Thursday, January 29, 2015

Spokane in Soft Focus

The fog comes in
on little cat feet

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

    That short poem, Carl Sandburg’s classic American haiku, is the first poetry I remember learning. I must have been in the 2nd or 3rd grade, in the 1960s when rote learning was still part of the general curriculum. Our teacher wrote it across the flat black surface of the blackboard in her perfect looping script. From our desks, we read it out of the books we held in our hands and repeated it in unison, a chorus of high lilting, singsong, voices. 

    The imagery of Sandburg’s “Fog” is elemental and perfectly captures the silent, deliberate movement of fog as it takes over the landscape. That short poem has come to mind numerous times this winter, what has seemed to be an especially foggy winter in Spokane. 

    Each morning I get out of bed before light and make my way downstairs. I take my first cup of coffee and my laptop to my favorite chair next to the fireplace in the living room. The chair faces the big front window and as I write I am able to watch as the day comes to life. 

    Most mornings this winter the light has come on soft and white, shrouded in the heavy mist that sinks from the sky to meet the mist that rises from the river at the bottom of the “hill.” 

    The fog steals through the tall Ponderosa pine trees, wrapping my view in gauze, freezing as it falls onto bare branches, forming a slick sheen on the city’s and streets leaving Spokane in soft focus. Ordinary, familiar, streets and buildings become mysterious as they disappear into or loom out of the fog. Even the birds in the Hawthorn tree in front of my window are filtered, like performers on stage behind a scrim. 

    This time of year we expect snow. We expect to look out the window in January and see fat flakes drifting down and collecting. We expect to shovel the walks and driveway and curse the berms left behind by the city’s plows. But so far, with only a few exceptions, the real snow has stayed away leaving us only the tough grey crust of old snowfall. And winter has replaced it with heavy fog that doesn’t burn off until late in the day, if it burns off at all. Some days the day ends as it began, draped in moisture.

    Winter will come, I’m sure. It always does. The sky will clear and if we’re lucky it will freeze and deliver the snow that piles up on the mountains and then melts into rushing rivers and refills the aquifer that quenches the thirst of a a dry land.

    And then, like a cat that comes and goes as it pleases, the fog will lift on graceful silent haunches and move silently on.   

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bird Watching for Beginners

      My husband handed me a large lightweight box to open on Christmas morning and for once he had me stumped. I hadn’t asked for anything in particular and I couldn’t imagine what he’d put under the tree.

When I peeled away the wrapping paper I saw it was an oversized finch feeding station, three long tubes dissected by perches for 24 birds. The big station made the individual feeders I already had hanging--each with no more than 6 perches--look ridiculously small. He helped me fill the tubes with the Nijer seed and with my son's help hung it from a branch in the tree outside the big front window of our Cape Cod cottage. They teased me about the possibility of ever seeing it full of birds. 

But the next morning, as light began to filter through the darkness, I was up and I looked out the front window. There were already a few visitors to the feeder—the proverbial early birds—and by the time the sun was completely up, what sun there was on such a cold grey winter day, there was a busy goldfinch or pine siskin on every perch with at least another dozen flitting around the tree waiting for a turn or trying to bully someone into abandoning their spot.

Snow began to fall, drifting into soft piles on the limbs, and the tree was alive with tiny, hungry, beautiful birds.

One by one as my son and daughters, home for the holiday, woke up and made their way downstairs, they walked by the window and stopped to comment on what was going on in the branches. Their delight mirrored my own.

On New Year’s Eve we discovered the small frozen body of a bird beneath the feeder. I don’t know if it succumbed to the bitter cold or was the victim of a predator, maybe it died of old age, but after a holiday season that was marked by our family’s own loss, the tableau at the feeder just outside the window was a reminder that life can be unfair, and that even when there’s enough for all, not everyone is strong enough to survive.
Now, weeks into the new year, with everyone back to work or away at school I have the house to myself and the birds, the finches, iskins and chickadees are still busy in the tree. They are good company.

Writing is a solitary occupation. Most of my work is done alone in a quiet house. The quick, determined movement of the birds as they feed is a welcome distraction when I look up from my computer. Off and on throughout the day I find myself standing in front of the wide north-facing window in my living room, a hot cup of tea in my cold hands, daydreaming as I watch the birds fly in and out of the tree.

It is not lost on me that what I am enjoying is actually their struggle to survive. The need to fuel the constant movement that keeps them warm. their constant vulnerability to cats and other predators that stalk and hunt them, mocks my search for the right word or anxiety about meeting some kind of trivial deadline.

Every day I watch the birds and they keep a wary eye on me as I stand at the window. And the fluttering on either side of the glass is really nothing more than the work of getting up and going on.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at