Terrain.org Essays.
View Terrain.org Blog.





image, Out Here on this Edge, by J. Grayfox Isom.

by J. Grayfox Isom

I can’t imagine living in a place where you can pick roses in the front yard, and then go into the backyard and pick peaches, blueberries and apples,” my urban guests tell us. “Can we walk around the property without being mugged?” they ask. “Can I open my bedroom windows and be safe?” And, “Will a tornado be coming through any time soon?"

I always reassure our company that they are safe here, and that we do not dodge funnel clouds like trains. But every paradise has its nemesis, and ours is the weather, temperatures fluctuating when a cold front suddenly drops the thermometer from 75 to 30 degrees, not to mention the high humidity coupled with the summer heat. We remind ourselves that it’s the lush, green trees we so love that give off all the moisture, thus, the humidity, but summers here are best spent inside with the air conditioning going full tilt. “Cabin fever,” a term common in the frozen north land, can occur in the middle of summer in eastern Oklahoma.

Along about the middle of July, I have to get outside. Blessing the tree that shades the deck in the afternoon, I retreat there with a tall glass of iced tea, put my feet up and hope that my body will adjust to the 100-degree heat if I’ll just give it time. The felines are cat pancakes, stretched as flat on the deck floor as they can stretch, trying to lose every ounce of body heat they can. Lethargic is not the word. They don’t even twitch when I sit down in the creaky old chair.

image, Cattails.

Looking at Willowroot Pond that lies a few hundred feet from our house usually promotes a feeling of serenity, but not in midsummer. I know with certainty that it’s hiding all sorts of writhing horrors just beneath its calm surface. And if all the ticks and horseflies, mosquitoes and snakes in the lush foliage were put into one big pile, we would all turn tail and run screaming like the masses of an invading alien B movie. Those muffled sounds from the highway become SUVs trying to crowd the compacts off into the ditch. And the mockingbird in the oak tree is not singing just to amuse us. He’s saying, “Stay out of my territory, you bozo, or I’ll drill your skull!”

I try to think “ice” and “glacier,” but I begin to imagine scorpions coming out of the crevices in the rock posts. Fire ants creep along the deck rail. My drink attracts killer bees. I ponder the wisdom of trying to fit the primate (sans prehensile tail) into a landscape that is ready at any given moment to turn into a presence that demands immediate retribution, and I’m the only living person aware of the danger and too lifeless in the 100 plus heat to do anything about it. Cicadas start to shrill, building to a crescendo that threatens to rupture eardrums. Even the cats twitch their whiskers. It’s time to go back inside.

Heat and humidity affect people and animals in diverse ways. My friends and family have learned that I have trouble completing a sentence in July and August. They kindly adjust. But it’s worse than that. Shelia Bosworth could have been describing summers in eastern Oklahoma instead of Louisiana. She writes: “In this feverish state, outbreaks of bizarre behavior are frequent, but Louisianans are quick to forgive. ‘Poor thing, the heat got him,’ we’ll say, when a familiar name appears in the police reports, or on the roster of missing persons at the P.O.”* In my case, besides verbal incompetence, I get a feeling akin to what I speculate must be paranoia.

Getting through summer requires some resourceful planning. We do have air conditioning now, but it’s still hot. I turn on the ceiling fan above my bed and run it all night as fast as it will turn. Trying to position ourselves so that none of our body parts touches the other is an art we learn early. (Forget snuggling until late October.) I take ice cubes to bed and suck on them while reading murder mysteries set in the frozen north or foggy Great Britain. Some people fill their bathtubs with cold water, plop their heads on plastic bath pillows and snooze. Adults crowd into wading pools with toddlers, or go to Barron Fork Creek and spend the day lying in the cool water. Once, in a 115-degree heat wave in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with no air conditioning in the cracker box we’d rented, I sprinkled ice water on the bed before retiring. The water dried as soon as it hit the sheets.

Dogs with heavy coats suffer. We found a large pan for our chow-chow when she was a pup, and we'd fill it with cool water throughout the day. By curling up, she’d manage to immerse the bottom part of her fat little body and lie there blissfully. Dogs, cats, birds, people, all of us live for the freshness that pervades the hill around midnight.

If you’re still awake then, you might hear the whip-poor-will’s mysterious murmurings across the dark meadow. A coolness rises from the dewy grass. Cats come out of their road kill pose and prowl through the shadows. Dogs stop snapping at bees and snore peacefully. Flies have long gone to bed. You can draw a breath clear to the bottom of your lungs. The wind barely clacks the cottonwood leaves as the moon shadows shinny down the porch posts and disappear. You long, like a lover, for the night to stay, but come morning, the daymare begins again.

image, Cattails.

We can count on the summer heat, but winter can be capricious. I’ve seen Januarys so warm we had to dig out shorty pajamas. The dogs would start shedding their winter coats. But I’ve also seen winters when the neighbor’s ducks would paddle furiously to keep the pond from freezing solid, and the crows resorted to eating the few dried persimmons still on the trees. When the temperature gets below 15 degrees and stays that way for a few days, the squirrels, spoiled from their diet of cracked walnuts, no longer turn up their noses at corn. During these times it’s best to stay inside, make up new soup recipes, eat lots of chocolate, resurrect projects from the back shelf, and don’t wish too hard for spring (for we know what’s right on its heels).

March and April are fickle. We can bask in 75 degree warmth one day and bundle up for a spring snow the next, enduring a temperature fluctuation as much as 40 degrees. The birds always portend a cold front with much twittering and clamoring around the feeders, sometimes their screeching almost deafening, only to fall silent when the north wind rips through. Then, all of a sudden, it’s May, with soft days and the first roses, and mockingbirds fighting over nesting rights.

The vegetable garden peaks about the first of July. Then, meal planning is just a matter of going to the garden and choosing colors and textures: radish reds with a hint of purple, emerald blades of onions, barely big enough to eat, glow-green leaf lettuce and fuzzy pods of okra that sting as you pick them. Lanterns of summer squash burn their warm yellow among all the cool hues, and beefsteak tomatoes, scarlet flares that catch the eye of every fruit-eating bird on the hill, spew at the rip of beak or claw. Their acid-sweetness seems to want soothing with the taste of new potatoes, boiled whole, served with lots of butter, salt and pepper. We wait for the first cucumbers just as eagerly, slicing and covering them with vinegar, a little sugar and a pinch of salt and pepper. They’re at their crunchy best if chilled for a couple of hours.

But after the excitement of fresh vegetables, July is to be endured, not enjoyed. We remember the summer it rained on July 4th and kept raining off and on, rare for the seventh month, most of the summer, but they were gentle, much needed rains, nothing violent.

Windstorms are a subject we Oklahomans are supposed to understand—but wind doesn’t have to assume a funnel shape to be annoying. Fronts start to fester as far away as Amarillo and migraine headaches take up where they last left off. Some sufferers pull down the shades, take to their beds, burrow under pillows to muffle the beating and bellowing of the wind. But it’s when the wind stops suddenly that you worry. No sound at all and you’d better curl yourself into a closet or head for a cellar if there’s one close at hand.

Twisters do strange things: pluck babies from their mothers’ arms, drop them, sometimes unscathed, into tree tops or someone’s yard, lift a kitchen stove from a house and set it on a hill top, oven ajar as if waiting to bake. And haven’t we all seen a television journalist holding a 2 x 4 with a straw driven through it? One spring in a town south of us, a group was playing cards in a second-floor apartment. An unexpected tornado sucked away the roof and walls, but the players, cards still in hand, sat at their surreal party like people in a Magritte painting. Tornadoes roar like a train. The sky turns greenish, and often hail is a dreaded portent.

Rains are not well spaced. We could get most of our rainfall in a single month, or day, and not have a drizzle for three months, leaving us to drag hoses and water daily to keep our shrubs alive. I’ve seen ponds dry up and ranchers resort to hauling water for their cattle, the drought broken suddenly by floods that washed a Volkswagen down the town branch for a half mile, its occupants scrambling to safety just minutes before. Or not.

But our up-front facade, the dogwood blossoms in April and the colorful foliage season in the fall, the lakes and rivers, keep bringing in the tourists. Some of them find a side to the picturesque Illinois River that can turn frightening. Floaters rent canoes and start out before noon, winding their way down the river at a leisurely pace if the river is not too high. They know roughly where they are going to come out to meet the truck that will haul them and their canoe back to their starting point. The river is seductive. Near sublime scenes drift by: cranes fishing in the shallows; little kids on floats; lush trees overhanging the river; pretty girls tanning on sandy banks; smoke drifting from a campfire. Before the floaters realize it, a sudden storm blows in and it’s so dark for so long that when the storm dissipates, it really is night time. They look for landmarks, lights, anything, but there are none, only miles and miles of dark riverbank sliding by. Grown men have been known to cry and scream for help in such a predicament, maybe thinking about the names of various camps along the river, like No Head Hollow and Tenkiller Cove.

This country is not only frightening at times, but also puzzling. Once I attended a humanities conference and we began to talk about our geographical location. “We don’t know where we belong,” someone complained. Neither does our weather know which part of the map to call home. But I don’t see that as a negative. Out here we are poised on an edge between north and south, east and west. And there’s something, a resiliency of the bones, a willingness to pick up and start again, a turning back to take another look at old habits, remedies that just might work the next time.


J. Grayfox Isom's work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Nimrod International Journal, Akwesasne Notes, Negative Capability, Phoenix, The Indian Historian, American Institute of Discussion, The Cloud Thre This Light, A Nation Within, and A Gathering Spirit. Her books include The Leap Years: Women Reflect on Change, Loss and Love (Beacon Press, 1999) and The First Starry Night (Charlesbridge). Her plays have also been published and performed widely.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



Bosworth, Shelia. "The Invisible Woman," Southern Living. August 1996.


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.