Sunday Snippet: North of the Wall

This is the start of a stand-alone (or two book set, not sure yet) story set in the Pictish lands and Dal Riata in the 400s or 500s.

Harrel stopped and listened. A fish-hunter glided overhead. Harrel “looked” and caught a glimpse of the way ahead through the bird’s eyes. White clumps and dark in green, paler green trees, no dim-eyes. Harrel sent silent thanks and a warning—feather hunters moved to the south, near the river. The pale-headed bird turned north and faded into the grey sky. Harrel resumed his search. The sheep were not far—far for a keen-eyed bird. For a man? He shrugged. At least the mist hadn’t killed the sheep this time.

Harrel walked with an easy stride along the track. Only he and Connal and a few women used the old, half-sunken ways, and even they went only after taking precautions. He touched the rowen sprig tucked into the sprig-slit on his hood. The way climbed up, onto harder ground, and he heard the sound of sheep. But were they the sheep of the family, or did others use these lands? He would know once he crossed the stream.

A set of edge stakes answered his question. Another family claimed the land by the old way. Evenly spaced, knee-high stakes marked off the edge of the pasture, separating grassy green from the wilder plants along the way. Ash wood, peeled and pale, to warn off the mist and the Old Folk both, Harrel noted. He nodded and continued along the old way. Not far for a sky hunter, but a ways for a man. Whoever – or whatever – had led the sheep away had moved swiftly. He shifted the straps on his bag. Or they had struck when Aelfie watched, the first watch of the night. That’s what he would have done. Two split-tailed dancers flew across the way. One stopped on the branch of an oak. The other continued on her way. Brown-caps, a yellow-throated weaver, and a morning-breaker all called from the woods on the left side of the road. The right side remained grass, as the fish-hunter’s eyes had shown. Harrel strode on.

“Mee-ee-eeh! Mee-ee-eeh!” a lamb bleated from behind a green wall of brush and young trees. Harrel moved more slowly, listening. he touched rowen once more, clearing his sight of any mistiness. Then he stepped to the side of the old way and removed his pack. He opened the top and pulled out two willow rods and two of hazel. Harrel eased the pack back onto his shoulders. An eater of the dead flew over. He looked. No tall-live moved or watched among the short-live. He thanked the bird and withdrew.

Harrel crossed the old way and found a well-trodden gap on the nettles and red-stem that grew on the grassy side of the way. He grasped one willow and one hazel rod in his left hand, tips down, and waved them back and forth with a flick of his wrist. A tiny wisp of mist floated up from the bare dirt and faded away. Had he not looked for it, he would never have seen it. Harrel walked ahead, moving with slow, quiet steps so he didn’t startle the sheep. They grazed, or nursed, and lay easily, chewing their cud. He glanced up. The sun would be between dawn and midday were the sky not so gray. All seemed well with the sheep as he walked among them, and none of the lambs showed signs of distress.

He climbed up the hill to near the crest. A burn flowed from between red and cream stones. No wonder the sheep acted sheep-like and quiet. No magic of bane could remain near the spring. He went to one knee in respect and dipped the tips of all four rods into the burn, just downstream of the pool. He moved them with the water’s flow, lifted them, then repeated the dipping twice more. then he took a bit of cake baked with honey from his pouch and set it in the grass in thanks.

Now he had only to gather the sheep, without a dog, and lead them back to the family. He began with the animals farthest uphill. Each one he brushed head to tail along the peak of the back with a pair of rods. Only once did anything happen. A stem and two leaves fell out of the wool of a second-lamb ewe. Yellow-cone, he saw, and nodded but took no other steps. Three hands of sheep later, he began urging them toward the gap in the plants. They all walked through. That . . . should not be. Sheep favored corner gates, not mid-field gates. He tucked the fact away, stowed the rods, and led the small flock back to the family.

The animals followed willingly, maybe even eagerly. Still, he walked with slow steps and stopped at each burn and grassy verge. Lambs could not be hurried. The sheep’s spirits would remember the injury and disrespect long after their minds forgot. None of what had driven them away remained on the animals so they did not need to be smudged or rolled before returning to the flock. The lambs nursed, or slept, at each stop as their dams chewed or grazed. One or two sipped from the burns. Again, all was as it should be except . . . They acted more as dogs than sheep. The oldest ewe gave him a sideways look from her blue-white eye. Had she seen their lifter? Or did something else cling to the sheep?

The sun had crossed the roof-peak of the sky and passed the point midway between noon and nightfall by the time he and the sheep returned to the family. One lamb had become foot sore. At the next stop, Harrel had found hoof-wort growing beside the stream. He’d picked it and had tucked springs between each lamb’s hoofs, and three of the ewes and hoggets as well. The foot-sore lamb he now carried over his shoulder, her dam following close behind.

He smelled the smoke of the fire. Brute barked once. Harrel stopped and waited. Alfie and Ian came to the edge of the road. “Good dog,” Ian said. Harrel walked on, leading the sheep to one of the fields. Connal lifted the gate and the others helped coax the animals in. Connal lowered the newly-woven willow panel into place.

“Mist trace or just old one?” Harrel asked.

A shrug. “Eluvie’s not sure, and the old one broke as I moved it. Bottom split. Had a new one almost ready.” Another shrug. Connal guarded his word-hoard closely. “Find aught?”

“Mist trace on the field edge, none on the sheep. The graze-field burn is white-headed. I dipped the rods before testing the sheep.” After a bit he added, “No claim on the graze-field. Claim on one down-way of it. I didn’t check for family sign.”

Connal shrugged again. The others would refuse to claim and move to land touched by the old way. Here, the road bent so only a small patch of scrub-wood touched the old way. Harrel alone gathered fuel from the waste-wood, but took nothing more save from the rowen if it sank roots into the edge of the old way. Nothing ill could tolerate rowen, and it never drew ill into itself.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved


MomRed’s Meat Loaf

Meatloaf is not all that common at RedQuarters any more, in part because everyone is so busy. However, MomRed announced that she was making a meatloaf, and far be it from DadRed or me to object.

The original recipe comes from the 14th edition of the Kitchen Secrets of The Daughters of Norway. It was published in 1956, and the recipes are not modern “lite-cooking.” Half of it is baked goods.

So, you need (for the meat): 1 1/2 Lb ground meat (MomRed used two pounds, one chub of beef and one of jalapeno sausage)

1/2 can of tomato SAUCE

1 cup fresh bread crumbs (MomRed used the remains of cereal*, which are saved for this very thing)

1 chopped onion

1 beaten egg

1 1/2 tsp salt

Mix everything and put it in a loaf pan. Preheat oven to 350 F, while combining:

1/2 can tomato SAUCE

2 T prepared mustard (Ingelhoffer’s German is the RedQuarters usual)

2 T brown sugar

1 C water** (MomRed used 2/3 cup ketchup)

2 T vinegar

Pour one half of the sauce over the meat loaf. Bake for 45 minutes. Top with more of the sauce. Bake for another 45 minutes, or until a meat thermometer reads 160 F. (If you use 1 1/2 pounds of meat, reduce the cooking time to an hour or so, depending on your elevation. Either way, baste it half-way through.)

It tasted very good both fresh and on the second day. It is moist and flavorful, but not spicy.

*Bread in Houston got moldy rather than stale, so rather than toast fresh bread in order to make bread crumbs (which would be wasteful), Gammy saved the last bits of breakfast cereal. She also used them in rolls.

** The water made the sauce too thin, so MomRed went for a lower volume and more flavor. It’s whatever you and your family prefer.

From Rome to the Middle Ages and Back

So, after getting rained on and windblown at Vindolanda and the Sill, it was time for a museum. So the day started at the Roman Army Museum. The landscape around is pasture, some cultivated fields, and woodlots, and Hadrian’s Wall is not far from the museum building.

See the thing in the case behind his foot? We will come back to that.

The museum is a military history and organization museum, so if you know nothing about the Roman Empire, or the military, you would probably be a bit at sea. If you have some basic knowledge, it is a great look at how the auxiliary troops functioned, their organization, equipment, and what the Roman Army did in Britain. It was also full of waves of kids, which is good. Unless you are trying to read displays around (or in this case over) them.

Not quite as comfortable to carry as a backpack, but it worked.

The museum was put together by archaeologists and historians, with the help of reenactors. There are a lot of people who “do” Roman military life on weekends, and they test out the different ideas about how armor, tools, and other things worked. (I almost, almost got a monograph about Roman artillery on the frontier, but the weight of the book dissuaded me. But it looked soooooo interesting!) You go through the introductory area, which is about the organization and staffing of an auxiliary unit as compared to the standard Legion (smaller, different command structure, more variety in the type of soldiers in the unit). The museum is based on the career of an actual historical person, a young man from what is now Hungary who joined up, served on the Wall, and lived to retire back to Dacia with citizenship, a pension, and a family.

There’s a neat video about both Hadrian’s Wall, and about the soldiers who served there. They get the “joys” of military life, including being on night watch on the wall in winter, with a R&R camp behind the Wall in sight, while the protagonist is “standing here, on watch, with . . . Sevirus.” Sevirus is not the sharpest spatha in the armory.

Hey, Centurion, I found the Picts!

One of the really amazing things about Vindolanda and a few other sites was what got preserved in the water-logged depths of the moat/garbage dump. For example, ever wonder about the crests on top of the helmets? I always assumed that they were all horsehair. Not so.

It is made from a type of hair moss, a plant with long filaments that were used instead of horse hair for crests, and for wigs. This is the only example that I’ve ever seen.
One of several working models of Roman artillery. There was also a very nice obituary for the dedicated gent who did so much of the research into how these things might have worked, and how they didn’t work. He’d passed away recently. He wasn’t a professional archaeologist, but one of the dedicated amateurs who love figuring things out.

From here, we drove to Durham. The route runs along the crest of a ridge, giving you wonderful views of the land to the north and south. The clouds were breaking up, or at least thinning, so long strands of light shone down through the grey skies. The driver had Classic FM on the radio, quietly, and I realized it was playing “The Lark in Clear Air” by Ralph Vaughn Williams. There I was, in a beautiful English landscape, listening to one of my favorite English Romantic composers. It doesn’t get much better than that. Then the radio cued up “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. That also fit, since it is used at Remembrance Day ceremonies. It might have gotten a bit dusty for a moment in the Range Rover.

Outside the museum. Some things have not changed for two thousand years . . .
They shall not grow old as we grow old . . . The War Memorial Chapel/ Durham Light Infantry Chapel at Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral is on top of a steep hill, beside a castle, overlooking a river and road junction. It is built on older foundations, possibly going back to pagan (that’s uncertain, but would fit the pattern), and the shrine of St. Cuthbert goes to the 900s. His relics were originally elsewhere, but there was a little Viking problem, so he was moved inland. St. Oswald’s head was later found with St. Cuthbert, to the mild surprise of some people. The church we see today was started as Romanesque, and completed between 1093 and 1133. It was later modified to have Gothic elements as well. Among other things, it has the oldest surviving stone vaulted ceiling that we know of.

Durham also has some of the very few medieval church paintings still extant, as you can see below. Oliver Cromwell and his supporters are credited/blamed with doing in all the other medieval art. This is in the Lady Chapel, where the Venerable Bede is also buried. (He’s now St. Bede of Jarrow, but everyone still calls him Venerable Bede.)

As you go around the interior of the cathedral, there are a series of history panels, half pre-Norman and half Norman. It is wonderful to compare and contrast the accounts of events and people. And then there’s St. Oswald. Although they overlapped to a small extent, there wasn’t a direct link between St. Cuthbert (634ish-687) and St. Oswald (604ish-642). St. Oswald was a Northumbrian (Anglian or Saxon) king who converted to Christianity, beat up on pagans, and died in battle in 642. There is a summary of the saint’s life available for those who are unfamiliar with him. The author was/is uncomfortable with the idea of a warrior saint who converted people by defeating them in battle. I was somewhat—not amused exactly, but—puzzled perhaps by the author’s difficulty. It was a different time, a different place, and the local people felt that Oswald was a good example and miracle worker, so they honored him, as did the local church. *shrug*

Did I mention the Gothic part of the cathedral? This is from the choir, shooting toward the Lady Chapel. Note travelers* for scale.

The Chapel of the Nine Altars is behind the shrine of St. Cuthbert, and has altars to Northumbrian saints, including active altars for Margaret of Scotland, Hilde of Whitby, and Aidan, with space remaining for others. There’s also a tiny little architectural oopsie in one corner . . .

Um, Aethelwulf, something looks a little off here . . .

The floor of my choir loft is not this nice. [Pouts in Chorister] Neither is the seating.

Down in the main market square. Down is the operative word. The hill is steep.

On the way back to Hexham we visited the foundations of a Roman bridge and small army camp. We had the place to ourselves, since it was 45 minutes to closing time, chilly, and damp. The lady in the tea shop was glad of company and quite chatty about her old house (1600s-1700s), restoring it, the bits of Hadrian’s Wall in her back pasture, and so on. It was about 60 F, breezy, and damp, and hot tea was very, very good. Oh, and the RAF did low-level training overhead. As in 500 feet and below.

It was a good day.

*Travelers, per Alex, our driver and arranger-of-logistics, are people who go places to learn new things, who are curious, and who can roll with changes and complications. “Tourrists,” hissed with a considerable amount of venom, are the problem people who, oh, complain about being interrupted once an hour in York Minster by the chaplain asking for quiet while he offers the prayer of the hour. “Why are they praying here?” was the dead-serious demand. No, I did not turn around and whap the individual with a Psalter. Or the people who can’t/won’t understand why an early-medieval castle doesn’t have an elevator, and get unhappy about that, despite all the signs and warnings and the nice lady at the gate warning people about it being stairs or nothing. *Facepaw*

Overly Familiar

It’s alive!

Lelia and André can deal with abyssal fiends, sorcerers gone bad, sorceresses gone worse, curses that go Sproing! A teenage daughter? Now that’s a challenge.

Lelia and André just want to live quietly, raising their family and keeping arcane mischief to a minimum. But the Street and the Army have other plans.

Lelia’s worlds are on a collision course, and her daughter might be caught in the middle.

Sometimes, trouble is new. And Sometimes it’s Overly Familiar.

Thank you to all who have bought the book, or are reading it on Kindle Unlimited. Thanks especially to those who leave reviews and ratings!

Hearth Right and Pot Right

Where do young Hunters stay, if they are not working or Hunting? The Hunter now called Jude Tainuit (“the lone Hunter/ Hunter in Shadow”) mused that he had hearth right in Martha’s house, but not pot right. Arthur Saldovado will eat meals in the main house at the clan’s home farm, but he doesn’t stay there. The senior Hunter, prior to and after his marriage, stays at the home farm most of the time. Marius “Matt” Bauer has a house and farm even before he marries, and his twin, Florian, comes and goes at will. What’s the reason?

It goes back a long way, and has to do with survival inside and outside the Hunter clans. Obviously, a Hunter can stay with his (or more rarely her) family unless there’s good or bad reason not to. Often, Hunting partners (say, Florian and Nikolai) will have hearth right to each other’s homes, so if one is closer, they can both crash there after a hard Hunt. Hearth right means that if someone shows up unannounced, he will be let in and provided with shelter, usually just overnight unless he and the householder make other agreements. The idea was that the Hunters would be safe from the weather long enough to rest, then move on. While under the roof, the householder will protect the Hunter, and the Hunter will defend the household, or do chores if he can, to pay back the hospitality. In the Old Land, individual Hunters might make agreements with people who are aware of the clan but are not part of it, so that if the Hunter can’t get back to his own home or to a neutral place of refuge, he can shelter in a barn, or a hunting house (cabin in US terms), or other place when needed.

Jude sees himself as having key right (hearth right) but not pot right. He only stays one or two nights out of seven at most, and brings food, does chores, and helps around the house and farm. He won’t eat anything unless Martha gives him permission. Or more often, unless she orders him to sit down and eat, or else. She would say that he has pot right as well as hearth right (full right to come and eat, stay, or go as he chooses/needs). He disagrees. In his mind, owes her so much that there is no, zero, nada, kein way that he’d claim that privilege.

Pot right means that “mi casa es su casa.” The Hunter can come in, help himself to food within reason, and shelter as long as he needs. Hunting partners usually have this with each other’s families, although it is understood that “guests, like fish, smell after three days.” One exception being if the Hunter is providing needed farm labor or other work. He’s paying for his room and board, so to speak.

All active Hunters have the right to get food at the main house on the home farm, and to get medical care there if they need it. It is neutral ground, and even two guys who are at each other’s throats will chill if they have to turn to the main clan for support. They will get what they need and then depart, ignoring each other. Or else. Both the semi-retired Hunters and the ladies are more than happy to demonstrate the “else.” For example, no one wants to get on the wrong side of Arthur’s older sister’s tongue, or her fist. She’s boxed ears on occasion, and left the young pups with bruises on more than just their egos.

Arthur eats at the home farm, but he only stays there if he’s in such bad physical shape that the Healers won’t let him leave. He doesn’t feel safe or comfortable there. Treading on Skender’s toes is only part of it. Arthur supports his brother completely, and knows all too well just how short fused Skender can be. It’s the better part of valor to be elsewhere, so Arthur has a few places where he can take shelter. None of them are with other Hunters, either active or former. Rendor and Dumitra have offered him hearth right, but he declined. He doesn’t want them pulled into a conflict, either with his brother or with the younger Hunters. Arthur also needs space away from others to think and rest.

Arthur’s behavior worries the other Elders, but they’re not going to say anything unless an obvious problem develops. He’s always been a loner, by clan standards.

Send Me A Sign!

Well, alrighty then!

I was about to give up on finding the start of the St. Cuthbert’s Way trail out of the town of Melrose, and jokingly said, “Lord, send me a sign.”

Guess what? You go down a short flight of cement steps and there’s another sign asking you to please scrape the mud off your boots rather than track it up the steps. And a metal boot-scraper provided. How wonderfully British!

Did I mention that the hill was a bit steep? This is roughly two-thirds of the way up the steps, before you get to the field trail, shooting down. My quads called me rude names.

It was a beautiful morning, about 55 degrees F with a light breeze. I was still warm by the time I reached a turn-around point. I had a set breakfast time, and didn’t want to go too far from Melrose. It was a great time to be out and about, with the birds starting to wake up but almost no traffic, aside from the gents checking on the cows and testing the moisture in the hay-meadow beside the trail. The hills across the valley have several view-points on them. The Eildon Hills have a very long history of human presence, as I mentioned on Monday. The hills themselves are laccoliths, igneous intrusions that pushed up into the Old Red Sandstone. They date to 352 million years ago, and include one small volcanic remnant. So of course I was going to climb them.

St. Cuthbert was a holy figure in the mid-600s in Scotland and Northumberland. He is associated with Lindesfarne, and was the abbot of Melrose for a while. He had a reputation for wise counsel and healing, and so was called to help the kings of Northumberland (Durham and surrounding areas, occasionally from Edinburgh as far south as York). He is often shown with otters. St. Cuthbert’s Way is a hiking/walking path from Melrose to Lindesfarne, including Dryburgh. The entire route is 62 miles, but parts are marked for local hiking. Like the path over the Eildon Hills.

Modern St. Cuthbert banner at his shrine in Durham Cathedral. The Vikings led to his being relocated.
St. Cuthbert and his otters. Creative Commons fair use. Original source:

Borders Abbeys II: The Scottish Side Part 1

You will note that there are no “inside the walls” photos here. In 2020 and 2021, Historic Environment Scotland closed everything down and stopped maintenance out of what I will call an excess of caution*. As a result, only major tourist attractions like Sterling Castle and Edinburgh Castle are fully open. This was and is a sore topic with some Scots, as you might imagine. The people I met and spoke with at the properties were very good, and tried very hard, so any blame for the results of neglect is on the management, not the folks on the ground.

So, once we crossed the border (where a piper in full regalia waited in the parking lot to serenade anyone who pulled in for photos), we went to Jedburgh, then Melrose, Kelso, and Dryburgh. Melrose was Cistercian, while Dryburgh was Premonstratian (Norbertine is another name,) Jedburgh belonged to the Augustinians, and Kelso was Tironensian.

Jedburgh is closest to the border, then and now. Founded in 1138 by King David I, it nestles in a valley, and was probably built on top of an older, “Columban” or Irish-inspired church and monastery that perhaps dated to the 600s, but is confirmed to have been present starting in the 700s. Trying to find that, under all the centuries of additions and enlargements, is fraught, to put it mildly. “Let’s dig until we find something that might not even be there!” doesn’t go over well with preservation agencies or grant giving groups.

Jedburgh from the north side.

The Augustinians were not separated from the world the way the Cistercians and certain other orders were, so the monastery is in the city of Jedburgh, on the Jed Water. Thus were was always communication and ministry by the Augustinians to the town, as well as cloistered prayer and works. However, it was not a center of teaching, unlike some monestaries. Jedburgh, like the other border abbeys on both sides of the border, had been sacked, looted, burned, and otherwise pestered several times between the founding and 1560. Edward I [boo, hiss] stripped the roof of lead, and both the Scots and English attacked in the 1300s and 1400s. Alexander III was married here in 1285, and various stories claim that ghostly figures appeared to warn of his death. He died a year or so later, setting off the chain of events that led to the Scottish War of Independence. The population of the monastery faded with the 1500s until, but the Reformation, only a handful of monks remained. After the last ones were pensioned off, the church became a parish church, then fell into decay and ruin.

Jedburgh in 1510. The cemetery in the first shot is on the “empty” side of the complex in the model.

The stream under the photographer’s feet provided water and power and sewage disposal for the abbey. And powered a mill, among other things.

Romanesque start, Gothic finish. Under all this is probably an even older Celtic monastery, but no one wants to try to dig to find it.

Then we went north to Melrose. Melrose too started from older roots, although it is not on top of them. St. Aiden’s original house, founded in the 630s or 640s (sources vary), was on a bend in the river, literally on the bend, inside of it, for both safety and privacy. The monks wanted to get away from it all. St. Cuthbert, now in Durham Cathedral, is probably the most famous saint associated with Melrose, and the abbey is the official start point for St. Cuthbert’s Way (more about that on Wednesday). When David I gave the Cistercians land in 1136, he wanted access, and so the new monastery was built away from the river. If you go past the abbey complex a little ways, away from town, you reach the river.

Monks from Riveaulx formed the first brothers at Melrose. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as were most Cisterian houses. The abbey prospered from wool and other industries, until the border wars came. Edward I was here, too, in 1300 and 1307, Edward II paid a visit, and Richard II and Henry VIII were also a bit rough on the neighborhood. This is before the Reformation brought an end to the Catholic institutions in Scotland. The remains of the great church you see today are from the rebuilding following another English visit in 1385. Wool and pilgrimages were the sources of Melrose’s wealth, along with patronage by the kings and nobility. The Black Death, wars with the English, and other things slowly sapped the vitality of the house, until the last monk died in 1590. The church became a parish church, and slowly crumbled. The outbuildings and cloisters were dismantled for materials, or kept as private (or crown) estates.

Melrose. Note tourist for scale.

Among the notables buried at Merose are Robert the Bruce (his head), and Alexander II. Unlike Fountains and Riveaulx, nothing remains of the cloister aside from fragments and archaeological finds, all of which are kept in a nice small museum across the road from the main abbey. St. Waltheof, the second abbot, is remembered in the museum with some artifacts and discussions about the role of the abbots and Scottish politics. If you see a lot of roses carved in the stones of the abbey and the fragments of the cloister, that’s the Cistercian rose, a symbol of the order, and of the Virgin.

More Melrose on a slightly damp day.
Gothic (in both senses) ruin, anyone? There’s a reason Sir Walter Scott set a novel here.

Walter Scott also gets credit for this structure and all the other border abbeys still being with us. He set part of a novel here, and in Dryburgh, and popularized them. Poets rhapsodized about the crumbling places of faith. The Victorian passion for Romantic ruins helped, and eventually the abbeys were preserved. However, and I will refrain from leaping on my soapbox, they are also all surrounded by fences, as are many Historic Environment Scotland properties, because all repairs and grounds-keeping stopped in 2020 and 2021. Everything was left untouched, and unfortunately, this led to damage and structural problems in some locations. All of the properties are being surveyed and restoration/repairs are being planned. Only at Dryburgh did we see work in progress, but that could be a quirk of timing rather than people being stretched too thin.

Memento Mori
Melrose in context. The drain was part of the medieval water system, with older Roman things scattered about. The Eildon Hills in the background were sacred to the Britons and has a huge hill fort on it. The Romans built Trimonteum (three mountains) there as well.

Two mornings later, I hiked a third of the St. Cuthbert Way up the slope of the Eildon Hills. The trail is . . . steep.

Come by the Hills to the Land Where Legends Remain . . . (Actually, I kept thinking about the line “On Cadfen’s way where the kestrels call . . .” from The Grey King by Susan Cooper. And panting. And about how much my legs hurt. And how out of shape I am . . .)
0600, ninety minutes after sunrise. Ah, midsummer at the northern latitudes!

*What others call it I will not quote on a family blog, but some very colorful dialect terms have been added to my vocabulary.

Waiting for the First Drops

It takes rain to make rain. The most frustrating part of living in a drought may well be the nightly weather forecast, when the weather dude (or dudette) says, “All the ingredients for a good rain are here, but until we get some moisture, the system has nothing to work with.” And so you open the morning paper to see that the area a hundred miles east of you got pounded with flooding rain, ping-pong-ball-hail, and farmers are griping because it’s too wet to harvest the winter wheat. Meanwhile dust is dancing on the morning wind and the cracks in the ground of your yard are so deep that you’re pretty sure if you look carefully, you can see a group of people in a park practicing tai chi.

Without moisture in the ground, there’s nothing to evaporate and fuel the storms that bring more rain. All the air does is bake, sucking more water out of the plants and soil. It takes rain to make rain. Only after something pumps starter moisture into the area, be it the remains of a hurricane in the Gulf or the Pacific, or something sucking southeasterly winds up into the Plains with dew points in the 50s F, can the rainmaking weather systems produce rain.

Writing and culture seem to be a lot like waiting for rain. It takes someone saying “Hey, I’m tired of elegantly written, beautiful books without plots. I want characters that stand up and defend what they believe in. I’m tired of reading 400 pages of ‘brilliant prose’ about a woman having existential angst about her midlife crises over the course of a day of shopping.” And someone else chimes in, “Yeah. Me too. I want some big damn heroes.” And a writer ventures out into the waters, publishing a little electronic book and saying, “Hi. You might like this.” Or “Dear Big Publisher, sod off. I’m writing what I want to read and if other people buy it, great.”

One story becomes two, becomes three, becomes the first faint gust of moist wind. Other proto-authors see the new books, or encounter a reprinted swashbuckling classic, and say, “Hey! I’ve got one of those in my drawer.” Or they decide to venture out into the publishing waters with their own tale of adventure. (Captain Blood in space, anyone?) The damp gust becomes a stronger wind, bringing inspiration and ideas and motivation with it. And then the rain begins, or a wave. Let’s call it “human wave,” a storm of books about people of all colors and flavors, human and otherwise, fighting for truth, beauty, justice, and the right to be left alone. Or to win the hand of their true love. Or to defeat the evil wizard. Or just to survive on a hostile planet.  And so the rain falls, bringing more rain, and refreshing readers thirsty for well-told tales and pretty-much happy endings.

You don’t need a hurricane to bring rain, just a steady, water rich wind.




Stock-Car Friday Nights

And sprint cars, but the senior pilot raced stock cars, and so at least once a month during the season most of the rest of us went to the races to watch and cheer him on. Another pilot had been a regional and state tractor pull champ, and so I went to tractor pulls with his family.

I hadn’t thought about it in years, until reading Brigid’s magnificent essay about NASCAR races. She has a gift of words I’ll never match. I stayed up in the stands, because this was down and dirty, small town, dirt-track racing. I didn’t have safety gear, and all the “pit crews” knew each other, and would have noticed a spare. Plus I wasn’t all that interested in being in the dirt. The senior pilot placed in the money every few weeks, but wasn’t one of the big names, for local and regional versions of big names.

So, on Friday nights, I drove twenty or so miles north to the dirt track. Different community groups rotated selling burgers, fries, “taverns” (Sloppy Joes), bratwurst, nachos, cold drinks, and the usual sorts of food you’d expect. There was also beer, of course. I usually stuck with soda, in part because the prevailing wind blew the dust into the stands and gritty nachos are not my thing. And while the Midwest is a wonderful place, the local interpretation of Tex-Mex left a lot to be desired (about as hot as a bell pepper.) So I’d find a place in the stands, tuck in my ear-plugs, and get as comfortable as you could.

The race always started with an invocation for safety and clean races, then the National Anthem. The races were roughly in order of horsepower, with three qualifying races for each class. That usually meant six stock-car races, then the sprint cars got their turn, then the stock car and sprint car finals. I liked the stock-car heats better. One, they looked more like car-cars, two, they didn’t sound as obnoxious, and three, the driving was better (in my opinion). The drivers ranged in age from 18 to mid-50s, and age and treachery did on occasion have an advantage over youth and bravado. Everyone had a favorite, usually an employer or family member, and cheering and booing were loud and heart-felt. Interestingly, the language rarely got past PG-13, probably because of the large number of kids in the crowd.

It took a few weeks of watching before I sorted out what to watch for, and when to get ready to duck. Duck? Like the night a car broke an axle, and the tire assembly went out of the track and into the parking area, taking out the track ref’s windshield in the process. My boss was peeved because the other car’s crew and driver didn’t pay enough attention to stop the car early. The track ref was peeved for a very visible reason: the large black tire in his front seat. I don’t think that car came back that season. Usually it was bits of fender, the occasional thrown helmet when a fight broke out (twice. Young guys, or young pit crews.) There was a safety screen, of course, but when everyone around you ducks, you duck.

I enjoyed the tractor pulls more, because you can root for each machine, and there’s more variety. These were supposed to be unmodified farm tractors. Or should I say, “unmodified” farm tractors, because you know very well that where there’s a will, there’s a creative way to sneak something in or out. The pilot who pulled had his carburetors done by a guy in a different city, who made his customers swear never to break the seal on the carb to see what had been done. Jay didn’t, and Jay had an attic full of trophies. He also used a small John Deere that most people didn’t realize had been built for rice farming, with a lot of torque for the size of the machine.

Each tractor backs up to a weight sled. The safety people confirm everything, and the tractor starts forward. As they roll, the weight also moves on the sled, making the tractor work harder. The tractor in each weight/horsepower class that drags the most weight the farthest without breaking anything wins.

One night someone showed up with a pretty new John Deere. He did well in the early rounds, so they loaded the beast to the max and off he went, and off, and off, and off the course and into the cornfield! Yeah, he won his class. Everyone was laughing. Another night, someone broke down, and a larger farm tractor towed him off. “That, folks is a real tractor pull right there!” the announcer called, and got a lot of boos and cat-calls in reply. Kids ran around all over, people had red or green* tee-shirts, and it was a lot less formal than the stock-car races.

I was fortunate, and aside from one dramatic break-down, there were no accidents like the steam-powered beast that blew the boiler and hurt a number of people. The really highly modified or high-horsepower pulling tractors have chains and steel cages around the engines, so when they blow, they don’t endanger people.

Small town summer nights, machines, and men (and women). People are going to compete, and have fun, and laugh, and insult each other, and flirt, and brag or mope. The chief pilot quietly sold avgas to racers he knew, and the rest of us marked out calendars so we’d know when he and the tractor-puller would be off the duty roster. Hot nights, dirt in the air, loud engines, kids cheering, bad car and cow jokes over the PA . . . That’s what I remember.

*John Deere (green) or International Harvester (red). A few folks in orange for Allis-Chalmers, and then there was the guy who had a Minneapolis-Moline. Old school.

Drought Drags In

Originally Published in January 2018, it is, alas timely. A persistent ridge of high pressure is baking the usual places, including me.

Ninety-eight days without measurable precipitation, with no rain or snow in the foreseeable future. Drought is creeping back into the High Plains, and everyone is wary, watching the dry grass, watching the sky, waiting for something and praying for rain or wet snow. The grasses are brown, the normal winter color. But the ground is starting to dry, and to blow.

Continue reading