“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about – whenever the wind blows.”
We love to complain about the shocking, simply shocking turns of our fickle spring weather. Not just here in Wyoming, of course. Americans as a whole find the outlier climes of our natural world as disquieting at best and monstrous at worst. Coastal hurricanes in September, Midwest tornadoes in April, western mountain snowfall in May–these disturb us, scare us, and even horrify us, based upon the ferocity of their whirling winds and wrath and the destruction they can wreak upon us. We marvel at it, and talk and talk and talk about it, and shake our heads. “It’s not right,” we say.
What these storms don’t usually do is convict us of our willful pigheadedness of thinking weather to be some sort of predictable, and thus peaceable, component of our physical life. If the skies and sunlight and seasons are normal–that is, neat and tidy and comfortable–we wear them with a familiar and faintly condescending kind of neglect, a habitual ignoring in which we can safely box them in, quite like an ordinary old hat, and set them aside, like forgettable scenery to the more important parts of our lives. I’m reminded of any number of those lovely, neat, colorful children’s books about the seasons. There’s no way, really, to allow for the true wide-ranging orthodoxies of our weather patterns in a few pages of illustrations directed to the youngest among us (or if there is, I haven’t discovered such a book or books yet). But such texts invariably shape how we expect, and even emotionally demand, our seasons to be, even when we know they cannot be so cleanly understood.
I love books like these precisely because they present a cohesive and predictable view of the elements. They are gloriously comfortable, like homemade macaroni and cheese. But they play into our desire for a safe and easy world. For when spring, say, turns fickle, and mild temperatures plunge as ominously heavy grey clouds amass above us, the soft flakes that fall upon our upturned, wondering faces break our smug certainties. We are left cold, startled and shaken by the unexpected. No matter how gently the white powder caresses the newly-budded trees, we know, deep in our bones, just how little we comprehend the mysteries and depth of our creation, just how small and vulnerable we are under the vast expanse.
Or at least we should. Last week here, we watched as our freshly green locale was covered once again by wet, thick snow. For three days, the sun hid, the cold persisted, and frosted crystals swirled and stuck. My irritability over the snow, the dragging out of newly washed and stored snow pants and gloves, my shivering body which had grown used to sunny, pleasant breezes, all reminded me how I had fallen, once again, into thinking the outdoors was somehow a companionable canvas of my personal expectations. May means flowers, and short-sleeves, and bare feet soaking in the rays of a long-absent warmth, my childlike thinking went. The snow shattered my illusions.
And lest I sound bitter, let me acknowledge that such moments in time and in life are invaluable, precisely because they can yank us from the self-contented complacency that so often dulls our thoughts and senses. “You are not in control,” the swishing, soft snowflakes whisper. Unlike their work on Alice, they do not lull us into sleep. Instead, they hammer us again to turn back, to remember what will always be true. “You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm,” said an indignant Job. “For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all living.”
Who can Job be speaking to? Who controls the natural world? We all know, surely. This is both the source and the answer to our deepest fears when the skies darken.
God replies that such disquiet in the air and on our skin, both Job’s and ours, is truly from His hand. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? … From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?” Such power and threat are terrifying, if not for the One Man who like His Father commands the seasons, saying “Peace! Be still!” He has not left us alone. And the storms are not heretics. They rage an impotent orthodoxy of dying brokenness, and they portend the Day when they shall finally cease at the sound of that one perfect Voice breaking them forever.
I can’t pretend that from this point onward I will happily embrace the untidy, unruly, and unfathomable power of storms. But I can accept them as the signs they are, of time inching slowly toward its glorious, terrible end. That is a truth both formidable and hopeful. For then, like snow in May, we will one day dress in garments of white in a green and golden land, and dance.
Nebraska has been hit hard recently with epic flooding, and the waters aren’t just affecting roads, homes, and lives. More than one-third of the costs–about $3 billion dollars, officials estimate— from the 2019 disaster are to agriculture. That financial burden will not help rural counties largely dependent upon farming. They already face population decline, a decline that is not likely to reverse anytime soon.
We have witnessed the devastation to the land and to local communities in the last few days, as we’ve visited friends in the northwest Panhandle and met up with family in Grand Island, in south central Nebraska. Endless miles of prairie, scores of wandering cattle, the ravages of angry waters, and many, many abandoned homes and farms–those left behind long before the floods arrived–dot the countryside from Sioux to Hall counties. Driving through these desolate areas, under a continuous gray sky, made me sad. As a granddaughter of farmers, I appreciate the desire to make something of the land that lasts, a legacy that won’t be forgotten. So many people and so much history has happened here, and crumbling, weather-beaten structures slowly falling into the dirt embodies the kind of end none of us want to see for ourselves or our children.
But Nebraskans are historically resilient, and they’re also realistic. While they enjoy the fruits of their labors when they come, they also stoically accept the vicissitudes of time and success that inevitably ebb and flow. One of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, was an early twentieth century author famous for her pioneer depictions of the rugged state, and she understood the fleeting and fickle nature of farm life on the plains. As one of her stalwart heroines, Alexandra, put it in O Pioneers!:
The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it–for a little while.”
O Pioneers! (you can order it here) was first published in 1913, over one hundred years ago. Not much has changed, it seems.
So while this particular Cornhusker wilderness might seem like a lost cause in the eyes of much of the world, its value lies in its ongoing existence. People will be born here and die here; some will leave and some will stay. Corn will continue to be planted, sown, and detasseled here, and cattle will roam its rolling, grassy hills. Rain will fall and dry up while some souls tough out life on land that will remain as long as God deems it good. Those are the stories worth telling–the ones that reveal to us the hardship and poignant glory of this life’s struggles, in lonely, vivid, and real places.
This piece first appeared in the “Thoughts in the Heartland” column, which I wrote for several years, in the March 9, 2016 edition of the Pipestone County Star. I have edited it slightly here.
With the recent wave of warmer weather, northern prairie staters like Minnesotans can begin to think of outdoor pursuits with a little less affectation of duty and perhaps, even, a little hope. Rapidly melting snow piles, the reappearance of grass (and a meager but valiant green at that), and sunshine that actually warms the skin all make these first days of spring days to be—dare I say it?— celebrated rather than merely observed.
In the meantime, though, we will hide our budding optimism about the change of seasons with typical western aplomb: that mix of a careful acknowledgment of good things and simultaneous grumping about all the mess that comes with it. For spring, as we all know, is both glorious and a big, fat mud puddle.
I was reminded of this recently when my kids spent some time outside. I was delighted that they could partake of the golden rays and the fresh air without the need for countless layers of waterproofed clothing that always end up soaked anyway. I was thrilled that my husband could get out their bicycles and wagon and toys that had been stowed away for the winter and that they could exercise their cabin-fevered muscles with vigor. But as Dr. Seuss might say, oh, the mess, mess, mess mess! The mucky shoes and boots, the cruddy pant hems, the crust, the grime, the sludge! My heart fainted a little at seeing these familiar marks, and streaks, and tracks, and residue of late winter.
It is a truth all parents know that small children can leave
evidence of their presence virtually anywhere, and when the fertile earth
cooperates with their heedless, hearty play, well, there’s just no stopping the
mess. I have found mud on trim, on walls, even the ceiling (don’t ask. Just
imagine how an impatient kid will try to kick off an extra muddy boot, and I’m
sure your imagination will fill in the details). After years of spring
springing right into the house along with the kids, I’m learning to be fairly
resilient about the unending grime even when the mud parade seems to find
corners in its route I didn’t think were possible (see above). Knowing that
this season is short-lived helps, as does my favorite escape: clean, fresh
bedsheets scented with lavender.
Perhaps like many of you, I have memories of playing among sheets hanging from clotheslines, my mother or grandmother (or both) with pins in their mouths and damp piles in their arms as I ran among the lines. Of course, we kids weren’t technically allowed to touch the laundry for obvious reasons, but we must have transgressed when the sheets were dry and less prone to catch the dust from our busy, dirty fingers. That’s when the wind would better catch the fabric anyway and blow them around us, like a parachute happily flapping in an energetic breeze.
Much of the appeal of the sheets lies in their lovely scent. Is there any better smell than freshly laundered cotton blowing in a strong spring breeze? If there is, it’s one that goes along with it: the cool, refreshing fragrance of lavender. For thousands of years, people have used the purple dried flowers in perfume and preservation, and yes, to place in clean laundry. Not only do they share their scent easily; they also ward off that perennial enemy of stored fabric—the moth. Some years ago, I received a lavender spray that I periodically use when I’m making up beds for guests, or for us when I’m feeling particularly extravagant. Such a soothing aroma! It’s a whiff of spring, and one notably without the season’s muddy residue. I feel relaxed just thinking about it.
After all, lavender receives its name from the Latin root “lavere,” which means to wash. It’s a fitting antidote to the grimy muck that spring necessitates, and even to the work that spring requires. Turning soil and preparing to plant is messy, and a good mess—even this fanatical mud-adverse homemaker can admit that. After all, food and fragrant plants must be cultivated. But all the more lovely is the clean-up after the sweaty and excellent outdoor efforts, like the promise of rest after hard work.
So as the Chinook winds approach, and the dirt stirs up, and the mud clings, and the earth awakens again, I will take a deep breath, savoring the promise of spring. I will rejoice, and pray, and give thanks. I will roll up my sleeves, grab my sponges, and scrub. And I will look forward to sleeping in lavender-scented sheets.
This year has brought record lows and snows to much of the continental United States. Here in Wyoming, we’ve gotten more snow than usual, and what we’ve learned in three winters here is that more snow means more skiing–cross-country skiing (XC) or Nordic skiing, to be precise. We’ve grown to love cross-country, which might seem trivial, in the face of all the mess going on in the world. But hang with me, and learn why loving XC improves our lives and broadens our world.
1.XC is a sport that began with a practical outdoor purpose–and its history combines ingenuity and courage.
Not many people lay claim to loving frosty weather for significant portions of the year, let alone finding fun ways to navigate mountains–and mountains, and mountains–of snow. Cross-country skiing is, in fact, one awesome invention beget precisely for humans otherwise torpid, shivering, and probably half-crazy from cabin fever. Basically, XC began as a way for one snow-bound guy to get to his neighbor’s house more easily. Later, it evolved into (what else?) a strategy for military maneuvering and eventually made its way into the sporting arena in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Originating in Norway–I know, you’re shocked–Nordic skiing is unsurprisingly dominated by Scandinavian athletes at Winter Olympic games. Think about it: if your great-grandfather had to go seven kilometers to his buddy Sven’s place, or find something fun to do in the white wilderness that lay in his backyard for eight months out of the year, you’d appreciate and probably master cross-country skiing, too! (Especially if your great-grandfather ended up marrying Sven’s sister. Which he probably did. Hey, a romantic motive for heading out into sub-freezing temperatures makes a lot of sense.)
Though it may seem a bit silly, we like that cross-country skiing has a history. It’s an activity that ties us to our forebears–hey, our last name is Olson!–and to people who knew exactly how to make do with long winters in frigid and avalanche-prone climes. Links to the past remind us that we aren’t the center of the universe or somehow better than our ancestors. Our technology-improved skis might be better than the retro wood ones of Sven and his immediate progeny, but I doubt our abilities to ski, or understand the intricacies of snowfall and weather, or how to navigate the unrecognizable outdoors are. Our forebears set the bar, and with the resources they had, they whittled it so they could perform controlled slides downhill at heart-stopping speeds. That’s chutzpah, and they’ve got our respect.
2. XC allows us to cherish our local environment–and in the winter, no less.
We still can’t believe that we live in Wyoming, for many reasons. One of the big ones is that we live just a fifteen minute drive from the world-class cross-country trails on Casper Mountain. It’s an easy, scenic drive well before we reach the Casper Nordic Club Lodge. Just yesterday, we spotted about a dozen wild turkeys hanging out in a copse at the base of the mountain right next to the road. A mule deer was standing with them, like they hang out all the time–which they probably do. We’ve also seen antelope on many occasions. On the trails themselves, we find rabbit and mule deer tracks, and sometimes the scat that tells us we just missed meeting our furry friends face-to-face. Witnessing wildlife in their home, in a place we also call home, makes us want to conserve and protect our mutual habitats.
And the views on the trails are breathtaking. I loved snow as a kid, and it never stuck around long in Ohio or Kentucky. The closest I got to consistently experiencing the magical sight and feel of whirling flakes deep in a forest happened during the Dance of the Snowflakes in productions of The Nutcracker I danced in. But when we ski, we glide through a winter wonderland every time. Sparkling, glittering, unbroken hills of white meeting a cerulean blue sky; evergreens towering and clustered, weighted with blankets of heavy white; silences so still we can hear clumps of softly falling snow on the mountain–we experience this every single time we head out on our skis. Many trails criss-cross the top of the mountain, and up there we can admire the prairie three thousand feet below us reaching to the horizon and the white caps of the distant Bighorn Mountains. With these kinds of viscerally moving views, can you blame us for becoming skiing regulars?
3. XC keeps us in shape–and in the winter, no less.
Many so-called winter sports take place mainly on indoor rinks and are not actually very lay-friendly. Take figure skating. It’s fantastic, if you’re a teenager with great knees, rock-solid tendons, and crazy dedication to mastering airborne spins. Curling is fun, but it won’t exactly raise your heart rate. But cross-country skiing? Few other sports combine upper body athleticism, core strength, and cardiovascular challenge quite like it–and it always takes place outdoors. It’s one of the best full-body workouts that we can get. It requires herringboning up hills and double-poling down, not to mention the constant muscle work required to maintain balance. As a decades-long study of cross-country skiers showed, while genetics can sure help us reach old age (thank you, great-grandfathers!), skiing is an excellent way to improve our chances of relishing our golden years (and cut down on our risks of heart disease and cancer).
But most anyone who’s tried cross-country skiing knows that it’s a simple concept but also just plain hard to actually do. In other words, it’s an activity most people would pursue, or even watch, like they would a root canal. “Cross-country skiing is the least glamorous, least pyrotechnic, least watchable of the major Olympic sports. … [It’s] where the elegant majesty of winter sports goes to die an excruciatingly drawn-out death,” writes Sam Anderson in this must-read love-hate essay to cross-country skiing. “So why would anyone do it?”
I know, I know–the skeptics among you are currently echoing the top entry in Urban Dictionary for cross-country skiing. Only “people who like the cold, hills and exercise induced asthma” go for this. “Some find it fun, but for most it closely resembles some form of personal hell.” Believe me, I get it. The physical exertion is no joke. For the last two winters my husband and I have ventured out with both patient and encouraging friends and formal instructors to try ourselves at what is distinctly not an armchair sport. XC can be exhausting and humbling, especially with all the falling down and getting back up–which all by itself is a challenge. (Imagine wearing long skinny poles on your feet on your rear on slippery snow. Now imagine getting up. Yeah, I’d laugh, too.) There have been times, particularly in long, grueling climbs, when I’ve wanted to lay down in the snow and just stay there.
And the cold can be brutal, too. I learned the hard way a few months ago that I have Raynaud’s Phenomenon–a circulatory problem where the ends of my fingers turn white and get icy when my body feels too cold. I actually got a mild form of frostbite, despite my two pairs of gloves and handwarmers, while Jon and I were skiing in sub-zero temperatures in late December (hey, the sun was shining and the wind wasn’t blowing! Cut me some slack). Skiing requires a modest attitude and cold-weather preparation–and a hefty amount of persistence (see below). And with that persistence comes the reward. Both Jon and I have said that after skiing season is over, we’re usually in the best shape of the year, if not our lives. That’s not a little accomplishment.
4. XC is an activity our entire family can enjoy.
Before you start believing that we are uber-athletes or that only crazy Wyomingites ski, let me remind you that our kids can ski. Our three-year-old started strapping on his little L.L. Bean boot-adjustable skis this winter (okay, we do it for him), and now our oldest three kids (seven, eight, and ten) get everything on and leave down the trails before we can get our own gear on. It turns out that having a low center of gravity and malleable ability to learn really helps kids master XC–especially when they don’t use poles, which is the best way to learn.
Their confidence comes in large part from two winters of Mangus League Ski lessons, hosted by the Casper Nordic Club. For six weeks on Sunday afternoons, kids as young as four all the way up to retired adults learn how to and improve at XC. The instructors range from teenagers to retirees. In fact, Vicki, one of my instructors last winter, told me how she started skiing in her 30s, and now she’s been doing it for thirty years. Dan, another instructor, has a prosthetic leg–and no, I’m not joking. He’s been skiing for decades. The fact is that there’s an entire range of difficulty in the sport, and that’s good both for beginners and for advanced skiers alike. We can stay near the lodge and ski the maze–a criss-crossing weave of easier groomed trails–for miles, or we can do the three-mile Bishop’s Loop. There are endless options for distance and difficulty. We can gradually take more difficult trails, or not. To be fair, our oldest kids already love to ski down Good Luck (appropriately named), a moderate to difficult hill from the top of the mountain down closer to the lodge. The hardest part now for them is getting up the hill!
And while it’s not easy, and we can’t do five or six mile workouts (yet), we can actually take the baby along, too. Ski trailers or pulks enable skiers to pull up to fifty pounds. Our little cupcake is barely twenty-five pounds soaking wet, and we have awesome friends who loaned us their trailer, so she gets to slide along with us. The last time we went, she was so warm and cozy by the end of our time that she actually fell asleep.
And can somebody say hot cocoa? We so enjoy sitting around together with steaming mugs of chocolate bliss, topped with swirls of real whipped cream, after we’ve all finished a good ski workout in the woods, faces pink and muscles burning. That sugar really perks us up after we’ve burned off thousands of calories. And marshmallows are awesome.
5. XC encourages us to persevere.
The last month or so has been challenging for me, personally. The frostbite diagnosis, and exhortations to not get my hands cold, effectively ended my chances to ski during January. (As an aside, do you know how hard it is to prevent cold hands when you use water, reach into the fridge or freezer, move wet laundry to the dryer, or any number or regular household tasks? I now have renewed respect for people with extra cold sensitivity in their hands.) And the New Year, with all the positive exhortations to start over with a blank slate, emphasized again to me that I am, physically, empty–I am not pregnant when we had expected last fall that I was. I was surprised to find myself grieving again early in 2019.
But skiing has been a gift this winter–an experience I enjoy immensely, with my husband and with my children, and with friends, and a reminder that silver linings always exist. Right after my molar pregnancy, our caring and optimistic seven-year-old daughter told me, “Well, at least you can go skiing, Mom.” If an adult had told me that, I probably would have slapped him. But my girl knew how much I loved the outdoors, and being out in the snow, and she had put together that pregnancy effectively ends Mom’s opportunities to ski. If we were expecting a baby now, I would not be skiing. And that would be okay. But since we are not, at least I can enjoy XC. And that’s something I cherish.
And there’s this, too. Remember Anderson’s question “So why would anyone do [XC]?” Here’s his loquacious answer (warning: some language).
“Because cross-country skiers are existential heroes in goggles and tights. Instead of offering us distraction — the glittery melodrama of figure skating or the quirky novelty of curling — cross-country skiers lean right into a bleak truth: We are stranded on a planet that is largely indifferent to us, a world that sets mountains in our path and drops iceballs from 50,000 feet and tortures our skin with hostile air. There is no escaping it; the only noble choice is to strap on a helmet and slog right in. Cross-country skiing expresses something deep about the human condition: the absolute, nonnegotiable necessity of the grind. The purity and sanctity of the goddamn slog.”
We’re not existential heroes–that’s kind of funny, actually. We’re regular people who have tried something new and enjoy it. But there’s no doubt cross-country skiing embodies the kind of discipline and self-control that encourages us to remain faithful under hardship. To paraphrase St. Paul, we do not ski as those skiing aimlessly, for our ultimate hope lies in an imperishable prize. It would be hilariously tragic if, say, by skiing God deemed us righteous. What kind of a God would judge us by our works–even by our XC skills? Instead, we know that
[Since] we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Personally, it’s been really fulfilling for us to learn how to ski–to not only stay upright consistently, but to be humbled and challenged, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When we started skiing last November, I took two of our kids out for the first time in about eight months. They completed three miles–and they were exhausted. They were also thrilled at what God enabled their bodies to accomplish.
And it’s not just the kids who are energized by perseverance on the trails. When Jon and I skied part of the Biathlon course the other day, we stopped briefly at the top of a steep, curving hill. “Do you remember this one?” Jon asked me. I sure did. Last year, I attempted to ski down the hill three times without being able to make it without falling (more like spectacularly wiping out). I hesitantly tried it, following a safe distance behind Jon, but I didn’t dig in enough on the turn and made a whirling, ski-in-the-air spin as I landed on my tush. My direct intrapersonal quote as I descended was, “I think I’m going to make it! … And I’m not.”
But I didn’t get bruised or at all, so Jon asked if I wanted to try again. The next time, I went first, carefully pizza-wedging my skis to slow myself down and zig-zagging carefully as the hill grew steeper before the sharp right-turn plunge. I reached the spot where I’d fallen the first time, dug in extra hard, and all of a sudden, I knew I was going to make it–and I felt exhilarated. I couldn’t stop myself from jubilantly yelling, my voice echoing through the quiet trees.
We will never be great skiers–or at least, I won’t be. But we want to enjoy skiing, and our kids to enjoy it, for a long time. It ties us to the past, connects us to this particular place, keeps us physically fit, strengthens our family, and encourages us to persevere–and all in the winter, no less! May you find a way to immerse yourselves in something similar as you trek through life.
Buford sniffed: distant rain. The land around him was hot and dry and the dust of the horses was blowing steadily up from the south as the wind began to pick up, and he could see a darkness in the mountains, black sky, a blaze of lightning.”
~The Killer Angels
July is a quiet month. I don’t mean literally, of course. Between thunderstorms, hailstorms, and other mighty forces of nature that tend to scare children, it hardly qualifies as noiseless. I suppose I mean that July encompasses the lush growth, and the vivid and full foliage, at the height of the earth’s growing period. This vibrant flowering, so powerful and ongoing, is, actually, quiet in its way. No trumpets sound to announce the slow uncurling sprouting of expanding crops, the deep green maturation of deciduous trees, the proliferation of color in open meadows. But the ceaseless fecundity softens the earth and renders it more peaceful to our eyes.
Typically in Wyoming, July means the green we so greedily imbibe with our eyes throughout the spring is leaving us for the yellow-brown grasses and hazy skies of the high desert summer. We are used to dry and dusty winds, to merciless brilliance from the sky with no hint of moisture. But we have had above average rain this spring and even into this month, and so I’m cherishing our extended foray into green time, which remind me of the breathless, humid, leafy summers of the Midwest. The low rumble of thunder and the smell of damp air are pleasant here.
Recently I hiked with my family on Casper Mountain. It’s lovely anytime, but when the wind’s ferocity has calmed to gentle breezes and its warmth envelopes and comforts, and the wildflowers still bloom, and the mountain is particularly breathtaking. Yes, mosquitoes are few and shade from the sometimes punishing sun is plentiful. These are ancillary gifts of July on the mountain. They remind me that this time is short, and I should get outside and enjoy them–gather ye wildflowers, so to speak.