This stretch of ditch I’ve been walking the past few years is empty now. The headgate was turned off in late summer, and the water went down slowly, but surely, until now it’s dry stone and snow.
But there’s water in the distribution box. I normally stop there at the end of our dog walk, say the Heart Sutra, and look down the ditch to the Absaroka-Beartooth range rising in front of us. Some days I have to try to muster up some hope, other days, it’s all so beautiful I can’t believe I live here. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
As the water receded, I started to see fish in there. Some mornings I’d lean over to peer into the darkness and the whole surface went ashimmer with tiny minnows. Other days it was big fish, ten or twelve inches long, lurking in the darkness. Knowing there were fish in there comforted me somehow.
A couple of weeks back, Hank found a small dead buck in the ditch. Hard to tell whether it was hit on the highway and managed to get this far on adrenaline, or whether coyotes took it down, since most of it’s hind end had been eaten. It had a nice little rack on it, so I took a picture and sent it to Himself. About ten minutes later, I got a call. “Where is it?” he asked. He came by on his way back into town and cut the antlers off. It’s not quite horn season yet, that is, the deer and elk are not yet dropping their antlers as they do every year, but he’s been watching the bull elk up on Emigrant through his telescope, keeping an eye on “his” bulls, hoping to get the antlers when they drop. All spring he walks the back country between his cabin and Yellowstone park, stalking the elk, looking for antlers. You can sell them, but mostly it’s the finding them that’s the point.
In the morning, over coffee, I watch him scan the mountain for elk through the spotting scope. We like just watching animals being animals. And then once in a while, if we’re lucky, he’ll spot a wolf. I worry about them this year, since our right wing state legislature declared open season on wolves. They’ve made it legal for folks to shoot 10 wolves AND to trap 10 more. So far, 15 Yellowstone wolves have been killed just outside the park by folks people who set out bait, and snare traps, or wait with lights and guns ready. Himself gave me a set of cable cutters for Christmas, because of the snare traps. You can maybe get a dog out of a leg trap if you keep your wits about you, but there’s no release mechanism on a snare. So now I get to dog walk with a heavy cable cutter in my pocket, and hope for the best. For my dog and for the wolves.
Like so many other incomprehensible things this year, it feels like all I can do is to try to protect myself and those I love.
Maybe that’s why as the year ticks over, I keep thinking about the distribution box. It’s frozen now, and we’re into the season where trying to walk out there at all depends on how bad the winds are. We’ve had a couple of weeks of 40-60mph winds/gusts, and even bundled up in a lot of wool and down, that’s a brutal dog walk. But tucked up in my house in town, with the wood stove going, and the cats and dog asleep around me as I write, I keep thinking about that square hole. I’m notoriously bad at estimating distances and volumes, but my guess is it’s six to eight feet deep where it emerges from the underground pipe. Even cold as it’s been, I don’t know that it would freeze to the bottom. If you’re burying pipes around here, they need to be six feet deep to be below the frost line, so I like to think there’s some water down there in the bottom. There would be protected water up in the pipe as well, and some air that’s insulated in there too. I like to think there’s just enough cover, and just enough algae and insect larvae in there so those fish can overwinter. I like to think of fish down there, their metabolisms and heart rates slowed down, hunkered at the bottom of this odd square hole, waiting for spring.
We’d hoped to do Christmas this year, all together at Nina and Elwood’s house like we have done for years now, since the twins were born. They just turned 17. We spent a lot of last week sending college essay drafts back and forth across town through the intertubes. But Covid hit again. The 21 year old and I didn’t get to cook together because she tested positive while visiting her boyfriend in Canada. She’s still there. You don’t need the rundown of how crazy it all is. If you’re reading my newsletter, you know. Covid is running rampant again, the suburbs of Denver are burning up in late December, and as I’m writing this, the new breaks that national treasure Betty White has died. Everything is still a lot out there.
And so I’m thinking of that square black hole in the middle of the Paradise Valley with a few fish lurking inside it, protected by concrete and ice, by six feet of earth on top of a corruguted iron pipe set into the hillside to prevent erosion.
I’m thinking of my house, and my woodstove, and my garden and my sense twenty years ago that I needed to find a bolt hole, needed to find a place I could pay off, a place I could grow food, a place I might hope to be safe. And I am. We’re fine. We have one another and enough firewood to get through the winter. We have so much food in this house, because when I get scared I buy more dry pasta, and beans, and rice, and olive oil.
Winter is upon us, the New Year is about to tick over, and for me at least, this time of year is when I dig in and use the darkness to read and to write, when I make soup and order seeds, when I sleep a lot, knowing that summer is coming, with long days when the sun doesn’t set until after nine. I have no idea what’s to come as we all sail into another year of climate crisis and pandemic, civil unrest and wildfires, but like the fish in that square hole out there in the middle of the valley, I’m going to duck and cover, muster my resources, and hope we all get through another winter.
Thanks to all of you for reading this year, and may we all be well in 2022.