14 February 2021

First the river flooded and it rained for ever an entire week, then the cold front moved in with an entire week of frost and sunlight and strong northerly wind. The house is pretty crowded with various potted lemon and fig trees sheltering indoors, the window sills are filling up with seed trays. We started six new varieties of tomatoes and a couple of peppers from a seed sharing group. This is what excitement looks like at the onset of year 2 with covid. On Tuesday, I had my first jab (Moderna). I admit that I was watching out for side effects but none appeared.

Yesterday, I just had to cycle, two no-bicycle weeks is a long stretch for me, and I wrapped up in very many layers but had to turn back after maybe six kilometers as my fingers were frozen numb and no amount of cursing and scarf wrapping and hood tightening could get that freezing wind out of my nose and face and neck. I never liked the cold. I don't even like the look of it, the godawful frosty sunlit crunchy lawn with all that stupid glitter.

My childhood winters were snowy and cold, long weeks of ice skating and tobogganing and skiing and snow ball fights. I didn't know it at the time, but I hated it. Truly hated it. What a miserable time! I was often the one who turned back first, walking home through the thick snow banks along the road, stumbling and crying. My feet white and numb, my mother sat me in front of two buckets, one filled with cold water, one with warm water, gave me her watch and I would stick my feet for five minutes first in the warm and then in the cold bucket and back and forth until they started to itch and tingle and come back to life. 

While my siblings could not get outside fast enough, I welcomed every inkling of a sore throat or runny nose, any excuse to be allowed to stay indoors. Looking out into what my mother would call her winter wonderland garden, only let my heart sink. Still does.

I read somewhere something to the effect that we are confirmed, consoled and troubled by the landscapes through which we move in life and the places in which we live and have lived. About the ways our mood and our imagination and our identity has become influenced by the weather and the shapes and the textures and also the people, animals, plants, hills and shores (remembered and actual) of all the places we have inhabited.

It was always the sea I wanted. Even long before I knew much about it. It must have been from a book I read, maybe Pippi Longstocking's father in the South Seas, or one of those Sunday school missionary stories with pictures of children in fishing boats off the coast of Madagascar. Anyway, I would proclaim that I wanted to live by the sea. My parents were amused, what imagination she has and so on.

And then I lived by the sea, within walking distance to two different oceans, one after the other, one more spectacular than the other, for over a decade and it was just, well, normal. Then, I moved to this river valley, which was alien to me for so many years. Every aspect about life here was uninviting, the closeness, the dark hills, the way this big river cut across the landscape so carelessly, flooding and drying out in turn, messing things up. And for a while, occasionally even now, I so much wanted to be back by the sea, move away from what felt so claustrophobic at the time.

Yet, my parents and their parents, my grandparents, had no such longings. In their different ways, they were fiercely attached to a life that included forests and fields and orchards and riverbanks and carp ponds and vegetable gardens. 

In her last years, when she was 100 years old, my grandmother, who then lived in a care home, would still oversee the apple harvest in her garden with angry instructions over the phone to my brother and cousins as to who would get how much and when and where to collect the windfalls for juice making. There were seven varieties of apple trees. I still know their names: Klarapfel, Gravensteiner, one early and one late Renette, Goldparmäne, Boskoop and Berlepsch. On one of my visits, the summer before her death, she scolded me for wearing flimsy sandals. Total waste of money, she told me, not made for walking and certainly useless for working in the garden. in other words, good for nothing.

Years ago, when I was very ill the summer after I had oral surgery, my father took me for a long drive through the hills and forests of Hohenlohe, an area just west of his Franconian homeland, where he had spent many childhood summers with relatives. As we drove through small villages with storks nesting on church steeples and past moated medieval castles, he pointed out the old apple orchards everywhere. See the wealth, the riches, he said. And he was not only referring to the soil that had produced such abundant trees for centuries. What he noted was the windfall apples. In fact, piles of it under every tree. There are so many apples this year, he told me, too many. The farmers won't harvest this year, not worth the effort, better to leave them rot, for the birds, the deer and the soil. 

I could go on, memories of following my grandfather in his three-piece suit, his fob watch and walking stick with the shiny knobbly handle, while he walked deeper and deeper into the forest, pointing out adders and salamander skins, blue jay feathers and broken bird egg shells. My mother and her herb garden, her bean stalks and the way she could imitate bird song.

We are all shaped by the sound of wind, the slant of sunlight by streams of scent flowing faint or sharp in the larger ocean of air.
Barry Lopez


  1. I do not like the cold and we are getting hammered with it. such a mild winter it's been and then this. makes it worse. this made me laugh "the godawful frosty sunlit crunchy lawn with all that stupid glitter". I feel the same way. the only way I want to see that crap is in pictures. snow is just frozen water. it gets on you and melts and then not only are you cold, you're cold and wet. no thanks. I spent weekends and summers between the ages of 12 and 20 at the beach house on Galveston Island's west end. the house was actually on the bay side but the island is narrow there and the beach only a walk away. I like forests too. gods only know how I ended up in flat agricultural and ranching country.

  2. One of my favorite authors, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, wrote about what it's like for some who, upon arriving in a place realize that they have been somehow yearning for it their entire lives. They are finally home.
    You had that with the sea.

  3. In 1997, when I was 47 years old, I changed my last name to Muir which means sea in Irish.

    After my sisters and I had grown up, my parents moved to a town in Northern California with a population of 500. For 25 years, they lived in a small house on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Visiting them there was the closest I got to living at the ocean. I was heartbroken when my father sold the home almost immediately after Mom's death in 1994. He never spoke of missing the ocean. Mom wanted her ashes scattered in the ocean but my father gave her no peace until she consented to having her ashes buried in Minnesota next to his parents, which is where his ashes are now, too. I am certain that her spirit remained at the ocean.

    When I look out my windows today, I see snow falling and know that for many people, unlike me, a snowy landscape is an invitation to go outside. Although I can't complain much because we get little snow here, my favorite winters are those rare ones when there is no snow at all except in the hills and mountains to the east.

    Because my windows face the hills and mountains, I forget that I live a few miles from the Salish Sea, but it is an inland sea that looks out on islands instead of the unbroken horizon that I long for. I have to smile because I do live by an expanse of salt water, but it's not the same as the Pacific Ocean experience in Oregon that Barry Lopez writes about in Horizon.

    On my father's side, some of my ancestors lived for centuries on an inland sea, a fjord. On my mother's Irish side, ancestors lived near the sea in Waterford. My German grandfather loved the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, moving there from Minnesota after my grandmother died.

    Never expected to write so much here today. Not to mention that Tom Waits cover that went straight to my heart.

  4. There is something about the sea. The tide is like the heartbeat of our earth. We listen and are pulled to it. Once we've heard that sound, we long for it. It becomes part of us. We never forget.

  5. My dad was in the Navy so for the first part of my childhood we always lived by one ocean or another. It's in my blood now and I have to return periodically. But I have come to love the dark mysterious mountains every bit as much.

  6. I've lived here for so long, fifty years in this province. Short summers and long winters. Abrupt springs that rush into summer. I think fall is my favorite, even though I know winter is coming.

    It's the smells that get me. The smell of the poplars in the spring when the leaves are just coming out and the smell of them once again in the fall when they're losing their leaves. The smell of cold, so cold it hurts your nose. The smell of rain and fallen leaves. The smell of canola ripening in the fields. Those are the smells of home for me.

    Home is familiar. The seasons are predictable, the light in the sky, the slant of the sun. I don't like winter either but it's a necessary evil to get us to spring:)

  7. Yes, we are shaped by our environment and the places we have lived. Each climate, landscape, planting zone has it's own separate reality. I love the sea. I am so happy living in Central Florida now with it's relentless sun and ever green. But let me confess the true home that lives in my heart. That would be the small mountains, dark forests, and deep lakes encompassing the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Except in winter.

  8. Hey, come on. That 25% of your youthful life. I jest, of course. You're quids in from adolescence to old age; so much more satisfying to write an inventive whinge than romanticise lying enervated under a banana tree when the thermomicker has passed through the ominous signifier of 40 deg C and you're in danger of imitating the ring of tigers in Little Black ..... (Not allowed to write that last word) nose-to-tail and ending up as a pool of ghi.

    As to living by the sea, I agree. But not within the environs of anything that can be described as "a resort". In extreme old age - a fruitful period for inventive whingers like me - I have developed this theory: resorts transform humanity. The people who visit them become crass, act oafishly and are prodigal with litter. Those who run resorts become rapacious and hate the invading hordes on whom they depend. Is there anything more desolate than a resort out of season when the garish colours and the transient pleasures become a sheer mockery.

    By the way, history (a period my daughter re-christened "the often times") was full of myths. One such myth insisted that shoving chilled extremities into hot water encouraged chilblains. A mysterious ailment that only seemed to afflict the working classes. In your case I'm assuming it never happened, otherwise I'd have read about it during my rewarding and admiring visits to Interim Arrangements (a truly suggestive title, also by the way). When I was younger the word "chilblain" offered poetic resonances, now less so. Discuss: poetry's attractions tend towards the austere in later life.