Bugling Elk and Sacred Spaces

Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. 

Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, and the great eagle; these are our brothers.

We are part of the Earth and it is part of us.

–Chief Seattle, native American

 

It’s autumn now in northern Europe where I returned a week ago. The courtyard Virginia creeper vine is reddening more each day. Heavier bed linens are in place so the window can remain open for good sleeping. Scarves donned for outdoor wear. And rain.

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dining room window courtyard view, paris, france

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kitchen courtyard view, paris

Still, for the moment, I’m reminiscing about a longer than normal summer season in Colorado. Three months at “Camp Estes”–our hillside home with Front Range views and walk-in access to Rocky Mountain National Park.

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looking south, camp estes, long’s peak in background

What made it particularly special were the visitors, different from other summers. A toddler grand-daughter’s first time to roam rocky, hilly landscapes, a reunion of women from my high school graduating class, visual apparitions of campfire spirits after two years of “no-burn” ban, s’mores with dark European chocolate, and a herd of rutting elk who wandered in–and stayed.

These events fused with other things I love; wildflowers in profusion, mountain sunrise and sunsets, thunderstorms and rainbows, low hanging clouds clearing to snow on the high peaks, elk bugling in the change of season.

Returning to the mountains is particularly significant to me because of our overseas lifestyle. For twelve summers, during the years we lived in Taipei, Taiwan, I needed to come home and recalibrate. Living and breathing for a few months at a higher altitude with clear blue skies was so different from an Asian city constructed of concrete and the equivalent of subway tiles. The mountains gave us our “spiritual geography”, a term coined by Kathleen Norris in Dakota. It is the place we inhabit to find our best selves.

Joseph Campbell was of similar mindset when he talked of finding “sacred space”.

“A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life. It has no function in the way of earning a living or a reputation…In your sacred space, things are working in terms of your dynamic–and not somebody else’s…You don’t really have a sacred space until you find somewhere to be…where joy comes from inside, not something external that puts joy into you, a place that lets you experience your own will and your own intention and your own wish…”

Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.

–J. Campbell

 

My sacred spaces begin in physical forms–a cabin in the Colorado mountains, a campfire ring, and a hidden destination called “Rock on the River” where I hike to heal or think.

There is a chameleon-like aspect to living the overseas lifestyle, between home in the U.S. and home overseas. In the Colorado mountains it’s possible to live every day in jeans and soft shirts, moccasins or cowgirl boots. I sip coffee on the front porch in sunshine or on a deck overlooking Long’s Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park. I go to bed after a campfire and awaken to the smell of smoke on my pillow.

Returning home to Paris, there is a seamless slide into the city version of myself. I sit in cafés watching people instead of coyotes, hawks, deer and elk. I happily adapt to the rhythms around me.

Mountains are the constant that makes this work. Feeling small and insignificant amid the backdrop of a huge landscape clears my mind. I love the smell of rapidly changing weather, seeing wild animals roam without fences, poking campfires with a stick–sparking thoughts and creativity. I think of years of good fortune that lie ahead–sharing all of this with a generation of grandchildren.

Another way to tell the story is with pictures. Here is “Camp Estes”–summer 2017.

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“mexican hat” flowers are not native to our hillside. these germinated from seeds sowed over many years without luck. then, in 2005, a new cabin was built and out they popped from the regraded soil

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leila, at 15 months. free to discover and get dirty, to stumble and wobble on uneven terrain

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jet lag means early sunrises over long’s peak with coffee on the deck

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august sunset with first quarter moon rising

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avocado margaritas at ed’s cantina. for a full description to “get in here” as their motto invites, follow this link: Sipping Avocado Margs in Summer

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leila’s face after tasting sour. she actually loves sucking on fresh lime, stopping only when it gets to be too much.

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horse rides with “deedee” at the shaka shaka [baby Russian for playground]

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chalk art in perfect squat formation.

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early morning laughs with auntie “yaya”

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afternoon thunderstorm in sunshine

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produces perfect rainbows

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I bought a vintage necklace at an estate sale. three waterford crystal glasses were thrown in as freebies. must have overpaid for the necklace, but the result was ambient champagne sipping.

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fireside supper and girl chat with leila, deedee and yaya

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iowa high school girlfriends reunited this year in estes park, photo courtesy of betty cleffman hager

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girlfriend hike in rocky mountain national park, courtesy of betty cleffman hager

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on mountain trails with big views, photo courtesy of debbie windus

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marking time with an “old time” photo shoot

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capturing beauty in rocky mountain national park, photo by debbie windus

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september light, rocky mountain national park, photo by debbie windus

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closeup of chief seattle’s “shining pine needles”, photo by mary beckey kelly

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mountain lavender at camp estes, photo by debbie windus

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girlfriend entertaining–snacks followed by dinner, photo by debbie windus

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preparing coals for making s’mores. fire ring built in 1991 has mostly remained in the same configuration. I might have re-arranged it a “few times”, but no one can tell except me. one day a landscaper called it a “spiritual circle” and I quit messing with it.

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lineup of s’more ingredients: grahams, marsh mellows, European chocolate–choice of plain, with sea salt or caramel and sea salt, whisky and wine optional.

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Recipe: toast marsh mellows over red hot campfire coals. [or char them black in the flames if you like.] place on chocolate lined graham crackers.

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smush together. enjoy the sticky sweetness with adult beverage of choice. [red wine or single malt whisky in this scenario.]

Campfire at Wendy's with Joyce and Dave

hair and clothes must smell like smoke before leaving fire, from barb barton minquet

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summer becomes fall with elk rut. 6:30 AM reveilles outside bedroom window the last week of vacation.

CLICK HERE for 30 second video taken from our front porch of big bull daddy re-claiming the harem after three younger males tried to take over. A thin adolescent response from the young bull who ran away.

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herding on south side of camp estes

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the long view

 

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baby elk cuteness

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and baby leila cuteness

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nature’s symmetry

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outside looking in

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low hanging clouds and yellowing aspens

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next day skies with high country snow

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spirit of the flame

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incarnates into spirit of the double horse head

It seems appropriate to end with fire. It’s my symbolic totem, along with the wolf, but that’s another story, another time.

For those who dropped in this summer and those who stayed awhile, for those who loved being there and those who will return to the mountains; share the memories.

And finally, to Leila: I hope the wide and wild natural world will always be part of your adventure, that you will be nurtured by its’ rhythms and beauty, and know that nature exists to support all of her creatures. You are now part of the earth and it is part of you.

 

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The wind will blow freshness into you, and cares will drop away like leaves of Autumn.

–John Muir

 

 

More Than Just an Egg Sandwich

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In Colorado, the holiday season was snow-white and the fireplace blazed night and day. There were deer and elk on the hillside, daily hikes into the National Park, a miniature snow-woman laboriously constructed from barely packable “dry” snow, and, of course, there were egg sandwiches.

IMG_0936A multi-layered, made-to-order egg sandwich is staple breakfast fare when we are at home in the mountains. It is nourishment spiced with location, now entwined in longstanding tradition. The ritual evolved, as things often do, from something I read.

Some 20 years ago, I was immersed in the writings of MFK [Mary Frances Kennedy] Fisher. In sensually descriptive prose, she weaves autobiographical stories of people, place and food. Her mythologizing of Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches particularly captured my imagination. It is the tale of a child’s realization that food and life’s lessons are often inseparable from a strong, loving mentor.

When Fisher was a young girl, several influential summers were spent with Aunt Gwen in Laguna Beach, California. As Mary Frances explained, “…she taught us a thousand things too intangible to report, as well as how to roast kelp leaves, steam mussels, tease a rattlesnake away from a frightened horse, skin an eel after sundown, and stay quiet while a night-blooming cereus [cactus flower] unfolds…”

With Aunt Gwen leading the way, Mary Frances and her younger sister  hiked the hills and cliffs above the beach, singing hymns and marching songs at the top of their lungs. And always, there was an egg sandwich, or two, carefully tucked into their pockets.

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the hills above laguna beach

“In the good Laguna days, it was an exciting promise, to warm up the pan, ready the ingredients, and make fried-egg sandwiches. Aunt Gwen insisted that we have at least two pockets somewhere on us, one for shells, stones, small fish, or lizards, and one big enough to hold these greasily wrapped, limp, steamy monsters. Then we would race the sunset to a high hill. The sandwiches stayed warm against our bodies, and when we panted to a stop, and fell against a good rock or an old eucalyptus trunk, the packets sent out damp insistent invitations… We each had two sandwiches. The first we gnashed at like fairly well mannered puppies. The second was for contemplation, as we watched all of the quiet empty slopes down to the cliff edge, and the great ocean with the sun sliding into it.” —MFK Fisher, Among Friends, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1970

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sunset at laguna

I love this description because it encompasses much more than satisfying simple physical hunger. Fisher was learning, at a young age, that the right combination of food, company, and spiritual nourishment were a metaphor for living well. The spiritual ingredients of those egg sandwiches included “equal parts of hunger and happiness”, a hillside sunset, and companions she loved.

There are no cliffs overlooking the ocean where our cabin is located, but cool summer mornings and darkly cold winter ones stimulate good appetites. Mountain views, towering ponderosa pines and native wildlife provide our spiritual geography. When we are in residence in Colorado, family and friends are often with us. With Fisher’s story in mind, a tradition was born around the kitchen table in winter and the front porch in summer—our mountain version of the fried egg sandwich.

Aunt Gwen’s original recipe was well documented. It started with heating the grease from whatever was cooked the day before in a large flat-bottomed skillet. When the fragrant drippings reached a smoking hot temperature, an egg was dropped in, the yolk broken, and quickly fried so that the edges were crisply brown and barely digestible. Next, two slices of good bread were added to the pan and browned on one side only. The cooked egg was slapped into the middle of the bread slices and pressed together. Finally, the whole thing was wrapped in wax paper that partially melted into the sandwich, small pieces of which were consumed when bit into with hunger and a happy heart. An ocean hillside sunset and good companionship completed satisfaction of body and soul.

As an aid to digestion and modern taste preferences, this is our contemporary version.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN EGG SANDWICH  

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basic ingredients, before adding options

Ingredients [physical]

  • Thick sliced smoked bacon, cooked crisply                                                          
  • Eggs, preferably brown and free range
  • Jalapeño jack cheese [or cheese of choice]
  • Toasted English muffins [or good brown bread]
  • Salsa or fresh tomato slices
  • Fresh spinach [or some kind of leafy green]
  • Avocado slices or guacamole [optional]
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Additional red pepper flakes, as desired

Ingredients [spiritual]

Family and/or friends gathered on a sun-warmed front porch in summer, around the kitchen table or fireplace in winter. Laughter and conversation flowing easily, with a cooked-to-order egg sandwich in hand. Appetites satisfied. Love and camaraderie shared. A new day begins…

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on the front porch in summer

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or around the fireplace in winter

Method

Assemble ingredients. Cook bacon in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Using the bacon drippings, crack an egg into round metal form and break the yolk. Season if desired with S&P or red pepper flakes. When egg is set, remove the form and gently turn the egg over for just a few seconds. On toasted English muffin, layer a thin slice of cheese, tomato, bacon and optional ingredients [avocado, salsa, etc.]. Add cooked egg and fresh spinach leaves or other greens. Press the whole thing down to a manageable biting size. Eat immediately while hot, using both hands. A mug of strong coffee or tea makes a desirable accompaniment.

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crack an egg into a round egg form

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break the yolk, season with red pepper, if desired

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constructing sandwich in layers

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completed, before pressing down

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added guacamole option

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with a mug of strong coffee

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the option of good bread instead of english muffin, coffee still mandatory

Traditions are specific to individuals or families, but the ritual and meaning behind Aunt Gwen’s egg sandwiches is as important to me today as it was to a young girl a century ago.

“All I could now say about Aunt Gwen will never be said, but it is sure that much of my enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating, comes from her…as well as my certainty that the two are, or can be, synonymous.” —MFK Fisher, Among Friends  

It is fortunate, indeed, at whatever age we learn this to be true.