The Bright Side of the Dark in Dubois

I’m not very good at patience, but I had nothing else to do …

Advertisements

I really, really needed my sleep last night. But when my mind came close to the surface at 4 AM,  the Geminid meteor shower drifted in.

I had read about the event in my news feed, and had wished I could witness it.

After a while, I gave up trying to sleep. I got up, made a cup of herbal tea, and drew a chair up to the window.

These are the dark times in Dubois, when daylight ends in late afternoon and we try to find ways to stay alert through the long dark evenings until bedtime. There are two compensations for this: 1. It’s also the holidays, and 2. We’re blessed to live in a dark sky location. The sky is not just dark; it’s  profoundly dark. It feels as if you can see all the stars there are.

Back in Brooklyn, when I thought of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would number like the stars, I had the impression that God meant he’d have 3 or 4 grandchildren. But as I approached the window last night, in every direction I looked, the sky above our wilderness was a riot of stars. They glittered in the windy air.

Out to the east, one star — or was it a planet? — gleamed especially bright and steady. I thought of the Wise Men. How long, I wondered, would I have to wait to see a “shooting star”? Would this be a fool’s errand, a waste of perfectly good sleep time?

The news site had warned us to dress warmly, as this is December. But the night sky here is so dark I could sit cozily indoors, in the dining room, wrapped only in my bathrobe.

I’m not very good at patience, but it was silent and dark and I had nothing else to do at that moment if I wasn’t going to sleep. I sat looking out the window with the largest view — the one that faces Cody and Saskatchewan — and soon a narrow flash of brilliance zoomed past, low on the horizon, just above the windowsill. A good omen.

Were those faint swipes in my peripheral vision tiny meteors, or just my imagination? Giving Nature the benefit of the doubt, I counted both of them: Two.  Three. Then, closer to my center of vision, numbers 4 and 5.

My neighbor, who began watching at 2 AM (having set an alarm), told me she saw 61 in an hour or so. I began later. My count was a mere 17, but then I spent some time making more tea and trying without success to get a picture of the stars on my phone. (These images are public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.)

This image does look very similar to the night view from my window, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a fireworks display.

A meteor shower isn’t like what you take in the bathroom after a hard hike, I discovered. It’s a drop here, a splash there.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I began to trust the fainter flashes that would travel about a millimeter’s apparent distance across my field of vision. They vanished much too quickly to be wished upon.

But meteor number 10 was a superstar of falling debris: It began above my head and swooped slowly “northward,” toward the horizon, blazing downward for 2 or 3 whole seconds. I almost imagined I could hear a whooshing sound.

I was too amazed to make a wish.

©Lois Wingerson, 2018

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois Cowboys: Still at Work

A morning’s effort, evoking many recollections

Cowboys2014Once in a while, on a summer morning, I awaken to what sounds like cattle in the living room.

There aren’t really cattle in the living room. The first time I heard this, however, I did leap out of bed to check.

It was just the clamor of cattle complaining loudly as they were being driven down the highway in front of the house, from a pasture uphill to the valley below. When one wandered onto our driveway, a cowboy rode over to steer it back.

Cattle trucks drive down the highway past the house all the time. But for a city girl, my first sight of these cowboys at work was pretty thrilling.

cowboysOne afternoon last week, I came home to the sound of whoops, whistles, and loud mooing in the valley. I ran over to take this picture.

They were driving these cattle into a corral from which they would be urged into a cattle truck, which would drive them elsewhere by other means.

I feel silly about it, having absolutely no personal experience about the life of a cowboy. But I still get excited at this sight.

This is an entirely different process than the one that inspired the term “cattle drive,” of course. This is a mere morning’s effort for these cowboys.

The original cattle drives, as anyone who has seen “Rawhide” will understand, were brutal and grueling months-long endeavors that somehow led to the idealized nostalgia that the term “cowboy” evokes today.

Smokey-hill-river-cattle-driveRecounted in the book Recollections of the Upper Wind River Valley, tales from the first cowboy in the area, Andy Manseau, make clear what it meant to be a cowboy in the old days. “In the fall of [18]98 I ran the J.K. Moore cattle,” he recalled. “… We were through rounding up and night herding them to be ready the next morning to drive them to the railroad at Casper.”

Two horses got away from one of the wranglers, and Manseau went after them. His horse tripped on a loose rope and Andy fell off, landing on his head and shoulders.

“I was unconscious for 24 hours. No one expected me to live….The doctor couldn’t do anything for me. My left arm was paralyzed and I had hurt my spine and lost my equilibrium. But I got over it!”

More recently, cowboys, Boyd told me, cowboys drove the cattle all the way to Hudson, where they’d be loaded onto cattle cars on the train. The cowboys had to return afterwards on horseback, of course.

But there were compensations: A string of bars at regular intervals along the highway once offered a place where cowboys could stop en route home. They’re all vacant now, obviously long since gone out of business. These days, the cattle truck drivers pass right on through to the next town.

Evidently I’m not the only person here to be excited at the sight of cowboys driving cattle. When I told Sandy about the tiny roundup next door to our house, she recalled the days before the cattle trucks, when the ranchers used to drive the cattle right through town in the fall and on down-county.

It was very exciting for the school children, she recalled, but the streets were very messy afterwards.

My friend Mary Ellen remembers that St. Thomas Church would halt services so the parishioners could go outside and watch the cattle drive through town. No doubt the cattle were so loud that they would have made the service inaudible anyway.

This brought back to her mind a tourist, an older woman driving a little sports car, whose progress was also halted by the cattle drive. Mary Ellen recalls that she was wearing white sneakers.

Cattle_BearBasinShe leaped out of the car, all excited, and began taking photographs. After the cattle had passed, there was no way to keep her sneakers clean when she returned to the car.

The cowboys are enchanting, but I often find the cattle an irritation. They might break through a fence and cause trouble. They sometimes get slow my progress on hikes.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

So the Doctor Came Over the Pass in the Snow …

Another blessing for our health on the heels of the new pharmacy.

IMG_1782“What happened to your hand?” friends were asking yesterday.

I explained that it’s really nothing, and then we tried to come up with an amusing answer. I got injured fending off a grizzly attack? (Not funny.) Got caught up when I was dallying the lasso? (Not even remotely plausible.)

In fact, the bandage is there to protect the minor laser burns sustained during my latest biannual ritual at the skin doctor. She found more of those pre-cancerous spots, and zapped them away. It’s ugly, but not painful, and it will heal quickly.

Why am I sharing this? Because of another blessing that has come to town, hot on the heels of our new pharmacy.

PassHighway022514_2For this visit, I didn’t have to take the usual 90-minute drive over Togwotee Pass to Jackson to see the dermatologist. This time (on the morning of our first snowfall, as it happens), the dermatologist and the rest of her team came to me.

This could have been their last monthly visit at the end of a six-month experiment. But they’ve decided to keep coming every month, year-round.

This is no small favor. That a specialist and her team will come over the Pass to spare dozens of us driving the other way in order to detect early skin cancer is a very important benefit in this remote town. At around 7000 feet, the sun is deceptively brutal here. It’s not hot, but it’s dangerous–especially for someone with a family history of skin cancer, but actually for anyone. I never go outdoors without a generous application of sunscreen and a hat with a brim.

Grandad_BarnDoorThere would not have been any sunscreen available to my grandfather, who was a Nebraska farmer with fair skin. I’m guessing there were no public-health messages about the risks of the sun during the Great Depression, and as you see him standing here in the barn door, he was not wearing a hat.

He died from melanoma that arose on the back of his neck. I envision him laboring for hours on his tractor, head bare, sun at his back as he plowed the furrows.

My mother (not a rancher but a teacher) regularly had pre-cancerous lesions taken off her skin. Now so do I, as do many of my neighbors. Thank heaven.

And thanks to Storey Donaldson, office manager of Western Wyoming Dermatology & Surgery, who proposed adding Dubois to their satellite offices in Pinedale and Afton.

IMG_1784_editedThis week was the end of a six-month pilot project to see whether the practice would attract enough patients in Dubois to justify the effort. Not only have they gained new patients from our town, Storey told me; about half of their visits in Dubois are from people farther down the valley, in Lander and Riverton, who would not want to make a 3-hour trip all the way over to Jackson.

Back in the day, someone would ride on horseback all day and hope to be able to bring a doctor back in time before the injured person died. Today, we have two clinics and regular access to preventive care. One clinic now offers dermatology visits once a month; the other offers telemedicine links to specialists at the best hospital in the state. There’s also an ambulance service with response times that match national standards, air lifts to regional intensive care centers, and search and rescue crews that venture out to help people injured in our wilderness.

IMG_1778In New York City, I left behind some of the best medical care in the world. But I don’t spend much time even thinking about that.

So what did I do after seeing the dermatologist on Wednesday, instead of spending 90 minutes driving back from Jackson? I put on my hat, of course, and took the dog for a ramble.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois to Dubois in Four Hours

Of our less remote “sister city” and the two mountain passes between.

PopulationSignReturning from a brief trip to Montana, our southward route down Interstate 15 took us straight past that other Dubois across the border, in Idaho. I couldn’t resist paying a visit.

This other Dubois is a few hundred yards from I-15. In Dubois, Wyoming, we live about 3 hours from the nearest Interstate–a fact that helps our town to qualify as one of the most remote in the lower 48.

This town is less remote, but nonetheless smaller. Our own “Entering Dubois” sign reads “POP 971.” But the town feels larger than that because many people live outside the town limits, in the mountains. There are no nearby mountains here. Dubois, Idaho, sits in a broad valley of grass and sage.

Some time ago I visited the third Dubois, in Pennsylvania, which is in the midst of mountains. It was named after a local lumber magnate, uses a capital “B” in the middle of its name (as he did), and had a population of nearly 8,000 at the last census.

A sign at the freeway exit for Dubois, Idaho, promises a visitor center, which turns out to be the new rest stop. There are restrooms, of course, but no welcome desk with someone behind it to welcome you. Large glass display cases give information about the region–most prominently the history of the Idaho National Laboratory at nearby Arco (population 995). It’s the site of “the world’s first and the United States’ only fatal reactor accident,” according to Wikipedia, in which 3 people died when an accidental steam explosion destroyed a nuclear reactor.

Main StreetI’ve been curious about Dubois, Idaho, because understandably some people confuse our Dubois with this Dubois on the other side of Jackson Hole. A tourist once told me that a shop clerk in Jackson told her to stock up on groceries and gas before heading over the Pass to Dubois because there’s nothing there. I had to laugh, thinking of our large grocery store and four gas stations. In this Dubois, the one gas station is boarded up and there’s no supermarket.

There are two motels and two restaurants, one of which got a five-star review on TripAdvisor only last week. I wish I had noticed it myself.

Founded in 1892 and originally named “Dry Creek,” the Dubois in Idaho is 22 years older than the one in Wyoming. This Dubois re-named itself around 5 years later, in honor of the same Idaho senator and Postal Service official who bestowed his own name on our Dubois, rather than allowing residents of a small Wyoming town to use the name they had chosen.

Ranch_Train

Dubois’ main street ends after a few blocks at this ranch and, beyond it, the train tracks. Trains first came through this area in 1879. I’ve read that there was talk of running a train line through Dubois, Wyoming, long ago, but it never happened.

Without an Interstate and a train we are truly isolated, in one sense. But far more traffic passes through our Dubois, being on one of the two main routes from Denver to Yellowstone. It didn’t seem that many other cars had ventured past the rest stop to explore this Dubois as we did.

WaterTowerI stepped out of the car to take a photo of the water tower, and had a brief chat with two town workers who were mapping water lines, standing inside the stone traffic circle at left. (Another difference: Not being transected by a Federal highway as Dubois, Wyoming, is, I’d guess this town is free to direct traffic flow any way it chooses.)

I asked them about the economic basis of the Idaho town. Agriculture, they replied. Mostly hay and, of course, potatoes.

The Episcopal church was built of clapboard, not of logs like our own. It has become the town museum.

TwoChurchesI noticed in passing that Dubois has its own visitor center housed in the small town library, but that was closed as we came through on a Wednesday afternoon.

To reach home before nightfall we had to hurry through Idaho Falls and on toward Jackson Hole. We passed through Victor, Idaho, a booming bedroom community for Jackson, at about 4:45. From that point on, we saw a continuous stream of cars heading in the other direction. These are the commuters who cross the steep and narrow highway over Teton Pass every day.

Speed limits are slow, between 25 and 35 mph. “There are no passing lanes,” someone wrote on a TripAdvisor forum, “so if you get caught behind a slow vehicle, you are pretty much stuck.” RVs and cars with trailers are advised to avoid this route.

My husband shifted to a lower gear as we headed downhill toward Jackson. There are runaway truck ramps every few miles on the 10% grade (one of them, alarmingly, on the opposite side of the road), and trucks are warned to stay in low gear almost all the way to the base on the eastern side. The endless single line of commuters extended almost all the way back into Jackson.

Togwotee_092618_4_darkOnce beyond Jackson and the construction at the new roundabout south of the airport, we were slowed only by a few out-of-state cars dawdling to look for bison or enjoy the view.

Heading toward our own Dubois and home, we took a new kind of pleasure in the drive over Togwotee Pass, which we always enjoy. This time we noticed the wide shoulders on the highway over this beautiful Pass, the gentle slopes, the broad curves, the 55 mph speed limit, and especially the frequent passing lanes.

Not to mention the splendid views.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

In Praise of Moms and Pops

Not, well, cool. But what she doesn’t get …

VillageCafe1“You know, Mom and Pops.”

I thought of this, as I looked at my sausage and scrambled eggs. Out of curiosity, last week I called the Wyoming Office of Tourism, posing as a tourist, to ask whether there are any restaurants in Dubois.

You know, it’s a pretty small town.

Sure, she said. There are places to eat there. You know, Moms and Pops.

I recognized her tone of voice: the big-city cognoscenti. I’ve been there myself, for many years, in a much bigger town than Cheyenne, where she was speaking from. “Moms and Pops” are not, well, cool.

I was waiting for my car repair across the street at 3D Oil, this week, and I stopped by for breakfast at the Village Cafe. Not the place the Office of Tourism would recommend, clearly. Their promotional material tends to focus on the Cowboy Cafe, which has the right branding. A fine establishment itself, but always crowded in the high summer season (therefore).

I guess nobody had told her about the Bistro, which is pretty darned cool itself.

You can usually get a table at the Village Cafe.

VillageCafe2_editedIt’s quiet season now, only a few hunters and retired ranchers stopping by for breakfast. The old guys at the next table were talking about cattle, tractors, and hay. The other folks were quiet.

There was a nice, hometown feel about it. I sat back and read my book while I enjoyed my eggs.

In Dubois, we thrive on Moms and Pops who started their businesses years ago and stay around because we love it here, and (like the couple who just opened Noon Rock Pizza) the kids of Mom and Pop, who start something new because they want to live here. Or the couple who opened Moose Outpost, the hamburger stand across the highway, which rivals Wendy’s for quality but not for brand recognition.

VillageCafe3I’ve always admired the big screen TV at the front of Village Cafe, which features real facts about our history and geography, like this one. So folks passing through can learn a little about the area with their hotcakes and hash browns.

The menu is sparse: Eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, French toast, in various combinations at corresponding prices. Nothing fancy. You know what you’re going to get, and it’s pretty good.

“A chain restaurant would never survive here,” said Dustin, coming out from the kitchen to talk with me. “They wouldn’t be able to make it through the slow season.” For that, you need the Moms and Pops who are committed to the community and determined to stay in this place they love.

Of course because I live here, I have never actually stayed in the Wind River Motel, which is attached physically and financially to the Village Cafe. From the outside, it looks modest, to say the least. I’m not sure I would stop here myself if I were a stranger passing through.

WindRiver1In recent months, I’ve taken the opportunity to speak to several people who have stayed there — a man from Colorado who brings up his truck full of peaches and tomatoes in late summer, and a pair of cyclists passing through from coast to coast.

They told me it’s a great deal: good beds, very clean and comfortable, and the price is definitely right: Well south of $100 a night, about a third what you’d pay over the pass in Jackson.

There are those who won’t stop in Dubois because we don’t have a Hyatt or even a Holiday Inn Express. We’ll manage just fine without them, thank you. We’re OK with who we are: Moms and Pops and folks who just like it here and want to keep it this way, which is pretty wonderful.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

 

Another Dubois Distinction: The Bones in the Big Red Dead

Defying the experts in a search for remains.

IMG_1386I used to love scrutinizing the rocks as I hiked. I hoped to find something important.

I’d find pretty green and pink rocks, rocks with interesting shapes, rocks that might have been carving tools, once a petrified twig. I’ve mostly stopped doing that, because I really don’t know what I’m looking for, or at.

But some others do, and they have found it—in abundance.

Paleontologists “spend a lot of time walking around with their eyes glued to the ground, because that’s where the fossils are,” said Calvin So, a paleontology student at the University of Wisconsin. I heard him a few weeks ago at the Riverton Museum.

IMG_1268Two days earlier, the crew of the Nobby Knob Triassic Expedition had covered over their site southeast of Dubois to leave it behind for the winter. They have spent this past summer excavating a trove of remains from what So called “the dawn of the dinosaurs,” between 230 and 200 million years ago, during the Late Triassic.

Team leader Dr. Dave Lovelace gave a similar presentation at the Dubois Museum in July, when I was out of town. My husband went, and phoned me afterwards with astonishing news: Lovelace and the team have been tramping around the outskirts of town for the past four years, searching and digging for fossils.

They’ve been defying the experts, looking for remains in a geologic stratum in Wyoming that paleontologists have referred to as “the big red dead,” always thought to be a dry and barren period devoid of animal remains. The fact that the team has proved them wrong should not surprise us in Dubois, where we know that dry and apparently barren does not imply a lack of life.

“We have found an abundance of fossils,” So said, “contrary to what other people have been saying.” Almost everywhere they’ve looked in the Wind River Valley, Lovelace told me, they have found fragments of bone from this period.

IMG_1430After finding a tantalizing whole phytosaur skull near Lander, where a few Triassic finds were reported in the early 1900s, the team began to explore the red dirt on public land almost within view of structures in Dubois. In 2014, they found fossil fragments of extinct salamander-like creatures known as temnospondyls. The next year they determined where those fragments had been eroding from. This summer, the crew was digging at that spot for two months.

Who knew that these guys (and women) have been out there, as they put it, “digging up Dubois” for four years? (“Anyone who is interested can see us from the main drag in Dubois,” Lovelace said.) And who would have guessed what they’d uncover?

The red hill they named Nobby Knob (after a character in a fantasy book series) has yielded what Lovelace calls “amazing” remains of creatures with the wonderful name of Koskinonodon, a genus of extinct amphibian. Among them is a skull, probably a juvenile, that they affectionately named “Wally.”

When Wally died, sometime way back in a period when the continents were in entirely different shapes and orientations, this area was covered with a shallow lake. Think, So said, of a creature lurking partly submerged, waiting for something to ambush.

IMG_1271Extracting the fossils can be brutal work. To extract the fossils from the dirt, they cover them with plaster. One plaster “jacket” containing dozens of stone-covered fossils weighed 500 pounds, So said. It took about 400 hours of work to chip away painstakingly at the surrounding rock in order to expose the fossilized bones. Another weighed about 1000 pounds.

Once the specimens arrive in Wisconsin, the team exposes the bones. Then they run them through a CT scanner and analyze them using a custom imaging program that allows them to discern the individual bones inside a skull.

In 2016, the team began excavating another site nearby that is rich with remains. Lovelace calls the Serendipity Site a “mass death assemblage.” It’s a Late Triassic cemetery of sorts; a large collection of burrows containing the fossils of tiny early amphibians, probably distant ancestors of the salamanders. Many of their skeletons are preserved largely intact.

This could be echoes of a distant climate change. So said these may be the remains of creatures that went into estivation – a sort of hibernation intended to wait out a drought – and were doomed when the drought lasted too long.

This site adds to another prehistoric distinction for Dubois: A curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has called this region “the epicenter of Rocky Mountain archaeology,” because the prehistoric high-altitude villages found above Whiskey Basin a decade ago have changed our ideas about some of the earliest Native Americans.

IMG_1269Now this site is changing the way we think about some of the earliest vertebrates. There are enough late Triassic fossils just east of town to classify Dubois as a “world-class vertebrate paleontology locality,” Lovelace told me.

There are only 5 similar sites in the world, he says, and “this one is unique even among those rare localities.”

The other sites (in Poland, Portugal, Morocco, and New Mexico) are “multi-taxon sites” that include remains of several different types of animals. Most of them are random collections of bones and skulls, not large numbers of complete skeletons. The Dubois site is unique, according to Lovelace, because it preserves a single type of animal.

The remains at Nobby Knob are extraordinarily well preserved, in part due to the slow, shallow waters in which they were submerged, still showing remarkable features such as tiny teeth embedded in the palate at the roof of the mouth. Also, the vast majority of the skulls are small, and “small individuals are exceedingly rare.”

This leaves a number of unanswered questions: Were they small because they were all young? (It is not uncommon for adults to inhabit different areas than their young to avoid “their young becoming part of their diet,” he says.) Or are they a new and different species?

And another intriguing question remains: Why were more than half of the burrows at Serendipity not found empty, but still encasing the skeletons of tiny creatures doomed never again to walk that alien, ancient landscape? What was the fatal factor?

The crew will return next year to continue work at the site.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018. Thanks to Dr. Lovelace for reviewing the text for accuracy.

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Of Music, Longing, and Mysteries

Nostalgia for things never experienced?

StameyCowboys roping in baseball caps, and empty spaces on McNally Maps. Dry creeks and history on the page. Sycamores and prickly pear. Barrel racers with great big hair. Horses swishing flies out in the sun.

Those aren’t my words. They’re Dave Stamey’s words.

It seems like the whole town has come out to hear the cowboy songwriter, and not just because it’s the best thing going on right now. Nearly every seat in the big room at the Headwaters Center is taken. He has us in the palm of his hand.

“It’s a place, it’s a feelin’ and sometimes it’s just a state of mind. It may not be what you were lookin’ for, but it’s here in what you find. And it’s all these things. It’s the West.”

I get just a bit choked up at that, and I’ve only been here for 10 years, for crying out loud. The words and the music reach down somewhere to grab at me the way a good song can.  Somehow I feel a longing for something that I haven’t yet lost. In fact, I’ve barely begun to experience it.

Stamey takes a pause to take several jabs at a popular old song, “Riding Down the Canyon” by Smiley Burnett, which has featured in Western films and in recordings by many famous country singers. He recites a few of those lyrics.

“When evening chores are over at our ranch house on the plain, and all I’ve got to do is lay around,” he quotes. “Well, I don’t know where that ranch is, but when evening chores were finally over at our ranch, the very last thing you’d want to do is saddle up and ride down a canyon to watch the sunset.”

There’s a knowing chuckle from the audience, and I join in — not that I’ve ever done a single chore at a ranch. My only experience at ranches was as a dude, where I relaxed while others did the chores. To folks at their radios or in movie theater seats, the song  evoked a longing for a laid-back, heavenly way of life that didn’t actually exist.

DadatPiano“These songs were not written by cowboys,” Stamey adds. “These songs were written by little bald men at their pianos back in New York.”

Well, I do know a thing or two about that. My Dad was once a guy at a piano in New York.

There he met my mother, a lovely young classical singer trying to make her way in the big city, having grown up on a farm in Nebraska. She would have enjoyed Dave Stamey.

When they met, Dad was making his living by working for a Broadway composer (who probably was a little bald man with a piano). As time went on, Dad wrote many fine songs of his own, although they weren’t cowboy songs. He had sense enough not to write about what he didn’t know.

They include this one, ironically called “City Longing,” which is actually about longing to leave the city. The frenzied, self-promoting feel of New York disenchanted my soon-to-be parents, and they left to teach at colleges in the Midwest.

FiddleMando_editedI’ve always found it ironic that New York is where I ended up spending most of my life. Being the only child of two classical musicians, of course I grew up loving that kind of music. I learned several instruments. I used to play in string quartets and orchestras.

That is one of the very few things I miss about New York. In a small way, I do long for it. Watching an orchestra performance now is a sort of bittersweet torture. Nonetheless I crave it. So I impose it on myself, when I can.

A few days ago, I took a lovely ride over Togwotee Pass to Teton Village near Jackson, to watch the dress rehearsal of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony at the Grand Teton Music Festival.

Musicians crowded the stage: 9 string basses, 10 violas. Two sets of tympani. Lost in nostalgia, while I listened I watched them at work and relived it all: the feel of the tremolo on the string, the sound of counting bars inside my head, the sense of eyes flicking up to the conductor over the top of my glasses.

This kind of nostalgia I can explain. Other feelings puzzle me.

TableMountain3

When Mahler wrote his third symphony, he  was living in his mountain retreat in Austria. He used to go there in the summer to escape the pressures of his daily work life. We lived in Germany for a few years, so I speak both his language and his language of music. And now I live in the mountains, having retreated here from the pressures of our daily working life in the city.

In the third symphony, Mahler said, “the whole of nature finds a voice.” He described the final passages as “the peak, the highest level from which one can view the world.”

In Mahler’s music, I felt I could hear him speaking from the grave. He wrote pictures in sound: deep, rich, and complex–sometimes ominous and foreboding, at other times whimsical or light-hearted, with the strains of forest birds and distant trumpets. Sometimes he launched into the bouncing chords of a Tyrolean oompah band.

In my work as a science writer, I learned that neuroscientists have found that music touches the same nerves in your brain (I’d rather say “strings in your heart”) that trigger deep emotion.

It’s one of those things that scientists find out which you sort of knew all along.

MahlerI truly don’t miss living in Germany at all, but (as for many people who admire Mahler) the music overwhelmed me with feeling. He swept me back to Germany and into the mountain woodlands, leaving me with a feeling that I had experienced and gained something profound. (But what?)

A few days earlier, alone on the stage strumming on one guitar, Dave Stamey had evoked the feel of the entire American West with a few simple words and quiet melodies. And he had demonstrated how music can also evoke a longing for experiences that people haven’t even experienced.

No doubt a musicologist could parse way these two different musical languages differ in their grammar. But that wouldn’t explain how they can speak so distinctly inside my one little brain, somehow triggering those little hairs inside my ears to play on my neurons in ways that can summon up two entire worlds, separated by years of time and thousands of miles.

I might start pondering that again next time I look up at the stars or out over the valley. But of course I won’t ever figure it out.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.