Tag Archives: solitude

Leaving God’s Country

My family has made rural, central Utah home for the last ten years. We moved here for work but were not strangers to the state: my husband and I both attended Utah State University, and I’d been bouncing to and from the West (and my father) like an errant ping pong ball since I was a baby. In 2017, our employer blindsided us with what felt like banishment from the small life we’d created, and we spent all of last year determining what our next steps would be. Now we know that our careers are taking us to southern Florida. My husband and I are ecstatic with renewed purpose. Our children can’t wait to dip their toes in the Atlantic. As Hawthorne wrote, “Times change, and people change; and if our hearts do not change as readily, so much the worse for us.”

My heart accepts the challenge, but feels a little uneasy standing on the threshold of such a major life change. Utah has irrevocably altered my internal landscape, fortifying me with a Western spirit: big and plucky and fond of long rambles on bluebird mornings. I have found so much comfort in Utah’s liberating solitude. Leaving feels like letting go of a very dear friend.

Goodbye, sweet-smelling alfalfa fields, cool and saturated with early morning irrigation dew; streamlined young hawks perched atop telephone lines; noisy bleating and buzzing of the year’s first shearing at Elmo’s farm. Goodbye to the red rocks of southern Utah, the rugged, snow-laden crags of the Wasatch Range, the alien rock formations of Maple Canyon, and Horseshoe and Nebo mountains – you’ve been fine places to seek shade and solace.

Goodbye, dusty backroads and the realizations we came to together.

So long to campfire s’mores under luminescent star-filled skies at Fish Lake and cowboy coffee gurgling in dented tin pots as friends slowly emerge from their tents, yawning and stretching, in the desert sun.

To all the sounds that fine-tuned my focus – the high-pitched chirps and squeals of marmots, killdeer, and eagles; cattle lowing in the distance; the riot of starling wings, unfurling in ribbons along the fence line; geese honking in broken v-formation; skunks rustling in tangled, verdant undergrowth; the trickle of alpine streams and the roar of surging rapids – I will miss you. A respectful farewell to the state’s pioneer spirit, which seeps into the bones like minerals in warm springs, making pilgrims out of the unlikeliest souls. Thank you for an epic decade. Our lives here have been like a dream from which, even as we move forward, it is extraordinarily difficult to wake.

© Julia Moris-Hartley 2018

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Eagle Eyes

Getting outside more has, so far, been a substantial gap year benefit. I venture out most mornings, after I’ve dropped the kids off at school, hurrying to beat the sun’s ascent over the eastern range. It’s much colder early on; I’d do myself a favor if I learned to exercise in the afternoon, but mornings set me up for feeling good all day — necessary medicine for a winter-addled brain. The brisk air amplifies small noises, and, from the sound of it, none of the neighborhood dogs seem happy about their waking toilette. I breathe in hot, quick puffs, and hasten to pick up a momentum that will sustain me in twenty-something temperatures.

If I make efficient time, I’m on the back roads when the sun crests. Golden strands of light slowly unfurl over sweeping fields of bristly, winter wheat. Frozen stalks soften under crystalline dew. Sheep bleat and cough in hay- and manure-rich pens, sweet-smelling and pungent. The widening light draws my eyes ever upward in search of large birds, camouflaged in bare branches or perched atop utility poles and irrigation wheels. On a good day, I’ll spot as many hawks as the miles I roam. If I’m really lucky, I’ll catch a bald eagle’s high squeal, almost comically disproportionate to its size and magnificence, then scan the horizon until I spy its telltale silhouetted helmet, high in a far-off tree.

Solitude is a friend, though I often talk to the animals I encounter, engaging them in one-sided conversations that make me glad to wander in relative isolation. I might greet a horse or compliment a peacock on his display of lustrous, inky tail feathers. Since I’m the interloper in the animals’ world, it feels only right to usher calm with a soft voice and soothing words. I know they probably can’t interpret spoken language, but perhaps they understand posture and tone. 

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk gave me all the education necessary to remember why birds of prey are so named. Maybe it’s not an extreme sport to remind a hawk of its beauty as its black, fathomless gaze tracks my footsteps. I’m under no illusion who holds the power in our electric exchange. But I just can’t resist that moment of awe as the big birds pivot forward, bending into a dip as they swoop away, or deny the charge of nervous excitement each time I cross the path of evolution’s most successful killers. They are, at once, fond to me in their familiarity and arrestingly dissimilar.

I’ve read about an eagle’s telescopic vision: how humans might see a decrepit structure in the distance, where eagles perceive the intricate crenelations and crags of each dilapidated brick crumbling into blackened soil. How often have I wished to see into people the way an eagle spots a twitch in the tall grass, to have that telescoping insight into the intentions and hearts of others? Do the hawks I see recognize me: my freckles and scars, my squinting, watery eyes? Does the flaxen grass glitter for them like so much gold when the sun rises over the hills? My wonder grows with each wander.

Lately, hawks have been scarce, because they’ve started breeding. To my mind, this is one of nature’s jokes: that the things which inspire hope in the soul and ward off the pervasive emotional freeze of the coldest months disappear from the horizon when I most need them. Nevertheless, I venture out. I train my eyes upwards, eager to find kinship in the sky.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2018

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Reframing

The new academic year brought changes to my work schedule that put my mornings in a weird “hurry up and wait” limbo, whereby I pack lunch for my children and usher them to school, then have three long hours before entering the classroom to teach. More leisurely people than I might use that time to doze or catch up on world news with a coffee, but I am physically incapable of relaxing after I wake up. Once I’m on, I’m on until it’s time to be off. So, I decided to reframe this window of time by using it as an opportunity to rediscover the town I live in and remember why I am so fortunate to be here.

My goal: to log 25 miles per week, by whatever means necessary, documenting the beauty I see along the way. How many times have I been out on a run and encountered something remarkable, like a pair of soaring bald eagles or an egret’s long neck rising from a knee-high field of alfalfa? I’ve taken these pictures over the last month. These are the friends I most often see: mountains, fields, dusty roads, sheep, cows, peafowl, hawks, geese, farm kittens, and a guard dog named Bella. I hope you find them just as pretty as I do.

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Fall colors in the valley.

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Snow arrives in the hills.

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Bella, the guard dog, facilitator of farm kitten naps.

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First snow.

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Inspiration for the lesser-known David Bowie hit, “The Prettiest Cows.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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Picture Perfect

Last Wednesday after work, I left the classroom, grabbed my camera, and drove up Power Plant Road into the mountains.  Power Plant Road is a common picnic location for town residents.  Giant evergreens flank the road, making it feel as if one has entered a fairy tale; rough, oversized picnic tables sprawl over lush grass, shaded by woodland.  Squirrels, conspicuously nonexistent in town, scamper from tree to tree, chattering and squealing.  Giant crested jays scissor through the pine trees; woodpeckers flit from branch to branch conducting their evolutionary carpentry.  Water rushes from the small, red brick power house that gives the road its name, filling the air with pleasant white noise, and a stream fed by last winter’s snow trickles just beyond the safety fence, winding through a grove of aspens.

For two or three fleeting autumn weeks, this place explodes with color. Aspen leaves flutter in syrupy gold; maples blush shocking crimson.  What once was green glitters like gems on nature’s shapely limbs. Acorns and snail shells litter the trails that lead into the mountains, where new snow has already fallen.  Cool air sweeps down the slopes.  A person has only to look around to realize that beauty exists in everything, from the smallest hat on an acorn’s head to the sweeping valley swathed in low clouds.

I went to Power Plant Road to photograph this beauty. I needed to remind myself that it is sometimes very pleasant to be alone; to drive the car in fits and starts, wheeling off the road with the blinkers flashing, stalking from one point of view to another trying to capture that perfect picture. Usually, I’m apologizing and begging to take just one more shot: perpetually the first person to enter the room and the last to leave, camera bag askew on my shoulder as I hastily put my camera away. My tiny digital SLR accompanies me everywhere.

My brother is the true photographer in the family.  I’m just an amateur enthusiast, but I find that photography helps me recollect the details I want to include in my writing.  It’s a hobby that costs practically nothing, but records the moments of my life in full, vivid detail, so that I can later accurately record them in my work.

Last Wednesday, the wind and the trees beckoned me.  I went gladly.  I stopped often.

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