Friday, November 24, 2006

Living An Autistic Life

Because autistic kids "look normal" when they misbehave in public, the hapless parent gets a lot of tongue clucking instead of sympathy or support from observers. At writer's group Wednesday, Caroline told this joke-story-metaphor after another member had read her piece about getting the diagnosis her son was autistic. We all needed the laugh it provided.

"This is a true story. A woman with her autistic son was in a long queue in the post office in Thurso. It was a slow moving line and it had already been a long day and her kid had had it. He could not be comforted, cajoled, bribed, or distracted into compliance. Nor could he be ignored. Others in the line were disapproving in various degrees of restraint. One woman was particularly vocal in her dismay.
Finally, in desperation, the mother picks up her child, tucks him under her arm and shouts at the clucking woman: "My child is autistic!"
"What's art got to do with it? "the disapproving older woman replied."

After a good laugh and comments to the woman whose piece she had bravely read to all of us, I put autism out of mind. The next day, however, I happened to be visiting a new acquaintance whose son, she told me, is autistic.

The reason for my visit led me to see all of her home. It was tidy and sparsely decorated. It seemed as if anything that was hers was relegated to corners or closets. Her son requires open spaces, so she cannot close doors on any of the rooms. Because he is incontinent, the house is full of navy blue plastic wrapped packages of diapers. They are lined up like soldiers across the top of the shelves in the hall, in the back room, in the laundry room, in the pantry.

Her son needs a structure, a schedule, and order. Even before she told me about her son, I had noticed the wrenches lined up exactly in order in the middle of the living room floor. They were arranged from left to right in increasing sizes. There was a distinction also with the plastic and the metal ones as well as the different colors of the plastic ones. Even a casual glance told me they were a talisman, an anchor, an offering to the chaos that needs to be kept at bay. In their arrangement there was an artistry as well as a desperation. I remembered the joke from the night before: What's art got to do with it.

My friend explained simply without any hint of overt sadness, that she lived, of necesity, an autistic life. She has to have a structure. For two hours one evening a week she can go out, but whatever she does has to fit exactly into those 2 hours and not cause any disruption in the other patterns created by her son.

She grew edgy as ourconversation extended beyond the hour my friend and I had promised. "I go out when he is away during the day," she explained. I am meeting someone at 11:30 for lunch: a ham sandwich, always a ham sandwich."

We left with smiles and comments about the weather, but I could not help wondering if the ham sandwich was a ritual choice, a budgetary restriction, or her part of the artistry of an autistic life.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

It's A Drookit Doggie Day

Some things translate well over here; some don't. Pumpkins just don't fit. The equivalent of jack o lanterns over here was carving turnips. So when American-based displays of nice round pumpkins show up in the grocery stores, they just look kind of awkward and out of place. I bought two last year, which wound up uncarved on the compost pile. I tried again this year with just one that I meant to make into a pumpkin pie, but it is still sitting sadly on the kitchen counter shrouded in its plastic CoOp bag like a condemned criminal awaiting its fate.

Oddly, Country and Western music is very popular over here. They have a Northern Nashville day with bands and street party. I never liked Country and Western music back in the States, so for me it sounds doubly out of place.

With a sticky, heavy (drooky) rain falling pushed along by a hurrying wind and grey skies even in the brief interval when the desultory sun should be shining, I needed a lift for my spirits. My sturdy Volvo was chugging along into town with BBC Radio Scotland on the radio belting out what seemed like grey lifeless sounds. Without taking my eyes off the road, I pushed the CD button and was treated to a lively rendition of "It's A Doggie Day," an original song from my favorite more than local band back in Indiana, Dog Talk. I added the drooky bit and sang along with great abandon.

Great art balances the universal and the personal, or so I was taught somewhere in my liberal arts education. Dog Talk translates well for me at least. I think you can get some samples of their sound from their web site, so if you need to banish your own equivalent of a drookit day, see what you can find there. If you visit their web site (, send them a hello and tell them the only Mambo Doggie in the North of Scotland sent you. They'll know who that is.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Along the Strath at Dunbeath

By this time last year, Morris had packed me off to the southern hemisphere so as not to lose me in my first Caithness winter. In the near perfect blackness of a November evening trip between home and town I thought that now only family, friends, and fools like me are left up here. Like most locals I complain about the winter and the darkness but take a secret pride in being one of the sturdy ones who makes her home in the North.

On a sunny day in any of the seasons here, however, in a heartbeat all is forgiven and forgotten. The sun in winter is strong and when it comes out from behind clouds it gives everything a warm, yellowish glow. I had thought the weather might keep me from my trip to Dunbeath to learn about Aspen trees, but the day instead is clear and bright and warm as I pull into the parking lot of the Dunbeath Heritage Centre. I have for this trip the Caithness equivalent of a convertible car ride: the heater on full with an opened the sun roof. The air is soft and sweet, the sun warms the top of my head, and the slight road trip breeze, the tender cousin of the usual rowdy winds, tousles my hair.

I am one of nearly 50 people collected from the highlands and the islands (Orkney and Shetland and Western Isles) for a workshop sponsored by the North Highlands Forestry Trust on how to help the declining Aspen population in the North. I am here because I miss trees, because a friend met me walking in the woods and got me on his committee, and because in my new life I get to exercise many interests that had to be ignored when I was a fast-paced American career woman. I am dressed in layers and have brought gloves for digging and good wet-weather walking shoes. My shoe wardrobe now consists mainly of hardworking boots rather than sensible pumps.

Because I was anxious about finding my way on my own and being, again, an 'only', I left home at the very last minute. By the time I arrive everyone else is inside, but the group is informal so I go to the kitchen for a cuppa and a pancake with jam to settle my nerves before we collect in fewer cars to go down to the site where we will learn hands on about aspens and why we should be concerned about them.

As we scramble over the hill and along the path through the croft I recognize some faces from previous trips: a man with a croft who works for SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) and is a geologist with a wealth of knowledge about the rocks of this area, a man who studied lichens with me on another seminar, a former forester now turned nurseryman, two of the Highland council rangers whose guided walks have taught me much about this wonderful new landscape.

We walk over a part of Dunbeath that has been, in the words of the crofter and storyteller who accompanies us, "Balmoralized," a short hand term for the effects on the landscape created by Queen Victoria and her kith and kin in re-creating parts of the highlands for their personal enjoyment. It is a phrase that carries much political baggage. Among the changes at Dunbeath was a path created along the river so that the ladies could ride in a gigue rather than walk when the men went on shooting parties. They also planted trees, many of which were not native, but fortunately they left the broch untouched other than to put a stone dyke around it.

As we walk single file up the muddy slope along the swollen river, bits of the story of the area drift back to me. In front there is a well preserved broch; over our shoulders are the remains of the oldest enclosed church in mainland Britain. Like so much of the history of the highlands, these treasures are hidden away and little known. Some times I like that; sometimes it makes me sad. Walking alone on a sunny Saturday afternoon through a 7th century church is a rare and precious opportunity. In the silence I can hear more than I would as part of a group with an expert leader, but like any new convert, I also want to share these treasures with others.

The poet part of me who wanted nothing more than to sit on the hill and watch the colors shift with the light struggled with the diligent student who wanted to learn what the assembled experts had to say about fungus, Aspen clones, and managing biodiversity for the benefit of the hoverfly. I'll save the poetry of the strath for another time and place, here are some words about Aspens, which have a poetry of their own stretched out along the top of a hill or scrabbling onto a limestone cliff edge.

Aspens are among the first woody plants to colonize after a glacier has retreated. There is evidence that there were many aspens in the north in times gone by because, among other things, the Norse word Asp for Aspen shows up in many place names. Only one person in the group had ever seen the Aspen in bloom and seeds from those trees that do manage to produce seed are not viable. No one, and the group included some heavy duty experts, seemed to know why this is so, but they were taking action to help the Aspens maintain their rightful place in the woods through taking root stock, surgically cutting off the treelets that appeared, and nurturing those treelets in a misting unit. Doing this allowed them to reuse the root stock to generate more treelets and so to generate hundreds of trees from a hardworking piece of root.

Much discussion about clones and cloning took place on the slope overlooking the river and in the shade of an ancient aspen. I did listen to it all, but I can summarize it quite briefly here: aspens send out suckers, treelets that grow on the roots of the mother tree. These little trees grow up, as you would expect, exactly like the parent. Where there are lots of trees sending out roots and little trees like houses and hotels on a Monopoly board, the best way to tell which trees are related to which is by the fact that they will bud, leaf out, or drop their leaves at exactly the same time. I imagined can can lines all raising and lifting their skirts in time to a music that only each clone family can hear.

This cloning habit is either very good news if you are trying to encourage aspen growth and development, or the worst of all possible news if you have an aspen sending up these trees in the middle of your garden. Much discussion on the slope centered on this as well as one man's efforts to ensure that he had each and every new little tree mapped to its own proper mother clone.

The group moved further up the hill to take a look at an aspen sending its extended family into the field around it, and I learned that there is an aspen clone in Colorado that extends for several hectares. It is not only the largest aspen but is a contender for one of the largest living things. I looked with greater respect at the little trees huddling onto the ridge top. When I took my own small tree from the back of the forester's van, I dreamed of generations of aspens creeping across a field at Isauld as a testament to the persistence of the ancient Caledonian forests.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Drunken Wind Walking

I have met winds before. In Indiana we practiced huddling under our desks as if a capricious wind that could pick up houses and trees and cars and drop them at will would be fooled by a desk. We lived with a bad tempered wind that could rage and bellow and howl and then bring in its wake sweet stillness. I have endured a wind that rocked my car like a wild woman at a cradle, whirled so many fragments of glass that it buffed the paint off, and then left us sitting peacefully in the naked car.

Spring in tornado alley was a season of dangerous winds but winter had its own special flavor—winds that created projectiles of ice that tortured any flesh not carefully covered with layers of wool and down and polypropylene.

I grew up with these capricious violent winds. I danced in the puddles of a gentle spring shower, defied the winter winds to fill the bird feeder or rescue a cat, and turned sideways to edge down a sidewalk when the winds could not be avoided. More than once, I sat out a storm in a basement when I had one, or an interior room away from glass. I have been tripped by the wind in mud, snow, ice, and now, cow manure. I have been bowled over once or twice, and I have been pinned immobile in the face of more force than all my will and mass could counter. And so I thought I knew a good deal about wind and moving in it before I came to Caithness.

Since coming here, I have met soughing winds—monotones that persist for days on end; hurrying winds, fast paced but not so bad natured as to cause more than inconvenience; and gales. I have learned to park facing into the wind so that the car door is not ripped out of my hands. When whitecaps appear on the ocean, I know the wind is at 50 miles per hour.

When I saw my first gale, I also learned that Homer knew what he was talking about when he described storms at sea turning the sea into foam. Morris took me to the shore at a safe enough distance to watch the foam rise up from the sea’s surface and be carried far inland like giant soap bubbles. I wanted desperately to touch it. An idiotic retreat to childhood drove me to try to open the door. The wind kept me safely out of its reach that time.

Saturday I was visiting a construction site on the foreshore of the Pentland Firth, where the North Sea and the North Atlantic join each other. The wind was whipping the sea to froth and many of the salty brown bubbles were drifting in and around the group of us huddled on a concrete platform above the shore. The air was full of salt tang even though it was moving quickly because the bubbles fell all around us constantly renewing the salt smell. I touched several and they were more like egg whites than soap bubbles. They did not pop and disappear but huddled timidly on my coat or fingers and dissolved, dying of a broken heart after having been kidnapped.

Because we were on a construction site, I was wearing a hard hat, safety glasses, and a borrowed pair of too-large safety shoes. I walked awkwardly but carefully. Even so the wind taught me a new trick. Between the time of lifting my foot and placing it on solid ground again, the wind blew hard enough to shift my foot slightly. This shift had the effect of a drunk walking carefully so as not to appear drunk: my foot, thus delayed, arrived after my torso had moved forward. It was not uncomfortable but disconcerting moving like Jackie Chan as drunken kung fu fighter.

A few hours after the wind played with me on the construction site, it ripped three men off an oil tanker at sea. A freak wave estimated at 100 feet in height as it broke over the bow meant this wind was playing rough: two of the men are dead, and the third is in critical condition.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Summer's Last Stand

In the too early darkness of early evening, I can feel the nip in the air as I walk out to the dairy maid's cottage which is now home to my regular barn cats, Solomon, Sheba, and Nomie, as well as the occasional visitor enjoying the cat food I leave or the exotic treats occasionally left by Morris. Elusive Black and White kitty, who is more often seen as a shadow disappearing around a corner than actually seen ever since he got stuck in the house for three days, takes after his putative father, the Original Black Coat. Even with one gimpy leg, Black Coat, managed to cover a lot of territory. If cats had theme songs his would be, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."

There is no frost on the pumpkin here. It rarely frosts, and no one grows pumpkins because they need the leisure of a long growing season. Like pumpkins, I need more light and warmth to flourish than can be had here without some effort. I grew zucchinis this year with a little help from a raised bed. Next year I'll start earlier with some fleece on top to warm the soil. I also grew tomatoes in a mini greenhouse. It was undoubtedly not worth the effort from a practical standpoint, but the joy in seeing the red ripe fruit like lipstick against the grey stones was worth every penny.

The gale ripped every single leaf off the last of my outrageous orange nasturtiums and calendula. The marigolds took a chill and retreated into themselves, and then the flood took them out altogether. Within a day I had lost all the colour that had sustained me as the sun faded. The sunflowers, even a dwarf variety that I hoped to sneak in under the wind, did not live long enough to provide seed for the birds, but I did get a half-hearted bloom or two.

With one exception, the only plants now hanging on in the kitchen garden are leeks and brussels sprouts. This is their time of year. Neither wind nor flood nor threat of frost could deter them. I should love them as much as I love all my garden children, but their solidity somehow saddens me. They lack the verve and usefulness of zucchini, the outrageously round orangeness of pumpkin, or the summer-sun tang of greens like rocket and spinach. I will harvest them and cook them affectionately, but they can not help me hold on to summer.

The single, against-the-odds exception to the fading of summer in the kitchen garden is the dill. Perhaps akin to Pascal's thinking reed, their lacy leaves let the wind whistle through and then collected themselves to have a laugh about it. These saucy survivors made their presence felt by their scent. As I stumbled with cats swirling around my ankles through the darkness to the dairy maid's cottage, treading gently over the algae-covered sidewalk still slick with the latest rain, I smelled something. It was so unexpected I did not place it right away. But I inhaled deeply and felt summer running through me before I identified the distinct, buttery aroma.

I'll harvest some leaves and dry them in the microwave to keep a little bit of summer in a jar. The dill plants themselves may hang on long enough that I can have the sturdier part of the plant, dill seeds, too, but just the thought of taking out those lacy leaves in the fullness of the long dark winter chases the chill out of the air.