Monthly Archives: August 2012

Extraordinary Generosity

I have never questioned the assertion that small-town Americans are among the most generous and community spirited people in the world. I’ve seen their kindness in everything from the unanimous warm welcome I received two years ago to the sheer number of hours people pour into making things comfortable for one another. Whether helping a family member at the weekend or serving on every board of trustees there is, the residents of this county are there for one another before the hat has chance to drop.

I wrote an article this morning that pushed my idea of Wyoming generosity to its limits, which was quite an achievement in itself. It has to do with the recent Oil Creek Fire that, unless you are a resident of the Midwest, you have almost certainly heard nothing about. The Oil Creek Fire consumed 62,000 acres, a swathe of land only slightly smaller than the entirety of inner London.

Inner London: estimated population, 3 million (from WikiTravel)

The fire is still burning, albeit under control, only a dozen or so miles away from where I sit and was fought by all manner of fire crews, many of them voluntary.

Incidentally, those firefighters must work in 100-degree weather, wearing heavy protective suits while warming their cockles further on the giant flames ahead of them. They are meanwhile performing the sort of heavy lifting I probably couldn’t manage for more than five minutes were I stood in an ice bath wearing a bikini. (Apologies for that dreadful mental image.)

One of our local firefighters at work; image courtesy of the rather wonderful Katie Allen of Crook County Fire & Emergency

My father-in-law has been one of those firefighters for as long as anyone can remember and to this day jumps to adrenaline-pumped attention each time the call goes out – a little more sneakily these days, because he’s supposed to have retired from the heatstroke.

It was a miracle of human ingenuity that a fire I would be tempted to label “impossibly huge” was brought under control so quickly. It was also testament to the sheer faith locals have in their firefighters that nobody in town seemed to have noticed it was burning. To newcomer me, it was an incredible and terrifying fluke of nature; to the community at large, it was the way of things.

As an example, the residents of a small town the fire threatened to completely consume were evacuated to a nearby city. They promptly wandered home again, serene in the conviction it would never be allowed to reach their doors. They were right.

The firefighters of New York City received the well-deserved status of heroes after the events of 9/11. What I hadn’t before considered is that the same level of heroism can be witnessed on a daily basis, all across America. These men and women don’t fight fires for a living; indeed, I’ve been told that sometimes a sandwich and a cup of coffee is the only reward they get. They do this to serve their communities, often by putting themselves in harm’s way.

Firefighter returning to the line

My favourite depiction of resilience: an unidentified local firefighter shown returning to the line.

Not everyone escaped unscathed from the Oil Creek Fire. This area is comprised largely of huge areas of privately owned ranch land, which meant that some local ranchers lost what must have been devastating portions of their livelihood.

Yesterday, a rancher sent $10,000 dollar cheques to both volunteer services that helped to fight the fire. He wanted to personally thank them for the hard work they did to preserve the wildlife and natural resources in the area and hoped his donation might help them in the future.

I see similarly heartwarming generosity regularly, but this donation stood out to me: the rancher in question lost hundreds of acres of land and a hundred heads of cattle; the firefighters were only able to save his house.

One can barely imagine what a loss it must have been to his family, and yet he felt compelled to make a gesture of thanks to the firefighters who worked tirelessly on his behalf. To me, that speaks of generosity on two levels: that of the man who felt appreciation when he so easily could have felt bitterness, and that of the men and women who stood in the path of a fire to protect their community. The kind of heroism and generosity you read about in the greatest of tales, in a tiny town in Wyoming.

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Wyoming Via The Outback

It has been a source of constant consternation for me, since moving to the States, that every third person I meet assumes I’m an Australian. I’m fairly sure that my Dorset twang sounds nothing at all like the laid back drawl of your average Outback dweller and, ironically, I can’t imitate an Oz accent to save my life.

This is as close to Australia as I have ever been.

It really does happen all the time. A lovely tourist couple from Texas visited our art gallery not long ago and excitedly demanded to know which Australian city I hailed from. They were interested mostly because they spent 12 years living over there – even to people well used to the accent, mine apparently cannot be differentiated.

It’s not that I have anything against Australia – I would, in fact, dearly love to explore its oversized wonders, were I not petrified of giant spiders. It’s just that I spent 30 years cultivating this particular way of speaking, only for people to repeatedly question how successful I’ve been.

I’ve never even been here, in case of insects.

Unfortunately, I recently lost the right to complain about it. I met a lovely lady by the name of Elizabeth at a meeting of the local school board, which I was covering for the newspaper. She was helpful, courteous and friendly and I enjoyed talking to her very much, all the while marvelling that there was an Australian residing in the next town, adding to my observations of small-town Wyoming as so much more culturally diverse than I thought.

You can guess where this is going, can’t you? Yep, she was from Sevenoaks. Which is nowhere near Brisbane at all, but surprisingly close to London, England. It would seem that we British ex-pats slowly lose our accents, apparently by way of Sydney Harbour.

I’ll just go fetch my cork hat and a tinny, shall I?


English as a Foreign Language

My lovely father gifted me a Kindle book this morning – “Notes From A Big Country” by Bill Bryson, in case you’re interested. It was every bit as good as he said it was going to be; so good, in fact, that I found myself reading out a passage to Hubby before I’d even reached the second page. As I did so, our Kinect overheard me.

The Kinect and I have a tumultuous relationship. For those of you who have yet to sample the delights of its technological prowess, a Kinect is a little black box that attaches to your Xbox console, designed with the power to overhear everything you say, spy on you in your underpants and respond to its observations as it sees fit. Largely by opening applications on demand, but only when it feels like it.

Over the past two years, I have come to accept that my voice, specifically my accent, renders it utterly incapable of functioning. In response, I’ve taken to putting on a (really bad) accent when I’m alone in the house, just to save myself the 10 minutes of “Play… play… PLAY… Xbox, play. Just PLAY, would you. PLAAAAY” I’m forced to go through when I want to watch a tellybox show. I’ve made my peace, albeit unwillingly, with the knowledge that, for the rest of my days, I will be deliberately misunderstood by a stubborn and highly primitive AI.

I was not, however, prepared for this:

What happens when your Kinect can't understand you

Eager to please as always, our Kinect immediately assumed I needed its assistance and, because really the only help a Kinect can offer is to dash off to the depths of the internet on your behalf, leaped gallantly to its search screen, where it diligently recorded everything it thought I had said.

I stress the word “thought”, because I have no idea what a joory is, nor why the Kinect is resolute in its refusal to admit that the words coming out of my mouth are, indeed, the English language. I did mention Florida, but I have never knowingly discussed akosuahs (largely because I don’t know what they are, either).

In conclusion, I can express no surprise whatsoever that no search results were found.


The Garden of Ultimate Evil

At the beginning of the summer, my father-in-law came to the conclusion (from my lily-white skin and distinct lack of freckles) that I ought to be spending more time in the great outdoors. He came up with the cunning plan to woo me into the back yard with my very own garden: a place I could grow all the vegetables I could possibly eat with my own, still-fair-even-now-because-I-stick-obsessively-to-the-shade hands.

At first, it went swimmingly. We tilled the land in preparation, built a fence to keep the beady eyes of the deer at bay and planted carrots, beets and cabbages in neat rows. Once a day, I would potter out to inspect the budding plants and gently water them with a bucket, nurturing their tiny little leaves and dreaming of plates piled high with salad.

As they grew, this evolved into Playtime With Hoses, during which idyllic quarter of an hour of each afternoon, I would drench my bean rows until the whole thing resembled a paddy field. Which action I defend by pointing out that it was over 100 degrees outside and we had no rain for a month.

I rejoiced when I picked my first crops, dutifully snapping the ends from my beans before washing, blanching and freezing them, collecting an ever-increasing stash of vegetable goodness to see us through the winter.

I presented both the husband and the parentals-in-law with piles of lettuce at dinner time, overloading everyone’s plates with salad that looked an awful lot more edible than the pathetic excuse for a spring mix that Safeway has been selling over the summer.

I marvelled at how attractive the fruits of my labours were, as well as tasty. Until the first radish crop came in, that is…

The bunch above might look worthy of the front page of a gardening magazine, but I would in no way recommend taking a bite. Somehow, I achieved growing radishes that were both utterly tasteless and so fiery that my jaw almost literally dropped off.

When the above monstrosity of a radish unearthed itself (pictured in my husband’s man-hand for full appreciation), I began to wonder if my garden was preparing to fight back, and/or take over the world. Possibly by squashing everything else in it.

It got worse. Above is a two-foot green bean that somehow managed to evade my notice and begin creeping ominously towards the back door. I cannot speculate as to what it planned to do once it got there, only that Mutant Bean had nefarious intentions. By way of fair warning, this is probably how the apocalypse is going to begin: in my vegetable garden, through the medium of disgruntled shrubbery. My squash plants are almost certainly Triffids in disguise.

I am writing this post by way of an apology, before the inevitable happens and my harvest turns on us all. I’m sorry for inflicting the Mutant Vegetable Army on the world, and for whatever consequences my selfish action has. I couldn’t help it, I had no choice: my tomatoes are about to ripen and grilled summer squash tastes really, really good.

Pictured: Triffids


The gift of tea

I’ve often wondered whether an animal can have a nationality. My dog doesn’t bark in a particularly American accent, nor does my cat show any obvious signs of craving chili dogs. On the other hand, the latter pet has been spotted on numerous occasions, scampering across the carpet with a teabag between her teeth. This is also the cat, I should point out, who steals lettuce leaves on a regular basis and has no interest whatsoever in catnip, so it’s possible she’s not the best example of sanity in the four-legged.

Despite all that, I have become convinced she is at least 50% English, something I assume she has achieved by absorbing my genes through Satanic rituals while I am sleeping. Or possibly by drinking my blood each time she gnaws my ankle when I have the cheek to move my leg across the mattress.

Here is my proof:

Shoe + teabag = shoebag

Several mornings ago, my cat sent me off to work with a carefully prepared gift. At first, I thought it was a very different gift of the ‘accidental poop’ variety, but it turned out to be a damp, used teabag. Most cats bring you mice and squashed spiders, but mine (sort of) understands that no morning should start without a nice cup of tea.

I’d have probably preferred a Twix, mind you.

“You’re welcome.”