Barnyard Ikebana

Ikebana is a form of sculpture that exists only within a limited time span, transforms from moment to moment, then perishes. 

 ~ Akane Teshigahara

When I was a teenager, my grandaddy took me to an exhibit of Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. We walked into a long room glowing with diffuse sunlight and spectacular flowers. At least a hundred vases graced the tables lining the walls. We slowly walked past each one, admiring not only the blossoms themselves but the sculptural quality of every element within the arrangement. My grandaddy, a painter and gardener himself, used his hands to explain to me what he liked about certain arrangements. He talked about movement, balance, suggestion, grace — all the intangible qualities the flower arrangers conveyed with understated perfection. He’d taken a risk that I was ripe to appreciate the artistic spirit of Ikebana — and he’d guessed right. I ate it up.

After that day, I saw the world differently. I began to notice the underlying beauty surrounding my everyday life. The simplicity, spontaneity, and seasonal reverence behind Ikebana became my aesthetic practice. Or maybe I should say it became my aesthetic play, because that’s really what its’ about — fooling around. Seeing how things go together. Or don’t. Experimenting with what’s lying about. Arranging a small corner of the world.

For instance, there’s a retired farm nearby where hundred-year-old orchard trees drop fruit for squirrels and deer to glean. The other day, I picked up an apple as I wandered through the old barnyard. I sensed that apple had artistic aspirations before it became wildlife fodder, so we tried out a few ideas before I tossed it back in the deep grass. Is this Ikebana? I’m not sure, but it felt like it for a playful autumn hour.


Chasing Dragonflies 

Last week, I sat by an irrigation ditch watching dragonflies. The water slipped by, smooth and silent. Small copper-orange meadowhawk dragonflies prowled along the lush green ribbon, the clapping of their wings the only sound. They hovered over the water in pairs, the male in front with its tail connected to the back of the female’s head. They flew as one creature up and down the ditch, dipping occasionally so the female could touch the tip of her tail in the water — part of an elaborate dragonfly egg-laying process. There must have a been a dozen such pairs, weaving intricate patterns between banks of rushes, wild mint, and the autumn-tinged leaves of curly dock.

Into this tranquil scene shot an electric-blue male darner dragonfly three times the size of the dainty meadowhawks. The thrumming of its wings sounded like a tiny motor propelling a three-inch-long iridescent body with luminous eyes the size of peas. It darted after the mating meadowhawks, scattering them in all directions. It prowled between the grassy banks hunting for prey, snatching gnats with sudden swoops. It flashed sunlight off its translucent wings as if it commanded the light — then sped away down the ditch, disappearing into the deep tree shadows.

This is the point in a nature essay where the writer should surprise the reader with some poignant insight and gracefully glide to a precious conclusion … but when I reflect upon these bombastic dragonflies all I come up with is Robert Plant — Led Zeppelin’s lion-haired lead singer. Plant’s vocal agility (among other things) first captivated me in high school and he’s zoomed in and out of my life ever since. Some creatures just seem larger than life and flashier than basic biology would require. Check out any vintage Led Zeppelin concert footage and you’ll see what I mean about Robert Plant.

As for the virile dragonflies prowling the sinuous curves of our local irrigation system, I went hunting for them, camera in hand. This is no easy endeavor. They’re fast, aggressive, and preoccupied with their own agendas before the hard freezes of fall. But on a warm Indian Summer morning, at the edge of a small reservoir where our ditch ends, I got lucky. A spotted skimmer rested on a willow stem long enough for me to creep in close and press the shutter. Lordy, look at those wings! See why dragonflies are the rockstars of my insect world?

Male Eight-spotted Skimmer who was very patient with my picture-taking at McKenzie Reservoir, Deschutes Co., Oregon.

Burning Through 

There’s a repurposed school bus that’s often parked in the vacant lot next to The Mine Shaft bar in Winnemucca, Nevada. This small painting adorns its side. I’ve often pondered what it means. My best guess is that it illustrates the evolution of Homo Erectus, subspecies Incendo — collectively known throughout the West as “Burners.” Every year, in late summer, they congregate on the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man — an event that features, among other things, the torching of a huge man-shaped sculpture on the playa.

Sounds simple enough, but over the decades the gathering has accumulated a complexity that’s staggering. Burning Man encompasses everything from inspired public art to hedonistic debauchery and back again. Every human fantasy that can be dragged out to the vast playa behind a vehicle makes an appearance.

If you live in a rural community along any of the migration routes to the Black Rock Desert, you’ll witness a plethora of urban-looking people driving strangely equipped RV’s or towing makeshift trailers piled with bicycles, 55 gallon water drums, building materials and the random odds and ends of civilization.

On the way to Burning Man, everything and everybody is clean. A week later, the same parade passes by in reverse — thoroughly coated with dust. If you live downwind of the Black Rock Desert, it can be hard to imagine what would compel a Burner to pay more than $400 for the privilege of wallowing in all that dust. Any windy day the same dust arrives in Winnemucca for free! But most anyone who’s been to Burning Man will assure you the expense is worth the opportunity to live out your wildest dreams — or watch someone else live out theirs.

I try to imagine what the early pioneers along the Overland Trail would have thought if they came across the modern migration to Black Rock City. Those bedraggled settlers might have rubbed their eyes in disbelief, concluding the desert light was playing tricks on them. That’s how it seems. Burning Man exists as its own mirage. By the end of the week, only the camaraderie, and the dust, are real.

Poetry in Place 

Come with me to the River Bench along Fountain Creek near Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. I discovered it while riding my bicycle on the old Ute trail one hot summer morning. Nestled in the cool shade of willows, undulating like the creek, it invites you to linger.

The River Bench is not a bench in any conventional sense. It’s more like a floating concrete sculpture resting on boulders. The top is decorated with stones and colorful tiles. Some of the tiles are embossed with verses written by one of my favorite poets, Pattiann Rogers, who penned the poems especially for this spot along the creek.

On my first visit, I circled the bench, reading all the verses, then lay down on the cool cement. Suspended between earth and sky on Pattiann’s words, her poems came alive around me. The creek cascaded over a riffle, talking to itself. The grasses faintly swayed, anticipating the afternoon breeze. The air smelled green. Even now, years later, I can close my eyes and feel the delightful spirit of that place.

Thanks go to Steve Wood, who designed and constructed the River Bench, and the people of Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, who helped install the project. What a surprising and wonderful gift!




Illipah Reservoir in central Nevada has vanished. In a normal water year, these wild horses would need snorkels. Instead of trout habitat, Illipah has returned to its former self — a windy, parched flat. The horses — four adults and one foal — spend the heat of the day dozing, the only movement the swishing of tails. A trickle of water runs in the tiny gully, all that’s left of the creek. Short-cropped grass tenaciously colonizes the lakebed.

This scene speaks of extreme drought, but also hope. How else to read the faint green grass, the offering of water, the cooling wind, and the sleeping foal?

The Whole Picture

A few weeks ago, this scene caught my eye as I drove along Upper Klamath Lake. The mountain’s reflection and the line of trees in the evening light conveyed a Zen-like simplicity that made me want to pull over and rummage for my camera. I thought I might stop by the side of the road, snap the shutter, and drive on but that’s not how it happened. It got complicated.

When I noticed the picture, I couldn’t find a place to pull over, so I turned onto the first road heading toward the lake. I rattled across a set of railroad tracks, descended a short hill, passed through a scattering of old houses and bounced down a rutted track to a chain-link fence that corralled towering stacks of 55-gallon drums. On foot, I found a trail that led to the shoreline. I could see my picture, but an industrial-looking metal dock jutted into the foreground. Slogging back to the car, I noticed I could see the image through the chain-link fence, so I cradled my lens in the diamond-shaped opening and made another exposure past the scattered debris.

When I got home, I loaded the images into the computer and started cropping out clutter, trying to recreate the dreamy atmosphere I remembered. I eliminated the human-made foreground until what remained came close to my original idea — but I had a nagging feeling there was more.

Eventually it dawned on me how the creative process often exposes us to the messy context of natural beauty. If there had been a place to pull over along the highway, I would have made the pristine picture that I first saw and continued driving. Instead, I was forced off the high road into the heavily altered environment of the Klamath Basin. As I bumbled my way around houses, muddy ditches, gates, fences, trucks, docks, and fuel tanks, I bemoaned the hodgepodge of my species. But working on the photographs from that outing, I began to appreciate the interaction of the human and natural scene. If I could be less obsessed with capturing my vision of the untarnished natural world, I’d be more willing to take in the whole picture. After all, humans have lived and worked along the shores of Upper Klamath Lake for thousands of years. Why pretend otherwise?

So I ended up with two very different photographic versions of my experience. The first is of Upper Klamath Lake — beyond time. The second is a snapshot from our time, framed by feral junk and the rumble of a passing freight.

Shoe Trees

The High Desert makes great shoe tree habitat. There must be thousands of dead or dying trees along lonely stretches of highway just waiting to be adorned with castoff shoes. As a kid, I delighted in every shoe tree we passed. These spontaneous shrines helped relieve the boredom of long road trips in the back of the family station wagon. I’d point and yell as we sped by, trying to impress upon my parents the significance of the site.

But what was the significance? Looking back as an adult I wonder. Certainly, they have the element of surprise. They’re kinetic sculpture. They’re natural and not-natural. They enable shoes to levitate! But as a kid, I think I also saw them as a sign of flamboyant rebellion. Teenagers could actually throw their shoes away. My mom would never let me do that. When I outgrew a pair of shoes, I had to hand them down to a smaller kid. I couldn’t liberate my shoes to swing in a tree along some lonesome highway.

So when I became a teenager did I ever throw a pair of shoes up in a shoe tree? No. Why was that? Was it because by then I didn’t wear sneakers, the predominant species populating shoe trees? Or was it something deeper and more mysterious?

This needs to be remedied. There’s a cottonwood near Mitchell, Oregon, that has room for a few more shoes. Next time I go that way, I’m flinging an old pair skyward.

Horse Power

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a Luddite. I’m intrigued by the idea that working horses still have a job — despite the industrial and digital revolutions. Last weekend I went to the Small Farmer’s Journal 35th Annual Horsedrawn Auction & Swap. If a horse can pull it, chances are it will be on the auction block in Madras, Oregon. This year there were stage coaches, buckboards, surreys, freight wagons, sheep wagons, covered wagons, chuck wagons, gypsy carts, sulky carts, forecarts, sleighs, Amish buggies, wagonettes, chariots, a full-size hearse and that’s not the half of it. You could also find all the harness parts to go with whatever rig grabbed your fancy.

As I wandered around ogling the offerings, an antique black surrey caught my eye. Its red velvet seats showed wear and the red fringe rimming the roof had faded to pale pink. Generous wraps of electrical tape reinforced the rods supporting the top. To my eye, the old girl looked ready for a makeover or a museum.

Just then, a passel of Amish or Mennonite kids (hard for me to tell which) surrounded me like a flock of chickadees. Their plain dress set them apart. Two of them, a boy and a girl, climbed up in the buggy and tried it out. They wiggled around, operated whatever was operable, peered at various parts, then climbed out and headed to the next vehicle. I expected some adult to yell at them to get off the equipment, but no one did. Then I realized that these kids probably ride around in buggies all the time. Most of the Amish and some of the Mennonite religious communities have chosen to forego owning and operating automobiles. These kids didn’t think of that old surrey as a fragile artifact. It was just another second-hand horsedrawn vehicle to be put to good use.

I saw the sprawling wagon yard with new eyes. This was no Antiques Roadshow. There were lots of people here buying equipment who planned on using the stuff. Mixed in with the vintage rolling stock were brand new vehicles and harness, much of it made by the “Plain People.”

Being a provincial Westerner, I’m not too familiar with the Amish and “Horse and Buggy” Mennonite communities, so I did some research when I got home. I was surprised to discover that according to the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service, Amish farms are one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. farm community. (Their population more than doubles every twenty years.) More Amish farms means more horse-powered agriculture, logging, and transportation. Add to them the old timers, traditional loggers, historical reenactment devotees, bioregional back-to-the-landers, sustainable neo-Hippies, super-green organic farmers, and other born-again teamsters and what do you know? Horse power — as in “powered by actual horses” — seems to be making a comeback in America.

Maybe I’m not an atavistic Luddite after all? Or, if I am, I’m in good company.

(Suspect you might be a born-again atavistic Luddite yourself? Subscribe to the Small Farmer’s Journal and find out.)

Basque Leftovers


If you’ve ever eaten at one of Northern Nevada’s authentic Basque restaurants, you’ll realize the practicality of this topic. There will be leftovers. These eateries got their start feeding hungry ranch crews. A constant parade of side dishes preamble the main course and unless you know how to pace yourself, you’ll be too stuffed to eat that massive pile of meat they set in front of you midway through the meal. Don’t worry. They’ll expect you to ask for a take-home container. Since lamb is the traditional American Basque staple, chances are lamb stew is in your future. Here’s two ways we make it at our house.

Tried and True Lamb Stew

Cut the left over lamb into bite-size pieces. Set it aside. Sauté chopped onions in a generous cast iron stew pot until they’re transparent, then add vegetable or beef broth, chopped carrots, celery, potatoes, parsley, bay leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Cook the veggies until they’re soft, add the meat, then simmer until everything is hot. Mmmmm… Great Basin comfort food!

Basque-Morrocan Fusion Stew

This version of lamb stew came about when our leftovers included solomo and lamb. Solomo is pork loin smothered in roasted whole pimentos and onions. Chop up the meat, pimentos, and onions and put it all in a stew pot along with the garlic and sauces/drippings from the leftover containers. Add vegetable broth, chopped carrots, celery, a handful of dried apricots and mint leaves. (You can also add small chunks of sweet potato if you have them.) Spice the stew with cumin and lemon zest. Simmer until the veggies and apricot pieces are tender and the flavors blend. If you make it thick, you can serve it over rice or couscous, otherwise, serve in bowls with sourdough toast. The sourdough compliments the sweetness of the apricots.

As they say in Basque, “Primerakoa zegoen” ~ it was delicious!

Ski Mail

What we communicate in seconds on our smartphones used to take days. For instance, skiing heavy packs of mail over Western mountain ranges in the dead of winter could take the better part of a week. The most famous mail carrier of the pioneer era was Snowshoe Thompson. Starting in 1855, he skied the mail ninety miles over the Sierra Nevada from Placerville to Carson Valley. The route took three days there and two days back. Snowshoe did this twice a month for twenty years with a hundred pound pack! Of course, he was originally from Norway. Unlike mere mortals, Norwegians are born to do stuff like that.

But Snowshoe was not the only one. In 1880, there were fifty skiing mail carriers in the state of Colorado alone. With mining camps scattered across the tops of the Rockies, these guys regularly braved blizzards, snow blindness, and avalanches to get the mail through.

The most famous skiing mail carrier of the Cascade Range was John Craig. Sadly, he’s remembered less for the amazing feats he did accomplish, than for the one he didn’t. In December of 1877, Craig set off to ski the Christmas mail from McKenzie Bridge to Camp Polk (near present day Sisters) over McKenzie Pass. He never made it. In the spring, his frozen body was found in the cabin he had built near the halfway point. Apparently, Craig reached the cabin as planned and built a fire, but due to illness or misfortune, couldn’t keep it going. He crawled into the warm ashes, drew a quilt over himself and died.

Craig’s tragic end inspired an annual ski event that has persisted, off and on, for eight decades. The John Craig Memorial Ski began in 1934 over the same route pioneered by Craig. Since the historic McKenzie Pass road is closed to vehicles in the winter and left unplowed, it’s possible for cross-country skiers to imagine what Craig experienced. In fact, in some years, the memorial has even included a nineteen mile race during which the racers carried bags of mail.

Fortunately for me, this year’s memorial ski was less ambitious. Participants skied a thirteen mile tour to the pass and back from the east gate. Still, the almost two thousand foot climb to the summit was tough. I wasn’t carrying a heavy pack of mail, but I did have one letter from a friend I’d received the day before. It seemed fitting to carry a letter in my pack. It served as a reminder that staying in touch as easily as we do in the digital age is something I shouldn’t take for granted.