So many words wanting to jump out of my brain this morning that you are in for a real treat. Or a nightmare, depending on how you look at it. In my brain two factions are at war. On one side is the Random Abstract, there are no rules, do whatever feels good, follow any rabbit trail that takes your fancy. On the other side, is the more concrete sequential— easiest to read and follow— most literary self.
I’ve already chosen the side I want to be on this morning. I want to talk about my feminine side. I want to talk about cheating by bringing technology with me into the wilderness. I want to talk about how I hate to follow conventions.
I also better warn you, that this will not be for the faint of heart. It will not be for somebody who wants the writer to quickly get to their point. It will not be for a man who does not want to learn how to clean the sink, because it is that feminine side of me that I plan to explore this morning. It will not be for that person who rigidly believes there is one way, the best way, the most accepted way.
My biggest rule about writing is probably that there are no rules. Just as there are many styles of music, many different vocal performances of the same song. Just as there are many personalities within a given group that might otherwise be quite homogeneous, such as a Southern Baptist church for example. Take any art form, there is a wide variety of what the artist creates, and what the viewer enjoys.
Oh I realize, that there will be critics out there who say that good music, good art, good comedy, a good Southern Baptist, should and does have common traits. I agree. I believe that the common trait is that it all is art, that it all is music, that they all are Southern Baptists. And it is entirely okay to be as different as you want, even if that means finding a new church to go to, or inventing a new art form or music genre.
Maybe the point of writing this morning will be to see just how many rabbit trails I can take, before I put myself under the gun and get to the main point of sink cleaning here in this almost 40-year-old line shack, sitting on the bank of the frozen Sheep River at the head of the snowed in and desolate Kachemak Bay.
Rabbit trail number one. You see I could easily go down a rabbit trail talking about rabbit trails. What my editor calls a rabbit trail and distracting from the main point of my story, I call setting the stage, enjoying some of the many side trails any journey offers, perhaps it is those very side trails that makes a journey and the destination all the more worthwhile.
The sun is coming up over the eastern snow-covered mountains. It is shining in the small 3 x 3 window I have cut into the eastern wall of this cabin for this very reason. I guess the old cowboy that put this cabin here wasn’t in love with that early-morning gold. This time of year, anywhere from late November to early April, the sun doesn’t shine in the southern window till later in the day. He never came up during the winter, never needed that early morning winter sun to help him get his day started, makes sense, no cows up here in the winter.
Yep back in 1980. He put a tractor, a bunch of building material and a bunch of fencing in a barge, headed up the bay and then up to Sheep River, tied off to the bank and unloaded everything. Most people refer to this place as the Willard cabin. He was a member of the Cattlemen’s Association which allowed him to build a cabin here. Some locals, especially cattlemen, refer to this cabin as a line shack, taken from the days of the Old West when there were hundreds of miles of fences in a straight line. These line shacks were built about a days ride apart, so that cowboys out riding the range, checking the fence would have a place to overnight or get out of the weather. This cabin has been used for all of those traditional uses over the past 30 some years. Repairing fences, spring cattle drives, cattle roundups in the fall, or getting out of the weather if you were a hunter or fisherman or otherwise blown off course and needing temporary shelter.
I could easily write a book about this cabin and all that I have done here. Many baskets made here. Many songs, poems, and letters were written in here. Much life and relationship contemplated here. Much alone time and spirituality and insight gained here. Much bonding with many people over the years. A second home, that sometimes feels like my first home.
You see that was an important rabbit trail, it lead us to where we all are gathered this morning, with hot water bubbling in the tea kettle on the wood stove, and some Ajax and a sponge within reach, we will soon clean that sink.
I just thought of another reason for rabbit trails.(Besides avoiding sink cleaning) It’s kind of like this. Have you ever had someone come up to you and start chitchatting and beating around the bush when you knew they were about to ask you to do something you’re not going to be wild about doing. Or you could tell that whatever it was they were going to ask you was something they were afraid of asking. So I suppose if you are afraid you will lose your readers with your main point, you try to lay down as many interesting rabbit trails as you can to hold their interest and get them to the main points. Plus, should they decide they don’t like the main point, at least they’ll walk away chuckling at all the entertaining rabbit trails they got to explore and at how craftily you postponed that boring main topic, in this case cleaning the sink.
Rabbit trail number two. Why do we do what we do? Those two lines rhymes could be the beginning of the new homestead country song. Rabbit trail number three. A couple of days ago, I came up with a brand-new genre of music, I call it Homestead country. I like it. It’s my music.
Back to trail number two. How much do we do what we do because we love it, because it is our passion , almost as important as eating drinking and breathing, or because we earn money doing it, or respect, or admiration or applause. If we do it for applause or money, does it make our art any less valuable.? For me it feels this way, I find great joy, passion in just the doing . Whether song writing, blog writing or book writing; or basketmaking or storytelling or performing. But I have to admit, that sharing it with somebody who receives it as passionately as you created it, is a pretty hard combination to beat. You just can’t let one drive the other. When I create a new basket, woven right here where I have gathered the roots, I feel great passion and creativity, That is enough in itself, even if no one sees it, even if I don’t sell it.
It is a well known challenge for any artist who needs to earn a living with art, to soon see it as drudgery, merely as memorized motions. The artistic potter, who has to crank out boring mugs bowls and candle holders, so that he can pay the bills. The songwriter who longs to write more original material and perform it to and appreciative audiences, who is so busy performing cover tunes in late-night bars, that they have no time to practice their craft, their passion, That which gives them that spark
If I write to hopefully sell a book so that the publisher doesn’t end up very disappointed with me, then I suppose it behooves me to listen to the publishers and editors as to small changes they think I should make so that more people will like my book, and buy it. After all that is the business of the publisher, the business of publishing and making money.
But that freelanceing, rule breaking unconventional, son of a pioneer homesteader, just wants to feel the joy of the moment when he writes, just to let it flow, just to let it run on, just to explore any interesting rabbit trail disappearing in the deep green moss under the dark branches of the spruce forest; like when he was a uninhibited free roaming child of the wilderness.
Quick side trail of whatever trail I am currently on. (I tend to lose track) This is truly a big part of my childhood. I spent a lot of time out in the virgin forest. A big part of that forest was the trails. The smallest I could follow where the mouse trails, squirrel trails, rabbit trails, porcupine trails, up to the deep and wide trails created by moose over many years of use, or the black bear trails almost carved into the sides of our canyons. No task was ever accomplished on the homestead without either using one of these trails, exploring a few of the side trails, or at least showing an interest and taking note of them. It was important. At the end of these trails is where your meat supply lived, at the end of these trails was the pelt or the hide that could keep you warm or be traded for money. Yes I’m smelling what you’re cooking. You’re thinking, “Atz, I believe you could write a whole damn book on rabbit trails!” And I would have to agree with you. A couple of titles already jumped to mind, something about “a rabbit trail I love”, or, “all trails lead to the homestead” or “always a fat rabbit at the end of a rabbit trail”.
That’s why my good friend Scott Dickerson, a fine photographer and my social media guru (SMG) easily talked me into doing a blog. He assured me that other then cleaning it up enough so that it makes sense to the reader and my main point and many rabbit trails were clear to follow, we were not going to spend any time on standard accepted acceptable literary falderah and hoopla writing conventions.
New rabbit trail whatever I’ve lost count. My friend and neighbor, Tom Bodett, said it best. He was a carpenter that moved to Homer from Minnesota. Just an average hard-working slow talking Minnesotan turned Alaskan Carpenter. He said,” I can’t believe they’re using my book to teach writing somewhere in a university in Minnesota”. He just wrote what he felt and what he lived. He blazed his own trail and wrote in his own humorous style. He did not write his first book as a instruction manual for good writing. His unique style, which in part was not worry to much about what other people thought, got him some good books written, got his voice recognized, wait wait don’t tell me, he left the light on for you in motels all across America.
I won’t even begin to get into the rise to fame of my daughter Jewel, no music training. No major influences as far singer-songwriters go. Just a granddaughter of a rebellious pioneer homesteader for whom the conventions of Europe were way too narrow. Could write another two or three books just on that topic.
The only trouble with rabbit trails of course is you sometime forget how to get back to the main trail, Sometimes even forget whether the main trail was a bear trail or a moose trail.
For that very reason, of forgetting were in hell I was going, I developed a fun way to get back by involving my audiences. Before I headed down a rabbit trail while I was introducing a song, I would appoint a person in the audience to help me remember my main trail so I could get back to it. They loved it, I loved it. I still do it.
So sitting here this morning, the true joy for me is just letting a bunch of those words out of my brain because it feels good to me. And as long as you the reader show interest in reading them, I’ll keep doing them. When my blog readership drops to let’s say under five, I could either change my writing style, write about topics you might find more interesting, or go back to talking to the wood stove or the frozen river and writing songs as I did in the past.
Don’t worry folks I haven’t forgotten, we’re getting pretty close to cleaning that sink. In fact this may be the last rabbit trail before we get to the Ajax, so enjoy. Time for a song.
I was just going to quote the chorus but it’s such a good song, I’ll just spit out all of the lyrics. For the melody, Well, maybe we’ll figure out a way, or my social media guru will, to put a link from this blog to a recorded version of the song. Hidden secret links. An incentive to follow me down every rabbit trail.
I was sitting on the boss man, Bruce Willard’s, bunk one morning as the sun was coming up in the autumn of the year. I saw those four white grain sacks filled with barley at the foot of his bunk. He brought it up here to feed his horses when there wasn’t enough grass, or to supplement their feed. Now that he has passed on, I wondered how long those four bags of barley would be there, before used by other cattlemen or eaten by mice.
It was one of those cases where the words and the melody came to me simultaneously as fast as I could take it all down. I remember how afraid I was to get out of the bunk with my guitar and walk to the table and find something to write on for fear that the train would pass me by and I wouldn’t be able to get back on it. So I hurried back to my bunk now with pen and paper and my guitar. Sharing it later with Linda, Bruce’s widow, was a highlight of my life.
FOUR BAGS OF BARLEY
Four bags of barley sittin’ on the line shack floor
Since the boss man and his big hoss red don’t come by here no more
There’s saddle bags and a change of clothes and dry socks neath the bed
On this very bunk where I’m sitting now where he used to lay his head, Used to lay his head
He’d get up of a morning and look out towards the east
Catch the autumn sunrise dancing with a flock of flying geese
Then he’d cock his head and listen to the first news of the day
loud and clear he would hear what the valley winds had to say, winds had to say
I can see him there by that old woodstove, Cast iron frying pan
flippin’ those homemade hotcakes with a flick of his calloused hand
He had a hundred funny little sayings like,
“ a fartin’ horse will never tire”
Then he’d break wind and say with a grin, “and a fartin’ man’s the man’s the hire, He’s the man to hire”.
I go by and check the mouse traps, Keep the dust and cobwebs down.
Chop a little wood, try to make it look good, like someone’s still around
Then I sit on that bench by the river with a guitar in my hand
And in my mind I spend some time hangin’ with the old boss man, just hangin’ with you boss man
Oh he was far from perfect he was known to cuss and shout
If you opened the gate a little early or late, left the wrong steer in or out
But he was quick to forgive and forget, never hold on to angry thoughts
With each new day he’d smile and say,” good mornin’ how’s Atz, mornin’, how’s Atz
I missed his late night stories, When he first came to this land
The simple ways of those good old days when you did it all by hand
But I miss him most with each early snow, On some killer grizzly tracks
Or ridin’ herd without a word, Or just hangin’ in the old line shack, just hanging in the old line shack
Just cuz you can’t see him, don’t mean that he’s gone
If you listen closely you can hear him livin’ on
take the time to close your eyes as often as you can
When you do I promise you you’ll see the old boss man, You’ll still see the old boss man
Four bags of barley sitting on the line shack floor
In the song I mentioned some things I do when I come here to the cabin. Set the mouse traps, keep the dust in the cobwebs down, chop a little wood and try to make it look good, like someone is still around. But I also do it for extremely selfish reasons. It is a way for me to stay connected. It is a form of intimacy. Anyone who has gone camping and set up a tent knows exactly what I am talking about. By the time you smooth out a place, break a few branches set up your tent, gather together some rocks for a fire ring, start a fire and cook your evening meal, you have a relationship going, you feel a sense of ownership. You feel intimacy with that camping spot. You get a little jealous and possessive if someone gets too close. Or get downright mad if you come back a month later and someone is in it. Hard to feel connected or intimate with a place or a person for that matter, if you don’t put in some effort, I’m talking small things here, I’m talking details, I’m talking mouse traps, dusting, and yes cleaning sinks.
I just didn’t want to put cleaning sinks into the song I couldn’t find a way to fit it in. Okay I’ll admit it I was afraid of what my cowboy friends would think, If I were up here cleaning the sink, instead of lifting weights. Give my back a kink, or on the River building a hockey rink. That was not a rabbit trail, just the way my rhyming brain works.
Oh crap, I just remembered a couple of more rabbit trails. But that should be all. What it does make me realize though, you my fine readers, deserve to know when we take off on a horse ride through the wilderness about how long it will take, how long we’ll be gone, so you know what to prepare for. Perhaps at the beginning of any piece I write, I should first let you know how many words or pages, or how many rabbit trails. I suppose my title will tell you what it’s about, you can scroll ahead and see how long it is, but how many rabbit trails I will be taking you down I will try to do a better job letting you know. After all, all of us have a point beyond which we fall asleep, lose interest.
Maybe that’s why paragraphs and chapters were invented, to give people a rest stop during the long journey.
I don’t know if I have anymore of a feminine side than any man does. It might have something to do with the way I was raised, we all took turns, the girls chopping wood, the boys washing dishes or cooking. Maybe it has something to do having six sisters. Maybe it has something to do with getting along better with my mom than my dad, feeling safer in the kitchen hiding behind her apron than outside chopping down a tree in the shadow of his swinging axe. For some reason I have never been as comfortable talking about cars or sports, I discovered this already in high school. I have always been more comfortable in the kitchen, with the women, talking cooking or art.
Side trail of the site trail. I was in Texas for Thanksgiving once at my daughter’s in-laws. We’re talking a fairly average macho Texas cowboy crowd. At one point I just had to shake my head. All the men were in the living room watching and talking football, I was in the kitchen with most of the women talking dessert recipes, since my daughter and I had brought a dessert.
That tendency lead me towards becoming a cook in the army. While other young soldiers were fighting to get out of the mess hall, and be a real soldier, I saw my opportunity and went in the opposite direction. It was a great way for me to spend my year in Vietnam, as well as teaching me a valuable trade. A trade that got me my start when I returned to civilian life in Alaska. I cooked on the north slope where they were then exploring for oil.
With cooking comes cleaning, we have all heard horror stories about diseases that began and were passed on from the kitchen. In the army they drilled cleanliness into our brains. You don’t know what clean is until you have prepared for an Army inspection of your kitchen. We used to have contests, you know competition, to help us wimpy cooks feel more manly. We once came in second, with only one gig against us. We are talking a perfectly clean kitchen except for one small detail, some potato starch on the inside of our potato peeler! Who in the hell looks in a potato peeler. All you do after you’re done, if you remember that is, is spray in some high-pressure water. The inspectors always went first to those hi, out-of-the-way, hardly even seen places. And yes they wore white gloves.
So I have to apologize here to all of you manly men who feel misled. All of you manly men who thought this wilderness cabin and all of these rabbit trails would end up in a more interesting place. And I totally understand if you want to drop out right now and go back home. I’ll see you back at the ranch.
Although it is a stereotype, unless you are a cook, typically women will look at a kitchen, And cleanliness with sharper eyes. They will notice the small details. How well is the stove surface or the control knobs are cleaned. How shiny and spot free the stainless refrigerator is. And yes, most importantly, how clean the sink is. The sink is the heart. The sink is the mouth. The sink is the eyes.
I believe I can pretty much guarantee you that I’m the only person that thoroughly cleans the stove and the sink when I’m up here. I do it for two reasons. I can’t stand to do all the things I have to do in the sink, when it’s grungy. The other reason is it helps me reconnect, re-bond with this old cabin in a very personal way. Don’t laugh. Try it.It works.
It started out sort of by accident this morning, although I know I would’ve gotten to it in the next couple of days. I was making coffee with an aero press and something slipped and I spewed coffee grounds on the counter, in the sink, and on the back of the sink back splash, soap dish, Ajax container and two bottles of soap, 1 pint jar of soap I brought from home, or it might be hardened coconut oil, I’ll have to check on that, and a big container of sterile wipes. You know how it is, a little bit of coffee can go a long ways especially when it has grounds in it, seems to fly farther.
So I say to myself, “looks like I’ll be cleaning this old sink sooner than expected.”
Now don’t get me wrong. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being super grunge, this was at a good old-fashioned four or five. Good enough for a lot of women, and certainly for anyone coming by to seek shelter here. I first removed everything from behind the sink. Got some hot water from the tea kettle, and added some cold water from snow I had melted on the stove the day before, and began cleaning. Wiping up the coffee was a breeze. It’s just all those coffee grounds you have to keep dumping out of your washbasin to keep from spreading them over and over. with no running water, the sink only works to use as a drain, sometimes it doesn’t even drain properly so you have to use a slop bucket which you throw out when you are done. The only thing that goes in the slop bucket is organics.
The faucet, nor the spray attachment nor the hot and cold water handles work. Never have never will. Surfaces are always easiest to clean. Its scrubbing around the base of the handles, the base of the spray attachment the base of that rectangular thing out of which the handles and faucets protrude. Then you have the sink drains. There is that point where the drain seals to the bottom of the sink. Takes a Brillo pad, takes more Ajax, takes the point of a fork or a knife to put in the Brillo pad to really get down in that ring. Then there is the bottom of the drain and the inside, trickier yet, more of a challenge, More of a thrill. Those little cross pieces at the bottom are hard to get to.
I did away within normal sink drain or stopper things, and brought up a couple of wire or screen baskets. I like them but they are hard to clean. It’s hard to clean rusty grungy screen without a higher pressure water hose or a bristly scrub brush. But I wash them with my sponge with hot soapy water, and then bang them and clang them a few times to knock out any a stubborn residue.
There I’m done. That’s all I really wanted to tell you. I needed a little praise for cleaning the sink.
Seriously, I’ve done it many times, without writing about it, and it always makes me feel the same. Connected. Settled. A sense of belonging. Ownership. Gratitude for he who brought this sink to this cabin. Writing about it, is a form of putting it into words, It makes it more real, it makes it sinking deeper.
There’s actually a lot of research out there about expressing your gratitude daily and the difference it can make in your life.
Most cabins out this far you’re lucky to have a washbasin and a bucket.. It’s my way of saying a big thank you. Gratitude and thankfulness are a couple of important qualities. So if you want to feel connected, grateful and thankful and show your appreciation to someone or to some cabin or some house, go clean the sink.