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January 2006 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

Sunrise on January 1 at Windwalker, my property and cabin at 8,300 feet along the east side of the Continental Divide in Colorado, is at 7:21 A.M. Mountain Standard Time. Sunset is at 4:46 P.M. MST.

Sunrise on Jan. 31 is at 7:09 A.M.; sunset is at 5:18 P.M.

Average January temperatures at Windwalker range between a high of 35 degrees Fahrenheit to a daytime low of 15 degrees, but “average” means little in the mountains. Christmas Day 2005 showed a high in the low 60’s. Two weeks before that, the temperature at 8 A.M. was at minus-17 degrees.

All homes need to be lived in to be maintained properly, especially a home perched on the lee side of its own private mountain above 8,300 feet, and during November and the first half of December of this year I was away from Windwalker long enough that I returned to find the furnace off – the blower had failed – and the pipes and fixtures inside the cabin frozen. This had never happened before. Sewer lines had frozen during bad spells in previous winters, but never the deeply buried and well-insulated pipes coming in. Never had the plumbing inside the cabin at Windwalker frozen or suffered damage. On December 15th I discovered that new taps and shower fixtures and valves I’d just put in last summer had shattered in my absence. When, this week, I finally got the furnace fixed and the cabin warmed up to the point I could investigate the water damage – waiting days until an insurance adjuster could join me to assess the extent of chaos – I opened the valve in the crawlspace to allow water to flow into the cabin again so that we could find exactly where pipes had cracked or burst and . . . nothing. No water at all. If the pipes had frozen outside – uphill from the cabin somewhere along the 150 yards or so between the hilltop cistern and the cabin – well, I might as well buy my own backhoe and start digging. It would be a long and expensive 2006.

But Mike from a local well-service company (“local” meaning 20 miles away) helped me confirm today that the problem was in a bad float-sensor in the cistern at the top of the hill, which had allowed the cistern to empty.

So – during my few weeks away from Windwalker, there had been an unexplained power surge that had tripped all the breakers (common during summer lightning storms but certainly not during freezing weather), winds of over 100 miles per hour, blizzards, temperatures down to –20, failure of the furnace, freezing and damage to the pipes, and a cistern failure.

As I write this, the plumbers – I’ve found it cheaper just to adopt them – will be coming up soon to start the expensive replacement of pipes, valves, and fixtures throughout the cabin (especially in those hard to reach places in the walls and floors.) And this comes at the end of a year of major expenditures for Windwalker – building a dock, repairs to the cabin, improvements to the cabin’s plumbing, repairs to the vertical standpipe and culvert in the largest pond, repairs to the well’s pump system, and replacements and repairs to the huge wooden deck.

Why would any place be worth all this continued expense?

Alpenglow is one reason. Despite the fact that the winter solstice has passed, the sun still rises at the latest hour of the year during January. It also sets much earlier at Windwalker than its official Jan. 1 setting time of 4:46 P.M. because the high peaks to the southwest block the sun like a 6,000-foot-high (higher, that is, than Windwalker’s elevation of 8,300 ft.) wall. Also, the Windwalker cabin is on the leeward (southeastern) side of its own private little mountain. This is good in protecting the cabin from the winds – which frequently reach 100 miles per hour so close to where the jet stream roars over the fangs of the Continental Divide – but it means that sunset comes even earlier at the cabin itself. To watch the high peaks inflict their early sunset on the day, one has to walk around the hill on Windwalker’s long gravel drive or hike or snowshoe up the hill to the summit.

But there are foothills and even some actual peaks visible to the east from the cabin – Twin Sisters and Ypsilon are two serious mountains visible to the northeast – and these come alive with alpenglow every evening. Alpenglow occurs when rays of sunlight reflect back off higher peaks into valleys and lower peaks already in twilight shadow, causing the summits and sky and hillsides and the air itself to glow with a pink radiance that is almost beyond the power of words to describe. The effect is increased when there is fresh snow on the ground.

The master bedroom at Windwalker has windows looking southeast and a northeast wall of glass doors – making for chilly sleeping in the depths of winter but well worth it for the view year-round – and sunrise, viewed from beneath the quilts, can be awe-inspiring.

In the early morning, even before the sun has visibly risen above the foothills to the east of Windwalker, the sun striking the high peaks to the west – Long’s Peak, at 14,255 ft. is the tallest – fills the hillsides, valleys, and sky with alpenglow. Even before the sunlight directly strikes the summits of Twin Sisters – visible from where one huddles under a down comforter in bed -- its western slopes are bathed in pink hues reflected from the sheer face and high icefields of Long’s Peak, Mt. Meeker, and the other higher peaks along the Divide. The entire world up at Windwalker blushes for long moments at each sunset and sunrise.

Star-viewing is rewarding at Windwalker in January if one is tough enough to stand out on the wind-lashed deck or hillside long enough to do it. Once, after a reading I gave at the public library in nearby Estes Park (the village at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park), I met a married couple who had both taught astronomy on the college level for years and who had decided to retire to a cabin in a valley nearby specifically for the fine viewing of the night sky here. It’s true that the glow of the burgeoning Front Range – the sprawling metropolis stretching along the foothills from Fort Collins in the north, down through Denver to Colorado Springs 120 miles south – scatters more light into the sky every year, but the foothills to the east of Windwalker block much of that light, allowing for the clarity of night skies that one rarely finds in the continental U.S. any longer.

Standing outside on any clear winter night, the Milky Way stretching overhead from mountainous horizon to mountainous horizon is so bright it seems a solid ceiling. In the winter of 1996-97, when the Hale-Bopp Comet spent months moving across the sky, I would hike the hills of Windwalker while throwing a comet shadow on the snow.

Lying in bed in the master bedroom at Windwalker in January, one can watch the inverted Big Dipper blazing in the north above the hillside. From the guest room on the south side of the cabin, Orion is visible after 9 p.m. I keep binoculars in different rooms at the cabin, and from the guestroom bed one can peer into Orion and make out the Great Nebula and such first-magnitude stars as Rigel and Betelgeuse. Rigel is 460 light years away but since it’s roughly 14,000 times brighter than our sun, it’s easy to see. Betelgeuse, a red giant, has a diameter of more than 215 million miles – greater than the diameter of Earth’s orbit around our little G-type sun.

There are interesting meteor events at Windwalker every month of the year, but in January one would have to hike to the top of the hill and look northwest along the high peaks to get the best views of the Quadrantrid meteor shower that reaches its own peak around Jan. 3. It’s not uncommon, lying in bed while dozing off on a winter night at Windwalker, to be shocked awake by the blaze of an especially bright meteor streaking above the pine trees on the shoulder of the hill. The Perseid meteor showers around August 12th are often the most dramatic (and almost certainly the warmest to watch while sitting out on the deck.) I’ve counted up to 200 meteors per hour from Windwalker’s deck.

People who don’t know Colorado usually imagine us buried in snow from October through May, but they forget that the state has about as many days of bright sunshine as St. Petersburg, Florida. Down in the lowlands – say Denver’s paltry altitude of 5,280 feet – temperatures in the winter often hover around 50 degrees with a majority of sunny days. (And sunlight in Colorado is a different sort of experience, even as low as 5,280 feet and thus above a mere 30% of the Earth’s atmosphere. Closer to heaven, at Windwalker’s altitude of 8,300 feet, sunlight is a powerful presence indeed.)

Blizzards do blow in the mountains and snow does accumulate, but the long private drive from the Peak-to-Peak highway into the Windwalker cabin (the cabin is tucked out of sight on the east side of its own little mountain and surrounded by national forest on three sides) is free of snow more often than not, and navigable by my 4-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser most of the rest of the time. The reason is that most of the drive lies along a long south-facing slope and the sunlight burns away much of the snow there most days, even in January.

But in the valley and along the eastern and north-facing slopes, the snow grows deep. I keep four sets of Vermont-ashe snowshoes ready for longer strolls. One of the benefits of winter is the ease of tracking the wildlife around Windwalker. On a regular January day, walking just a mile or so around the cabin, one will find tracks of mice, voles, rabbits, Albert’s squirrels, fox, coyote, weasels, beaver, and – on occasion – mountain lions. Because the winters are warming in the Rockies as most other places, it’s now not uncommon to find bearpaw prints even in the winter when the large animals should be hibernating.

Occasionally, following such tracks along the edge of the pine forest or down along the frozen ponds and valley stream will show an entire drama of life and death that has played out just hours or minutes earlier – rabbit tracks suddenly lengthening as the rabbit began to run, then coyote tracks – also far apart since the coyote is also running – then an explosion of disturbed snow sometimes painted crimson, with only a bit of bone or rabbit fur left behind.

Last spring – and the snow does remain in the valleys into May – I found the hair and part of the spine of an entire coyote along the snowed-over jeep track running the length of the valley. A mountain lion and then smaller predators had taken all the rest – flesh, muscles, bone, skull – leaving only the hair and bits of vertebrae.

It’s easy to think that life is sleeping during the long nights and howling arctic winds of winter up at Windwalker, but any real acquaintance with the place soon shows you the truth of the matter. Under the snow, life proceeds at a furious rate. During winter thaws – the warm chinook winds can melt three feet of snow in a day up here – and then again in spring, one finds countless eskers, coiled and convoluted lines of soil that look like gopher burrows but are really solid strands of dirt moved by the thousands of burrowing creatures making their way under the snow,moving the dirt from in front of them to behind them, not burrowing under the ground.

Some plants, such as kinnikinnik, remain green all winter under the snow. The subnivean light levels are able to penetrate the snow on sufficient wavelengths to allow for a little photosynthesis. Some seeds germinate under six feet and more of snow while certain buried sedges even put out new leaves in January. And everywhere at Windwalker there are startling microclimates – on a south-facing slope, in the lee of a small boulder, you might find spring beauties putting out their white petals in the middle of January.

January is an amorous month in the mountains. Beavers breed in their lodges made of sticks and mud. Hiking past the beaver ponds, one can see the heat from their bodies rising in ripples from the six-foot-high heaps that are their lodges. Coyotes breed from January to March. Their young are born in about sixty days and venture from the dens about three weeks later. Black bear cubs are often born in January, while their mothers are dormant in their deep dens. Great horned owls do their courting during this coldest and darkest of months. Rosy finches flock by the hundreds.

Even grasshoppers can be found along the dry, south-facing slopes. Well designed by evolution to be early Martian colonists, the grasshoppers have elevated levels of glycol in their system in January – a natural antifreeze – and seem to grow drunk on it. They provide food for the foxes, coyote, and owls.

Gray jays and mountain chickadees will eat from your hand when you stop to pull food from your pack while snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.. (Be glad the Clark’s nutcrackers from the other three seasons aren’t always around in January. Those birds will throw you down on the ground and go through your pockets for food.) Hiking west and higher to the Divide, or east up Twin Sisters, you’ll probably step on ptarmigans before you see them; the plump birds change from a speckled gray in the summer – almost indistinguishable from rocks – to pure white in the winter.

#

One reason I’m writing about Windwalker today is that I’m considering putting it in a book I’m thinking about writing – a strange little mainstream novel which might bear the title Titus.

I rarely use my own surroundings as a setting for my stories or novels; I’m more comfortable writing about Romania or the arctic or another planet altogether. But if I do include Windwalker in Titus, the place itself will be a character – one of only three.

In Seamus Heaney’s essay “On W.B. Yeats and Thoor Ballylee,” the poet writes about the earlier poet’s identification with his tower home called Ballylee, a Norman keep in the Barony of Kiltartan dating from the 13th or 14th Century, descending from the great line of the de Burgos and registered in The Book of Connaught at the end of the 16th Century. Yeats bought the place for 35 pounds from “a government body called, with an unromantic grimness, the Congested Districts Board.”

Yeats purchased the tower in 1916 and didn’t move in with his wife (George!) until 1919, and even then just used Ballylee as a sort of summer house between 1919 and 1928. By 1928, Yeats’s health had begun to fail, so he quit returning to the drafty keep even in the summer. But, as Heaney explains – “The tower had now entered so deeply into the prophetic strains of his voice that it could be invoked without being inhabited. He no longer needed to live in it since he had attained a state in which he lived by it.”

Heaney continues –

“To call it a summer home, then, is really slightly off the mark, since it is obvious that the tower’s first function was not domestic. Here he was in the place of writing. It was one of his singing schools, one of the soul’s monuments of its own magnificence. His other addresses were necessary shelters, but Ballylee was a sacramental site, an outward sign of an inner grace. The posture of the building corresponded to the posture he would attain. The stone in all its obstinancy and stillness, the plumb bulk and resistant profile of the keep, the dream form and the brute fact simultaneously impressed on mind and senses, all this transmission of sensation and symbolic aura made the actual building stones into touchstones for the work he would aspire to. And that work would have to be a holding action in the face of old age, death and the disintegrating civilization which he, ‘Heart smitten with emotion’, perceived in its decline.”

Yeats’s perception that he was observing the disintegration of civilization, the actual end of his world, was not in error. As Seamus Heaney reminds us, the Easter Rising in Dublin had occurred just a few months before Yeats’s negotiations for Ballylee with the Congested Districts Board in 1916. That same summer of 1916, the Battle of the Somme – which many people, myself included, consider the end of the relatively innocent old world before this modern Age of Blood – was fought. In 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out. From 1919 onward, Ireland was being consumed in more blood as its war of independence raged everywhere.

In 1928, his last year at Ballylee, Yeats published his volume of poems entitled The Tower and had conceived its sequel, The Winding Stair, which would follow in 1933. Seamus Heaney writes – “In the title poem of The Tower volume, Thoor Ballylee is a podium from which the spirit’s voice is resolutely projected.”

Rilke had written in 1922 in his third sonnet to Orpheus that singing is being. That is, poetic song is reality – creates reality – much in the way that we now know that the Aborigines believe they sing the world into being as they go.

In this way, some writers reflect their surroundings by writing about them, while others sing them into being, creating a place that may have existed only geographically or historically before the poet’s eye or the novelist’s pen sing them into deeper being. I think of this frequently when – during one of my many driving trips across the nation – I stop in Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri. The next time I go to London, I want to visit 221B Baker Street, although I know that whatever physical things I find there will be only pale reflections of the deeper fictional reality that was sung into being for that address.

When civilization, as you value and remember it, is unraveling, and when you feel that both your own body and the world you were born into is coming apart at an equal pace, a high place – a sort of tower – is not a bad position from which to be an honest witness for such disintegration. My possible-novel’s character Titus may be just such a man who has seen enough, learned enough, lost enough, felt enough, been honest witness enough, to send him seeking out a high place to view the final twilight-alpenglow days of a waning world.

This is Yeats’s peroration in the title poem of The Tower

       Now shall I make my soul,
       Compelling it to study
       In a learned school
       Till the wreck of body,
       Slow decay of blood,
       Testy delirium
       Or dull decrepitude,
       Or what worse evil come –
       The death of friends, or death
       Of every brilliant eye
       That made a catch in the breath –
       Seem but the clouds of the sky
       When the horizon fades;
       Or a bird’s sleeping cry
       Among the deepening shades.

One of the deepest sadnesses in this passage bears on the death – in reality of person passing or in failed relationships as real and painful as physical death – “of every brilliant eye that made a catch in the breath.”

But in a later Yeats’ poem, “The Man and the Echo,” we are made to understand that the much-vaunted isolation of the poet in his tower – or upon his hill – is helpless against what Heaney calls “the unaccommodated cry of suffering nature.”

       But hush, for I have lost the theme,
       Its joy or night seem but a dream;
       Up there some hawk or owl has struck,
       Dropping out of sky or rock,
       A stricken rabbit is crying out,
       And its cry distracts my thought.

And now I have to go to see if the plumbers have come so that walls can be torn out, floors ripped up, pipes and valves replaced, and Windwalker made habitable for the remaining days and long, clear, cold nights of January.

A Happy and Thoughtful New Year to you all.

Sincerely,

 

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