Archive for December, 2008


Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

(NOTE: Somehow I forgot to publish this entry when I wrote it in mid November, 2008. Better late than never.)

Yesterday I flushed our toilet for the first time since early June. It still works. It’s currents still swirl in a lovely clockwise motion.

You might wonder if we have been inflicted with some serious bowel or bladder obstructions, but the real issue is location . . .location . . .location. Here, at our Outpost in the Yukon Territory, Nancy and I live fifty seven steps from an art gallery, a library, a quiet seat in the park, a meditation center, a local think tank, a wildlife refuge and . . . a long drop.

My description of nearby community assets, might conjure images of a small mall with its multitude of joined offerings but I am pleased to report that each of the amenities noted is found under one 5×5 foot roof.

It was only early last spring that I learned from direct experience that a “long drop” is the South African title for an outhouse or biffy.
Culturally and socially, we Westerners tend to hide anything to do with human waste. But I would argue that we should take such a sacred moment and make it more enjoyable. So with that credo in mind we have created a multi-use long drop.

Most of the outhouse furnishings have been provided by the local Mt. Lorne dump, located about four miles from our place. You see up here, they not only have a dump to leave your garbage but an incredibly all-encompassing recycling center at the same location so that in fact the end result is very little garbage is sent to a landfill.

We have grown quite fond of going to the dump. It is a great place to meet new people as you browse through the “share shacks.” This is similar to the websites that advertise “Freecycling” in most metropolitan areas. This is a wonderful service that helps folks give away stuff they no longer want or need. And in so it helps reduce the buying of more “stuff.”

One open fronted shack contains clothes that have provided us with thick colorful wool sweaters, good slippers, fleece pajamas (like new), mint green jeans and even sassy sandals and tough work boots.

The other, similarly open fronted shack is my favorite. It has provided me with a first edition mint copy of Thomas Friedman’s book The Earth is Flat and some very nice biology textbooks and stacks of magazines. Here we also found a nearly new bread machine that has been cranking out fresh bread on a weekly basis. We found nice juice glasses, beer mugs, a knife block and other kitchen necessities. This is the shack that we have given the outhouse a makeover that has transformed it into the aforementioned destinations.

As you nestle down on the pink, inch and a half thick foam insulation outhouse seat, you can look at artwork that surrounds you. There is a North of 60° still life scene of a once-fortified Yukon Jack bottle, which proudly claims to be the “black sheep of Canadian liquors.” It’s now a vase. Two inches of solid ice in the bottom of the bottle tightly grip the still-bright, but wilted purple fireweed blossoms.

Hanging behind the sitter, (note the proper use of the word), there are garlands of plastic green grape vines and several bright yellow sunflowers. With recent mornings dipping below 0° F, the plastic botanical conservatory-look helps make the experience more pleasant, almost summery.

A platter-sized plaster seashell also takes us to tropical thoughts. But then the print of an artist’s rendition of a cold blue shadows falling over snowdrifts reminds us not to dally. Behind the seat is a rusted old hunting knife and equally rusty wire cutters that were kicked out of the dirt nearby.

If you don’t want to watch the comings and goings of red squirrels, boreal chickadees or whisky jacks (gray jays), close the curtain and consider the reading material. The stack literatue sits next to your right buttock. Magazines include: Natural History, a couple of thirty year old Mother Earth News, a book on Animal Behavior and of course, an old pocket book of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction classic, The Martian Chronicles. Which incidentally he offers the following philosopher’s quote in the beginning of the book: “It is good to renew one’s wonder.”
And this is a lovely place to do just that.

Next to your left cheek is the all-important toilet paper. It is housed in another dump find. Kept from the incisors of mice and squirrels, the roll of paper is kept inside an old plastic floppy disk case. With its smoky clear plastic cover you can find it easily. Behind the case is a large, porcelain cookie jar. The handle of the lid is shaped like a dog biscuit so I suspect it is truly a dog biscuit jar. It easily holds two extra rolls of toilet paper and is mouse-proof.

A single moose antler is propped in the corner. Above the antler is a found dried branch with a pleasing shape. In the opposite corner, just off your left knee, is a five-gallon bucket of wood ash to occasionally sprinkle down the long drop.

The two dried corn cobs that sit so lonely in a little metal basket, not only mementos of the Midwest, but they are clear reminders of just how rough things could be if the toilet paper runs out.

So if you choose to visit us for cultural enlightenment, simply walk out past the garage, passing the inukshuk and look for the quaint hut with a sign on the outside that reads: “Dog Mashing Area – Please Slow Down.”

Step in, enjoy the array of community assits and leave a donation. You will feel so much better.


Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

“Suddenly the night has grown colder. . . God of love preparing to depart.”
•From the Leonard Cohen song, ‘Alexandra Leaving’

It’s 9:00 AM and still pretty dark beyond my kitchen window. As I write this, we are ten days from the solstice and the hours of light are tightening here in north of normal. I’ve never been north of 60° with the winter solstice looming.

As Nancy and I planned for our time in the Yukon, it wasn’t so much the cold or bugs that had me worried. No, it was more so the brief hours of daylight.

Yukoners recommended that we try to get out for at least an hour each day to stave off any effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Whether we are splitting firewood, shoveling snow, skiing or snowshoeing it is important to give ourselves a daily dose of natural daylight to combat potential depression symptoms associated with SAD. Midday is the time to get outside and tend to chores or play.

In the early 20th century, hundreds of miles of telegraph wire were raised through the British Columbia and Yukon wilderness. Some of the remote stations had two operators. It was not unusual, particularly during the dark winter, for the companions to harbor a pronounced dislike for each other. Imprisoned by winter and likely the affects of SAD, personalities often brooded for months.

We are nearing a tipping point for the year. Physically, the northern pole is tipped maximally away from the sun. In less than two weeks we will march towards spring as the minutes of daylight begin to out compete the minutes of darkness. However there is deception at play. Though the daylight increases, in northerly latitudes we can expect the coldest weather in the coming month or two.

Up here, I am more aware of the shift of seasons. And anything that creates a keener sense of awareness is a good thing. For example, photographer mentors of mine have always told me to put the camera away at midday. The sun is too bright and intense. Sunlight at both ends of the day must shine make through more atmosphere and is not so harsh. Consequently, you tend to get more dramatic photos.

I am finding that same low-angled sunlight is perfect for shooting photos at high noon. Perhaps I should say at “low noon.” At midday, the sun is barely scraping over the treetops and then almost as quickly it arcs towards the horizon again. It has an eerie aspect about it, not unlike the light given off when there is a partial solar eclipse.

The winter solstice, that moment when daylight is most minimal, the word solstice literally means, “sun standing still.” On the backside of the winter solstice we witness the sun returning to it’s annual march northward.

Author Lewis Mumford, historian and noted for his work on urban architecture, wrote, “Without fullness of experience, length of days is nothing. . . .” Those words seem especially poignant for me right now. While some would say we are approaching the death or the end of a calendar year. I would argue that it is only a segment of the arc that makes a complete circle. The seasons are not linear, like a calendar. Instead, they are cyclical.

It has been said, that among early Americans (aborigines), the short days of winter inspired annual bouts of storytelling. For many tribes, animals symbolized various segments of life. For instance, the black bear was a sign of introspection. The bear disappeared in winter and became dormant to . . . think about things. And so it is with me, as the tipping point nears I find myself thinking more about things. Things like slopes of party-colored flowers, the wash of warm sun on my face in early May and going barefoot outdoors.

Ironically I find it comforting to know that we are tipping towards January. And January towards February and so on, until my mukluks and wool sox are pulled off and my pallid feet venture outdoors.