First Frost

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written initially Sept. 23, 2005/updated Sept. 30, 2009

There needs to be a warning system in place for the first frost. Today caught me completely unaware, as I woke in a bedroom with windows flung open as they’ve been for over 4 months. I sensed immediately that autumn on the calendar meant business. It was freezing, both inside and out. I wanted nothing more than to stay under the covers, hiding my head from the reality outside. The wood floors were cold, the furnace sputtered itself to life as I closed windows and gazed out at frost on the grass and leaves, sparkling in bright morning sunshine. How can this be, a month earlier than typical? I am not ready for this. No one prepared me for summer to be over, literally overnight.

It was, to be entirely fair, a very transient frost. It wasn’t crunchy underfoot and merely put a little glaze on everything. As the sun rose higher, in only a matter of minutes, the frost softened and melted, leaving no trace behind. The only hint of cold air was the puffs of steam from the horses’ nostrils as they raced in the pastures to warm their muscles, as they do not yet have their full winter coats, and they too were startled by this early cold.

Things happen daily in our lives that we feel unprepared for. No matter how much schooling we pursue, how much news and information we absorb, or how many tales of advice we’ve heard from our wise grandparents, there will always be a surprise around the corner, and usually not as harmless as an early frost. Perhaps it is a hurricane that shifts direction picking up speed and ferocity, or a virus that mutates in a way that makes its transmission more deadly, or the “big one” earthquake that has been predicted for years finally lets loose. These threats hang over our collective heads and we cower and hide our heads under the covers, as it can be too overwhelming to contemplate.

I have been taking part in Disaster Planning work preparing for the H1N1 influenza outbreak, as well as participating in “tabletop exercises” that help prepare first responders and health care personnel for a variety of horrible scenarios, and I found that I’m not cut from the same cloth as many emergency workers who seem to enjoy thinking up the worst possible cases. I end up in a state of tabletop anxiety as we walk through the handling of chemical spills, dirty bombs, and deadly pathogen release into the community. No matter what we discuss, a positive outcome was to contain inevitable destruction to a localized area, and prevent spread, not only of the deadly agent, but of the immobilizing and contagious fear that can bring society to its knees. It is hard for me to think in those terms, as even one death in my clinical practice is unthinkable and rare. As I’ve read the stories of the health care professionals who worked days on end to help in the Katrina disaster, I realize they too were unprepared and undoubtedly scared. Yet they were there, doing their best helping people despite overwhelming need and limited supplies, because giving up one’s own comfort in the service of others is the good and right thing to do.  So my long work days seeing many H1N1 influenza-afflicted college students seems very minor in comparison.

We are called to get up and get going even on the “coldest” of mornings, when throwing the covers back over our head and staying warm and comfortable is far more appealing. It is such a small sacrifice, as insignificant as a first frost, compared to the monumental gift, earth shaking and heart rending, that has been given to each of us, unselfishly,  out of Love. In response, we must leap willingly out of our warm beds and stand ready to go wherever and whenever we may be needed most.

Becoming Sauce

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Today will be applesauce-making day on our farm. The number of windfall apples lying on the ground is exponentially increasing, so I could put off the task no longer. The apple trees in our orchard are primarily antique varieties rarely grown any longer. I selected Spitzenburgs, a favorite apple of Thomas Jefferson, a Baldwin or two, some Pippins, a few Kings, but mostly I picked Dutch Mignons, a russet apple undistinguished in appearance, not at all pretty, and easy to pass by for something more showy.

It took no time at all to fill several large buckets. Sadly, some apples were beyond hope; they lay rotting, half consumed by slugs and other critters. Those I left behind.

The task of washing, peeling and coring organic apples is time consuming. They require a fair amount of preparation: the bruised spots must be cut out, as well as the worm holes and tracks. The apples are cut to the core and sliced into the simmering pot to be stirred and slowly cooked down to sauce. Before long, before my eyes, together they become a pale yellow mash, blending their varied flavors together. However the smooth sweetness of this wonderful sauce is owed to the Dutch Mignon. It is a sublime sauce apple despite its humble unassuming appearance. Used alone, it would lack the “stand out” flavors of the other apple varieties, but as it cooks down, it becomes a foundation allowing the other apples to blend their unique qualities.

So it should be with the fellowship of diverse people. We are bruised, wormy, but salvageable. We are far better together than we are separate. And we are transformed into something far better than how we began.

I Will Not Wear Purple

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When I no longer have to go to work
I will not sit in tea shops
Wearing purple and a ridiculous red hat
Laughing too loud and trying too hard
To look carefree when what I really want
Is more work:
To keep busy with needs in my family,
My church and my neighborhood.

Babysitting for a young mother who needs a nap
And I happen to have an empty lap to fill,
Cooking a meal for someone who cannot manage
And I have too much for myself,
Sitting with the ill when they are lonely,
And so am I.

When I no longer have to go to work
I will not sketch flowers on white plates
Or paint landscapes in watercolor,
But instead will get dirty and grow blooms myself
To take to those who need fragrant beauty
Instead of a picture on the wall.
I will trellis heirloom tomatoes
Simply to share a thick slice of rich flavor
When someone is hungry and needs to be filled.

When I no longer have to go to work
I will find plenty to do
Though my body fades and hair thins,
Though my voice weakens, and back is curved, still
My prayers will be continually
Praising the One who made me;
Even when I no longer have to go to work,
Work will come to me.


Putting On a New Coat

photo of Noblesse by Krisula Steiger
photo of Noblesse by Krisula Steiger

This story, written in 2003, is now published in the Oct/Nov 2009 issue of Country Magazine. Photos by Lynden Christian student Krisula Steiger.

Generally late September is when we start to see our Haflinger horses growing in their longer coat for winter. Their color starts to deepen with the new hair as the sun bleached summer coat loosens and flies with the late summer breezes. The nights here, when the skies are cloudless, can get perilously close to freezing this time of year, though our first frost is generally not until well into October. The Haflingers, outside during the day, and inside their snug stalls at night, don’t worry too much about needing their extra hair quite yet, especially when the day time temperatures are still comfortably in the 70s. So they are not in a hurry to be furrier. Neither am I. But I enjoy watching this daily change in their coats, as if they were ripening at harvest time. Their copper colors are so rich against the green fields and trees, especially at sunset when the orange hue of their coat is enhanced by the sunlit color palette of fall leaves undergoing their own transformation in their dying.

In another six months, it will be a reverse process once again. This heavy hair will have served its purpose, dulled by the harsh weather it has been exposed to, and coming out in clumps and tufts, revealing that iridescent short hair summer coat that shines and shimmers metallic in comparison, although several shades lighter, sometimes with nuances of dapples peeking through. Metamorphosis from fur ball to copper penny.

It occurs to me our old barn buildings on our farm have also undergone a similar transformation, having received a new coat of paint this summer. As a dairy farm for its previous owners starting in the early 1900s until a few years before we purchased it in the late 80s, it has accumulated more than its share of sheds and buildings constructed over the years to serve one purpose or another: the big hay barn with mighty old growth beams and timbers in its framework (still hay storage), the attached milking parlor (converted by us to individual box stalls for our weanlings and yearlings) and milk house where the bulk tank once stood, the older separate milk house where the milk used to be stored in cans waiting for pick up by the milk truck (now garden shed and harness storage), the old smoke house for smoking meats (was our chicken coop, but now the dogs claim it), the old bunk house and root cellar (more storage), the old large chicken coop (now parking for our carts and carriage), and the garage (a Methodist church in its former life and moved 1/4 mile up the road to our farm some 70 years ago when the little community of Forest Grove that had formed around a saw mill, store, school and church disbanded after 30 years of prosperity when there were no more trees to cut down in the area). When we bought this farm, these buildings had not seen a coat of paint in many many years. They were weathering badly–we set to work right away in an effort to save them if we could, and got them repainted–“barn red” for the barn and cream white for the other buildings with red trim around the windows and roof lines.

That was over 10 years ago now and we’ve been trying to hold off on another round of painting but it was clear this summer that it needed to happen. Now that they have their fresh paint coats, these old buildings appear to have new life again, though it is only on the surface. We know there are roofs that need patching, wiring that needs to be redone, plumbing that needs repair, foundations that need shoring up, windows that are drafty and need replacing, doors that don’t shut properly anymore–the list goes on. That superficial coat of paint does not solve all those problems–it will help prolong the life of the buildings, to be sure, but in many ways, all we’ve done is cosmetic surgery. What we really need is a full time carpenter –which neither of us is and at this point can’t afford.

In my middle age, there are times when I wish fervently for that “new coat” for myself–i.e. fewer gray hairs, fewer pounds, fewer wrinkles and one less chin, less achy stronger muscles. I buy a new fall jacket and realize that all my deficiencies are simply covered for the time being. I may be warmer but I’m not one bit younger. That jacket will, I hope, protect me from the brisk northeast winds and the incessant drizzle of the region, but it will not stop the inevitable underneath. It will not change who I am and what I will become.

True change can only come from within, from deep inside our very foundations, requiring a transforming influence that comes from outside. For the Haflingers, it is the diminishing light and lower temperatures. For the buildings, it is the hammer and nail, and the capable hands that wield them. For me, it is knowing there is salvage for people too, not just for old barns and sheds. Our foundations are hoisted up and reinforced, and we’re cleaned, patched and saved despite who we have become. And unlike new paint, or a winter coat, it lasts forever.

Watercolor of our hay barn by Dick Laninga
Watercolor of our hay barn by Dick Laninga

Looking Ahead in the Rear View Mirror

Amazon, formerly the Public Health Hospital
Amazon, formerly the Public Health Hospital
View of Seattle from the top floor of the Public Health Hospital
View of Seattle from the top floor of the Public Health Hospital

While sitting very high in the upper reaches of Safeco Field watching the Mariners play the Cleveland Indians, my attention was diverted to the expansive view of surrounding Seattle. In particular, I kept looking at the PacMed Tower above us on Beacon Hill, now home of Amazon.com.  It seems like only yesterday when I spent thousands of hours in training inside the walls of this remarkable old building, but in reality it is over 30 years ago, back in the days when it was the Public Health Hospital, home for medical care in the region for the Merchant Marines, as well as many of the indigenous people of the northwest and Alaska, in addition for the local folks who needed affordable (as in free) health care.  I had opportunity to work several rotations in this building as a medical student in Seattle, and to think of this place as the headquarters for Amazon makes my brain do twists.  There was so much life and death inside those walls for so many years.  Now it is corporate headquarters for a web giant, selling every gadget and gizmo under the sun and some days I feel like one of their best customers because it keeps me out of the toxic environment of the local mall.

I first walked in this building as a very green 24 year old med student beginning a surgical rotation, knowing only which end of the stethoscope to put in my ears and which end rests on the patient.  The first day I was shown how to put on a surgical gown, masks and sterile gloves without contaminating myself and the people around me.  I never have forgotten that sequence of moves, even though my opportunity to go into an operating room (other than as a patient) is rare these days.  My chief resident was an exceptionally talented but eccentric man who worked himself and all under him around the clock.  After becoming very prominent in a city known for its fine surgeons, he developed a drug problem for which he sought treatment and remains an authority on helping impaired physicians, assisting other providers to acknowledge addiction before they harm a patient.  He could only operate listening to the music of Elvis Presley.  I can’t hear any Elvis Presley songs to this day without smelling the odors of surgery–cauterized blood vessels and pus.  It is my particular burden to bear…

Those were heady days and nights of experiencing the misery of the most vulnerable of humanity in desperate need of healing, and sometimes we succeeded, but often we did not.  I still have a recurring dream of running up and down the staircases of the Public Health Hospital, bringing pint after pint of blood to the OR as our team operated on a Native American patient bleeding from her dilated esophageal varices, which had developed as a result of her damaged liver from her long alcohol dependency.  We did not save her, nor have I saved her even once in my dreams over the decades, though I keep trying to run faster. Instead I’ve spent the last 20 years of my clinical life working in alcohol and drug treatment, hoping to prevent her fate in others.

Nor did we save a classmate of mine, on a rotation on a different service, the daughter of a beloved radiologist in this very hospital, who for reasons unknown, had a cardiac arrest while napping briefly during her 32 hour shift.  Another medical student sleeping in the same room heard her odd breathing, found her unresponsive and all medical interventions were employed, to no avail.   Even when all the right people, and the right equipment, and the right medicine is seconds away, death still comes, even to healthy people in their 20s.  This was a shock to us all, and an extraordinarily humbling lesson to the pompous and overconfident among us.  We can die, in our sleep, whenever it is our time. Years later, I remember that in my evening prayers.

There was also the young surgical resident who was hospitalized with jaundice and subsequently died of Hepatitis B, contracted from a blood exposure during his training.   No vaccination was available in those days, but was developed soon afterward.  And it was in this hospital we began to see unusual cases of young gay men with severe wasting, rare skin cancers and difficult to treat pneumonias, initially called GRID (gay related immune deficiency), part of the early front wave of AIDS as it swept across the US in the late 70s and early 80s.

One night in particular sticks out for me.  It was Christmas Eve 1977, and a heavy snowstorm had brought the city to a standstill.  We had very little to do that night in the hospital as the elective surgeries were all postponed until after the holiday and no ambulance could easily make it up the steep drive to the ER, so were being diverted to other hospitals, so our patient load was light.  I was in my tiny sleeping room, on the 14th floor of the tower, facing out north to the city of Seattle, able to enjoy the view in the photo above, only everything was blanketed under snow, so peaceful and very quiet.  The freeway, ordinarily so busy day and night was practically abandoned, and the lights of the city were brighter from the snowfall.   It was an enchanting vision of a city forced to slow itself and be still, anticipatory on a sacred and holy night.

I remember thinking about how young and inexperienced I was, and how very little I knew.  My chief resident thought I’d make a good surgeon–my heart told me that I’d make a better family doctor.  The city held so many attractions and excitement with the potential of a big salary and notoriety, but my heart longed to return to a farm and a someday family.  It was a wistful bittersweet night and I slept little,  staying perched on that little bed overlooking the sleeping snowy city and wondering where my life would take me.  If I’d looked just a little to my left, and some 32 years ahead, I would have seen myself, sitting with a man I had recently met but didn’t know I’d someday marry, and our nearly grown and flown family in the top rung of a new baseball stadium.  And now the older wife/mother/farmer/family doctor I have become,  gazes back up at the much younger undefined medical student looking out that upper window of a classic old hospital building, reflecting upon who she was becoming on that night long ago.

I still am reminded every day at how little I know,  but I do know this: for however long we’re on this earth, we do have distinct purpose and meaning.  Perhaps my purpose was to be snowbound on that Christmas day, unable to go home from my shift because my car was stuck in the parking lot, spending the day singing Christmas carols for all the patients who had no other options but to stay put in their hospital beds that day.  Perhaps mine was to be the future blessing of an incredible husband and delightful children on a little farm 100 miles to the north.  Or perhaps mine is to continue to share a little of life’s lessons learned while I gaze in the rear view mirror~ the reflections of a life in progress.

Distant Relations

Sparrow and baby Sandi, from original photo by Larry Goldman taken in 1974
Sparrow and baby Sandi, from original photo by Larry Goldman taken in 1974

It was a routine day in April 1975–as routine as a day spent in central Africa studying wild chimpanzees could be. I awakened before dawn to join up with Rugema, one of the Tanzanian rangers/guides, to follow a chimp mother with her 3 year old and 8 year old offspring on their travels for the day, recording their location and activities every minute on a check sheet and into my tape recorder, to be transcribed later on return to camp in the dark.

Our target chimpanzees were nested high in a tree atop the ridge called “Sleeping Buffalo” a sloping rounded back mountain which rises abruptly from the shore of glistening Lake Tanganyika. Arriving at the nest before the first light of dawn, we sat beneath the tree, waiting for the chimps to stir as the tropical forest awoke before our eyes. It was as if we beheld the dawning of the First Morning. The forest of verdant greens unfurled to the touch of the sun, highlighting spots of brightly colored fruit and flowers. The pungent smell of moist earth mixed with the musk of animal scent and fragrance of foliage.

There is a strong undercurrent of life flowing in such a forest–everywhere there are living creatures above and below, breathing a collective breath, vocalizing in collective voices from the liquid tones of tropical birds to the barking “wahoo” of the baboon. Each individual breath, whisper, song, and call joins the others, until like the rushing streams of Gombe, they form a river of voices, overwhelming to the senses.

As the sunlight filtered through the foliage canopy high above our heads, the three chimpanzees moved in their nests. They rustled in their leafy bed as a chorus of chimpanzee voices was heard across the valley and up the next ridge—a clear invitation from afar.

Our targets raced down the tree and off into the brush to join their comrades. Able to follow only the vocalizations, we plunged after them, occasionally glimpsing the white tuft of hair on the baby’s bottom as he bobbed up and down, jockey-style on his mother’s back. Chimpanzees are expert at traveling through impenetrable thickets, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. I clamored slowly along, listening for the excited voices up the hill, as my shirt caught on countless thorns and vines reached to trip me. About the time I was ready to call it quits, I found myself atop the slope and was rewarded with a sight which made the hard climb well worth the struggle.

Above us and around us were no less than 25 chimpanzees from various interrelated families: brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, celebrating an early morning extended family reunion amidst heavily fruited trees with a tremendous din of shrieks and hoots. They jumped from branch to branch, slid fireman style down tree trunks only to race back up again, shaking and breaking off pieces of foliage in their excitement.

As they settled into smaller feeding groups, sitting happily in small circles eating fruit and lazily grooming each other’s fur, I realized how similar their gathering was to the family reunions I attended at home. There would always be lots of hugs and excitement as family members arrive and greet one another, sometimes quite noisily with shouts and claps on the back. Children would run together as reacquainted cousins skirmished and played. The adults would settle into smaller conversational groups to compare lives and reestablish life long bonds, in essence “grooming” each other emotionally as they offered support and advice.

I realized this particular morning in Tanzania was a reunion I could only observe rather than participate in, not being a member of this particular family, although a few of these apes looked awfully similar to people I loved back home. As I pondered that thought, I felt a clunk on the head from behind and realized something or someone had clobbered me with a branch from a tree. I turned around to see a grinning adolescent male chimp, wielding a leafy branch. He was about to wallop me again. At that moment he really did remind me of my brother.

I left that observation out of my written report that night. Months later when I returned home I told my brother I was sure I’d met a distant relation of his in Africa. He reminded me that any relative of his would be a relative of mine. Right.

So it seems we’re all just one big extended happy family.

When “Eating Local” Means the Backyard

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Taking stock of what is  on the dinner table, I realize it almost all originated on our farm, from start to finish.  This surely doesn’t happen every night but when it does, it is cause to celebrate.  As good as farm raised food is, it is the antithesis of “fast” food; this is very very “slow” food when one considers the long process of getting it to the table.

Thanks to our family’s hard work over the years,  we have eaten home raised chicken and beef, potatoes from the potato patch, corn,  tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, brussels sprouts, salad greens and carrots from the garden, applesauce made from the windfalls of a Gravenstein tree, and sweet juicy plums for dessert.  Even the filbert nuts are drying and getting ready to eat for a night time snack along with the sweet dessert grapes from the arbor. The wild blackberries are hanging thick now and begging to be picked for cobbler tomorrow.   It can start sounding all Martha Stewart-y except the reality is far less glamorous and romantic than she portrays in her glossy magazines.  I’m not sure how many chickens she’s butchered and plucked at home.   She doesn’t look like someone who digs into manure piles for the most composted stuff to dress her artichoke plants.  I’ll bet she doesn’t milk her own goats either.   But I know she carves her own pumpkins and they are much more artistic than anything I could ever create from the monstrosities I have growing up the hill.

The “Eat Local” campaign happening all over the country is meant to decrease the distance food must travel to our tables, to prevent spending resources sometimes far greater than what the food took to grow to begin with.  Eating fresh grapes from Chile or apples from New Zealand in the middle of winter is amazing when you really think about it, but they don’t give us nearly the same satisfaction as the raisins and dried fruit we have made from our own arbor and orchard.  Hot house tomatoes from Holland just don’t measure up to the sun dried tomato slices we’ve preserved in the freezer. Our farm critters have not had to leave the farm; they were less stressed and so are we.

Not everyone has the space or climate to raise fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and milk for their own consumption, so I realize we are truly blessed to steward this patch of earth. Support for the local growers and farmers’ markets brings healthy affordable foods to the table.  Maybe there are a few more blemishes and a little less polish, but the flavor is exquisite and the source is known rather than mysterious.

Celebrate the “slow” food that good farmers are growing right around the corner, and perhaps, in your own backyard.  It is well worth the wait.