Trees make me nervous. Not individual trees, or even a nice orchard or a row of trees in a park, say, but massed trees. Call it arborological claustrophobia if you will, because the inability to see from the zenith to the horizon makes me acutely uncomfortable. I discovered this when I was a teenager and the passing years have only served to confirm my quirk. Without sky at eye-level, my world becomes a most unhappy place. On a beautiful day in April, I got to savor a happy and beautiful world, driving along the southern edge of the Canadian Breaks the day after a cold front’s passage. Blue and white, tan and green, and sweet sky as far as the curve of the earth allowed.
The previous night had been, well, typical for April on the fringe of Tornado Alley. I spent some time within diving distance of my interior closet, one ear tuned to the radio and the other to the open window, in case the sirens started before the official announcement went out. Thanks be, all we got was hail and frog-strangling rain (you know, the kind where you get your month’s average in less than an hour and your house gutter runneth over.) A few F-0 twisters popped up and down in the eastern Panhandle, and of course Oklahoma got whomped. But the storm line passed and the skies cleared and all was quiet, with only the dripping of the eves intruding on the peace of the night. (That and the neighbor’s exclamation of “Oh Dawg, no! Stay there, don’t—!” Dawg apparently brought a good deal of the outdoors in when he finished his evening “business trip.”)
I had an appointment to give a talk at a good, small county museum that next afternoon. Since the storms didn’t eat the museum, I triple checked my notes, got my book-signing pen (fatter line than I prefer for notes), fed the pick-up and set off. I had two routes: north of the river or south, then south again. I opted to drop south early and roll along the southern edge of the Breaks, just to be different. And because there was less chance of road problems from the rain the night before. Something about discovering wash-outs the hard way and the joys of being the first one to get to report trouble. The Canadian River still had some water in it when I crossed the bridge, but not a whole lot. The majority of the previous night’s runoff had already flowed downstream. But the grass looked greener, especially the old burns.
I put good music on the stereo, set the cruise for the legal limit, and rolled east. To the northwest a growing field of grey and white added pleasant contrast to the blue sky, as forecast, while a few hard-edged and painfully white cloud towers warned that someone might have another mildly interesting late afternoon. The pastures and National Recreation Area land looked good, better than they had in previous springs. We’d gotten an “average” amount of winter snow and rain for the first time in several years (like eight or nine) and the plants responded. The grass had started greening up, especially in the places where it had burned the previous year. Burning is good for the grass out here, if it happens the right way, and if rain follows. But nothing was going to burn that afternoon, given the lingering damp.
The talk went well and by the time I finished signing books, chatting with the museum director, and reclaiming my car, the second cold front had arrived. Oh, the beautiful skies! Little rain showers dotted the Panhandle, white and silver-grey puffs of storm with bits of deep blue, hard blue, between. Small streamers of grey-purple-blue rain trailed beneath some of the showers, brushing the ground. Cloud shadows dappled the rough, broken land that dropped down to the river valley proper. I could still see across the Breaks to the uplands to the north, a dark blue against the now-water-fuzzed light blue edge of the sky. The mesquite limbs, still bare, made black knots against the horizon where the road dipped down into little valleys and washes.
Some days you just give thanks to the Universe for the privilege of being alive. This was one of those days. The miles rolled under my tires, I found a place with gas for thirty cents cheaper than anywhere else around here, cool and damp air poured into the cab, and Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “Battle of Jericho” blared from my speakers. Traffic on the highway and secondary roads remained light, and I could sing along with the music without fear of a surprise lurking over the next hill. I could see forever under a magnificent sky.
There is something to be said for Big sky, certainly. I can’t say I miss it, though.
I recall as a kid, my great grandmother (my mom’s grandmother) coming to visit. I grew up in the Washington Rainforest, she had lived her whole life in Eastern Montana. You know all those lines in songs about Kansas wheat fields? They ain’t got nothing on Eastern Montana. My grandmother was claustrophobic because of all the trees. It bothered her so bad that she couldn’t drive the highways in Western Washington, because the trees were crowding in on her.
I grew up in Central Louisiana. I’ve lived in jungle (Panama, Vietnam), desert (New Mexico), prairie (Oklahoma, Nebraska), and confused (Germany, England). I need trees. I don’t need a lot, but at least enough to give me shade and comfort. My ideal place is in a foothill Ponderosa forest, thirty miles from town, and less than five miles from the nearest lake or reservoir. I’ll invite you for a visit, Alma, once I find it. 8^)