Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New Locations (Written on Thursday, Dec. 2nd)

Sometimes I think of my life as a river. We emerge from the highlands, cascading over rapids and falls, pooling and falling, pooling and flowing, until we course through our lives and empty back into the waters that fed our beginning. Birth, first steps, day one of school, growing up, graduation and college, the first job, marriage, having kids, watching them grow up, grandchildren, death. Such milestones can bring turbulence, but great beauty as well – the scenery is constantly changing.  

I currently stand in the midst of a new life transition. I have found a place to call home here in the Pacific Northwest of Washington. A modest house in the woods, I am surrounded by new growth forest and logging clear cuts. People still use the word frontier out here. Beyond my house are the Cascade Mountains, where as a rule you will find not find houses due to the rugged geography and heavy winter snows. The area was never historically settled by white immigrants, and still isn’t.

I mention trees. While lacking the species variety of, say, your typical woods in Arkansas, the forests of the Pacific Northwest stand out in their grandeur and sheer size. Looking out my window, I can make out the soaring arch of the Western Red Cedar branch with its drooping needle patterns. To the right stands a dense group of Alders, another tall, leafy evergreen with soft needles.

Going back to logging (a chief industry here in the Duvall, WA area), one of the interesting concepts in forest growth here is that deciduous trees are some of the first trees to grow back after an area has been damaged by the ax or chainsaw. In many parts of the South the role is reversed, with pine trees the norm in burned, cleared, or logged areas (take the hilltops in the East Fork Wilderness Area near Hector, AR for example). The renewed prevalence of deciduous trees in such places marks a return to some degree of balance in the ecosystem.

 In the Pacific Northwest, Big Leaf Maples, Alders, Cottonwoods, and other “leaf off” trees fill the role of “disturbed area” markers, leaving the farmed valleys and regenerating forests with a very different feel than their older, healthier, old-growth brethren.

Moisture is everywhere. Damp permeates rocks, ground, and bones. Raining or drizzling almost every day of the fall and winter, the climate in the Cascade foothills takes some special getting used to. The trees of the forests, green with all manner of fern, ivy, and grass, look as if they had adopted their own special winter coverings of lichens and moss to stay warm.

Besides their usual hangout spots on trees or rocks, green spreading creatures are always eager to visit humans in their abodes. While I have a room secured, I will not be sleeping in it for another night as my roommate waits for his small quarters to be de-molded (apparently once it gets into furniture or walls, it is hard to stop). Heat from a fire is good medicine for this malady, as is the newer idea of a dehumidifier. When it comes to food, fresh breads, fruits, and veggies must be eaten quickly or they too will play host for their own little friends.

Speaking of food, my dinner is waiting, and it smells fresh and tasty.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Camp in the Desert (Friday night, November 19th, 2010. Central New Mexico)

Tonight I write quickly because my fingers are cold and the computer battery dies.

A quiet, remote recreation area in Central New Mexico, my camping local is far from primitive. In fact, the word luxurious has been tossing around in my head for the past 45 minutes. At my disposal are a covered picnic table, trash can, and nearby car.

A crisp breeze, 30ish temperature, and partly overcast skies have me content, as I know that a wet camp is mostly out of the picture for tomorrow morning. Because of this guess and the fact that I have a small pavilion, I opt not to pitch a tent. My camping philosophy has always been fairly minimal.

Dinner is simple but delicious. A bed of slightly undercooked rice (I didn’t compensate extra water for the high elevation), basil, and olive oil are complemented by a few slices of beef jerky. Instead of washing dishes, I add water to my eating bowl and bring it to a boil, thereby killing the germs and providing me with hot water for tea (with a few leftover rice pieces floating about).

I have often found that while on camping trips by myself I easily become uncomfortable with the silence and lack of human interaction. Most of us are not very familiar with the plants and animals of our wilder landscapes, and this can bring about a certain kind of culture shock. And yet, sitting out here with the sage and cholla brings on a peaceful feeling inside me. There is a beautiful calm in the desert unavailable in the city or even much of rural Arkansas with its barking dogs and wind in the trees. Perhaps I am finally beginning to make my peace with Mother Nature and learning to see her as a friend rather than the tough adversary portrayed in our society and media.

 Tomorrow I drive all day, with the goal of making it to somewhere up in Utah. That’s all for now. Much I would like to write, but my mind is tired.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cooking Rice

Rice. It's simple, It can be made into a seemingly infinite number of dishes. It also feeds the world.
In locations where money and resources are scarce, the promise of a bowl of rice gives billions of impoverished people a means by which to live.
Here in a America we tend to scoff at the staple. Unless its prepackaged with tasty spices and flavors and mixed with meat, we generally turn up our noses. At least that is my perspective through personal recollections of my younger days. The dreaded "red beans and rice," "Cuban black bean soup and rice," or "breakfast plain rice" always left me disinterested as a child (although I dutifully ate up). Basically, rich people often skip or limit the white and fluffy stuff for more expensive tastes (for example those with money in China actually eat very little rice as opposed to the peasants and industrial laborers).
Despite my background and personal experience, in recent years I have have begun to look more favorably on rice. While in Costa Rica during the summer of 2008, I found myself eating the food on a daily basis along with beans, salad, and usually some sort of meat dish. This combination left me feeling leaner and more energetic than usual. The experience was one duly noted, and one I have come back to in my quest for a cheap, nutritious diet.
I have this idea of how I am going to eat during the next months or even years. It may be idealistic, but it is my plan for now. Basically I plan on beginning an eating pattern which revolves around rice, beans, and olive oil. Supplemented with this nutritious combo will be spices, herbs, vegetables, fruits, and occasionally meat (ideally free range or wild). Among this latter list, I hope to skip the store as much as possible and rely on the three G's - gather, grow, gun-down (do I need to explain why I had to chose this latter phrase and how I flee from its connotation?). These techniques will of course be dictated by my landscape and its needs - ethical and reverent harvesting. It all sounds simple and nice, but the implementation I am sure will have its "fun moments."

To cook rice (in my current case Basmati white rice):
I took a medium saucepan and added 1 cup of the good stuff. To this was added 1 1/2 cups of water. The combination was put over high heat and brought to a boil. Watching and stirring to avoid burning, I, upon the desired bubbling boil, turned the heat down to low/medium and fasted the lid tight. After exactly 13 minutes the heat was extinguished and the pot was left to think and meditate quietly in its own little "sweat lodge." After another 7 minutes I crashed the party and opened the lid. To my great surprise and relief I found a nice bed of cooked white stuff. Fluffing it up with a fork, I quietly gave thanks and  excitedly decided to write a blog entry. What a thrill!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rainy Day in Conway

Rain. It’s doing just that outside my window at the moment. It is a phenomenon I have always enjoyed in Arkansas – just love those long, drawn out days of clouds and slow drizzle that come with the cooler weather. Its cozy weather for being indoors and provides a nice atmosphere for contemplation.
In a very short time, I will be (lawd willin) in one of the hot spots for rain in the world. Cool, low clouds, slow rain: all of these are par for the course in western Washington for the majority of the year. My experience in this weather will not, however, be limited to my watching it from my window pane. I will be living in it.
This latter fact has recently prompted me to consider clothing choices. In cool, wet weather, cotton kills. I learned this early in my career as a Boy Scout. Basically when cotton, the garment that 99% of us wear 99% of the time (made up stat), becomes wet, it loses its insulating purposes, sucking the heat right out of the body. On camping trips I have on occasion seen friends shivering and in danger of hypothermia simply due to the fact that they were not “dressed for success.”
Better materials to wear when in areas prone to rain and cool (or snow and cold) are wool and synthetics. The majority of these materials and blends do provide warmth even when wet. The advantage of wool in my experience is that it does not hold scent while synthetics are often not as scratchy as garments of more “organic” weaves.
Buckskin, another favorite of mine, does not fare well when wet. This past summer I learned this fact very quickly after walking around in wet moose skin moccasins for a day with my feet freezing (if it weren’t for a mandatory shoe policy, this wouldn’t have happened). The old timers and Indians would have covered their skins with various materials such as wool, grass, etc. to prevent them from becoming soaked.
Now that I am about to embark on my trip, I am faced with a decision on what type of clothing to bring with me. 2 pairs of undergarments (1 wool and 1 synthetic) are a check. So are several pairs of wool socks (some of which I need to buy) will be important as well, especially considering the fact that I will at times employ socks as my primary footwear (barefoot in warm/cool weather, barefoot alternating with wearing socks when colder, when very cold (snow would qualify) wearing socks around the whole day – I do not yet know how well wool will hold up under such wear so this is an experiment of sorts in minimalist footwear. I of course have moccasins and Vibram Five Fingers depending on the weather and ground conditions I am in). Wool shirts sound nice (used would be great as they are cheaper). Otherwise I will be checking all the tags of clothing in my closet and pulling out those polyester gym pants and Bill Cosby sweaters that have been hiding away. Cotton will be reserved for those occasional trips to town (it’s a temptation I have overcome in my life).
The rain jacket is a mystery for me at the moment. I have somehow gone through almost a years worth of camping in my life to now come to the realization that I have never really owned one. At Philmont this summer I lugged around a light windbreaker. Somehow I was convinced it was waterproof.  I stayed in this happy delirium until one day on the nine mile hike from my camp to my car when Mother Nature decided the landscape needed watering. It rained three hours and I was soaked from head to toe (minus my backpack which I secured with a waterproof covering). Thankfully I wasn’t wearing cotton.
The moral of this story is that if one wants to stay dry, it is advisable that she either invest in or make a covering to shed the rain or do like many native peoples throughout history and simply stay indoors/under shelter during rain (this latter approach being difficult in our world of strict schedules). Or one can opt for my strategy and simply dig the rain in insulating clothing (not advisable).
I am sure I will have more to write on this topic in the months to come.