strange name for a song, don't you think?

For quite a few years, I've been intrigued by the titles of Irish tunes. Many of them refer to love, people, and places. And I think the Irish have more than their share of drinking songs. But many tune names are very unusual. Here are a few:

-Merrily Kiss the Quaker
-Bag of Spuds
-Ladies' Pantalettes
-The Rambling Pitchfork
-Come up the Stairs with Me
-Indian Ate the Woodchuck
-Jack Gilder's Beard
-Oh Dear Mother My Toes Are Sore
-The Cat That Ate The Candle
-Pull Out the Knife and Stick it in Again

I think part of the reason the titles are so strange is because there are so many different (but similar) tunes. The Session, a very good Irish music website, has 8231 tunes on it. The classic Irish music reference, O'Neill's Dance Tunes of Ireland, has 1001 tunes in it. With so many tunes to name, I guess you'd eventually run out of ordinary names.

To play Irish music in a session with other people, you need to know lots of tunes. Irish musicians don't use sheet music -- it slows people down when they play, and much of the music is made for dancing. Irish musicians call people who read music "paper trained." Doug, my Irish musician friend and teacher, says that the tune names are designed to be memorable just so that the tunes, themselves, will be easier to remember.

Irish music is rooted in the stories and lives of the people. That's reflected in the titles. After being invaded by England, the Irish were forbidden to speak their own language, so music was used to remember or relay some of the important events. Of course, it was also a way to keep their heritage intact. So that may be why music is such an important part of the Irish culture.

Some people think all Irish tunes sound alike. If you have thousands of tunes, and 8 notes in a scale, and just 8 or 10 different rhythms/structures (jigs, reels, marches, polkas, slipjigs, hornpipes, mazurkas, srathspeys, waltzes), how different can the songs be? Is there a mathematician out there who could offer a solution to that problem? One thing is for sure -- the Irish keep the music interesting by the textures they create when they combine different instruments -- harps, fiddles, flutes, whistles, accordions, pipes, guitars, banjos, bouzoukis, mandolins...

Here are a couple of samples of The Frost is All Over:,boanns_clan//music/sUV8tspH/boanns_clan_the_frost_is_all_over/

The tune is fast (the way frost comes and goes) and has a cold feeling to it. But other than that, I can't figure where the title came from. Is there something crystalline about its structure? Did it have words at one time that talked about the frost and snow? My guess is that it was probably just the weather report that day.

Now that Christmas is all over, I hope everyone's resting, recovering from the festivities. I made it back to Ohio, where the Frost is NOT all over. It was 70 degrees yesterday!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Part 8 - Snow

It has finally started snowing here. And now it won’t stop. There are about 5 or 6 inches of it on the ground. It has snowed every day since Saturday, just a little bit each day. It’s now Tuesday. And the forecast calls for snow through the weekend.

It’s a white white white world! White sky, white fields, white mountains, and only a few fence posts and tall grasses to break it up.

On my way to work this morning, I saw a horse standing absolutely still next to a frozen tree (looking cold, miserable, almost afraid to move). That was a black and white world. After driving for 7 or 8 miles, I approached a traffic light and saw the little spot of green as the first color of the day, and something of a shock after all that white.

So I thought I’d post a few pictures, which I took at the beginning of this episode of snow, as well as a couple of random thoughts and questions about snow. I hope this will help you warmer climate folks feel Christmas-y (or, more likely, lucky to be warm).

There’s a minor avalanche on my metal roof. Avalanches are real here, not just something in the cartoons or movies that play with the imaginations of children, who are so intrigued by natural dangers. There is an avalanche hotline here. People take helicopters into the back country to ski, which is part of the reason we need the hot line. As soon as it started snowing, I saw snowmobiles on trailers behind SUVs and pickups headed for the canyons, too.

The ski resorts drop explosives into the snow where they think there’s a danger of avalanche, so that it happens before the skiers get there. The snow is beautiful AND dangerous. A woman died in an avalanche at the Snowbird ski resort on Sunday. Her sister was quoted as saying, “We are a skiing family and we’ll still be a skiing family.” They said that the woman who died was “an extremist.” But I don’t know. Is it extreme to hike 20 minutes with your skis in order to see the snow in the real wilderness? That doesn't seem extreme to me.

I’ve been singing with a little community Christmas choir. One of the songs we’re singing is Still, Still, Still (of German origin, something like a lullaby if you don't know it). It says, “You can hear the falling snow.” Have you ever heard the falling snow? I haven't. I guess you hear the snow just because of what you don’t hear. So is that hearing or not hearing?

I'm reminded of one of the first short stories that ever caught my attention – Silent Snow, Secret Snow, by Conrad Aiken. Have you read it? It was in the standard English curriculum when I was in junior high school, and I've seen it in more recently published readers. The critics say the story is about a kid’s descent into schizophrenia. He imagines that snow is getting deeper and deeper when he wakes up and hears the footsteps of the postman getting increasingly muffled each day. I don't know about the schizophrenia thing. I bet there’s not a kid alive (in northern climates, anyway) who hasn’t spent time imagining that it has snowed, as s/he wakes up. I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night as a grownup and gone to window and been fooled by a white street light or the moon shining down on pavement, making it look like it has snowed. I think the Aiken story tries to capture a kid’s interior world, and the natural isolation of being a child. But all this may not mean much to you if you haven't read the story. It's fun to think about kids waking up to new snow, though. Kids and snow go together. Snow still makes me feel like a kid.

"Snow” is a perfect word, isn't it? Soft and slippery and hushed … and it happens right NOW. Under normal circumstances, it might be gone tomorrow. But they say I won’t see the ground here until April.

I spotted snow falling at night against the backdrop of the log section of my cabin and thought it was incredibly beautiful. I’m not sure why. Was it an opening scene from a nice movie I can’t quite remember? Maybe it’s just the contrast of light, random flakes moving against large, solid, dark logs. I think snow on the wood pile is pretty too. But I might change my mind about that when I try to light a fire.

So the snow has fallen, and is falling, and we’re all getting ready for Christmas, and we'll probably hear the familiar story of something coming down from heaven, a transformed world, softness, animals, straw, and difficult journeys. It comes at just the right time.

I hope you get to see or hear something wonderful this Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Part 7 - Pioneering

Utah Adventure Part 7 - Pioneering

I went all the way to Connecticut for Thanksgiving. It was great to see family, and to be in a place where I had absolutely no work to do. I noticed dramatic differences between New England and the West. One day, I drove from Glastonbury to Cromwell (just 2 towns over), which involved 4 or 5 highways, cloverleafs, wall to wall cars, and 2 or 3 “I’m lost” phone calls before I managed to get there and back. I was surprised by all the roads and cars, since I’m accustomed now to wide open spaces and a life with just a few places to go.

Here in Northern Utah, there are really only 2 places to go – Idaho or Temple Square. People go to Idaho (Preston, where Napoleon Dynamite was filmed, is just 19 miles north of here) probably to buy lottery tickets and full-strength beer. They go to Temple Square in Salt Lake City to see the lights at Christmas time.

Here, at night, I sometimes wonder how long it might be before another motorist would come along if my car broke down on the road. On the way back from the airport at 1 am on the Monday after Thanksgiving, I think I was the only person on the road from Brigham City all the way home (30 miles or so). But, oh, the stars! You can see heart-stopping stillness there. You can see lots of activity and movement in the night sky, too, if you look at it long enough. I'm not sure which is more curious and arresting, really.

Oh. There’s one other place to go from here – Bear Lake, which is a good-sized lake (takes an hour to drive around it), in the far northwest corner of the state, near the Wyoming and Idaho borders. It is about 45 minutes from Logan, on a winding canyon road that follows and cris-crosses the Logan River the whole way. I suppose it is an alpine lake. It is a resort community out there, a mini mini Jackson Hole. There is a little ski resort there that the local people use. I drove there last weekend, talked to one hyperactive guy (too much time alone?) with a strange headband attending to a gas station/market/western store, and noticed that everything seemed shut down for the winter. I didn't see much there, besides this sweet group of big ole turkeys by the side of the road:

Here’s a picture of the lake. It’s hard to see it because of the cloud rising from its surface (due to the change in temperature as the sun dipped behind the mountains, I suppose, which also makes pink light reflect from the lake).

So I’ll include a picture I took of the lake last summer, when I first came here to interview, which seems like a lifetime ago now:

Here’s a view of the canyon just south of Bear Lake. The shadow of the mountains on the land make for nice contrast, I think. And look at how far above the clouds we are:

I saw a ragged red fox making his way down to the lake. And I felt like something of a pioneer, just me, animals, and a dramatic landscape.

They talk about the pioneers alot around here. I already know of 4 cities that have "Pioneer" parks. There’s a Daughters of the Utah Pioneers organization. And the 24th of July is an official state holiday -- it commemorates the day the pioneers arrived in Utah. So I’ve been thinking about what the pioneer spirit really is. New Englanders were pioneers when they landed and built the colonies. There’s still a rugged independence there, but I’m not sure it is the same spirit the western pioneers have.

I guess the pioneer spirit involves taking risks, going to new places, opening up, and being tough enough to survive under harsh, uncivilized conditions. It’s not really about independence and individualism, like the New England spirit. It’s about pitching in, relying on each other, each person offering what they can to the community, which is a necessity if you’re going to survive. I think a big part of the pioneer spirit here is living with Nature, not conquering it.

Here's a somewhat unrefined example of living with Nature. They don't dispose of dead skunks in the road in Utah. It’s a practical issue -- who wants that job? You’d ruin a lot of shovels that way! And if you let a dead skunk sit there in the road, it will eventually dry up and stop stinking. I have to say that someone still needs to prove that to me -- there’s one spot on the way to work that has smelled like fresh skunk, ripe skunk, and now overripe skunk, over the course of the last 5 weeks! Are you having an imaginary unpleasant olifactory experience yet?

There’s also more than a little self-sufficiency mixed into the pioneer spirit. The LDS(Mormon) Church teaches that every family should have a year’s supply of food on hand, just in case hard times come along (not Armageddon – I asked about that). So a food storage area is a big part of every household. In the grocery stores, you can buy huge cans of dried mushrooms, cereal, blueberries, etc. Of course, people do a lot of their own canning – even dried beans!

I never dreamed that I’d ever compare myself to Eva Gabor in her role in the
Green Acres show. But I’ve thought of her several times in the last month – when I spent several hours dealing with a cord of firewood that a guy in bib overalls with a long curly beard dumped in a big pile behind my garage; when I bought mousetraps and considered the possibility of having to dispose of a trapped mouse (and decided not to set them just yet); when the "honey wagon" passes my house, dripping, on its way to fertilize the fields to the west; every time I wonder if the overhead flapping I sense sometimes when I open my front door at night is a bird or a bat. Where is that Eddie Albert when you need him?

I was talking to a group of women after the community choir practice last Sunday night about how to keep warm, about the bread they all make every week, and about canning food, and they said “We’ll make a pioneer out of you yet!” So they must think I have potential. Maybe it's because I left my diamonds at home. Dunno, though. I might have to buy a fur or two before Winter’s over.