Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Memorial Testament to a Fellow Forager - Gisela - Who Set an Ageless Example as to What Matters

Here's my tribute to an older girl buddy as well as mentor, my friend Gisela Schlueter Terrell who stunned me by dying late this spring, just a few weeks after a last e-mail passed between us. She was a librarian in the first ten years of our acquaintance, at Butler University's Irwin Library in Indianapolis, where a two-year grant had funded the opening of a Rare Books and Special Collections department in what must have been 1979. Gisela had come from the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington, an hour or so's drive to the south, to start up Butler library's Rare Book room; meanwhile I was employed as a typist and file clerk in the cataloguing department. Apparently she saw some quality or other in me that indicated I needed rescue, as Gisela was a great rescuer where there was any possibility of a mutual benefit, and it must have had to do with a Midwestern American insularity and colorless propriety that pervaded that bright, white library, designed with row upon row of closely set arched windows, the design of a world-famous Seattle-born architect, Minoru Yamasaki, in 1963.

The Rare Book room in Gisela's time was up at the top floor of the building and was not a popular place, long and lavish as it was with ranks and ranks of stacks, full of ancient volumes and boxed documents behind a locking wooden door, and so made a special refuge for a naive and impractical girl aged nineteen, full of the sight of northern horizons and romance, whatever romance happened into view, and the big German-born librarian, with long black ponytails and teasing blue eyes, and the brown skin coloration of somebodies from very far away and far back into time. I would talk of my obsessions and fears, all very abstract, and she would listen, listen and sympathize or starkly critique me in that dark European voice full of inflections and frequent snorted chuckles. Sometimes she could be swiftly harsh in her opinions, yet she was unfailingly polite, and was as much given to scoffing, at me or whoever was the subject, as she was to well-founded praise. Her judgment came of wide experience, since she had been a classroom teacher in Germany, a gymnastics instructor as well as an orchestra violist and music teacher, and later, in America, had been involved in 1960s political actions. She had two or more PhD degrees and was mentally quick in her reasoning and analysis while being gifted with strong intuition, which made her an decisive critic as well as a giver of apt suggestions where art, writing, cooking, plant propagation or a love or friendship was under discussion.

She had a little house with a quince tree, a hammock between two other trees, and gardens with beans and rhubarb, root vegetables and cucumbers, strawberries and I remember not what else. Off in the hardwood forest of surrounding Owen County, Indiana grew pawpaw trees and the occasional persimmon, black gum and sycamore, eastern cottonwood, black walnuts, oaks and maples and tulip trees. Ginseng and golden-seal were two scarce herbs growing wild there, which Gisela would harvest sparingly for herbal use and sell at local marketplaces where they would be shipped off to end-users in Asia. At week-ends down at her house I tasted a green persimmon (so bitter you could taste it with unheard-of taste buds on your teeth) and breakfasted on guinea-fowl and duck eggs (produce of a neighboring small farm,) shared in the task of making butter with a vintage glass butter churn that came with wooden paddles in the mechanism, assisted in the hourly pressing of wild honey out of a section of tree trunk placed on the hearth to loosen the honeycomb for a few December days, and later heard and saw the only Kentucky warbler I have ever encountered, a few steps away down the county road she lived alongside.

The house, including its few acres of backwoods, was something she had just managed to buy out of earnings from her employment at the IU Lilly library half an hour's drive away. Built by a preceding landowner, this house had only two rooms with a back bathroom, and had a root cellar which, if I remember correctly, Gisela had hand-dug under a few square feet of the main room, beneath a trap door. A rear sun porch with translucent green vinyl siding and roof was also her own addition. Cats lived out on the front porch, which was open sided, but were not allowed indoors; in later years domestic geese gained residency of the front yard and gardens, which they patrolled with the most reliable and loudest of vigilance. In June of 1980 as a guest for my first time I spent the night in the hammock, hearing no end of whippoorwill cries from the forest floor in each direction. Sultry heat, sung by cicadas with that pulsating intro and ebbing buzz that speaks of Indiana or Iowa or equivalent latitudes, a song still so far as I know not yet heard in Minnesota where by now I've lived most of my life, made up the soundstage of those summer or early-fall days. It was borne from amid the forest's leaves, crisp and darkly green, as large as adult shoe-soles, encircling the yard on three sides, for Gisela had left the the woods alone where ground for pathways or gardens had not needed claiming.

Some time after I was gone away to study and live in the north, first to London, Ontario and following that to Minnesota, Gisela met, fell in ecstatic love with and married the son of a neighbor, Clyde Terrell, a pond-builder with carpentry skills and other back-country know-how who owned a bulldozer and wanted release from an unhappy marriage. Gisela, who had known marriage, desertion and widowhood,  destitution and hunger as well as some of the personal dangers that can confront young women who are obviously on their own, helped him with the process of getting a divorce, since each of the new couple had independently longed to move west to the mountains. They married and lived for a few years in Owen County together, then in the early 1990s left to explore Wyoming and Montana for a homestead. They found land they could buy within the Bighorn Range, in Sheridan County, Wyoming, in the village of Story, where they established a cabin together and kept horses during what must have been about eleven exhilarating though financially challenging years. With the approach of 2005 Clyde, nearing the age of 70, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Gisela, as she told me last year, was 'under no illusions' as she cared for him, driving him to and from Denver for treatments, till his death on Labor Day week-end of that year.

So in this dignified aftermath of a dream pursued, met and lived, and heartbreak, and many mountain afternoons spent alone or with Clyde following trails, at trout streams and in dells below the sheerest of peaks, snow-cooled and re-baked by desert heat, and following many orchestral concerts in which Gisela played the viola for weddings or reunions, and rehearsals in donated space or lessons given in her living room, I met my old friend again after twenty-one years of irregular contact just by phone, letter or email. This was on the third of June, 2012, as I followed her printed directions off northbound I-90, past Buffalo, nearing but not yet to Sheridan.

The log house where I found her was strange but familiar, a transformation of the old clapboard shack in Indiana, having the same dark interior, jovial signs posted in bathroom or kitchen, dried herbs hanging up, and floor to ceiling book cases. Now, minimized in their midst, was also a computer. In the yard stood ponderosa pines and, out back, much aspen and narrowleaf cottonwood.

We spent most of one week together, sharing evening or midday dinners that included heart of deer and bear meat pot roast (friends and neighbors had traded or given her the wild game, though she shot and dressed a deer per year on her own land for the venison as Clyde had taught her how to do) and taking car trips into the highest elevations of the Bighorn Range, seeing moose and marmot, summer snowpack, mesas, torrents within red canyons and sagebrush flatlands. All alone at the top of a Douglas fir one day I heard the song of an Audubon's warbler, the western version of our yellow-rumped warbler found east of the prairies, impossibly wistful and ringing between rock heights like a best-ever utterance of forlorn hopes.

Once as we hiked a road together I noted that Gisela, who had formerly exceeded my own height by a couple of inches but now, with the onset of a hunch in her shoulders, stood a tad shorter than me, had a stride that made me hurry my fastest to keep up--even though she was nearly seventy years of age to my fifty-two and a smoker who smoked little brown cigars for as long as I knew her. The gardens, the old sheepdog Mya and just the attractions of mountain slopes not very far in the distance, a backdrop to all errands made by car, kept her constantly stepping, striding, stooping, hauling, mixing, toting, bowing, tuning, summoning, often braving spasms of arthritis. She had grown stringy, stooped with constant busyness, on a diet centered around lean meat and her own fruit and vegetables. Her ways were the ways of our ancestors.

In my mind she's a persistent survivor, to the extent that I wonder when if ever I'll accept her as a real person truly dead. From most of what she ever said to me I think she believed she'd live to an ancient age, and so, had she lost the desire and outlook to do so, especially as a veteran tobacco user? At this stage I expect never to learn how she died, if it was sudden or long premeditated, attended by someone or in solitude, eminently influenced by Clyde's death at the same age of 70 years or coincidental with that.

A book I'm currently enjoying, Old Border Road by Susan Froderberg, Little, Brown and Company ©2010, has in its middle the quotable lines: "And do not the dead surely lay their claim? Perhaps more so than the living....Do as commanded or elsewise live in fear. Girl, I tell you this--death is but one less day to be afraid." And so, with the certain sense that the dead do live on inside those of us who knew them best or at least for a really long time, I rest and act upon the discernments and urgings of Gisela--that life is not easy, that it goes back on you just when you're lifted up by your fortunes, that mullein is safely gathered alongside highways and railway rights of way with today's pollution-control technology for engines, that on meeting a cougar in open country one must simply stand one's ground and make oneself look as big as possible.

I remember her AMC Gremlin down in Indiana, its rusting body held together by flowers and caterpillars, raindrops and other ornamentation painted up and down it in different colors of enamel, and the Ford Fiesta that succeeded it. I remember the days she didn't come in to the library due to car trouble, or the summer day she had to stop at every creek between Indianapolis and the town of Spencer to re-fill the radiator. I remember the day we came upon car thieves dismantling vehicles beside a shallow pond, and she made me stand aside while she passed them at close range to be sure they saw that she saw. (Later, they murdered her young dog Troll with a shotgun blast at close range, and were subsequently rounded up and flushed out of Owen County for good by outraged rural neighbors who had come with their own ultimatum on hearing of what had happened.)

She was a person as large as all humanity, whose code of ethics and acceptance of other traditions covered life-ways immeasurably old, modern American, native American, civilized and pre-civilized European or Eurasian--that is my best assessment of Gisela. But by now she's no longer in a position to argue with me...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Sudden Obituary (a bit Late) and the Legacy in Art and Mountain Panorama

A friend of mine going back thirty-three years died, I just learned over the past week-end by accident, a year to the date that we last saw each other. Before that week in early June 2012 it had been twenty-one years since we last visited, other than over the phone. She lived in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, and was a marvelous teacher, gardener and player of stringed instruments. A music teacher and ex-librarian, she was my mentor, without ever admitting to the decided value of the hugely varied lessons she imparted to me. I'm so far left wondering what could have happened, accident or illness, to have felled this staunch person at an age, 70, that seemed too soon.

Last summer, drawing on my old youthful joy in spending time in the deep countryside with her (our acquaintance goes back to those years in an Indiana significantly more rural than it is today) I drove from Duluth out to Rapid City, South Dakota in one long day full of lofty clouds and sun, touring in the car a ways around the Oahe Reservoir outside the city of Pierre as dusk settled. Next day it was on, via the Theodore Roosevelt National Grassland, to Wyoming in that area between Buffalo and Sheridan, where immediately the same day I began to get acquainted with such birds of the mountainsides as red-naped sapsucker and the calliope hummingbird. The watercolor kit had ridden with me in the car and a choice of hound's tongue or gypsy flower (per my friend it bore the local folk name of beggar's fleas) came quickly for a several-days' painting project.

The hound's tongue is a weed of pastures rather than a native North American plant, yet in its odd fuzziness and olive drab tone, its florets the meaty pink of a dog's dripping tongue, it seems as habituated into the nearby slopes of grass as my friend, a native of Germany, was into the range land and mountains of the American West. I found a patch of ground with both sun and shade to sit within, where a specimen of hound's tongue or Cynoglossum officinale made itself available, and spent four to five days finishing the details mainly in watercolor and gouache. The card front in its photo is shown here, with a link to where it's for sale:

When I think about that gypsy flower in blossom alongside a sparkling rill beneath a line of cottonwood trees, with magpies' prattle over in the sun's direction and from behind me the flattened little death-knell sound, like a screech owl without the tremolo, that later proved to be the western wood pewee, I think about our car excursions up to the passes in the Bighorns near the Montana state line, where snowbanks enclosed the two paved lanes on either side. My friend, putting in her gardens for the year's food crop, never-the-less took afternoons off to drive me with her to such places as Shell Falls and Crazy Woman Canyon; we saw miles and miles of the changing topography that makes up Wyoming including sub-alpine slopes with whitebark pines, and way below them the red rock chasms, sagebrush deserts and, partway up again in elevation, meadows dampened by snow-fed springs, a-flit with mountain bluebirds the greenish blue of a twilit sky.

I remember her explanations of the sights around us: her elderly Australian sheep dog with the bald and hanging teats and one crossed eye, formerly the property of some unknown sheep herder who had obviously used her as a breeding machine and almost as likely had kicked her at least once in the face somewhere bordering on the eye socket. This dog had entered into a new life at the grand age of ten, a canine career that must have felt to her like a paradise, as one old lady rescued and given to another for purposes of mere gentle companionship with guardianship as a possible fringe benefit.

There was also the story that came with the glimpses up in the mountains of runaway truck lanes: of the young transport driver who fell asleep somewhere high above Sheridan or Buffalo, realized on waking that he'd lost his chance to use the emergency lane and knew he was fated to crash into the town below the heights where he'd found himself. He dialed 911 and had the local sheriffs clear the whole route ahead of him and provided his speed and location. As predicted, with the main drag fully emptied of cars and trucks, he hurtled into town on schedule, missed a diagonal bend and crashed to his death into a building emptied of people, the walls and roof collapsing around him. The local folk took up a collection for his widow and tiny children.

There was the day I spent mostly alone, creeping along the Penrose hiking trail, further teaching myself the local flora including the clematis called sugar bowls and finding my first Lazuli bunting in song much like the indigo bunting of the Midwest, till my friend dialed my cell phone to check that I still answered and had outlasted any cougars or armed strangers or precipices. One night we splurged like big hungry girls with the metabolism of youth, eating three platefuls apiece of Asian buffet meat and vegetables. In her home I ate roast bear and heart of venison for my first time. I learned of the healing properties of mullein tea for old bronchial mucous, and vowed I'd forage my own back in Minnesota, which I have now done.

So now, more than a year later, with the western expanses of America a beacon at my workaday back each day I make my living in the north-central U.S., I have the gypsy flower art image to help remind me of this legacy in the person of a great critic, teacher and humanitarian, who had once led or misled me into thinking she was a gypsy of the Romany strain, a survivor of Hitler's pogroms and death camps. The gypsy flower might, among other things, stand for the drifter and re-colonizer in all of us.

When I envision the future with its dire impending constraints like unaffordable car travel and withering summer droughts taking place between floods and consequent washouts of roads taken for granted now, I wonder if these places forgotten by human enterprise, little bits of ground probably smaller than the tracts we hold sacred now, will still exist and be visitable by ordinary folk who yearn over them. I tend to think that they will, if at great expense in money and personal safety, somehow--maybe by bus or bicycle...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Feeling like a Queen of the Prairie

I am celebrating the great, unexpected good fortune of being able to live in the country again, as I did through childhood, at the urging of good friends an hour from Duluth--and celebrating the concept of summer everlasting in our minds, summer with its weird discoveries or epiphanies from the natural world. Maybe half a mile down the road from my new shared home is this stand, just below the road bank, of a native American prairie plant belonging within the giant rose family, called queen-of-the-prairie. It will be in a watercolor which will have to proceed at its own pace.

While we in our fifties or coming into our sixties feel or see, at moments, our aging surface layers or inner parts, a wild and lesser-known plant like this one, coming into its prime just off our shoulder speaks to us of rejuvenation, whether it's individual or community. When I first saw this plant while passing in a fast walk meant to burn fat I knew it by name immediately, though I'd never seen it live before, only in pictures in several wildflower manuals. Some plants and animals are like that, so showy or just plain distinctive that someone else's photos instill a lasting memory of the look matched with the name.

Queen-of-the-prairie is like a pink floss or a foam as the eye sees it, on top of the pale orangey green stalk. Originating, apparently, in the northern and central prairies of the United States where there's wet soil, the plant has found its way eastward into New England by way of gardening and escapes from gardens. Down in the grasses below the inflorescence are the leaves, colonial, sharply veined and toothed, deeply lobed and golden-green. What a privilege, to share habitat with things like this that nobody contrived or apparently planted, it just came into being by natural process through thousands of years and holds out, where nobody may for the longest time have grazed livestock or mown hay, much less laid pavement.

Watch for the 2013 watercolor, which continues my line of native North American plant note cards. I'd halfway like to have it done right now, right here to advertise. But every time I go to work at one of these, now from a folding chair due to the risk of deer ticks, I have to consciously tell myself that the project can't be hurried or everything will suffer. Evolution takes eons to bring us the life form we know, and artwork meant for its glorification takes as long as the artist's whole life support system requires, as long as the inevitable mistakes take to be found and improved upon, as long as the utmost patience will bear.

I am so full of gratitude, when I stop to think, of all that's been possible and may yet be possible in my time.