Friday, November 14, 2008

Winter and Its Malcontents

Today’s New York Times included an editorial about snowmobiles in Yellowstone, a situation that, over the years, has devolved from a clash of interests into a cloud of exhaust. And yet, despite the years of wrangling (some legal, some illegitimate), Yellowstone remains one of the most beautiful and complicated places in the world. Here’s what I wrote about it in 2005 (originally published in Carve magazine, a supplement to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle).

A Quiet Weekend in Yellowstone: Old Faithful Without Snowmobiles

If I’d known that the shutter was frozen, then I wouldn’t have bothered with the camera. But there was my 7-year-old daughter, Marina, in a bright pink parka, skiing beneath a brilliant blue sky, while Old Faithful boiled and billowed, white steam over white snow. And I wouldn’t have bothered occluding my eyes with any sort of lens—telephoto or not—as two gray wolves sidestepped a shaggy herd of bison, moving with an uncanny blend of speed, grace, and nonchalance.

But I didn’t know, so I kept framing and focusing and shooting. Pictures—or, at least, what I thought then were pictures—of my wife Sarah gliding through a forest of lodgepole pines, the powder breaking around her knees. Of my son Dave watching a pair of elk feed along the Little Firehole River, the water gone gold in the dusk. Of a flock of Canada geese silhouetted against a geyser plume. Of a svelte coyote sitting expectantly before our cabin, attracted by the aroma of leftover prime rib.

I have visited Old Faithful, the ersatz metropolis of Yellowstone National Park, many dozens of times over the past four decades—but never in winter, when the venerable Inn is silent and shuttered, the asphalt parking lots shrouded in snow. And though I generally dislike cameras, everything looked so different on this occasion that I didn’t resent the strap around my neck. Too bad I was still using film.

Twenty-five years ago—back when electronic cameras stored their images on floppy disks—you might have found Sarah and me strolling the boardwalks under an August moon, sharing champagne from a bottle. In these more sober times, you’d be more likely to spot us escorting nieces and nephews from the soda fountain to the now-faded Morning Glory Pool, our smiles wilting under the August heat and the relentless crush of vacationers. We are still having fun, still in awe of the geysers’ gush and rumble, but it’s a sweltering sort of pleasure.

On an average summer day, Old Faithful plays host to 20,000 people, qualifying it as the fourth-largest city in the state of Wyoming. In winter, that daily average plummets to a small fraction of the fair-weather horde. There are, after all, only 100 rooms and 34 cabins at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the only available accommodations. And since the roads are closed to ordinary vehicles, every other would-be geyser gazer must arrive by snowcoach—think of a passenger van with tank treads—or by snowmobile.

During our visit, a few days before Christmas, the number of snowmobiles entering the park was far below the current season’s daily limit of 720. We had heard horror stories of smog and bedlam from past winters, but saw little evidence of either. (We did, however, overhear a hotel employee delivering a stern admonishment to one wayward rider: “Excuse me, sir. Nearly flipping your machine is not funny.”)

The conventional wisdom contends that uncertainty keeps many would-be sled-jockeys away. One federal judge banned unguided snowmobiles, while another overturned the ban. Since a new (and temporary) winter-use plan is the target of at least two competing lawsuits, uncertainty is likely to dominate this season as well.

For skiers like us, any decline in the swarm of snowmobiles is an unmitigated blessing. Dave and Marina skied from our cabin—the one farthest from the main lodge—to breakfast. They skied from breakfast to Geyser Hill. And on our most ambitious day, they skied from the Divide trailhead, along Spring Creek, to the Lone Star Geyser Trail, past the Kepler Cascades, and back to the lodge—more than 8 miles—all without the background roar of internal combustion engines.

Of course, we would have done this trip anyway, even without a judge’s ruling. I understand the appeal and the utility of both two- and four-stroke motors. And I have no illusions of Old Faithful as wilderness, unsullied by human presence. That coyote, for example, pleading for prime rib, did not perfect its shtick in solitude. Since feeding park animals is expressly banned, it had help from a parade of innocents and scofflaws. (The next day, another guest observed the beast astride a snowmobile’s luggage rack, tearing into a lunch cooler.)

For me, the astounding thing about Yellowstone—summer or winter—is the relatively easygoing interplay between the human and the wild. On Geyser Hill, four bison graze within a ski-pole’s length of the boardwalk. Our children watch respectfully, then remove their skis to cross a stretch of bare pavement. Safely past, Marina races from one thermal feature to the next, renaming them with her own fancies—Elephant Head Pool, Bubblegum Creek, Little Frodo Geyser. Just in front of the General Store, closed until June, we spy a wolf track, the paw bigger than my palm.

Back in the cozy lobby of the Snow Lodge, we drink hot chocolate, write postcards, play rummy and cribbage, knowing that the elk and bison and wolves are still out there, that the hot springs continue to bubble and boil. It’s a comfort to know that all of these wonders are just a short ski from our upholstered chairs, that we can enjoy them any time we want, without crowds or congestion.

A few days later, after receiving the condolences of our local photo processor—two full rolls of Fuji Velvia, completely blank—we all agree that winter is the best time to visit Old Faithful. And that we would like to repeat the experience, to begin stockpiling the same store of memories that we have for other seasons in Yellowstone. And that, maybe, just maybe, we might try to capture some of those images—but not on film. In this new year, I resolve to go digital at last.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Goodbye, My Absentee

I’ve been home from Mongolia for a month now, enough time to cut some firewood, find a new job at the University Press of New England, and vote in a gratifying presidential election—the most gratifying, by far, of the eight in which I’ve had the hard luck to vote.

Here’s Barack Obama back in January of 2008, standing a short block from the Press’s Lebanon office, speaking intelligently and in full paragraphs before losing the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton.

We spent the previous two debacles abroad—in Japan, then China—feeling disconnected if not actually disenfranchised, so it was hard to shake off that uncertain sense of doom, the fear of going to bed whole and waking up in fractions, unrecountably diminished.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Melting Pot, on Vacation

Last week’s New York Times contained an interesting story by Vivian Toy about the Chinese fascination with mixed-race children. Or perhaps it was more about the protectiveness of American parents in foreign lands. After reading the piece several times, I’m still not sure. The writing is thoughtful and its judgments hidden in plain view.

Our family has encountered similar situations over the years—Chinese tourists who ask for their picture with us, Nepalese porters who can’t resist patting our daughter on the head—but I’d never attributed this attraction to the mix in races.

On the one occasion when race came to mind, the attention we received was hardly benign. The incident occurred in Tagbilaran, the so-called “city of peace and friendship” on the Philippine island of Bohol. This is what I wrote about it at the time:

I didn’t see what happened next, nor did I see it coming. I heard Sarah cry out, and I followed her shocked gaze to her attacker. The woman was not much more than five feet tall, with streaks of gray in her black hair, and tanned skin nearly the same color as my own. She had used her clenched fist to deliver a low blow, and now she stood glaring at us. There was a challenge in her expression, along with something like hate, or defiance.

“What was that about?” I asked inanely, but the woman did not respond.

Meanwhile, Sarah grabbed Dave by the hand and started across the street.

“Come on,” Sarah said. “Don’t confront her.”

I picked up Marina and followed.

We fled several blocks in the general direction of our hotel, before slipping into the friendly confines of a Chinese restaurant. One wall displayed a banner congratulating local students, and several celebratory dinners were already in progress. Over roast duck and pan-fried shrimp, Sarah and I tried to decipher what this incident meant. But we could not. There was no identifiable provocation—or motivation. The woman did not have the unfettered look of a lunatic, yet she had acted purposefully, with malice aforethought.

The explanation that I did not want to consider was racial hatred. Had the woman looked first at my black hair, then at Sarah’s white skin? Had she contemplated our children’s features before striking at the offending womb?

I don’t know. After all, such a reaction would not have been impossible here in North America, at least within our parents’ memories. As recently as 1950, fifteen states, including Montana, Maryland, and California, prohibited marriage between whites and Asians.

From this perspective, communal affection for mixed-race children seems like a good thing.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Trials and Trillium

It’s always painful to leave Montana, even under a spring snowstorm that slickened the interstate with a wash of cold gurry, a crystalline mix of sand and salt and ice that froze in a dark rime on the truck, stalactites on the fenders, pinwheels on the lug nuts.

But what I saw were sandhill cranes in the pale sky, antelope and mule deer in the whitened fields, streamers of cloud trailing from the gleaming peaks of the Crazies.

Five days later, having successfully navigated the hazards of Bad Route Road (Montana), Motley (Minnesota), and the 8614-foot long Mackinac Bridge (Michigan), I found the hills of Vermont newly green.

Bloodroot bloomed along the brook and, beneath the beeches, a red trillium.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Half a Mind to Ramble

There will be a forced break from reports of Singapore while I attend to a different sort of travel, freighted with more boxes, bundles, and baggage than can be fit into any overhead compartment. This spring’s west-to-east migration requires a rental truck, from Montana to Vermont. It’s a familiar story with us, one that I tried to describe in 1991, as you can read below. At the time, I thought we might have found a permanent home. Since then, however, we’ve lived three years in Japan and two in China, occupying a grand total of seven different houses.

Bass, Coots, Pimbling, and the Graft

Sarah and I stayed home this summer. For the first time in more than a decade, in a house of our own. After years of rootless migration from apartment to apartment, from one metropolitan area to another, we struck land in Missoula, Montana. We bought four rooms shaded by maple trees, within walking distance of the university. Not our dream house by any means—not the lonely cabin on a hill of pine and fir—but when we walk out into the alley, Lolo Peak looms above the garage, and a thick hedge lends the illusion of privacy. When school ended in June, we sanded the old boards beneath our feet, then refinished them with an ether-based epoxy that lent the hardwood a dizzying shine. We planted peas and tomatoes, painted the walls inside and out, entertained relatives from both coasts.

This was our second year in western Montana—after long stints in Los Angeles and Boston—and we enjoyed ourselves. Two teachers on vacation, confined to a budget but otherwise free. We harvested vegetables from the backyard, dined on elk steaks and fresh trout. During the high-water weeks of early summer, we kept our canoe wet in the rivers and lakes around Missoula. When July came, we rode down the Clark Fork in inner tubes. Not Cordura-covered float tubes, but the simple truck-tire variety that forces your head low and your knees high, like a lounge chair with the seat blown out.

I took my fly rod along, and learned to adjust my backcast to that odd angle. The long, drag-free floats fooled rainbows big enough to frighten me with their enthusiasm. I’d hold the rod in my teeth, paddling furiously for shore as the backing disappeared from the reel. Then I’d splash out of the tube and into the shallows, facing the current, keeping the rod high. Some fish you just have to fight standing up.

Sarah’s summer expired in August, according to the Montana public school schedule. Mine survived another month, past Labor Day and the first frost on the tomato vines. I should have been repairing storm windows, insulating the attic, or otherwise fulfilling my duties as a mortgagee. Instead, I devoted every day to the river. And was rewarded disproportionately. With trout, and golden eagles. With the shadows of osprey, moose, and mule deer. With my forehead warm in the sun and my toes chilling in a riffle, I knew how the black bears must feel in the huckleberry patches along the west slopes of the Flathead Range, snuffling mouthfuls of leaves and twigs and fruit against the lean days to come. A winter’s hibernation has its own appeal, true, but it’s not like spring, and it’s certainly not like late summer: warm and bountiful and urgent. You know such days can’t last. In fact, you begin to suspect that they must end in catastrophe: a September blizzard, right leg broken in a gopher hole, the tip of your favorite five-weight snapped clean off in the screen door. I wondered when I’d look up finally and see the piano falling from the sky, like those cartoon characters who are smiling and whole in one frame, flattened and sheepish in the next.

As the town began to fill with college students, my mood became more frantic. Compared to Sarah’s, my teaching schedule is a piece of cake. She is the sole administrator for a rural elementary school, both principal and secretary. She also teaches math to fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. And art to seventh and eighth. I sit behind a desk with a view of the mountainside and talk to adults about their writing for fifteen hours a week. But I resented the end of summer anyway, felt guilty for my resentment, and resigned myself to punishment.

On a warm and windless Friday, I spent an hour stalking a big native cutthroat feeding in a shallow finger of frog water, then jerked the fly from his mouth. His gill plates flashed an angry crimson. I threw the hopper to him again, but the leader landed in a heap and he high-tailed it back to the main current. Driving home from the river, I fretted insanely—all sorts of inane and anxious worries—that the house had burned, or the university shut down, or the cat run over.

Sarah suffers my addiction to water. After all, I’ve spent half my working life fishing for pay—as a guide, a mate, a deckhand, a diver. But she shares the attraction too. She knows what a relief it can be to float, to paddle, to navigate free from land. By the third week in September, she could feel the demands of her school—students, teachers, and parents—overtaking her hours. This was her second year as supervising teacher. She’d learned the deadlines and faced the expectations once already, and this time around they lacked the charm of surprise. On the Sunday before the university opened—my last day of refuge—we swung the canoe onto the car and drove north, to the Flathead Reservation. We turned east at Ruby’s Café and put in at Kicking Horse. The trout fishing had been good; I figured the bass would be feeding too.

Kicking Horse is a water-control reservoir tucked into the base of the Mission Mountains. When we fished it last, in June, the meadows around the shore were flooded. Geese brooded on their nesting platforms, daisies bloomed a foot underwater, and the bass—transplanted Easterners, hungry to spawn—slipped along the new shallows, hunting. Since then the nestlings had fledged, and the level of the lake had fallen several feet. The weeds lay folded on the surface in green and brown mats. The big patches of open water were thick now with coots, thousands of them swimming with that peculiar pumping movement of the neck. On take-off their big feet flapped comically.

Coots are one of the few birds that look ridiculous in all three elements: on the water, in the air, and especially on land. At the Los Angeles County Botanical Gardens—where we would feed crusts of bread to golden carp and pilfer oranges—I used to spread my arms and charge hooting at the resting flocks, just to see them fly. Or stand fifty yards off and fling a Frisbee into their midst. Sarah dubbed me “The Big Blue Goose”—a coot’s worst nightmare. There’s not much fun of that kind to be had in Los Angeles, and we took what we could get.

In Montana we don’t have to rely on botanical gardens for wildlife. That’s part of the reason we moved here. Back in Boston, hatching plans in our third-floor walk-up, Sarah and I pointed fingers at the map and considered our options. Where could we be happy? Alaska? Oregon? Maine? While our friends and siblings were starting families, we were ready to hit the road. Neither our thirtieth birthdays nor the prospect of hauling our furniture down three flights of narrow stairs could daunt us. We liked the thrill of relocation—closing-up shop, shedding worn-out possessions, arriving unknown and strange in a strange town. Even when we finally decided on Montana, we hedged our bets. It’s not forever, we said. If we don’t like it, we can always move.

But we do like it. We like the confluence of rivers and ranges, the intersection of migratory paths: U.S. Highway 93, Interstate 90, the Pacific Flyway. If Boston is the cradle of liberty, then Kicking Horse is the cradle of waterfowl. Here and there among the coots, the more graceful ducks—mallards and pintails, redheads and canvasbacks—congregated in small groups or paddled aloofly in pairs. The eastern shore of the lake was white with gulls resting on one leg, and some of the grassier knolls held geese. The weedy shallows were crowded with great blue herons. Some fishermen on foot scared a half-dozen croaking into the air, their bodies visibly rising and falling with each beat of their tremendous wings.

We unloaded our old spinning rods, five-foot fiberglass relics matched with Mitchell reels, made of metal. I brought my fly rod too, and a sandwich bag of poppers with rubber legs and gaudy paint jobs. The Missions were silvered with an autumn snow. We slogged with the canoe through yards of soft mud to the water’s edge, used our paddles to push off.

Just as in June, we found the bass in the shallows—in groups of two or three, but skittish this time. We might coax one to strike, but not more than one, and never the biggest. I hooked a ten-incher on a black Woolly Bugger, watched him swim up slowly and breathe marabou into his jaws. Sarah caught a few small fry on a tiny Panther Martin spinner. We put them all back. I had visions of a three-pound bass baked with black bean sauce and garnished with scallions and ginger, of the fragrant steam rising from the dish, the white meat flaking from the bone.

We continued to fish purposefully for a few hours, but by late afternoon, the bass still wouldn’t bite. They’d lost their enthusiasm and so had we.

The ducks had something to do with it. They were all going somewhere; their splashing muddied the water. They circled and squawked and beat their wings against the air, and we thought, oddly, of Paris, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Beijing. Places we had seen on our big-city salaries, but could not look forward to seeing again.

We thought of Africa too. Of those wildlife films in which the bodies of birds fill the lens: flamingos and storks, ostriches stampeding over the veldt. For once Sarah and I weren’t journeying anywhere in particular, weren’t heading south with our offspring like some far-ranging terns—Montana in September, Mexico by October, Chile come Christmas. We just watched, like two more of those folk who sit idly while the world passes them by. We had dreamed of living in northern Thailand, southern France. Of stalking the Nepalese tigerfish in the foothills of the Himalayas. Suddenly such places seemed far removed from Montana, way off at some great and regrettable distance from our lives.

As always, I did not want to stop fishing. I like to stay until sunset, until the light fades from the water and all hope is gone. Sarah was ready for home, a hot supper, the necessary preparations for the workweek. I was cranky. I wanted to push tomorrow into another season, to hook a bass big enough for a meal.

We stayed, but we didn’t talk much. Sarah sat in the bow with her back to me, wrote a long letter to her father on a legal pad. I cast randomly, without much expectation, stripping line to keep the fly above the weeds. We kept drinking and eating: bourbon from a plastic flask, cherry tomatoes from our backyard garden and trout smoked with alder chips. I paddled enough to keep us off the windward shore.

We drifted among the coots and greenheads. On a shallow bank littered with goose feathers and flat stones, we found the delicate trails of crayfish in the mud. It was a simple matter to track them down. A crayfish huddled under a rock believes that it is safe. I caught two, and Sarah held them behind the claws while I sawed through the top of a beer can with my knife. Before dropping them into the can I tore off their pincers, so they couldn’t fight.

If I say it one more time, perhaps I’ll convince myself: Sarah and I like Missoula, and our house, and the people here. The townsfolk trust you to pump your gas before you pay. That’s no small thing—in Boston and LA we grew used to paying first, to the grave assumption of dishonesty that implies. Still, we are nomadic by nature. The average American packs his duffel thirteen times before he finds that final resting place. My own family moved nearly every summer during my elementary years. By the time I reached ninth grade I’d been enrolled in seven different schools: urban, rural, Midwestern, public, private, Catholic, Lutheran. Sarah’s father was a diplomat, then an international banker. She’d seen New York, London, Paris, and Helsinki by age twelve. Before she became a teacher, she sold airline tickets to college students. If they had money to spare, Sarah encouraged them to go far, stay away as long as they could stand.

Perhaps it’s understandable then, that when September comes, our pinfeathers itch. We get half a mind to ramble. We fall into motion like flat stones skipping across a pond, or those thrushes who rise and fall in their flight across fields. We descend, struggle to regain the air, finally touch down. This behavior threatens even our mundane choices—so that the question might easily become not Where should we live? or Where could we be happy? but also Where should we go for breakfast?

Driving back to Missoula from Yellowstone Lake in July, after visiting with old friends from my days as a fishing guide in the Park, we decided against breakfast in the Lake Hotel, or at the restaurant in Mammoth, or at any of the cafés and diners in Gardiner. It’s not that we really said no to any of those familiar spots, we just never stopped the car and got out. Sarah’s maternal grandmother, Isabel Stephens—herself a great traveler who’d settled at last in central Vermont—called this behavior “pimbling.” Pimbling doesn’t involve decision-making, rather you hem and haw until the choices have been reduced by attrition, until you are left with a sole option that is almost always less desirable than the one you might have had, had you managed to make up your mind like a reasonable person.

It was almost eleven, and we’d been driving for two hours—through an elk crossing and a buffalo jam and then out the north gate of the Park. The lack of bacon and coffee was nearly stupefying. Yet we pimbled on, opting by default for another half-hour’s drive to Chico Hot Springs—where the local honeymooners say that the food is the best you can find in Montana, the best you can eat anywhere without changing out of your shorts and sandals.

As we motored north, following the Yellowstone River, my eyes hunted for pools and seams, holes where the trout might rest or feed. Sarah has said that fishing has ruined rivers for her. She can’t walk one now without reading it. Instead of water and stone, she sees eddies, pockets, and lies. I envied the driftboat sliding along a riffle, the anglers in the bow and stern, the guide at the oars. When we looked away from the river, the gray peaks of the Absarokas added teeth to our hunger. I drove almost recklessly, calling out license plates as we passed: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Vermont. We glanced into the windows of the vehicle from Vermont—a Jeep Wagoneer dusty with yellow dirt. Nine-tenths of Sarah’s family still live in the Green Mountain State, and we miss them. We didn’t recognize the young couple or the golden retriever with them, but we might have, and we applauded their industry. They’d made it this far.

We left the Yellowstone at the town of Emigrant, in the shadow of Emigrant Peak. I suppose it’s really more of an intersection than a town, but the name is good enough for an entire country. Emigrants leave, immigrants arrive. In 1982, the year we graduated from college, thirty-seven million Americans changed their addresses. Sarah’s sister Kathy, rooted in a brick home built in 1815, reproaches her: “You’re always leaving.” Sarah responds, “That’s because I always come back.”

Down the homestretch towards breakfast. The access road to Chico doubles as an airstrip. There is a windsock along the shoulder, and two arrows painted on the asphalt. The lawns were green that morning, the buildings white, the parking lot full. I slipped four quarters into a vending machine for the Sunday paper, thinking: strawberries and cream, salmon en croute, a currant scone.

Chico serves breakfast until eleven. It was a quarter after, but we weren’t worried. The hostess was friendly; she said she’d check with the cooks. But our luck failed us. Usually they have plenty of food, but that morning had been busy, there was nothing left. We walked away empty from the dining room, wandered into the saloon. Inside, two carpenters were pounding nails into the stage. No one was minding the bar. We looked longingly at the gleaming bottles, listened to the sound of hammers hitting home. Without speaking, we both fixed on the same image. In Thailand, a brand of beer touts their brew with English-language billboards: Klöster—Happiness You Can Drink. We got back in the car. And went on another twenty-five miles, to Livingston, for lunch.

I picked a crayfish out of the can and hooked him onto a bead-headed woolly bugger, by the tail. Was our urge to move only indecision, merely pimbling? We are so easily lured by what is out of sight, so hopeful that the next spot will prove a better one. We think that if we could just start afresh one more time then surely we would get it right. Two coots swam nearby, chuckling kuk-kuk-kuk. We paddled the canoe back towards the car. The crayfish danced on the end of the line. No bass took the bait.

I honestly can’t tell you what we had for dinner. After the dishes were done, Sarah graded the rest of the week’s math papers, and I shuffled my notes for a lecture on revision. We turned in at ten, set the alarm for six. The next morning, a band of elk grazed within sight of Sarah’s school. They were gone by the time the kids got there, but the teachers who arrived early to prepare lesson plans were rewarded with their bugling calls.

The week passed as we thought. The math classes learned place value and set theory while the art students tried their hands at perspective. Two daredevils broke arms swinging on the new playground equipment. I delivered my lecture, led a couple of workshops, and commented on a hundred and twenty essays arguing against rainforest logging in Borneo.

Saturday came up cool, threatening rain. A good day for yard work. We drove out to the greenhouse a few miles west of town to invest in a new hedge, replacing the one that had been sacrificed during a sewer hook-up. Whatever grows the fastest, we thought. Who knows how long we’ll hang around. Except junipers. Years of pulling junipers out of her grandmother’s pasture had soured Sarah on bushy evergreens.

The nursery was in the middle of a fall clearance. The owner said that he’d lost quite a few plants in last winter’s cold snap. He didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. He could give us a break on Siberian pea, cut us a deal on lilacs. We had some of each in the backyard already. The pea is thorny, voracious. The lilac shades our back door, perfumes the air in June. We appreciated both in their way, but they were too familiar. What else would make a good hedge?

In France, said the man, they train apple trees. Weave the branches together until they make a good, tight screen. He showed us a small stand of potted apples, mostly Spartans and Galas grafted to a hardier root stock. Their spindly trunks were no thicker than kindling.

Sarah’s grandmother had apples around her house. We keep a photo of one of her Macintosh trees in our bedroom—a confusion of pink and white blossoms. We asked how fast they would grow; when we could expect fruit.

Hell, he said. They’ll grow a foot a year if you treat them right. Might be five years before they produce a bushel, but if you’re lucky you’ll get an apple or two next year. He showed us a Spartan that had done just that—produced one apple. It hung from the pencil-thin branch like a Christmas ornament.

Sold. The nurseryman advised us to plant two trees, a yard or so apart, to mix some peat moss with the gravelly Missoula soil, to bury the roots right up to the graft. I nodded, wrote out a check. Sarah did a little dance in the parking lot. We laid the two trees in the bed of the pickup, alongside a forty-pound sack of peat moss, and drove home.

Our garden tools hung on nails in the garage. We hadn’t used them since the tomatoes went in, an entire season past. The blade of the shovel had rusted brown, the handle of the pickax shrunk inside the head. I put the business end of the pick in a bucket of water. Sarah marked off the spot for the trench. When the ax-handle had swollen tight again, we dug ourselves a hole.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Flying under (and over) the Urban Radar

Although Singaporeans are devoted preservationists of traditional recipes, they have done less well with the flora and fauna. According to National Geographic, at least 28%—and perhaps as much as 73%—of native species have undergone local extinctions in the past 200 years. The casualties include tigers and other mammals, birds, butterflies, fish, and plants.

Best therefore to experience what’s left while you can. We were lured to one of the city's several rainforest preserves by one line from the Times’ Joshua Kurlantzick: “Watch out for the flying lemurs.” As it turns out, these creatures are primarily nocturnal, cannot fly, and aren’t—biologically speaking—lemurs, but that’s journalism for you.

The actual beasts, also known as colugos, are superb gliders, however, and perhaps the closest known relatives to our own taxonomic group: the primates. (In Kurlantzick’s defense, I don’t think “Use your flashlight to spot the superbly gliding primate relatives” would have made it past the copy editor.)

Our morning walk near MacRitchie Reservoir revealed—among much that was both beautiful and unusual to North American sensibilities—one python, two monitor lizards, three tree nymph butterflies, and numerous long-tailed macaques.

If you go, don't neglect the Tree Top Walk, a 250-meter suspension bridge above the forest canopy.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Last Meal First

Our Singapore meals ran the gamut from hawker stalls to hotel brunches, with intervals of conveyor-belt sushi and Shanghai-style soup dumplings.

We reserved our last supper for the peranakan Blue Ginger (97 Tanjong Pagar; +65 6222 3928), where we’d eaten once before, perhaps ten years ago. The dish we remembered was ayam buah keluak, or chicken with Indonesian black nuts, and it remains memorable.

Both flavor and texture are unusual, reminiscent of the traditional Mexican mole, but distinctively oily and addictively fragrant, the South Pacific offspring of a truffle and a brazil nut. Absolutely worth the extra S$1.50 each to add a nut for every person at the table.

This site offers some rudimentary botanical information about buah keluak.

Another source reports that “The dusty grayish seeds . . . have already been treated to remove the poisonous effects by being thoroughly washed and boiled, then buried in the ground with layers of ash, banana leaves, and earth for 40 days.”

Which might explain the hint of truffle.

Though becoming a guidebook staple, Blue Ginger doesn’t seem to have backed away from its nonya roots. Each member of our family proclaimed a different favorite. My mother’s choice was the fish-head curry, which featured the meaty noggin of an enormous red snapper. Our daughter’s pick was the unreservedly flavorful deep-fried chicken with ginger and soy sauce.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Singapore: all the comforts of home, but with better food

We enjoyed a family vacation in Singapore last week, a rare assembly that included my mother, older brother, younger brother, sister, wife, daughter, aunt, and two cousins.

Safe, friendly, and English-speaking, Singapore should be a favored destination for Americans and recent media coverage reflects that outlook. Since 2005 the city has been profiled in Budget Travel, Smithsonian, the New York Times, and—by Pico Iyer—in Conde Nast’s Traveler.

My mother hadn’t left her home in San Diego since a riding accident in 2001. In a sense, we planned this trip to revisit the flavors of her childhood: simple pleasures like mangoes and papaya, along with such complicated indulgences as fish-head curry and the heady mix of Chinese, Indonesian, and Malaysian that Singaporeans call nonya cuisine, after a Malay word for “auntie.” It’s a term of endearment, and for good reason.

Over the next few days, I’ll post restaurant reviews and descriptions of favorite dishes. This picture shows a layered dessert called santan agar agar, which—I must admit—is more fun to look at than it is to eat.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Skiing (and Eating) in Quebec

Last week we drove north to Quebec City. We didn’t plan on paying our respects to this bust of Gandhi but he did look cold.

The skiing at Mont-Sainte-Anne—downhill, telemark, and cross-country—is all good, and the views of the St. Lawrence in winter will help redefine your notions of the eighteenth-century frontier.

We stumbled into two memorable restaurants. One, we discovered later, also is mentioned in Bill Pennington’s story in the New York Times.

Les Frères de la Côte (1190, rue Saint-Jean; 418 692 5445) effortlessly accommodated our unruly party of two tweens, two teens, and four adults. We’d been wandering aimlessly for hours, set adrift by an unseasonable spate of rain. Two of the adults ordered the all-you-can-eat mussels, and each ate through three bowls with three different sauces. The good-natured waiter justly recommended the beer-and-mustard sauce, but the pesto was our favorite, followed closely by the poulette.

Closer to the mountain, Restaurant Colette (2190, avenue Royale, Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges; 418 826 0722) offers astonishingly fine food that seems even more impressive when you’ve driven to the parking lot from rural Vermont.

Proprietor Cyrille Beaudoin has cooked for both Queen Elizabeth and Charles de Gaulle, among other dignitaries, and you would be wise to add yourself to that list. We enthusiastically recommend the vol-au-vent and the filet mignon à la forestière.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Weekend in New York

A New Yorker by birth but not by temperament, I’ve now traveled twice to the city since December, following an absence of perhaps a decade. Drawn back by food and family, of course, and in our family it’s hard to know which comes first.

We had a fine Cantonese meal at Fuleen (11 Division Street; 212-941-6888), across from Chinatown’s statue of Confucius. The packed room vibrated with the clatter of teacups and chopsticks while we ate our way through several of the house specialties: baked scallops on the half shell, crispy chicken with soy sauce, Dungeness crab with ginger and scallions, a casserole of seabass filets and tofu.

And thanks to Seth Kugel for recommending the hot chocolate at tapas bar Boqueria (53 West 19th Street; 212-255-4160). We walked from Union Square on a brisk Sunday afternoon, just as the sun was lighting the brick facades on Park Avenue. There were three generations in our party, and each was captivated by the combination of crisply fried churros and smoothly fragrant chocolate. Some of us sipped gratefully from a glass of rioja between bites.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Recipe for Wild Geese

Here's a story that I sold four years ago but which has never made it to print. I thought of it because it's cold out and there are geese in the freezer.

The four of us lean our backs against the bank of a dry ditch and gaze into the blue skies above Montana’s Treasure County. We don’t have to look for geese, since they are everywhere. Canada geese, with their white cheeks and raucous voices. Bane of golf-course groundskeepers and balm to the earth-bound, to all those who find solace in such grand evidence of the migratory urge.

Some geese rise from the Yellowstone and fly purposefully over the beets and the corn. Some leave the fields and make for the river. Others seem merely to be wandering from one gravel bar to the next, one furrow to another.

We watch and wait—Mark, Tom, Pat, and I—admiring the grace and power of these birds, the way their wings seem to carve air, understanding that when one of their number commits itself to our company, we will kill it.

Speaking for myself, there will be awe and pleasure in this act, regret and satisfaction. And, whether I have pulled the trigger or not, a certain species of bliss, as my big yellow Lab bounds forward at the report of shotguns, to recover the dead.

The geese wheel and call above us. Some flighty birds leave their family groups for another flock, mortally inconstant. Their relatives try to call them back, and so do we. Despite some practice, our honking varies in its authenticity. To my ears, it is sometimes sickly, sometimes strident, sometimes insincere. But the geese don’t seem to mind.

They turn at our pleadings, examine our motley spread of decoys, and make their decisions using other criteria. One more bite of corn—or a nice billful of water? Rest for a weary wing—or the society of fellow travelers? Join the crowd at the feast—or is that a gun barrel in the grass?

Indifferent geese pass far overhead. Indignant geese circle provokingly low, then fly off. But the indiscriminant cup their wings to alight—and we greet them with fire.

This is how the morning proceeds, a stirring succession of singles and doubles, short retrieves and long jaunts across the corn stubble. Although I am aware of the bag limit on geese, I have never threatened it.

Until now. On those infrequent days when the heavens are generous, I am much more likely to be gazing down at the glossy feathers of the bird in the hand than looking up for my next target. Nevertheless, we four are embarrassingly close to a limit by noon.

Mark is by far the most seasoned hunter in our group, since Tom, Pat, and I can reckon the sum of our waterfowl experience in the life of a single dog. True, that dog is becoming an old hound, who appreciates a regular aspirin and the occasional lift into the truck, but the gaps in our knowledge remain enticingly large.

So we turn to Mark for answers. Isn’t this amazing, we ask? Isn’t this wonderful? And, upon reviewing his own fund of memories—in several states and on more than one continent—he has to agree. These few hours in a sun-warmed ditch near Hysham, Montana, have been as good as it gets.

Soon afterwards, a pickup truck approaches on the dusty access road. The driver leans from the window, inquires loudly if we would like to move our decoys into his field, where the shooting is much better. Doubtful of our abilities to endure much better, we decline.

Weeks later, I am still enjoying this hunt. Just as much—if not more—than the three opening-day grouse without a customary miss, the fine cock pheasant taken just as it cleared a thicket of head-high willows, and the seventeen-pound steelhead that succumbed to the fifty-first cast of the fly. This persistent pleasure derives partly from the rush of wings shearing air, partly from the affection I have for the friends who shared it, and partly from the neat stacks of goose wings, breasts, legs, and thighs in our freezer.

As Tom will tell you, I bring the same passion to eating that Chicago Democrats apply to voting (early, often). I certified the results of this recipe the morning after returning home, and again a week later. Like most stews, it practically invites adaptation. You can substitute duck or grouse carcasses for the goose. In place of barley, you might try lentils. And if you’re feeling unusually prosperous, toss in a handful of fresh basil, or add a heaping tablespoon of pesto to the pot just before serving.

Triple Goose and Barley Stew (serves six)

legs and thighs of three geese, skin removed
1 cup red wine
1/2 pound mushrooms
1 cup baby carrots
2 cups tomatoes (or one 15-oz. can)
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic
1 cup pearl barley
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon flour (optional)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

Dump the legs and thighs in a large pot and cover with water, about 8 cups. Add the wine, which need not be particularly drinkable. Any leftovers will do, including white, rosé, or even cider. Bring the stock to a boil then simmer for at least two hours. Fish out the goose pieces and place the pot outdoors to cool.

Remove the meat from the bones, keeping an eye out for shot. (Steel pellets are hell on dental work.) I also like to trim the tendons from the meat on the drumsticks, although they will eventually soften with cooking. Slice the mushrooms and carrots, dice the tomatoes and onions, and mince the garlic. Rinse the barley well.

Skim the congealed goose fat from the pot, then strain the liquid for any stray shot that may have fallen free during the initial simmering. Return the stock to a low boil. Add the deboned meat, mushrooms, carrots, tomatoes, onion, basil, bay leaves, and barley. Simmer for at least another hour.

If the stock seems insubstantial to you, mix flour with cold water to make a thin batter, then stir the batter into the stew. Add the balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste. I like about 1/2 teaspoon of salt, slightly less than that of pepper. Simmer for another half hour, or just enough time to fix a salad and some garlic bread. Uncork a better bottle of red wine (when I get the rare choice, I choose dry Portuguese varietals) and prepare to fortify yourself against all ills.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not that Iceman

Winter has been inconsistent so far, alternating freeze and thaw, but we’ve been grateful for snow.

I’d forgotten how pleasant it can be to watch the snow accumulate, sometimes slow, sometimes not, as capricious as memory.

Is it such a wonder that, when humans regard the world, they see themselves reflected in it?

No matter how many times I circled the stone, the smile remained.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Obama in Lebanon

Dave and I arrived 10 minutes late for Barack Obama's question-and-answer session in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and got stuck a block from the Opera House when the police shut down traffic in front of the village green.

I parked in the gap between two legal spaces and we went and milled with the overflow crowd: a mix of high-school students, moms with strollers, and retirees in ski jackets, with a few Japanese tourists thrown in.

Senator Obama came out and gave a brief speech and shook a few hands before returning to the audience inside. I think the words were probably ordinary but the impression was hopeful, even substantive.

We lived in Shanghai in 2004 and Tokyo in 2000, so it's been a while since I've shared any geography with a presidential election. When you're that many time zones away, the primaries seem like nothing more than the prelude to an abstract sorrow.

But in person, Obama is anything but sorrowful. He is the kind of guy I would vote for on gut instinct, neither an ugly American nor a quiet one. Just before he appeared, a man was hauled off the steps in handcuffs, muttering to himself. After Obama left, you could hear people talking about how glad they were to have been there.

Pumpkin Pie, Revisited

Last night I tried that recipe again. There was only a half cup of pure eggnog left, but there were a few swallows remaining in another bottle, fortified with rum, and then I topped off the 12-ounce measure with heavy cream. The result was an even better pie: tender yet firm, a steady companion in times of need.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Pie for Breakfast

We cooked together this morning, in a kitchen with a counter the size of a smallish cutting board. Sarah fried bacon on the stovetop, turning each slice with chopsticks until it reached the superbly-crisp-but-not-quite-burnt stage that our son prefers.

Then she used the leftover cubes of Italian bread from last night's dinner of fondue to make morsels of French toast, scented with cinnamon and served with maple syrup from our neighbor's trees. They were very good. So good in fact, and so appealing on the plate, that we predicted that someone would soon be offering them on a menu—or in a frozen-food aisle.

I carried a bowl of pumpkin to the table, a reminder of a warm October afternoon and our brother-in-law Alex Maclennan's generosity. (He grows them for market, along with corn, raspberries, and asparagus.)

We'd roasted the pumpkin, pureed the yellow-orange flesh in a food processor, and frozen it in two-cup batches.

This bowl had been defrosting in the refrigerator, in close proximity to a bottle of leftover eggnog, another gift, from Sarah's brother John. He and his wife make a much-admired organic cheese called Tarentaise. But their eggnog is not half bad either.

So this morning's breakfast represented a complicated convergence of good fortune, culminating in this recipe (with a nod to Libby's, in the can). The pie is fragrant, creamy, not too sweet, and intensely satisfying, with or without ice cream.

Pumpkin Eggnog Pie

one-half cup sugar
one-quarter teaspoon salt
one teaspoon cinnamon
one-half teaspoon ginger
one-quarter teaspoon cloves
two eggs
two cups pureed pumpkin
one and one-half cups eggnog

one waxed-paper package of graham crackers
seven tablespoons butter

Use your fingers to crush the graham crackers inside the package (if the paper seems fragile, dump the crackers into a sturdier bag first). Melt the butter, then mix with the crumbs and press firmly into a nine-inch pie pan.

Mix the spices with the sugar and the salt. Beat the eggs, then add the eggnog and beat some more. Stir in the sugar and spices, and finally the pumpkin.

Pour into pie shell and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 for another 45 minutes, or until a knife in the center of the pie comes out clean.