Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The End of the World? Take a Rain Check!

A perfect ending to a perfect day!

The End of the World? Take a Rain Check!


The world was supposed to end today but the event got rained out. I suppose true believers wrapped themselves in disappointment. I mean, one hates to wait in breath-held anticipation for any happening, joyful or fearful, and then have one’s plans go awry.

However, I had made no plans other than my usual business and pleasure. Ah, I hear the clamor of raised voices. I see fingers of accusation pointed in my direction. “It is people like you who bring about the end of the world; business and pleasure, indeed!” I shrug. “Well, what do you believe in?” the voices ask.

I believe in rain. This past winter I believed in snow. But winter is over and done. Fickle believer that I am, today I fervently believe in rain. This evening I hear the music of rain thrumming timpani on my metal roof. My roof is red. Rain on red makes a more melodious sound than rain on any other color. I have neither scientific nor religious proof to back up my belief. But it pleasures me with a Cheshire cat grin to believe in the superior rhythm of rain on my red roof.

It’s been a week of rain and a week of astounding revelations. One actually can watch grass grow. Everything is out of season this year. Each day for a month I have walked out to my raspberry patch to see if the tiny bumps on the stalks were buds. Every time, I walked back to the house swallowing disappointment. I despaired of my raspberry canes ever being more than dead sticks. But today I bring tidings of joy. On days like today growth is visible. I watched leaves emerge from tiny buds to fullness. In one week of rain, while I stood in my window, I watched the metamorphosis. I predict raspberries by the bushel. My currants are in bloom with tiny nodules of berries. The lilacs are sending out clusters. My bleeding hearts are bleeding. My poplars sport unfurled umbrellas. This might not seem like much to you, but with the end of the world in sight, I want all the excitement I can get.

This afternoon I drove to Havre. Through the rain. In my red van. Over the packed-earth detour, a perfect place for the world to end. Slip-sliding along in the mud, that slimy by-product of rain plus road construction. Here’s a scientific formula: rain plus road construction plus earthen detour plus traffic equals potholes. Kidney-jarring pits. Bone-jangling pits. I liken the experience to a strange marriage of a rodeo to a demolition derby. My van sun-fished like a bucking horse. Every driver, in my imagination, wore a crash helmet. We hunched forward in our saddles, eyes slit in concentration, our leather-gloved fingers wrapped around the steering wheels. We hung on grimly while our rigs bounced over the rutted throughway, sending sheets of mud over the windshields of oncoming vehicles. Yee-Haw! Let ‘er rip!

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Frost mused about the end of the world in his poem, “Fire and Ice”:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if I had to perish twice

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Although the world could have ended today, when I woke up this morning, I was still here. I say the rains came down and doused the fire and melted the ice. I walked out to my garden and harvested a batch of rhubarb in the rain. I cut a fistful of tulips and stuck them in a pitcher of water to grace my kitchen table. I drove to Havre and conducted business. I enjoyed a good dinner with good friends. I drove home. And if, as the rains continue, we wish we had built an ark, I’ll watch my flowers grow.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

May 26, 2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

Small town people running small towns—with help from the LGC

Small town people running small towns—with help from the LGC

The highway from Harlem to Billings at four o’clock in the morning is an empty stretch of road. Mayor Bill drove the Yukon . Council Member Sondra rode shotgun. The mayor and I were headed to the annual Municipal Elected Officials Workshop. Bill’s handsome young grandson Brandon, resplendent in Navy whites, slept upright in the back seat. Bill and I talked quietly. We noted the greening beauty of the countryside, the play of shadow as the sun rose, the abundance of wildlife.

We arrived at the Billings airport, our first stop, too early for Brandon to check in for his flight to Norfolk , so we went upstairs to the restaurant. After a leisurely though hearty breakfast, we lingered over coffee. Once we had seen the young man safely on his way, Bill and I drove to the Heights for a short visit with my sister, a visit I thoroughly enjoyed, more so since I had not seen her for a couple of years. Judy, who owns her own shop, cut my hair. We caught up on family gossip and hugs.

The workshop we were attending was provided by the Local Government Center , an educational outreach extension of Montana State University . In conjunction with the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority and the Clerks Institute, it offers trainings, technical assistance and research for elected officials of Montana cities and towns. There were sessions for mayors and council members, city attorneys and clerks from all over the state. Once we checked into our rooms we immersed ourselves in trainings from Wednesday through Friday. City clerks and treasurers had arrived early for a full week of day and night sessions. Sometimes we met jointly; other workshops were specific to each group.

Lectures, simulated incidents, table-top exercises, group discussions, Q&A sessions—all were valuable. Emergency management, jurisdictions, the declaration process, how to request assistance—all good stuff! Issues that require public participation and deliberation, tips on researching an issue, and ways to advocate to decision makers so that public policy may be developed or changed—this was exciting! Wetlands, flood mitigation, maximizing benefits of wetlands, improving water quality—how timely. Managing conflict constructively—gathering tools and skills to effectively manage potentially contentious interpersonal and community conversations—all provocative topics.

The whole workshop experience definitely increased my ability to be effective in my role as a council person. But the best part, to me, was interacting with other elected officials from around Montana . Some were friends from previous workshops; others I met for the first time. We shared our stories. We asked multitudes of questions, to one another and to the workshop leaders. We indulged in stimulating dialogue as each workshop topic brought new challenges.

We found that most of us know the same frustrations and rewards of living in small communities. When we don’t take the opportunity to share our experiences, strengths, hopes, failures and frustrations with one another, we often get to feeling like we are pushing a heavy boulder uphill by ourselves. At least that is how I felt when I arrived at the workshop.

This was beautifully summed up by a workshop leader, “Most small towns are run by STP.” “What does that acronym stand for?” we asked. “Same Ten People”. The room exploded with laughter. And I felt at home. I learned that I am not alone.

Our jobs would be extremely difficult without the help of the Local Government Center and the trainings and workshops they hold throughout the state. Being a municipal official is a lot like getting married or like parenting. We sign up for it without a clue, without a training manual, without a step-by-step book of instructions. LGC fills the gap.

LGC means a lot to me and to my home town. Any one of us in city government can pick up the phone and dial for help. LGC personnel are always ready to answer questions, give us information, help with research, steer us in the right direction, and keep us out of jail. The Legislature, in their dubious wisdom, failed to fund the LGC this session. Instead they gave a no-strings chunk of money to the University system and suggested LGC request funding from them. I hope the University Regents listen.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

May 19, 2011

Hog Fat, Red Devil Lye, and Memories

Hog Fat, Red Devil Lye, and Memories

Last Tuesday my friend Rebecca Hofer invited me to the North Harlem Colony to watch them make laundry soap. Becky and Judy were teaching their daughters Melanie and Emberly, passing on the tradition. When I arrived, a batch was bubbling in the huge propane-fired, rectangular steel cauldron. The smells of the lye, the fat and the soap flooded my mind with memories.

Every fall when the weather turned cold, back when I was a kid, we butchered a hog. With a neighbor’s help, my Dad hoisted the hog by its hind legs over a wash tub to drain the blood for sausage. Then they lowered the hog into a kettle of scalding water. The men scraped the hair from the hide and peeled the hide from the carcass. They scooped huge curls of fat from the meat, scraped the hide clean, trimmed excess fat from the chops and roasts and threw the scraps into buckets. Dad removed the hams and sides for bacon and set them aside to sugar cure to his own recipe.

I watched the whole process in silence. I knew better than to get underfoot. The men never shooed me away.

In a Dickensian way, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I didn’t have a mother. I was raised by a grandma who didn’t believe in coddling children. She cooked meals and cleaned and did laundry, but very early I figured out her main job was to teach me all she thought a woman needed to know.

When the men were finished, it was our turn to take over. Grandma and I cut up the rest of the meat. We canned chops and chunks of pork in large Mason jars with a pressure cooker. Grandma put the fear into me with gruesome stories about pressure cookers blowing up, maiming and killing women, some whom she knew, careless women who didn’t maintain a clean seal on the cooker. We made sausage and head cheese and pickled pigs feet. We filled the big black kettle with the best cuts of the hog fat and, over a low, slow fire out in the back yard, rendered the fat into lard. We munched a handful of the cracklings but tossed the rest of them, along with the remainder of the fat, back into the buckets to save for making soap. We poured the lard into containers and stored them in the cool underground cellar. We worked rapidly. The pork had to be processed quickly, so as not to spoil. The only part of the pig we didn’t eat was the part we made into soap.

Soap making for the North Harlem Colony requires the labor of two families and takes two days. Out of ten gigantic batches, I have no idea how many pounds of soap they made. To make just one batch, the men filled the vat with a mixture of about thirty pounds of lye, water up to here, and forty gallons of lard and cracklings. While the men brought the mixture to a slow boil, Melanie and Emberly stirred it, keeping it moving. Once the mixture had bubbled and boiled and the soap separated from the lye water, the girls scooped it into buckets. Darius and David and Douglas carried the buckets of liquid soap and poured it into huge steel trays. Once the soap cooled, the men cut it into chunks and placed the bars in mesh bags which they then hung in a storage room to cure for two to three years. The whole time I was there, Becky and Judy never sat down, cleaning up after one batch, preparing for the next.

I remember soap making in my childhood. I remember the red and white can of Red Devil lye with the skull and crossbones poison symbol. I remember stirring those same bubbling ingredients of fat, lye and water in the black kettle over the fire, the same kettle Grandma and I had used for rendering the lard. I remember pouring the soap into baking pans and cutting the cooled soap into bars. I remember grating the soap into flakes for laundry. I remember using the bars of our lye soap to scrub floors and to take baths and wash my hair.

I grew up hearing that lye soap would cure itchy skin, poison ivy and oak, chigger bites, athlete’s foot, dandruff, acne, mites, eczema, bed bugs, head lice, and mosquito bites. It also works to clean cement. Some people use it as catfish bait. I know from my Grandma it cures a sassy mouth.

Next year I’ll go back out to the Colony when they make soap. This time I’ll pitch right in to help. I’ll take my rubber boots, a rubber apron and heavy rubber gloves and a scarf to keep my hair out of my face. I have no desire to make my own lye soap. But I might bring home a bar to see if it still works on mosquito bites.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

May 12, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fear of Flying

Or: The Winds of Insanity!

Fear of Flying

Saturday morning, with a last minute invitation and a whim, I threw a change of clothing and my toothbrush into a small bag, shoved in a book for just in case, climbed into my trusty van Roshanna, and with a “Giddy-up Go” pointed her east, and keeping a tight rein on the steering wheel, bucked the wind all the way to Glasgow to visit my high school classmate Jim.

The sky above looked like a gigantic upside-down blue mixing bowl. Half way to Dodson I noticed lake-wind effect clouds moving in from the southeast, beautiful and billowy. A hundred puffs of cloud, each shaped like a flying saucer, soared in perfect fleet formation. I could hardly take my eyes from them.

By the time I drove through Malta , I was not so much looking at the sky as trying to keep out of the sky. My van is not aerodynamically engineered. Yet she kept trying to take off, up, up, and away, into the wild blue yonder.

According to the NOAA report from Glasgow , the wind held steady at thirty-six mph, gusting to forty-eight. These certainly were not tornado-force winds. However, out on the open road rolling across the Plains of northeastern Montana , this is considerable force.

I focused on holding the steering wheel in a death grip, glad I had not removed my pile of winter-traction sandbags. Whenever I drove through a cut in the hills, the wind picked us up and moved us four feet to the north. A four foot shift on narrow two-lane US 2 made me feel grateful there were few travelers sharing the road that blustery morning.

Normally I love to fly. I prefer flying as a passenger in a small plane, one in which I know the pilot. The irony struck me that my craft is small and I know the pilot intimately. So there I was, taxiing down the runway of US 2, valiantly trying NOT to lift off. I realized in that moment that I was afraid of flying.

Actually, I was not so much afraid of flying as I was afraid of landing. I especially wanted to land in an upright position, four wheels down, on the same stretch of asphalt from which I had lifted off.

Then another fear struck me. Here I was, preparing to solo, and I did not have a pilot’s license. Think of the consequences. The FAA would investigate. They would discover that my craft had none of the requisite navigational equipment. I had failed to file a flight plan. I would undergo endless hours of interrogation. Undoubtedly a hefty fine. Perhaps time behind bars. Maybe blindfolded facing a firing squad. Certainly a special restriction stamped on my MDL. Oh, the humiliation.

In my favor, air traffic was light. One meadow lark clutching a fence post and two geese wading through the grass. The wind had grounded all sensible birds.

I finally made it to Glasgow . My friend Jim peeled me out of my van and treated me to a drive out to Gun Site, a private hunting preserve he shares with his partners. We saw hundreds of white tail deer. Later Jim prepared a gourmet meal and we enjoyed scintillating conversation.

My trip home the following day was less eventful. Again, my van and I bucked the wind, but it was a mere breeze in comparison to the gales of the previous day. For entertainment I watched the needle on the gas gauge go down as the greening landscape unfurled before us.

I may have to get a new steering wheel. I noticed where my hands grip in the ten o’clock and the two o’clock positions, the wheel is squeezed very thin. While it is in the shop, I wonder if I could have the mechanics weld on retractable wings. I think a roof-mounted propeller would be especially attractive. I wonder where I can take flying lessons.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

May 5, 2011