Memorial Day, 2018

For a dozen years, I’ve been sharing essays with my friends on Facebook. A few of those essays have ended up in books, although for the most part, they are shorter, rougher, and more casual than essays destined for publication. 

I never expected these essays to make it into print, but I did intend them to remain available to anyone who wished to read them. When Facebook discontinued their Notes application, the essays faded into oblivion.  

Which is a suitable destination for some of them. However, there are a few I’d like to resurrect. One of the reasons I decided to start a blog was to put these essays into an easily accessible place, where they could be kept for as long as I wish to keep them. 

And so, for a while, I will intersperse new blog entries with things that were written in the past few years. In choosing which ones to resurrect, I will be guided by a simple test: Which ones still feel relevant in my life? Which ones still speak to my spirit?

Maybe some old essays will find new readers. The first one I’ve chosen is a short piece, written in May, 2018, a day after I attended a music festival in Seattle. The festival was Folklife, which is an outdoor three-day extravaganza of mostly acoustic music.

I’m not much of a “city” kind of guy, but this is a love letter to my city. When I first moved here, in 1994, I was a reluctant resident. What won me over? Many things, but foremost among them was the spirit—made manifest in music—illustrated in this memory.

The original title of this piece was a four-letter acronym that is common on red hats. It was tongue-in-cheek, of course. I wanted to bear my own testimony about what could make America great—if only we allowed it to. Even so, I found that the sound of it in my ears was grating.  As it is, I don’t know what to call it. For the time being, I’ll just treat it like a journal entry about a good day.

The photos that I’ve included here were taken on a different occasion, as I didn’t have a camera on the day I’m writing about. But the music festivals all run together in my mind. The place is the same, the fountain is the same, and the spirit is the same.

So here’s my testimony about Memorial Day, 2018:

I went to the Folklife music festival yesterday, and I regret that I didn’t take a camera. If I could share pictures, maybe I’d start with the guy who tossed playing cards into the air one at a time, and then cut them crisply in two with a whip. That was great.

Or maybe I’d start with a picture of the accordion player who in his style and technique reminded me of Steve Willis, except that Steve does not have the head of a cat, and this guy did. 

But I didn’t have a camera, which was fine. It allowed me to just be fully in the moment, without trying to frame little snippets of life—which, of course, chops life into little snippets, rather than letting it unwind gracefully and coherently. What I have to offer instead of photos is word snippets. 

Let me start by saying I’m sorry. To whom? To my friends at work, because this past week I subjected them to a rant about how Bumbershoot used to be the coolest music festival (maybe) in the country if not on earth, and now it sucks sucks sucks. 

Although I still hold that opinion, I may have given my co-workers the impression that I am a grump and that Seattle used to be, but is no longer, cool. So I’m sorry for being such a curmudgeon. 

It is true that lately I’ve been avoiding people in favor of bees and dogs, which are altogether more sensible and well-behaved. But today, I ventured into the world of people. I went to Seattle’s other music festival, Folklife—the one that is still free, so that poor people can enjoy live music too. 

I went because Leann was working at a booth for Music For Life, an awesome organization that takes donated band and orchestra instruments and gives them to kids who can’t afford instruments. While Leann did her good deeds, I wandered around and remembered some of the reasons I love Seattle. 

I don’t often talk about the city because crowds are too… well… crowded for me. I more often praise the wild places of the northwest, the glaciers and rocky crags and rushing waters and behemoth trees. But it was a good thing for me to be at Folklife on this day. 

It was good to be in the city. It restored something in me that has been, for the past year or so, wilting. Call it, maybe, a communal spirit. Neighborliness. I don’t know what to call it. Anyway, before I get too philosophical, here are some snippets of the day: 

The weather was spot-on perfect. Imagine if you were a spring flower and could order the best growing conditions possible: A high of about 70 degrees, sunny, slight breeze through the maples. I arrived before any music started, so I checked out the booths. At a native arts booth, I admired some really fine Zuni needlepoint jewelry. 

This led me to have a long chat with the vendor, an elderly Zuni man. Turned out he grew up in Zuni, and remembered my dad from his high school days! We talked about Shalako, running the mile, and ice-fishing at Wheatfields Lake. 

Like me, he has lived in the northwest for a long time now, so we also talked about salmon bakes and canoe trips and the native cultures of the northwest. It is possible to have more than one place be your home, deep in your bones. 

At eleven o’clock, the music started. Right off the bat, there were tubas! I was blessed by tubas, in multiple places: One, right by the booth, playing unlikely duets with a clarinet. Another held up the low end of a Dixieland band. 

Next, I heard a bagpipe and drum band all made up of kids from about 10 to 18—in kilts and full Highlander regalia. Their playing was powerful, confident, and perfectly in-tune. No sick bleating sheep here! The drummers twirled their mallets in perfect unison. 

Soon there was music everywhere, mostly acoustic music, music of the breath and of the fingers, music swirling and blending in the air: boogie-woogie, samba, western swing, old-timey hillbilly music (including a jug band), soulful blues, Japanese taiko drumming, brassy big-band jazz, klezmer clarinets, a Slavic women’s chorus, mariachi bands, hula dancers. You name it. 

The spirit of music infused the air in other ways, too. At my wife’s booth, generous people donated musical instruments. One teenaged girl came by and offered a thank-you: turned out she’d been playing a donated instrument throughout her high school years. Another kid came by and said, “The saxophone saved my life.” 

As the crowds grew, buskers proliferated. One of the reasons Bumbershoot is not as good as it used to be is that in recent years they have prohibited buskers, which seem to me to be the heart and soul of a good festival. But buskers are alive and well at Folklife, and they were in force yesterday, beginning with the cat-headed accordionist. 

There were bagpipers and vigorous drummers from Zimbabwe, right next to each other. You might not expect that to work, but strangely enough—it sounded pretty cool. Some high school kids (and younger), trying out their chops. Some were very good, and some were on a long road towards becoming good. 

Some kids were tap dancing for change. Other kids dancing just for the hell of it. All of them filled with spirit and joy. Tiny people too young to do what we call dancing, but bobbing to the music. The ever-present barefoot girls with waving hands and bangles. 

There was a guy playing a didjeridoo as long as a canoe. A woman shook a rain stick adorned with skulls. (Not real skulls.) There were plenty of the instruments people tend to make jokes about—accordions, banjos, bagpipes—all played with precision and panache and fierce devotion. 

The best busker of the day was a guy playing steel harp and bass drum. (Must have had the toughest hands in the world.) I didn’t know what a steel harp was, until yesterday. A steel harp sounds like a steel drum, and looks like a space ship from a cheesy 1950’s sci-fi movie. 

And then, of course, there was the fountain—which on a day like yesterday seems to be the spiritual heart of this city I call home. The fountain that is like a great eye staring up at the sky. In the fountain, soaking wet and more than half-way to naked, beautiful brown and white and black children squealing with glee.

A band on the fountain lawn played zydeco. The singer sang about finding what he needed “in his girlfriend’s drawers,” which was, yes, possibly offensive but also funny and no one in this city of snowflakes seemed to mind. 

The biggest and most enthusiastic crowd of the day was at the mariachi concert. It was especially gratifying to me—given the poisonous politics of our time, when our leaders encourage us to feel fear and contempt toward our brothers and sisters south of the border—to see the proud and joyous celebration of Mexican culture and music. 

The only street entertainer not making any money seemed to be a guy who was offering compliments for a dollar. No one was mean to him—they just weren’t going to pay for something that should be free and genuine. He’ll have to come up with something better for next year. 

The air was filled with the mingled aromas of grilled salmon, Lebanese food, Thai food, and marijuana. There was a guy wearing angel wings and someone in an iguana suit. All kinds of dancing: Thai, Hungarian, Indian, Celtic. People celebrating cultures without denigrating anyone else’s culture. Beautiful people of every race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, style of dress—all digging the music. Dancing in the grass. Not afraid. 

I’ll say that last part again: Not afraid. Included and welcome. Part of the community. A bearded guy was rocking an elegant pink dress. Not the least bit ashamed to wear it, and not afraid to be exactly who he is. He recognized a middle-aged lady who looked like she’d be at home at a Lutheran bible study, and they gave each other an exuberant hug. 

Never Forget Where You Are From

Despite the photo of tiny tundra plants, today’s entry is about music. But the photo is there for a reason, because music is grounded in a place. First, a question for music lovers: Where is some of the most exciting music coming from these days?

Where are the hotbeds of creativity, the towns where it seems that there is a musical renaissance happening, where the local fires of musical passion are burning bright? Austin? Atlanta? Seattle? Philly? Chicago? Toronto?

I’ll admit, it is a rhetorical question.

My guess is that you did not name any of these towns: Iqaluit, Pangnirtung, Salliut, Quaqtaq and Rankin Inlet. Maybe you have not heard of these places; not many Americans have. But maybe you have heard of Nunavut, the most sparsely-populated province of Canada. 

It is a semi-autonomous province inhabited primarily by the Inuit people. It consists mostly of those hundreds of ragged and treeless islands that on a world map seem to fill up a whole lot of space between North America and the North Pole. Baffin Island, Victoria Island, Banks Island, Ellesmere Island, and many more.

So, what can be found in Nunavut? Polar bears and musk ox, sure. Narwhals even. But rock & roll? With a bari sax?

Here is a picture of Pangnirtung, courtesy of Wikipedia: 

I don’t think you’ll find a nightclub here, but incredible music is coming out of the far north. Some of the most charismatic and soulful artists in Canada hail from villages in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the northernmost tip of Quebec.

Who are they? Here are a few of them: Elisapie, Josh Q and the Trade-offs, The Twin Flames, Riit, Beatrice Deer, The Jerry Cans. These names are increasingly well-known in Canada. Audiences in Europe and even Down Under are taking notice too.

Not many folks in the USA seem aware of this Northern rennaissance, yet—although Elisapie did make an appearance at an NPR “Tiny Desk” concert. So I’ll start with her, on a tune called Quanniuguma: 

This music braids together many elements. Some elements are uniquely Inuit: The lyrics are in Iniktitut, the language of the Inuit, and there is the traditional Inuit technique known as throat singing. You’ll know it when you hear it.

But for Elisapie and for all of these artists, the musical language is a pretty complex blend of influences that come from all over. Jazz. Folk. Rock & Roll, of course. Country. Church music. French-Canadian and Celtic influences from Newfoundland and Quebec. Punk and Electronica.

Folks in Nunavut are as far away from everybody else as it is possible, on this earth, to get. Really. From Pangnirtung, the home village of several of these gifted musicians, it is about 300 kilometers by plane to Iqaliut, the only other town even remotely close. It is a much longer journey by boat, when the ice allows. The next closest settlement of any size is in Greenland, almost 700 kilometers away, across iceberg-filled ocean. 

The other villages mentioned in this post—Salliut, Quaqtaq, Rankin Inlet—are on the mainland of North America, either on the northernmost tip of Quebec or on the other side of Hudson Bay. They are similar in size to Pangnirtung, and just as hard to get to.

Travel is by plane or boat or snow machine or dog sled… when the weather permits. It often doesn’t permit. And yet, when you hear the music that is coming out of Nunavut, you do not hear music that feels isolated from the world. You hear music that is connected.

For instance, in the song Iqaliut, by the Jerry Cans, you hear a touch of Reggae. In the music of The Twin Flames, you hear a definite Celtic influence. There are Inuit rappers. And in any song by Joshua Qaumariaq, you hear Mississippi Delta blues. (I’ll bet none of my readers ever expected “Arctic Soul” to be a genre.) 

While you may hear a bit of Jamaica or Mississippi in some of these songs, there is no mistaking the unique character that comes from place. In all of them, you hear the North. You hear Inuktitut lyrics. Even if you don’t understand the words, you know they are about life in the North. Songs about hunting for seals. The Northern Lights. Songs about community, tradition, and connection. Or scouring the local landfill to find spare parts to fix a broken snow machine.

I don’t know how many of my readers have spent time in the arctic. I’ll tell you this: no ritual is more quintessentially arctic than “dump picking.” It is a good activity at any time, but especially when you need spare parts for the skidoo. (Be careful! Polar bears like the dump too.) Check out this delightful tune by The Twin Flames:

One of the common elements in music from Nunavut is the use of throat singing, a traditional form of musical expression among Inuit women. It is a sound that is entirely organic, made solely by the movement of air through a warm human body.

Think of it: In the Arctic, what materials were available to the Inuit for making instruments? Animal hides, of course, and so drums are a part of the culture. Beyond that, the human body is, itself, the only instrument readily available. 

With its rhythmic use of breath, throat singing was used by mothers to lull babies to sleep. Women would also often engage in a good-natured game of throat singing with each other, to see which one would give in to laughter first. Is it a duet, or a contest? Both, sort of. 

In Ataataga, Riit combines this Inuit tradition with the most modern of genres, electronica. Two women celebrating the ancient music of their heritage, of countless generations of women, and blending it with sounds made by synthesizers and soundboards.

If you like things a little more gritty, rest assured that the blues are alive and well in the North. In fact, a dose of the blues can pack the community center in Iqaliut—when the guy singing them happens to be Joshua Qaumariaq. This guy has a voice just made for the blues.  

In case you are wondering, yes, he does sing the blues in Inuktitut too. 

How did this all get started? Well, I wouldn’t know the answer to that, but surely someone in Iqaliut could tell you. My suspicion is that a significant part of the answer would involve a group of musicians with the awesomely-arctic name of The Jerry Cans. 

The story of the name comes from an attempt by the drummer to use an assemblage of some jerry cans as a make-shift kit, in the absence of an actual drum set. Drums might be hard to come by in the Arctic, but there are always some empty jerry cans nearby. If you want to know what a jerry can is, here’s a picture:

This group, consisting of both Inuit and white musicians, has been a trailblazer for Indigenous musicians in Canada, and for those hailing from Nunavut in particular. Building on their success, and wanting to encourage others from the North, they built a studio and started Aakuluk Music, Nunavut’s only recording label. This is the mission statement on their website:

“The mission of Aakuluk Music is to help Nunavut musicians produce and promote their music. The label will help record, market, and distribute Inuktitut music nationally and internationally now, and for future generations of Inuit musicians. Aakuluk Music seeks to build hope through music and community, to encourage youth, and contribute to the preservation of the territory’s distinct culture.”

I have shared video from this band on my Facebook page more than once. As far as genre is concerned, they defy labels, but in an interview they have described their sound as “loud folk.” That comes about as close as anything else.

Something I love about the Jerry Cans is how they exemplify the belief that music plays an important role in creating and strengthening the bonds of community. They celebrate their culture, to be sure, but they do more than that; they offer songs of healing.

Villages in the far north have their share of problems, from suicide, to substance abuse, domestic violence, erosion of traditional language and culture, and the insecurity a changing climate brings to a hunting society that depends on sea ice.

Musicians are addressing these issues. Two excellent examples of healing songs are Swell, which addresses the epidemic of suicide among Inuit men, and Arnaluqaq, your soul carries the light, which addresses the problem of domestic violence against women.  

Both of these beautiful songs take a deep source of suffering in the community, and transform it into… I don’t know, a kind of determination, maybe, to rise above grief and reclaim both dignity and resilience. To reclaim agency. To assert the value of each human being. Here is Swell: 

I want to end with two songs that celebrate the beauty, resilience, value, and strength of Inuit women. One is sung by a woman, and addresses men. The other is sung by a man, and addresses women. The first is another song by Elisapie. The title is Arnaq, which means Woman. 

Some spoken words at the beginning are translated: “I’m a woman. I give you life. I give you love. So you can give it in return. It becomes your mirror. Never forget where you are from. I’m a woman.” 

I was not able to find a translation for the whole song. Some Inuit singers are not quick to offer English translations. This seems like a perfectly reasonable choice on their part. I’m not their primary audience. And after all, I could learn Inuktikut. 

In searching for some information about this song, I came across the explanation that the song is an exhortation to men to value women and girls, to cherish them, and to “never forget where you came from.” This line, to me, does double-duty; it hearkens back to the womb, and, also, back to home. The village, and the land on which it sets. 

Although I didn’t find a translation, I found an interview with Elisapie in which she says this: “I’m telling men they are the balance in women’s cause. In our history, women have always been close to their families, to care for them, while men had the duty to hunt and understand the territory… at the end of this role that was central to who they were, men lost a part of themselves. I want them to know that it’s possible to have both that strength, and the kindness…”

I love the scenes in this video that are of Inuit men, with their daughters, on the land. 

The song I will end with is Arnaluqaq, by the Jerry Cans, which is introduced on the video as “A call to all the women in the Arctic who have been through — or are in — abusive relationships to remind them that they are beautiful.”

The repeated phrase arnalukaq piujuqpaalujutit means, roughly translated, girl, you are beautiful/good. It alternates with the phrase arnalukaq sanngijuujutit, which means girl, you are strong. The phrase arnalukaq puiguqtailigit means girl, don’t forget.

The introduction goes on to say, “This song is dedicated to all of our daughters to remind them that they are beautiful, and always will be – no matter what the circumstance.  This song is ALSO dedicated to men of all ages who should be raised to respect their partners, to stand up to violence, abuse and harassment, and to never think any form of abuse or violence is acceptable.”

Throughout the song, we see a hand tending a qulliq, a seal-oil lamp. Source of heat and light for the home. “Your soul carries the light.” 

This song really touches my heart every time I hear it. 

I will be keeping my ears open for more great music from the far north. 

In the Pocket

The word itself sounds cool. Say it: Pocket.

It can mean a lot of things, both as a noun and as a verb. It’s derived from the Anglo-French word pokete, which means, essentially, pouch.

The first thing that occurs to me is this: cargo shorts. I am not in favor of non-functional pockets. I want what I place in the pocket to remain there. I have experienced much trouble when car keys, wallet, or other crucial items, were not securely in the pocket.

The word has a satisfying punch to it, a good combination of consonants. It reminds me of a few things, including softball. I haven’t played softball in about thirty years, but I used to play on a church team. I was not a great player, but occasionally I made a good play.

My position was third base. One of the features of third base is that you tend to get line drives that come straight at your head. If you are paying attention you might catch them. If not, they might catch you.

There is a visceral sensation of pleasure when the ball meets your glove right in the pocket. It feels just the way it sounds. It makes your whole hand tingle.

And then there is billiards. The satisfying smack of the cue ball hitting the 8-ball, and the 8-ball plunking, decisively, into the corner pocket, just as you predicted it would.

A band’s rhythm section is said to be playing in the pocket when the drummer and bassist have not only good skills and a superb feel for the music, but great rapport with each other.

David St. Hubbins, of Spinal Tap, famously said “Jazz is mistakes.” Be that as it may, a rhythm section that is in the pocket can transform the interesting choices of a flamboyant soloist into something that seemed on purpose.

It’s all possible because of the security provided by a rhythm section that lays down a solid groove and keeps the music moving relentlessly and joyfully forward—past all dreadful and brilliant mistakes.

If you are one of those show-off guitarists or free-spirit vocalists, (or, God forbid, a saxophonist), a rhythm section that is playing in the pocket gives you permission to fly without worrying too much about your landing.

It allows you to be simultaneously inspired and sloppy, to slip out of time like a shaman on mushrooms and then glide back in, without fuss, to be welcomed by that reliable drummer and bassist who may shake their heads at you, but will welcome you home.

Here’s an illustration from the world of sports:

Sprinting is usually considered an individual activity, the forte of those who want neither to depend on anyone, nor anyone to depend on them. That is probably why I felt inclined toward sprinting in my own athletic pursuits. But in a 400-meter relay, the smooth transition of the baton from one runner’s hand to another is a magical and satisfying demonstration of being in the pocket with another person.

On the track, there is a 20-meter zone in which the passing of the baton must occur. The task is to pass the baton from one runner to the other while both runners are going as fast as is possible within the limitations imposed by physics. Obviously, one runner must be decelerating while the other is accelerating. They must not step out of the lane, of course. Neither is running at full speed, but the goal is to come as close to this ideal as possible. 

Twenty meters goes by quickly when you are sprinting. A lot can go wrong. Bodies can bump. Feet can get tangled. You can just plain miss. It is hard for the one receiving the baton to trust a runner she can’t see—and she must not look. The handoff must happen within the zone. Timing must be spot-on. Many things matter: proper hand position, decisive placement of the baton, a fluid transition from restraint to explosiveness.

The following video is instructive. I could have chosen many videos to illustrate the concept, but since Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce—the red-haired goddess on the Jamaican team—is my favorite female sprinter of all time, I chose this one. Watch the women in yellow. My goodness, a well-executed handoff looks so effortless!

The Chinese sprinters in this video are disastrously not in the pocket. It goes from bad to worse. It’s a mistake to ascribe this nightmare handoff to incompetence; no one gets to the world-championships without being competent. Maybe these two sprinters were put together for their speed, but they just didn’t know each other well enough. Hadn’t put in enough time together.

It’s hard to say, exactly, why things go so wrong. But in such a short space of time, there are multiple moments of what Cool Hand Luke described as a failure to communicate. These failures compound. The Jamaican sprinters, in contrast, are “poetry in motion,” as the saying goes. They make what is not easy look so easy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AV8GNQTOyBU

Reliability, security, solidity, timing, and trust. Here’s another sports illustration:

In rock climbing, there can be an attentiveness that is rare and remarkable between two people who have formed an abiding and reliable partnership. Taking turns as they do between belaying and being on “the sharp end” of the rope, both partners are well-acquainted with the weight of responsibility, and the thrill (or dread) of vulnerability.

What can happen after time—because it takes time—is the birth of an extraordinary trust. This trust is expressed in the clipped and understated phrase watch me. Implicit in the phrase: Catch me.

Here’s a video of Tommy Caldwell climbing a pitch on the Dawn Wall of El Capitan. As you watch it, think of the guy who you never see in the clip: the belayer.

You hear him say “C’mon Tommy!” with no discernable distress in his voice. Imagine the trust required. It isn’t just the trust a climber must have in a belayer; it is also the trust a belayer must have in himself.

This trust frees the climber to pay, as we say, undivided attention. There is no room for the thought what if he doesn’t catch me.

I have shared video of the world’s fastest woman, and a man who is perhaps the greatest climber in the world despite the loss of his index finger to an accident with a table saw. By doing this, I run the risk of implying that to be in the pocket means to possess extravagant gifts, or to push yourself toward something called mastery.

That is not my intent. So, let me be clear, at least regarding my own place in the world: There is not a single art, sport, or skill in which I have achieved even mid-level competency, much less mastery.

In addition, I have routinely made the case in my essays that greatness is an overrated concept.

I’m not sure why I chose these particular videos. Probably just because I like to watch them. I find them both to be stunning—and hugely different—examples of the beauty of human movement. But though they demonstrate great accomplishment, they speak as well to a quality of relationship between people.

In both cases, they show how a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship is a key factor in the action. The drummer and bassist show it too. As the late and great Dr. John might remind us, to be in the pocket with someone means to be in the right place at the right time with the right companion. These three things do not often line up.

Prepositions matter. To be in the pocket with someone is not the same as to be in the pocket of someone. In both cases, the word pocket retains an association with security, but the phrases veer into drastically different territory.

When, like that bassist and drummer, you are with someone in the pocket, security comes from within yourself, from a confidence in your own solid presence in the world. This confidence meets the confidence of another, and enhances the collaboration.

The space in which this happens is the pocket. The pouch.

But when you are in the pocket of someone, your security comes from that person’s power, and is revocable at that person’s whim. The price you pay to is to have your own power swallowed up in their pocket. They have you in the bag.

It happens when there is a power imbalance, an unhealthy need for approval, an opportunity for blackmail, or the likelihood of retribution. It is common in business, in the Senate, in middle school, in graduate school, in romance, in religion, in organized crime, and in banking.

On the other hand, it is an elusive and beautiful thing to be in the pocket with another person. Secure in the mutual trust, you are free to be both daring and capable.

My Facebook profile tells me I have 333 friends. As a measure of anything meaningful, this is a useless assertion. I don’t know what an accurate number is, but maybe no more than 20. And of those, the friends with whom I’ve felt in the pocket—even for a fleeting moment—could be counted on my ten fingers, maybe with some fingers to spare.

It’s hard to know, exactly, what makes it work. It doesn’t happen just because you might want it to.

While agreement in regard to all the particulars of life does not seem necessary, maybe some sort of common notion regarding what is valuable is necessary. Some sort of alignment of the spirit. If it happens, treasure it.

Despite my occasional affability, I am a person who tends to be ill-at-ease in the world of social interaction, and my greatest peace is in nature. I have not often felt in the pocket with another person.

I have more often felt it in nature. I’ve felt myself secure in the pocket of the earth, so to speak. So, I want to share a few of my favorite natural pockets, and maybe convey a bit of the joy, satisfaction, and peace I feel when I am in them.

When I think of pockets in nature, I think of hot springs, harbors, places of emergence, places to build a cabin or grow a garden, a place to moor the boat, shelter the goats. I think of a cove that offers respite along a rugged coast, or a meadow that opens up in a tangled forest.

One of my favorite natural pockets is an especially elegant alpine landform called a cirque. It occurs in mountain ranges that have been sculpted by glaciers. A cirque is a bowl-shaped basin ringed by steep cliffs, and it often cradles a lake which may be bermed by rubbly moraines of gravel left behind by retreating ice.

A chain of such small lakes may occur in tiers, one below the other, linked by a silver ribbon of cascading water. Each lake represents a stage in the glacial story. These are called pater noster lakes, which is a marvelous name alluding to their similarity to rosary beads on a string.

In the highest cirques, rather than a lake, you can often find a charming bit of ice called a pocket glacier. It’s a small glacier that is nestled into the pocket of the mountain, sort of like a white mouse in the pocket of a waistcoat.  

The most glorious campsites in the North Cascades, the ones that I love to return to, are in such basins. A gentle place by the water’s edge, a place to set up camp after coming down from the exhilaration of a windy summit or a knife-edged ridge.

There is a quiet and deep satisfaction at coming to rest in the center of a basin ringed by peaks. Find a patch of soft ground, near a stream… fill up your water bottles, fire up the stove, and make some coffee. Snug and secure in the pocket.

There is something about a pocket that seems nurturing and life-giving. Womb-like, of course. Maternal. And it is also powerful. There is a center of gravity in a pocket. Maybe a pocket is the root chakra of landforms. It’s where every creature comes to drink.

In Central Washington, just a couple of hours from the alpine cirques of the North Cascades, there is an entirely different sort of pocket, although it also holds water. This region in the rain shadow of the Cascades is one of the driest parts of North America.

In this desert, there is a weird and wonderful landscape called the Channeled Scablands. It is characterized by deep gashes that cut through layers of basalt, as if a giant bear from outer space had made a swipe at the earth. Scattered through the coulees and among the outcrops of basalt are hundreds of small lakes called potholes.  

The “channels” of the Channeled Scablands are the result of unimaginably huge floods that ripped through this country, repeatedly, about 15,000 years ago. The floods scoured the land, leaving behind thousands of pockets in the basalt. In time, the pockets filled with water. And now this dry, dry desert is prime habitat for countless migrating waterbirds.

Water and pockets just seem to go together.

And one wonderful place where they go together is on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, in California, where there is a place called Long Valley, which is known for its numerous hot springs.

Long Valley is, in fact, an ancient caldera, which is in itself a kind of pocket left behind by an enormous volcanic eruption. Underneath this broad, grassy valley, the earth’s heat still simmers. Hot water percolates to the surface, and it finds its way into little pools.

The pool may be entirely natural, or it may be augmented with a little bit of human labor to hold the water in its pocket. On a frosty mountain morning, the way to find the hot springs is to look for the steam and navigate the network of dirt roads until you find the pool of your choice.

There is one pool that is a personal favorite of mine. I’ve been lucky enough to have it all to myself as the sun casts its rosy first light on Mount Morrisson.    

And I will end with this, which is an exercise in looking forward rather than looking backward. I haven’t been to this place yet, so can offer no photos. But here’s a screenshot from Google maps, to give a rough approximation of the shape of the land, seen from a great height:

In the north of Iceland, smack-dab in the middle of a mountainous peninsula called Trollstagi (the Troll Peninsula), there is a long, rugged crest of connected peaks running east to west. The broad sweep of it is graceful, reminiscent of a bird’s wings.

The crest of the ridge is sharp and punctuated by horns, which are not trombones, but are pointy pyramidical peaks common in glacial landscapes. Stretching to the north of this long crest, like feathers trailing from the wing of the bird, subsidiary parallel ridges stretch out for a couple of kilometers.

It is patterned landscape. The parallel ridges that come off of the main ridge are all fluted by countless ribs of shattered basalt, with gullies between them. I know I’m mixing my animal metaphors because I described the ridges as feathers, but the ribs remind me of fish bones.

Between each ridge, a long and mostly straight glacial valley aims for the main ridge. And each valley ends in at least one cirque that holds a pocket glacier. Some valleys hold a few small glaciers, like lobes on a cauliflower. In a 15-mile span from east to west, there are no less than a dozen cirques holding pocket glaciers. Each one represents its own journey, and is approached through its own private valley.

Beautiful little cirques, holding beautiful little glaciers. Did I say holding? I did. That is a curious thing. In a landscape that is severe, it is interesting that the verbs that occur to me to describe the relationship between these glaciers and the mountain itself are gentle, almost nurturing. They are cradled. Nestled. Snuggled up to the ridge.

I have not been to this place, but I have studied it obsessively—so much so that I have decided this: On my next trip to Iceland, whenever that may be, I hope to spend multiple days exploring this ridge, while based out of a modest lodge that is perfectly situated to this purpose. I might also bring a tent, to camp in these cirques—but weather in Iceland, at altitude, can be notoriously awful, so the lodge is a good back-up plan.

It may be the best place in all of Iceland from which to pursue the particular odd obsession of pocket glacier tourism—which is not really a thing, but perhaps I have just invented it. 

After all, we must all find our own way to be in the pocket.

Worry Stones

Hidden away in a dresser drawer, I have a beautiful hand-made bowl that was given to me as a gift about two decades ago, from an old friend of mine, a fine woodworker. It is really a bowl that should not be in a dresser drawer. It should be where people can see it, and I have determined that it now will be.

I had invited my friend to Washington to climb Mount Shuksan, a glorious peak that rivals, to my mind, the Grand Teton in both its rugged profile and extraordinary dignity. It was such a pleasure to climb it with my friend. Although it was not explicitly stated, I felt that the bowl he gave me was kind of an exchange; I shared with him something that I loved, and he shared with me an expression of his love of wood.  

Inside the bowl, also hidden from view, are a couple hundred stones. To be more specific, they are semi-precious stones that I had gathered, shaped, and polished over a few years. I intended to fashion them into jewelry, particularly earrings to adorn the lovely ears of my wife and daughters. Intended is the key word in that last sentence.

Leopardskin jasper, intricately-branched moss agates, citron with rutile inclusions, tiger’s eye and hawk’s eye, rare and lovely Biggs jasper, jade, serpentine, hematite banded with iron, rhodonite and delicate pink rhodochrosite, pearly-blue chalcedony, deep blue sodalite laced with veins of milky quartz, softly-glowing green amazonite…

I dabbled for a while in lapidary work, but never acquired the skills and more expensive equipment necessary to become serious about it. To my recollection, all I ever made was earrings. When we moved to a house that didn’t have a good garage space for a grinding wheel, I put the unfinished stones in the wooden bowl, and that was the end of that. I’ve not worked with them since.

I rarely think about these stones. When I do open the drawer and see them—always incidentally, while I’m looking for something like toenail clippers—they feel symbolic of the unfinished bits of my life. The intention I once had of turning them into jewelry has slipped, like an unreturned phone call, into oblivion.

This tendency to begin something and not to finish it is part of my nature. It manifests in so many ways: Doing the dishes, reading Tolstoy, finishing up a degree in Restoration Horticulture. Learning to build a cob house and a green roof. Grafting fruit trees, cultivating mushrooms, making stone jewelry, playing the trombone. Half-done. Half-learned.

Enough learned to know what is possible. When I look at the bowl of stones, a little zing goes through me, a little moment of enthusiasm. What if I set up my grinder again, turned these stones into something finished? But I suspect I won’t do it. Yes, yes, I could, if only I set my mind to it. But there are so many books to (not) read first. 

Despite the fact that they never became jewelry, I don’t regret any of the time spent on those stones. Both effort and joy went into the process. I loved finding rough-cut slabs at some funky little rock shop. Rummaging through crates at estate sales. Spending the day at some obscure creek looking for water-polished nephrite boulders, or chipping away at outcrops for agates.

And then the pleasure of finding just the perfect little square inch of beauty in the stone that I could chisel out, then grind into the shape I wanted, then tumble until it shimmered. It was an activity I could get lost in, an activity that kept me in the moment and quieted the mind. In this way, it was like making music, or shaping a poem, or climbing a cliff.

Maybe at some point I will actually make a few more pairs of earrings. The rest of the stones I may just give away, unfinished. They serve no practical purpose. I guess you could put one in your pocket and rub it. See what it does for you. Throughout history, people in many cultures invested stones with symbolic meaning.

According to Wikipedia, worry stones are “smooth, polished gemstones, usually in the shape of an oval with a thumb-sized indentation, used for relaxation or anxiety relief. The smoothness of the stone is most often created naturally by running water. The size of a worry stone is often about half the size of a silver dollar coin…”

This use of the stone is related to many ancient beliefs about stones conferring certain powers or protections upon those who are adorned with them. I don’t know about that. But I do know that working with these stones did my spirit some good, in much the same way that growing a garden and keeping bees does my spirit good.

Making money from the sale of jewelry was never the goal. In fact, making the jewelry was never even the goal. What was the goal? I suppose I don’t really know, but it’s sort of like this: I remember the way my dog Rosie, who has moved on now, would gnaw at a bone for hours, lost to everything but the visceral pleasure of crunching on a pig’s knuckle. The slabs of stone drew me in a similar way.

A dog who worries at a bone has not a care in the world. When I was hunched over a work bench or on the concrete floor of the garage, chipping away at a hunk of stone, there was no room in my mind for anxiety about the future, or disappointment with myself, or gripes aimed at the Creator.

A dog “worries at a bone,” we say. Funny that this word applies to both a mental state of anxiety and the verb that can also describe what we do (or at least what I do) to banish anxiety. Maybe the stones in this gorgeous little bowl are worry stones. Yep, maybe that’s what they are. A way to calm the spirit. A kind of pig’s knuckle to gnaw on. The mineral manifestation of prayer.

A way to feel connected to the earth. A way to pay attention. A way to show gratitude.