"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fleeting Windows of Serendipity

I suppose certain events had to come into play before my latest adventure could occur. Perhaps the planets needed to align themselves just so, or the forces of humankind and the forces of nature had to mesh in a certain way, or lady luck had to smile on me at just the proper moment.

  On the other hand, maybe the only thing that needed to happen was for a very special woman to need firewood at the same time I was walking by her home in Halibut Cove. Regardless, Serendipity, that goddess of winsome chance, opened a window and I was favored with the presence of Diana Tillion, the eighty-one year old matriarch of Halibut Cove.

The Tillion home in Halibut Cove.

“Hello, Diana,” I called as I watched the small woman in a navy blue fleece jacket step off her porch with several plastic totes in hand, set them on the ground, and drag the lot in my direction with a rope attached to the biggest—and bottom— tote. She looked up and smiled, not quite sure she recognized who it was passing by her front yard, but ready to greet the person graciously, nonetheless.  

“Gracious” the perfect word for this matriarch. Renowned artist, author, and book illustrator, loved and respected in her community and far beyond, Diana Tillion is the embodiment of graciousness. We first met a couple years ago on the Stormbird, the rugged steel-hulled vessel that carries the mail to and from Halibut Cove twice a week. We spoke briefly because the mail boat trip is a great social occasion during winter, and many others were there to speak with Diana and her husband Clem.

The next time I saw her was last February. This time the occasion was movie night—Saturday night at the Tillion’s, bring a DVD movie, and the Tillions offer a spread of goodies on their large table, supplemented by additions from other cove residents. I was there for only a few hours that evening, and I am not sure she remembered me, so I told her my name again and mentioned that I house-sat for my friends Jim and Jan when they went on winter vacations.

Then, knowing that she had undergone major surgery a couple months ago, I asked where she was going with the totes. “To get some firewood,” she replied. For all I knew, she was off to fetch a chain saw and fall one of the many spruce trees in the cove that have been killed by spruce bark beetles. I was also aware that her husband Clem was not at home because I had met him a few minutes before, heading in the opposite direction on the trail I’d taken to get here. I asked if I could help, and she accepted my offer. The totes were placed in a John Deere ATV, something like a Hummer version of a golf cart, and off we went a few hundred feet to a well-stocked wood shed.

Diana in the John Deere ATV.

As we loaded the totes with dry split wood, I asked Diana if she was doing any painting. She invited me to see her gallery, and soon we were wheeling up a steep hill in the Hummer-cart, and coming to a stop at her gallery. We were the only two there—the tourists would arrive later on the thirty-four passenger ferry Danny J, a converted fishing vessel operated by Tillion family members. 

 We paused at each painting as Diana identified the location of the scene and explained why she painted it, often telling me a small story connected to the painting that gave me snippets of this remarkable woman’s remarkable life. When we reached the end of one wall, an ink sketch caught my eye. Through words and diagrams, the sketch explained how ink is extracted from octopi. 

 This was not an eclectic piece in Diana’s gallery, because she is famous for her paintings in octopus ink. I tried to word my immediate question carefully: “So, do you mean the octopus is still alive after you take its ink?” “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. Then she told me of looking for large rocks as she strolled the beaches during extreme low tides. “I look for a small hole under the rock, and if the water in the hole is moving, then the octopus is home,” she continued.

 “I inject a substance—I use bleach—into the hole, then stand behind the rock until it comes out. I pick it up, turn it over, and use a syringe to withdraw the ink from the gland.” I had visions of eight suckered legs wrapping around her arms and a face full of squirted black ink as she extracted her art medium, only a few cc’s worth per octopus. “When I’ve finished,” she said, “I set the octopus down and it scurries away.” S

he smiled and so did I as I watched her eyes sparkle with the telling of the tale. So, it is no small wonder that my favorite painting among the many was an octopus ink drawing of the cove on a foggy morning. I do not know much about art and painting techniques, but I appreciated a deft touch in the strokes that rendered the fog. Diana Tillion's art studio.

“Come with me,” she said, “I want to show you the bird room.” We walked around a partition to a quiet corner of the gallery floor. On the walls and on the center display were numerous paintings of the birds she has seen in more than a half century of living in Halibut Cove. “I learned to turn my back to them,” she explained. “Then I slowly turn to face them, and they will sit and let me sketch them.” 

 She identified each bird, many of which I’ve never seen, living inland as I do. And then we went to the top floor where she plies her craft. On various tables were works in progress “by the kids.” She explained that her grandchildren come here to practice drawing and painting. Diana Tillion was the driving influence behind Halibut Cove becoming a community of artists in all media, painting, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, and writing. 

 She has taught art at the Kenai Peninsula College campus in Homer, and holds an honorary PhD in humane letters from the University of Alaska. As we left the studio, I was in awe and almost speechless. Not only was I in the company of a living legend, not only had I received a private showing of her exquisite art, not only was she chauffeuring me down a steep hillside in this golf-cart-on-steroids on a gloriously sunny summer day in this picturesque village by the sea, but I knew in my heart how very special this visit was, and there was more to come.

Back at her home, we unloaded the wood-filled totes from the cart and set them on the tile floor inside her front door. While I was unloading the last two from the cart and placing them inside, I was only dimly aware of what she was doing. It appeared to me that she was stacking two totes in a cabinet. Wood box, I said to myself, then wondered where she would put the other two. 

 She pushed a button beside the cabinet. Suddenly I realized what she was doing. The cabinet was not a cabinet at all, but a dumb waiter that raised the two totes to the second level—the main living level of their home. She delighted in showing the whole operation to me, pushing the button to return the two totes to the ground floor so I could take a photograph, and she graciously consented to be in the picture.

Diana Tillion and the easy way to haul firewood upstairs.

Clem returned from his jaunt as we were finishing up. He is a remarkably robust man of eighty-four, another living legend in Alaska. A long-time commercial fisherman, patriarch of the Tillion clan, he served nine terms as a state legislator and has been a leading advocate for fisheries management for many years. If there’s a board that has to do with commercial fishing in the Pacific northwest, most likely Clem has either chaired it or been seated on it. I turned to say goodbye to Diana. “I hope to see you again soon, Diana,” I said as I put my arm around her slender shoulders and gave her a hug. Wrapping her arms around me tightly, she said, “I hope so, too, dear. I really hope so.”

The float tree.

Sometimes, I am not aware of all the complex factors that intersect to allow a certain thing to occur. Sometimes, I am oblivious to lady luck, chance, and fate. But Serendipity? I know Serendipity. And I know how very blessed I am to have visited with the Lady Diana, to have helped her with the firewood, to have received a personal tour of her creative sanctuary, and to have spent a few fleeting minutes with her when Serendipity and I happened to stroll by her home on a sunny afternoon in Halibut Cove.

Monday, June 29, 2009

In Memorium

In memory of my own Dr. Pangloss, Aug. 17, 1913-June 30, 1986.
I know that resting in peace would bore you to tears, my friend, so wherever you are, I hope you're having a rollicking good time.

Once Upon a Time

As I withdraw the slender book from the box where it has lain for more than four decades, memories rise.

“The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam rendered into English verse by Edward FitzGerald.” I believe this to be FitzGerald’s fourth translation of the Persian poet’s quatrains, though nothing on the frontispiece verifies that. It is a slim volume, less than a hundred pages, its dimensions the approximate size of a paperback book. The front cover is gray with white filigree, the title printed in pink inside a design meant to recall the Persian wellspring of its contents.

In my hands I hold a cherished part of my life. I hold quite still as memories enfold me in their embrace, and I see the two of us, side by side, as he reads from this book. He was my love, once upon a time, and was a poet, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I didn’t know until, after many years, I opened a newspaper and saw his photograph and the award-winning ballad he had written.

I should have guessed, as all the clues were there--his great intellect, his erudition, his mastery of the language. He recited vast quantities of poetry from memory, and frequently interspersed conversation with poetic allusions. Occasionally he selected this little volume from the many on my shelves, and I sat beside him as his mellow voice and the enigmatic words of the Rubaiyat transported me to the ancient Persian realm of Jamshyd and Kaikobad.

I was quite young then, only twenty-one, and much of the meaning of the verses escaped me. I wanted to ask him to explain it to me, to ask if his beliefs were akin to the passages I did understand, and more. Instead I kept silent, not wanting to break the spell. Then the years passed, as did he, and I no longer had the opportunity to ask.

I hope those weren’t his beliefs. Are there words more final than these?

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain—This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Strange, is it not? That of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too?

I have always hoped that some day we will meet again in a place where age and station and public image are of no matter. Then I will ask the questions I’ve held to myself all these years.

Then again, with all eternity before us, perhaps I’ll just sit beside him and let his voice transport me once again to an ancient Persian realm.

As always, G.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An evening at Tern Lake...

(NOTE: Double click on the photos for full screen images, then click on the back button to return to the blog. Enjoy.)

I’d been busy all day, catching up on long-procrastinated chores like window washing, putting things in their proper places, and doing several loads of laundry. So, when the sun peeked through the thunderclouds that had been threatening to baptize my newly-cleaned windows all afternoon, and the breeze laid itself down to sleep, I loaded the kayak in the truck and headed for Tern Lake, just a mile up the road from my house.

When I reached the lake, I found that the breeze wasn’t sleeping after all, because it was kicking up its heels there. But a little chop wasn’t enough to stop my paddle in the late evening daylight.

As I was readying my cameras, snapping myself into my PFD, and unloading the kayak, a seagull stopped by the watch. I knew it was waiting until I launched. Then it would summon all its pals to screech raucously and bombard me with splotchy white projectiles if I paddled too close to their nests.

Before I could get in the water, this black-billed magpie popped in to check things out. I thought it was interested in my doings, until it flew out of the tree and grabbed a chunk of bread someone had thrown on the ground, and marched off across the parking lot with its prize, its long feathers glistening blue, green, and purple in the sunlight..

Once out on the lake, I survived the seagull bombast and bombardment, and paddled into a quieter part of the lake, where the Arctic terns nest. I’ve always heard the terns will attack—land on your head and peck you—if you venture close to their nests, but compared to the seagulls, these guys were civility personified.

One let me drift within twenty feet of the dead tree top on which it was perched, then obliged with a graceful takeoff.

Other than violet-green swallows, I think the Arctic terns are my favorite flyers. Everything about them seems aerodynamic, from their pointed red bill to the swept wings to the sharply forked tail. They hover above the water, watching the small fish that are their prey, then dive into the water and lift off again. Arctic terns have an incredible migration, a 20,000 mile trip to Antarctica.

I watched and tried to photograph the terns for a long time, then just as I was heading back across the lake to the parking area, I head the unmistakable warbling wail of the common loon. I paddled closer, but was still quite a distance away, and the male loon came out to lead me away.

As I watched his antics, I spotted the female with two chicks keeping their distance. I’m not as close as it seems in these pictures, because I am using a telephoto lens.

(Double click on the above photo and note the loon's red eye.)

I drifted back across the lake, trying to get an in-focus shot of those swift terns in flight, but with the rocking of the kayak, this was the best I could do.

Then once again I had to pass by the seagull territory.

Back at my haul-out spot, I wrapped my digital SLR camera in a waterproof bag and set it on shore. I put both feet together in the center of the kayak and began to pull myself forward into a squatting position. At the same time, I once more cussed the litterer who had thrown razor clam shells into the lake where I launch and haul out, which caused me to lose my concentration on a dry landing long enough to lean too far backwards as I started to lift one foot up to place it on the shore—and in I went. The water here is only a few inches deep, so I only got wet to my waist. I basically sat down backwards in the lake—on top of the discarded clam shells.

As I dragged myself, dripping wet from the waist down, water sloshing out of my rubber shoes, and very thankful that my one camera was safe on shore and the other above high water mark in the chest pocket of my PFD, guess who came by to have the last, and best, laugh—ch-aww, ch-aww, ch-aww.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Along the way...

After I finished the mail route today, I attempted a speed run to Anchorage, which is almost a hundred miles away. A speed run is an in-and-out, do only the essential errands, don't stop to eat, get outta town.

That part went okay, considering there's seven miles of road construction to pass through, it's Saturday evening and all of Alaska is heading for the Kenai Peninsula to go salmon and halibut fishing, and the weather was nice so the sightseers are out en masse.

Got the errands done, groceries bought, the new Windex system for cleaning outdoor windows purchased, "issues" with laptop settled, and headed out of town. That's when my best laid plans aft aglay.

About fifteen miles out of Anchorage is a place where the Dall sheep hang out. You're driving along, the incredible Turnagain Arm on your right and these sheer rock walls on your left. Then, you pull over because everyone else is, too.

Some of the rock walls. That's the two lane highway in the foreground. In the center of the photo, about a quarter of the way down from the top, is a tiny white spot. That's a Dall Sheep. A hundred yards down the highway, were these:

This is why all the cars are pulled off to the side. These two are much lower and much closer.

Dall sheep and lamb.

"They" say there's a natural salt lick in this area and that's why the sheep are here. Sometimes they are right down on the shoulder of the highway.

Ten miles farther down the road. That's salt water in the foreground, then the silt/clay bed of the arm at low tide, more salt water.

Big thunderstorm down the way at Portage. The lighting on this trip was awesome.
One mountain I've never paid much attention to was outstanding this evening, but the subtle lighting wouldn't have photographed well.

Alaska railroad train hugs the highway here, too. Odd coloring with the lens facing the sun.

With stuff like this, my speed run took six hours.

It was well worth it. Is it any wonder this is a National Scenic Byway?

Friday, June 26, 2009

the wild life

So the other morning a young bull moose was cavorting on my back lawn. (Don't ask me why Firefox is underlining my words. I haven't a clue. I usually upload photos with Internet Explorer because it allows me to do more insofar as positioning, etc. This time I forgot.)

Then, during the mail run, a weasel ran across the highway in front of me, a hawk circled above, and someone left a big salmon wrapped in black plastic in a rest area where I went to pick up litter. That evening, I looked up at the mountain behind me and saw a black spot.

See it? Double click on it.

When I cropped and magnified the pix, I could see that it was a black bear.

Life in the wild.... Nothing like it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Neither snow nor rain nor....

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers….” Sound familiar? Something to do with the U.S. Postal Service, you think?

Uh-uh. The thing is, the USPS doesn’t have an official creed or motto. That partial quotation above is an inscription on a post office in New York City. And according to Wikipedia, it’s Herodotus’ Histories about the ancient Persian Empire’s courier service. So, I reckon it’s appropriate for a post office creed, and that’s what most folks think it is.

The rest of the unofficial creed is “…from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” So, let’s just forget about that little old word “swift” and I’ll tell you a story.

My neighbor Erin holds the USPS contract to deliver rural route mail in Moose Pass, Hope and Cooper Landing. Six days a week she drives a hundred and thirty miles, dropping off mail and packages. Occasionally, when she needs to take time off, she calls on me as her substitute driver, which is what I’m doing this week.

So far, nothing has “stayed” me from the completion of my appointed rounds, but, boy, have I been slowed down a bunch, which is why I thought we should leave out that problematic “swift.”

It’s bad enough that twice each day I have to pass through a seven mile stretch of highway that’s under rejuvenation. The contractor is replacing old culverts, rebuilding parts of the roadbed that have surrendered to Alaska’s harsh environment, re-ditching, and re-paving the whole seven miles (the paving part is a long way off). Right now, a 65mph highway has been reduced to things like this:


Ground cloth laid as insulation.

Most of the work is being done from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. to reduce the inconvenience to the traveling public. But, crews are still holding up traffic while the asphalt-eating machine grinds its way along the road during the daytime. Traffic is one lane only, follow the pilot car, do not pass go.

Waiting in line for the pilot car to show us the way.

The asphalt eater.

Right now, fishing fever is in high gear on the Kenai Peninsula and people are swarming to places like Seward and Soldotna and Homer, trying to latch onto as many king and red salmon, or halibut, as they can. Add tourists to that and the normal traffic on this only access to the Kenai Peninsula, and you have long lines of vehicles piling up at the flagger’s spot, waiting for the pilot car driven by my friend Sandy. Yesterday it took me half hour to travel a mile and a half, counting the time I sat in line.

Yes, those delays are enough to severely discombobulate my time schedule, but when you add things like this….

The old Hope school house, now a library.

Along Turnagain arm...

More Turnagain arm...

Trail Lake in Moose Pass...

And the blooming wildflowers….

Wild roses against cottonwood...

Trail rides in Cooper Landing...

Well, let’s just forget about “swift” and settle for “eventual completion of their appointed rounds….” ‘Cause like I said, that really isn’t the official creed of the post office, and besides, it doesn’t mention anything about blizzards and earthquakes and avalanches and moose standing in the road and highway construction, none of which stay us from the … completion of our appointed rounds.

Backyard visitor...

Out of the fog this morning...
...strolled this young bull moose.
Note to Beth at Switched at Birth: my deer can whup your deer. Actually, he could probably step right over them if they'd hold still long enough.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Confined to Quarters

We all know them: those people who have tallied so many acts of idiocy in their lives that we wonder how they lived so long. Surely there is a god that looks after these dolts as they fumble and stumble through their days. It brings to mind what we used to say about someone who survived an horrific automobile accident: “He was too drunk to get hurt.”

Yes, we’ve all known them—those who should be under some form of house arrest, not allowed out without adult supervision, confined to quarters for their own safety.

Take, for instance, me.

A peaceful day in Halibut Cove.

The water in Halibut Cove was a mill pond one morning, still enough to see my reflection as I launched my blue kayak and managed to get seated in it without baptizing myself in salt water. Then, because occasionally I think before I act, I reached over onto the float and got the binoculars and the two cameras and set them in the kayak. My first destination was the little island across from the place where I’m staying. It’s connected to the mainland by a small rock and gravel bar that is flooded at high tide. Just for the fun of it, I paddled around the island. If I house sit for my friend this coming winter, as I have the past three winters, I will have a gallery full of mental images to flip through whenever I look at that island.

The little island, centerpiece of so many of my wintertime photos.

Then I headed for the narrow gap that divides the cove at low tide. This being almost high tide, I slipped across the bar easily, and stayed near the right shore to get a close up view of the cabins along that side. On and on I paddled, a front row waterside seat for the assortment of mansions and homes and humble cabins that define the cove.

Eventually, I came to The Saltry, the cove’s famous—and only— seafood restaurant, where I crossed the channel to the other side and continued my journey. Reaching home port, once again I was able to get out of the kayak and onto the float without getting very, very wet. For someone my age, this is not an easy accomplishment, because when sitting in the kayak, my butt is maybe an inch higher than the soles of my boots. In addition, the seat slopes back, so rising to a position where I can reach safety is difficult.

The little blue kayak, meant for large bathtubs, not oceans.

To get the idea, sit on the floor with your legs bent and drawn in as close as you can get them. Now try standing up without moving your feet, making sure you keep your weight centered and not putting too much pressure on one hand or the other, and keeping an equal amount of weight on each foot throughout the process. Now try it in a tippy little kayak on water.

I pulled the kayak onto the float, and turned it over to keep out rain and any flying projectiles let loose by the seagulls and ravens that fly over continually. Then I climbed the ramp to the house and began divesting myself of the various cameras, binoculars, etc., that I take with me. Glancing down, I saw something hanging from the front of my light blue fleece pullover.

My reading glasses. Incredibly, with one earpiece tucked inside, they’d clung to the front of the soft pullover as I’d paddled all over the cove. I’d leaned over many times to look at something in the water, and yet they’d stayed put.

Two evenings ago, I returned to the cove after a long day fishing for halibut. After the halibut were cleaned and packaged, and my host and his guest left for Homer, I’d taken a shower and slipped on the big red tee shirt in which I sleep.

Then I spent twenty minutes retracing every step I’d taken, looking for my reading glasses. I looked in my room, in the kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom. Again and again, I walked through the house. I knew I’d had them when I had gotten home, because I’d taken the flash card out of the camera and looked at the pictures on my laptop. I really need them when I use the computer, because the tri-focals I wear provide way too many options for computer use.

Staring out the window while standing beside the dining table where my laptop slept, I mentally reviewed everything I’d done since taking that shower. That’s when those gods that take care of dolts took my hand and gently lifted it to the neckline of my tee. I didn’t even want to look, because, sure enough, my hand closed around that little pair of reading glasses. I continued staring out the window while I wondered how I’d managed to live as long as I have.

Twenty minutes doesn’t seem like much of a loss—I’ve certainly wasted more time than that waiting for airplanes, doctors and dentists, buses, and so on. But at this time of my life, when I consider Father Time a peer, spending twenty minutes looking for something that is hanging around my neck is a waste of precious time. I could have been doing something better with those minutes—like trying to figure out how to set my VCR to record a program at a certain hour.

On the other hand, now that VCRs are obsolete, maybe I can skip that and learn how to answer my cell phone on the first try, instead of having to call someone back because the call went to the message box before I could get the darned thing to answer.

So, with things like this in mind, a couple months ago I ordered and received an ID band to wear around my wrist. A metal tag on it is engraved with my name, address, phone number, and emergency contact info. My original thought was that it would be a good idea to have in case I met up with a bear while picking up litter along the highway, or got hit by a truck while bicycling, or my luck wore off while kayaking. I’m beginning to think I should wear it all the time.

"I am Gullible."

After another kayak excursion this afternoon, this one involving a large stretch of open water with a chop AND a swell when I crossed the cove entrance, I questioned my intelligence about such a foolhardy venture. My kayak is not made for salt water trips. It’s made for peaceful ponds and placid lakes. It’s barely nine feet long. It resembles something you’d play with in a bathtub.

“What a cute little thing,” said one woman as I paddled by her dock. “Such a cute little kayak.”

But I really, really wanted to cross to the other side where the oyster farms were. I wanted to take pictures of the rows of gray and blue buoys that mark the oyster homes. I considered the passage for a long time, watched the water carefully.

The darkest land marks the mouth of the cove. Five miles across is Homer's East End.

Then (probably because I really wanted those pictures) I deemed it safe enough and made a run, I mean, paddle for it, quartering into the swell and chop, and power-paddling all the way. Still upright when I reached the buoys, I took my pictures, then headed for the nearest shoreline, which I hugged all the way home.

The oyster farms. Halibut Cove and Prince William Sound are famous for their cold water osters.

That wasn’t so bad, I told myself. I knew what I was doing. (I glanced down to make sure the reading glasses weren’t attached to my neckline.) After yet another successful extraction from the kayak, I pulled it onto the dock and turned it over, as rain was falling. I heard something fall out.

When I saw what it was, I knew right away why I had made a successful crossing of that open water. I knew why my reading glasses—along with either of my cameras or my binoculars—weren’t now residing on the ocean floor. I knew why I’d never lost my paddle, even though it's balanced precariously across the cockpit while I take photos. My guardian angel had been with me the whole time.

Speckled blue with googly eyes, the little rubber frog I’d fished out of Tern Lake three years ago while ridding the lake of floating litter had been along for every trip I’d made in this sliver of blue plastic. It was my talisman, my amulet, my guardian against sea serpents and perils of the deep. I had totally forgotten it was there.

Which, I suppose, is the way of most protectors. Out of sight, out of mind, something watches out for fools and dolts who, otherwise, should be confined to quarters for our own safety. Just so happens, mine’s a little blue rubber frog with googly eyes.