Leaving Words at Home

Cherry Grove, Fire Island, summer 2016

I often say I write about my home place, but that’s not true all the time. The book project currently consuming my writing energy, for example, is about scientific literacy. (Though it might far afield from the natural history and personal observation focus of this blog, it turns out that scientific literacy is concerned with the same mediation between private experience and the larger universe that unfolds when I’m caught under the spill of a gleaming sunrise or pulling a carrot out of the garden.)

I don’t write only about home, but I do pretty much write only at home.

I’m not one of those people you might see rapping away on a laptop in a coffeehouse. Whether I’m yakking to myself in my journal or scratching out the notes that will eventually become an essay or parsing the galley pages of a book I’m indexing, the tinkering I do with words mostly takes place here in my office.

Sunrise at White House Ruin, Canon de Chelly, fall 2016

I’ll occasionally take my journal down to the living room on a snowy day so I can scribble in front of the fire, but over the past few decades my writing-related activities have become pretty firmly coupled to my office space—I’m lucky enough to have it, so why not use it? All my tools, from books to ample desk space, from my computer with its files and internet portal to my trusty dictionary and thesaurus, are here. My mind has settled into the routine and accepted the habit: this is where I come to think and write, including the hand-writing I do in my journal.

Hraunfossar waterfall, Iceland, fall 2012

One upshot of this linkage is that I now rarely write in my journal when I’m traveling. This is a major shift from earlier phases of my life, when I was quite obsessive about recording events and sensations as close to the time and place as possible. I still carry my journal with me on trips, but it rarely comes out of my pack—unless the trip is writing-related, such as my recent retreat at Windbreak House, or my time at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s conference summer before last.)

Increasingly, travel offers the opportunity to switch my mind into low-energy standby mode. My body might be active, but my brain is content to simply gawk. It will step up—often reluctantly—to handle scheduling and logistics, but otherwise it’s so laid-back that simply choosing something off a menu feels like a monumental intellectual feat. I also spend more time around other people when I’m on vacation, and writing, unless you’re hanging out with someone else who is also writing, is inherently anti-social. Even when it’s just my husband and me, the point is to spend time together released from our respective routines: we chat and hike and wander urban streets and take in the sights and swim and hang out in places that serve decent wine.

Sunrise, Palm Springs, November 2017

When a family holiday get-together took us to Palm Springs for Thanksgiving last week, writing was not on my agenda. I tried a couple of times, settling down by the pool with my journal intending to record my impressions. I managed to write three lines on one morning, before breaking off mid-sentence to do something my brain was more interested in at the time—eating breakfast, perhaps. The next day I jotted a page or so, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was on vacation: writing in the journal, which I do nearly every day when I’m at home, felt too everyday. Writing felt too much like work.

For a long time, I was anxious about the shift from travel-writing to not travel-writing, feeling like I was missing out on the fullness of the experience by not writing about it in situ. At home, now, in my office and at my desk, I’m able to unpack this dynamic a little bit. The journal allows me to think about life, but writing isn’t living. Preserving reality isn’t possible and even if it were, that’s not why I bother keeping a journal. I do so as part of that ongoing mediation between self and world.

Istanbul, fall 2014

I’ve also realized I can be sanguine that almost all my journal entries bear the words “Cap Rock” as the marker of my location because the camera has taken the place of the journal as my travel mnemonic. I can be philosophical about leaving words at home because it’s so easy to document my time away with images.

I suppose this means that the vacation on which I’m well and truly in the moments will be one when I’ve not only left the journal at home but also declined to pack the camera…but for now I’m not willing to go there.

Mount Pico, Pico Island, Azores, summer 2017

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Late Season

Volunteer violas have taken up positions on either side of a landscaping rock.

Years ago, reflecting on our move from the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado to the more rural center of the state, I wrote about planning the space that would be our garden in the mountains:

Despite the high elevation, short growing season, and abundant wildlife…we knew we wanted a garden, so we built a walled one, complete with concrete footers to keep out burrowing critters and metal flashing pinned to the top of the wall as a slippery barrier to those that climb. So far (knock on cinderblock), the garden has been unmolested by rabbits, deer, moles, elk, or gophers. Packrats, deer mice, and chipmunks occasionally manage to penetrate the defenses, but for the most part the garden is a sanctuary from any wildlife that does not fly. The wall holds heat, extending the growing season, and it shelters the garden from desiccating winds…. (From “My Life as a Weed,” in Between Urban and Wild)

The garden in 2004, when more of its bones were showing.

The garden walls square off an L-shaped building formed by the barn and adjoining cabin, which block winds coming out of the west or north. We eventually figured out that chipmunks and packrats get in by climbing eight feet up the stucco on the front of the barn and running along the metal rail that supports the rolling barn doors. From the end of that perch, a correctly calculated hop delivers them around the gutter downspout and onto the top of the garden wall, on the far side of the flashing. I’ve designed a barrier to block this maneuver, but haven’t gotten it built yet, since a rodent enterprising enough to figure out the route only comes along every few years.

Bears do not deploy such elaborate tactics. They’re plenty smart, but they rely on brute strength to haul themselves up and over the six-and-a-half-foot wall, provided there’s a partially-composted food reward on the far side, which is why I no longer keep a compost bin inside the garden.

The area within the wall is my primary space for growing vegetables in summer, but I am not a subsistence grower. In fact, I’m quite distracted as a gardener, seemingly incapable of keeping myself on task for the entirety of a growing season—even if it’s short. This lack of attentiveness may be why I don’t fuss when groundcovers and flowering plants push into the raised beds theoretically reserved for comestibles. Even when the garden doesn’t produce a lot to eat, the spirit of the space is fecund.

Mule deer, through the kitchen windows.

The garden wall is the sort of good fence that makes good neighbors: I can grow stuff and cohabitate with wildlife with relative equanimity. This matters a lot this time of year, when the grasses are straw-like in color as well as texture, and shrubs and forbs are just plain old sticks. There’s been a gang of mule deer bucks loitering around our place for many weeks now, and if it weren’t for the wall they would have long ago eaten the kale, beets, carrots, and Italian parsley still growing after last month’s killing frost.

They would have eaten more decorative elements in the garden, too, down to bare nubs. Thanks to the wall, then, we’ve been enjoying the fall-blooming saffron crocus, with their pretty lenticular petals cupped around bright orange sexy parts. Their grassy leaves faded and died back months ago, so the pale lavender flowers poke up unheralded from bare earth or through the brown strands of dead daylily leaves, uncanny and charming.

The pincushion flower I planted a year or two ago has settled into its home near the greenhouse door, where it’s still mounting pale blue pom-poms on short wiry stems. Like the saffron crocus, conventional gardening wisdom holds that the plant shouldn’t survive as a perennial in this zone, but it’s happy in the sheltered microclimate created by the garden’s walls. The stems are short, but that’s okay—the flowers don’t have any other foliage to rise above during these abbreviated November days.

Next to the outside corner of the cold frame, calendula plants that haven’t frozen yet are still sporting daisy-ray flowers in bright blaze orange. I’ve never seen them blooming so late, and so had not made the connection between that color and the vests and hats the hunters don this time of year.

More plentiful, and more randomly scattered, clumps of violas and pansies are still contentedly growing, blooming like crazy, and dropping the seeds that will ensure their reappearance next spring. I haven’t planted any new ones in years, and I’ve stopped deadheading or trying to control—or predict—where they’ll come up.

Meanwhile, other perennial plants are relaxing toward their dormant season. Their leaves decorate the edges of planting beds and flagstone and pea gravel paths with a low-slung display of late fall color: alpine strawberries in yellow, sedum in deep red, columbine still holding onto green, penstemon and thyme in burgundy nearing on purple, native pussytoes and partridge feather tanacetum in soft silvery green.

We knew when we built it that the walled garden would offer peace of mind by keeping most of the wildlife at bay. I suppose I imagined the garden as a functional space in its short growing season, but I didn’t give much thought to what it would be like in the other eight or nine months of the year. Gardening catalogs like to tout plants that offer “year-around interest.” Sheltered from a windswept and arid sweep of land, our little botanical island might not qualify as “interesting” for a full twelve months of the year, but with serendipity and sturdy walls as my gardening partners, it’s getting awfully darned close.

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Windbreak Anniversary

Sheltered by windbreak trees, the South Dakota ranch house where Linda M. Hasselstrom grew up now hosts writers participating in Windbreak House retreats.

About a decade ago, on the afternoon of October 12, 2007, I turned off South Dakota’s Highway 79 a few miles south of the small town of Hermosa, onto a road called Windbreak Lane. In January of that year I had quit writing, and I was on my way to a writing retreat where I hoped to decide whether that quit would be permanent or not.

You already know how that one ends: I’m here, writing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom, who has now run the Windbreak House writing retreat for more than twenty years, deserves some credit for the continued presence of writing in my life, but she would be the first to qualify “credit.”

Writing is a solitary doing, but the goal, for the most part, is social: writers wish to be read. Part of learning to write for other people involves locating the story you need to tell within a narrative an audience will want to read. Walking a tightrope is a fair analogy, if you think of the writer teetering toward self-interest, confession, and navel-gazing and then tottering the other way, toward pronouncements so bland and meek that they offend—and inform—no one. Consulting other people as you learn to walk this line is helpful, which is where writing groups and workshops and the like come in. Ultimately, though, a writer has to learn to go it alone.

South Dakota skies overlooking one of the corral fences.

Writing is seldom death-defying, but it’s difficult in that the writer is stringing the rope—the line of words—even as she or he wobbles along it. Nobody likes to fall, or fail, which makes it seem that perfect balance would be the essential skill, but in reality what it takes to move forward is a willingness to remount the wire after you tumble off.

This is where Linda excels. She doesn’t coddle egos and she doesn’t promote a soft and fuzzy version of the writer’s life. Windbreak Retreats provide a nurturing and supportive environment, but this isn’t a high-falutin’ big-top operation that cinches writers into a safety harness so they can taste the thrill of flying high. Nor is it a spa where writers are pampered with luxury accommodations and gourmet meal delivery. Retreat writers occupy the compact family ranch house and bring their own food. The house hunkers in a working landscape: cattle graze, trains rumble past, trucks and tourists swish along the highway. The resources a writer might wish for are nevertheless ample, if not extravagant: an expansive library, an assortment of reading and work spaces indoors and out, files stuffed with handouts, canny feedback from Linda, conversations with fellow writers for those who choose a group retreat.

Linda also encourages writers to make use of the broad prairie landscape, the wide sky, the windbreak trees. Contemplation and stillness are essential to the retreat, as they are to writing more generally; owls and pronghorn antelope and coyotes and blackbirds are tutors in these respects. This environment shaped Linda, both as a rancher and a writer, and it sustained her through profound personal hardships. She loans its ordinary beauties to visiting writers, offering it as a net into which we might bounce as we practice falling off of, and climbing back onto, the wire of words.

If it sounds serene, it is, but the retreats are also rigorous, because Linda recognizes that one of the hazards of solitary work is buying in to our own excuses. Part of my own dilemma was hoping for a way to make writing easier. When I complained that one of my problems was sticking with a piece of writing after I’d figured out what it was about—after I understood the story I wanted to tell, but before I’d told it in a way someone else would want to hear—Linda told me to print off some unfinished essays. Handing her a stack of draft pages, I told her it was like looking at roadkill.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said.

And she was—patiently combing through the wreckage and the stench to point out how I might splint and bandage this essay, reanimate that other one, and salvage a hunk of intact, un-ravaged hide from yet another. The solution, in other words: keep working.

Then, when I confessed my desire to find someone to be my reader or my prod, it was the rancher who worked the family outfit for forty years that replied: Linda knows bullshit when she sees it. Counting on somebody else isn’t a permanent or reliable solution, she warned, “People die. They move, they have kids, they run out of time.” If I wanted to write, it was my choice, and my work to shoulder. I shouldn’t count on anyone else to help me, particularly in the most trying of times. I’d have to learn to fail, and fall, and balance on my own.

The mind of that tough and plain-spoken rancher shares space with a keen and articulate observer of prairie and people, of cattle and horses, of wild birds and wildflowers, of words and publishing. Her understanding of writers and writing allows her to zero in on each writer’s needs (as opposed to wants), in a particular moment. As a working writer, Linda understands how self-reliance is built on a foundation of interdependence, and so she steadies writers and then steps away. As a poet, she knows grace cohabits with cruelty, and she encourages writers to locate, and articulate, both. As a rancher, Linda is fully aware that the blizzard-born calf warmed beside the stove will be sold as beef in a few years. From her I learned pragmatism: that the nurturing conferred on lines of type is meant to sustain them as they meet their fate in a world that just might chew them up.

Ten years ago, as my car bounced along the gravel of Windbreak Lane, I was frankly terrified, thinking, “I could still turn around.”

I still could.

I keep choosing not to.

In early October, 2017, just short of ten years after my first retreat, I made the turn onto Windbreak Lane for the seventh time. I felt a familiar tingle—a mix of anticipation for time on the prairie to think and hike and read and write, mixed with trepidation about re-committing, yet again, to keep walking on that damned rope. I don’t go back to Windbreak House because I need help balancing, not any more. I still fall, cursing on the way down, but I feel less bruised when I hit and I soon climb back up, even if I’m still cursing.

These days I go to Windbreak House because it gives me a chance to sprawl in the protective net of the prairie for a few days, contemplating the singular line I’m laying out. You’d think practice and a better sense of balance would have raised the stakes and lifted the tightrope higher over the years, but the irony is that the more I write and practice, the the lower it settles. I teeter, sweating with arms outstretched, almost at ground level, threading a path steadily getting closer to the plain of the world, and everyone else in it.

Resting in the net on the South Dakota Prairie.

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Off Kilter

Talking to me about his business junket in late September, my husband described watching helplessly as one of his traveling companions, tripped up by someone’s luggage in an airport corridor, executed one of those multi-step forward stagger maneuvers. The fellow fought to regain his balance, throwing his legs out over and again, finally catching himself just before face-planting on a column.

We all probably know the feeling of that arms-akimbo head-first pitch. I could certainly picture it—got rather lost in the image, in fact, because I feel like I’ve been snatched up in one of those desperate lunges for weeks now. Each day feels like a slow-motion stumble, a flailing to arrest momentum and restore an upright posture, feet smacking down hard but ineffectually. I am dazed each day, puzzled at how I’ve been sent staggering by the ordinary navigations of life.

My current lack of equilibrium is due partly to the time of year. I love autumn, maybe even enough to say it’s my favorite time of year. On cue and true to form, the light has begun to seek that long low angle into my eyes, the nights have gotten crisp, we hear the odd bull elk bugling on the hillside below the house, and fall foliage is staging a fall fashion show. The grasses, currant bushes, scrub oak, aspens, and cottonwoods are each taking a turn, strutting out tweedy blends of yellow, rust, and fawn with accents of zippy orange and shocking scarlet. I never would have pictured you in that shade of burgundy, I think toward a clump of grass, but it looks good on you.

That’s all nice. But such moments quickly flash and fade in a year when “fall” seems to be more about bracing for an uncontrolled hard landing.

My momentum’s all wrong. I can’t quite let go of the frenzied pace of the long summer days. I’m looking forward to the indoor season, and external signals are telling me that it’s time to change gears, but my mind is still wheeling, churning over lists of chores that should be wrapped up before the snow flies or the ground freezes. Whether I scramble through the day knocking off tasks with cold efficiency or take it easy and try slow down and spoil myself, I feel the same at the end: exhausted and exasperated, wondering where the day went. I’m restless, but tire easily. Nothing seems to sync. For each external sign that, as the calendar says, autumn is arriving on schedule, there are others suggesting that the local landscape is suffering its own issues with equilibrium. Snow in August, hail at the beginning of September and then fog to usher it out. I’m seeing locoweed plants blooming, for a second time, in October.

There’s plenty to admire, but the kilter—the proper condition—seems absent. Hoping to avoid a senseless spiral of self-interest, I look at news from the larger world but there encounter grim stories of people clobbered by weather, rattled by earthquakes, murdered in bursts of violence.

Off kilter: I suspect we’re so much more familiar with the negative version of the term because the positive, the kilter, that proper condition, is inherently unstable. You can glimpse it while safely seated, but while afoot in life the odds are in favor of imbalance. The options for disequilibrium are infinite, while the parameters of balance are narrow.

The fleetingness of what we deem proper is part of the charm, I suppose: we treasure what is rare, even though poise would soon stagnate. The future is in motion, and a proper condition is a dead zone, drained of potential, stripped of opportunity, absent innovative chance.

I can’t help wanting a pause, though, an interlude in which to catch my breath and count my bruises. Instead, I keep reeling, trying to work out how to take a deep breath within the sense of freefall.

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Summer of a Different Color

August: By now, usually, our high mountain landscape is burnished with a brassy gleam, as grasses send seedheads up to nod and wave in any breeze that bothers to turn up.

In July, though, a monsoon weather pattern settled in, bringing daily thunderclouds and cool weather. The precipitation tally for the month overtopped six inches, which is very wet for this part of the country. And in the first half of August, we got almost three inches more.

For a while, I tried to figure out what was different about the greenness rolling across the slopes and hills. I eventually realized that depth was making this summer of green different from a soft surge of spring color: the lush summer grass has the dimension and sheen of velvet, denser and deeper than the vibrant felting of a damp spring.

I am continually amazed. For weeks now, I’ve either looked out a window or paused while I was outside to think, “I can’t believe how green it is!” My astonishment may be partly due to the fact that this summer started out frightfully dry. Winter snows were scanty and June was blazing hot and windy—and did I mention dry? When afternoon thunderstorms finally began organizing themselves in the second week of July, the knot of persistent tension that settles in my chest during fire weather began to dissolve, just a whit, with each fraction of an inch of rain.

Now, the urgency I feel now is how best to soak it all in.

The wildflowers know exactly what to do. When conditions shift in their favor, they don’t suffer from a paralysis of “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” They get down to business, blooming their flowery heads off. Many of the wildflowers we normally see blooming in late spring or early summer are still going, or are at it again. The Indian paintbrush is doing its best to beat back the green with strokes of vibrant orange, pointed tips of fresh color flaring next to fading tatters of plants that emerged despite the crispy conditions of June. I’ve seen some locoweed plants raising bright magenta flower buds alongside fat seedpods still ripening from an earlier bloom.

Most years, August brings a surge of yellow as sunflowers, rabbitbrush, and broom snakeweed begin their late-season show. The yellow is appearing on schedule, but it seems muted because it’s got so much competition—not just from the tall grass, but from wildflowers that normally would be fading from the landscape. Scarlet and blaze-pink firecracker penstemon are shooting off in bright clusters. Fluted blue discs of flax, which look like they should be gracing fancy china dishes on a formal table, spangle the grass in the morning hours. Purple penstemon buds bubble up stems among sprays of bunchgrass, while milkvetches dot the jungly growth with lilac clusters. Fleabane and chickweeds and asters and evening primrose scatter white flecks over the more open stretches where low-growing blue grama grass has sent inky pennants up on wiry stems. On rocky slopes, currant bushes are hung thick with orange-red berries.

And there are mushrooms everywhere, an orgy of fruiting bodies bulging beneath the soil and then throwing it aside. They balloon, puff, cup, and swell, under the pines and among the aspens, out alongside wildflowers, up from horse poop, and, of course, scattered in the grass: white, yellow, pink-red, brown, and orange.

Other than wind and sometimes snow, I don’t usually think of my home place in terms of abundance. The semi-arid climate frequently presents extremes, but usually those are conditions to be endured, not luxuriated in. There’s no lack of beauty, but it is loveliness with an edge—granite grit and cactus spines and poking conifer needles. Usually when I think of the adaptability of the local flora and fauna, I’m thinking of their capacity to hunker down in the face of conditions that are lean, or harsh, but this summer is a good reminder that they’re ready, too, to take full advantage of abundance.

I’d like to think I should follow their lead, but this suggests I ought not to wander around being dazzled by my surroundings, and I’ve decided I’m not willing to do that.

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Packing for the Trip

First things first: I am not a poet. As I mentioned in my last post, my writerly sensibilities are suited to essays, and that’s where I’ve long staked my claim.

If I were to pursue poetry again, I suspect the results would best be characterized using the term my dad used for his writing, which was mostly scribbled in bars on cocktail napkins: ditties.

Seven or eight years ago the nugget for this ditty announced itself in my brain. This hadn’t happened to me in decades, but I followed the impulse as far as it led. Since I mentioned poetry not so long ago, and because the theme of travel is relevant for many of us in these summer months, I offer you…

 

PACKING FOR THE TRIP

The trip is getting closer:
It’s almost time to start packing.

I don’t like to do it too early
because you never know if you’ll need an item before you go
and I hate to try to find something once it’s already packed.

You only need a few good metaphors
because they’re so good for layering.
I like to take one or two heavy ones
and a couple that are lighter.
I try to make sure they’ll coordinate
in case I need to use more than one at a time.

Metaphors pair well with images, too, and I like to take quite a few of those.
They’re tricky to fold, but I have a pretty good system
and I can get a lot of them in a small amount of space.
If you don’t choose carefully, though, you’ll take ones
that aren’t suited for where you’re going
and you’ll have to haul them home
without using them, which always seems a waste.

I sometimes slip in some synesthesia
because it’s fun to have on hand,
and a cliché or two—
I know they’re out of style,
but they’re just so convenient.

The analogies are hard to decide on
because I use them all the time
and tend to get sick of them before I get back home.
I try to make sure they’re sturdy, because of that,
and comfortable.

I don’t take characters at all;
they’re delicate and hard to fold and heavy.
I once forgot one in a hotel
and you can’t imagine the hassles that caused.

###

 

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Writing Short

I recently dipped my toe into the sub-genre of so-called “flash” or “micro” nonfiction, the defining characteristic of which is an abbreviated word count. I regularly write blog posts in the 700-900 word range, which qualify as flash nonfiction under some definitions, but that length is comfortable for me. I wanted to try something shorter, so I went micro.

I find it hard to illustrate writing about writing, but this is a view of the horse pasture from my office window. My micro essay is set in this landscape.

The task I settled on was an essay of no more than 250 words: something with a little meat on its bones, but lean enough to be daunting to a writer prone to wordiness.

That I am concision-challenged may be a reason why I drifted away from poetry, which I used to write back in high school. I eventually figured out that I preferred writing essays, which offered more space and were better suited to the pragmatism of my cognitive personality. I enjoy starting from a tangible core and spining ideas out from that empiric center. Lyricism comes hard, and feels forced. I’m also terrible at the conjuring of fiction. The results when I try are always stiff and I’ve never written a short story a reader would want to keep reading, much less one she could get lost in.

I haven’t strayed from the essay form in decades, but I knew the micro version wasn’t going to be a slam dunk. I can happily string images together, but I needed to go beyond the simple anecdote of “I saw….” I’d need locate a point of arrival for a reader—and do so quickly.

After I was done, I realized that I’d fallen back on my high school proclivities, writing within the framework of a form. This is a timeworn but effective device, one I’d forgotten about. The restrictions of the micro essay pushed me to think harder about how to use language and pacing. Once a writer learns how to use it, a set form can be wielded as another narrative tool, like metaphor or dialog. I’m certainly not good at writing short, but the micro essay took me outside my comfort zone without making me feel like the effort was irrelevant to my style, and I’ll play with it again.

You can read “Badgers Run” here. My thanks to the editors of The Fourth River literary journal for selecting it for their Tributaries segment.

 

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Landscaping in Slow Motion

Native grasses outside the kitchen, just beyond the rock wall.

Most of the landscaping around here came with the place. Contracting crews working on the house in 2002-03 were flustered that we were such sticklers about maintaining a tight construction envelope around the site, but I’m glad every day we were so insistent. On the south side of the house, native grassland begins about fourteen feet from the windows, just beyond a retaining wall.

After the foundation was back-filled, though, the area between the house’s exterior and that retaining wall became part of the built environment. Outside the kitchen, most of the space is taken up by a deck and flagstone patio, but toward the west, near the front door, it begged for landscaping.

Even before we moved into the house, I harbored fantasies about what this area would look like: visitors approaching via the outdoor front steps would—in summer, at any rate—be greeted by a tidy oasis of emerald ground covers punctuated by a stone footpath. I’d plant a narrow herb garden at the base of the retaining wall, mixing flowers into the greenery. I pictured having a couple of feature plants in the bed, too, something dramatic to strike the eye, something worth a little extra care and attention.

Turkish veronica (blue) and woolly groundsel (yellow) next to the sandstone footpath.

Nowadays, mats of Turkish veronica and creeping thyme cover most of the gravelly soil. The veronica blooms early, vibrant blue. Seeds from native woolly groundsel took root a few years ago, and it turns out that groundsel flowers at the same time as the veronica, in vibrant yellow. The color combination isn’t anything I planned, but I’m quite taken with the accidental duet. I planted native iris seeds in the channel that draws water from the downspout away from the house, and in a wet year the pale blue petals banner in the wind. As the weather gets hotter, pink and rose take over from yellow and blue, with creeping thyme and scattered tufts of dianthus speckling the space like girly confetti. By late summer, the little “yard” settles into a patchwork in shades of green.

One tough poppy, flanked by more groundsel.

The herb garden is still more of a work in progress. A solitary poppy plant features prominently for a couple of weeks in June, its oversized orange petals swooning melodramatically. I have a sage plant slowly maturing to ornamental size, some chives, and a culinary thyme plant that’s entering its third season. This spring, I launched my fourth or fifth attempt at oregano, and my third try at tarragon. I decided early on to confine mints to planters made of terra-cotta chimney flue liners so they wouldn’t take over the herb bed, but it turns out this arrangement allows the roots to freeze in winter, so I bring home new plants from the nursery each year and they never get very big. The lone survivor of my feature plant ambitions is a “Miss Kim” lilac hunkered in the western corner. It’s a dwarf plant but even at that this one is of small stature. Still, after living inside a cage of wire mesh for several years, it’s now grown large enough to survive browsing from rabbits or deer, although it sputters fitfully when it comes to flowering.

These modest measures of success have taken fourteen years.

Part of this time was taken up with completing the hardscaping, in the form of rock work. Over the course of years, my husband and I devoted weekends to facing the cinderblock retaining wall—and the foundation around the perimeter of the house—with native moss rock. We gathered stone from the ridge beyond the horse pasture, and then sorted, placed, mortared, grouted, and cleaned.

Planting began in earnest more than ten years ago, and I’m not sure how to characterize the long course of my efforts on this front. I’d like to think that “patience” or “persistence”  is the right word, but in truth I’ve felt neither of those. Mostly the experience as been one of exasperation and frustration interspersed with the occasional fit of rage.

Dianthus taking the limelight as veronica and groundsel begin to bow out.

I knew that gardening at this altitude, in this climate, at a location still claimed as home territory by a variety of wildlife species, was going to be a challenge, but I had no clue how hard it would be. Deer are a familiar scourge to gardeners across the nation and I’ve taken my knocks from their appetites, but rodents have been more devastating by far.

The tales of woe inflicted by chipmunks, ground squirrels, big-footed meadow mice, rock squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats, pack rats, deer mice, and pocket gophers would fill volumes. They have eaten, cut down, consumed the roots of, beheaded, and pulled out dozens and dozens (and dozens) of plants of all types: native transplants and nursery stock, annuals and perennials, succulents and cacti, herbs and flowers, ground covers and shrubs. Suffice it to say that even though orange is not my favorite hue, that poppy plant has earned my respect: it’s a survivor.

I have sprayed and dusted and caged and trapped and stomped and hollered. I have not kept calm, but I have carried on, and the payoff for the misery and expense and aggravation and despondency is a pleasure well out of proportion to the modest aesthetics of the space. I’ll sometimes sit out on the front steps with a cup of tea in the morning, listening to the bees bumbling and drawing in the spicy clove scent of the dianthus, able now, finally, to appreciate the contrast between the flat little expanse of domesticated ground and the grassland growing so effortlessly beyond the rockwork on the wall.

Morning on the front steps: the groundcover “lawn” and footpath lead to the patio and kitchen deck in the background, where tall black pots host scented geraniums. The rock wall is on the right, with native grasslands beyond; the rockwork on the left is some of the last we completed on the house, in 2009.

Posted in color, gardening, impatience, wildflowers, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Rooted

Fleabane on the move: easy digging in the arena.

One of the side effects of abundant solitary time is an inclination toward idiosyncratic projects. If my husband were not spending his weekdays provisioning Coloradoans with wine, he might kindly suggest that I stick with tasks that are either of manageable scope or practical advantage. As it is, some of the chores I come up with are distinctly oddball.

Superficially, my latest project is simple: plant the area around the hayshed, where the construction of an addition last summer left an L-shaped patch of torn-up ground. The reality is more involved. Planting required better dirt, but luckily I had some of that, native topsoil scraped aside years ago when the original hayshed was built. I spread that last fall, and then scattered leftover grass and wildflower seeds of unknown age and questionable viability before mulching the area with woodchips.

My plan this spring was to speed the greening with grass and wildflower plants taken from the small dressage arena west of the barn. I haven’t been riding as much as I would like the last few summers, and the easily pocked sand offers an inviting bed for seeds from the surrounding grassy areas. I have plants growing where I don’t want them, and an area without plants that needs some: two problems, one solution.

A few weeks ago, then, when a stretch of rainy days appeared in the weather forecast promising to spare me the chore of watering-in, I started transplanting. Out on the arena, I’d scoop under a plant with a quick step on the spade, releasing the roots from the sandy footing. Once I had six or eight plants in a bucket, I’d head over to the hayshed, find a spot for a plant, spade a new niche, and snug roots into dark topsoil with a few tamps of my toe.

I’ve salvaged—or recycled, depending on your point of view—bunches and stems and rosettes and mats. I’ve moved grasses—fescue, mountain muhly, blue grama—and wildflowers—groundsel, fleabane, yarrow, curlycup gumweed, western wallflower, purple aster, cut-leaved evening primrose, and a couple of varieties of penstemon.

Growing on the arena, where they’re not wanted, these plants are technically weeds. Moving them restores them to their rightful status as desirable native plants.

Shuttling back and forth in front of the barn with my spade and bucket, levering at sand and chopping at rocky dirt, gives me time for such heady thoughts, which is probably why I so often concoct repetitive and mindless chores like this one. As I uproot and replant, I think: that the plants are doomed if they stay on the arena, where they’d get crushed by hooves or raked out with the harrow; that I can’t move every plant, and every plant I move isn’t going to survive—but their chances are still better in their new location. My good intention inflicts a major disturbance, but these native plants are adapted to withstand hardship. They’re accustomed to intense solar radiation and bitter cold, tolerant of dry spells and pounding thunderstorms. They’re resilient in the thrashing of high-altitude wind, whether it’s accompanied by snow or hail or blow-drying heat. These plants withstand grazing by cattle and horses; browsing by deer and elk; nibbling by voles, gophers, chipmunks, mice, and ground squirrels.

And they do all this from anchorage in ground that is, in some places, more rock than soil. Out of sight, roots are out of mind, unless you’re trying to pull or dig. Having done both with some of these species in the past—this isn’t the first time native plants have asserted their adaptability in a location inconvenient to me—I was aware of those root systems, albeit not in such vivid detail as I am now.

Ironically, my appreciation for their rootedness has been enhanced by the ease of uprooting the plants. The loose footing of the arena has spared me the usual hacking and grunting and colorful language and hurling of plum-sized rocks that jar my joints like boulders. These plants are quite young, which certainly helps, but digging in sand is practically serene, opening me to details that would be lost to gasping effort if I were digging in actual soil, rocky or otherwise. The roots also emerge intact, so I’ve been able to admire the thick, noodly roots of the penstemon starts and contemplate whether taproots are best described as “pale carrots” or “gnarly pegs.” The runners of the yarrow and cut-leafed evening primrose zigzag like subterranean lightning. The rootballs of bunchgrasses reveal iceberg proportions, with their topsides dwarfed by subsurface mass.

I’ve always known, in a theoretical sort of way, that our native plants rely on extensive root systems. I’ll remain in love with lacy stems and artful leaf forms, with the fountaining sprays of grasses setting seed, with the sparks of yellow and purple and orange across the landscape as blossoms flare. But now I’ll think more often of the fabric weaving itself beneath the horizon of the soil’s surface, where color is irrelevant and form is not fancy.

With luck and some moisture, this transplanted penstemon should put on a purple display later this summer.

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Complicated Horses

“Uncomplicated” is used in some districts of the equine universe as a polite euphemism for a horse that’s not so smart.

For better and for worse, both of our horses are complicated.

Fat and Happy (aka Jake and Moondo) out in the Big Pasture, June 2015.

Moondo is nerdy, curious, and friendly. He’s sensitive, an attentive learner. He likes the methodical training and intricate movements of dressage, and is always eager to show me that he remembers everything when I get on him after not having ridden in a while—at the first hint of an aid he’ll start busting out moves, trying to anticipate what I want.

To say that Moondo is sensitive, though, is to say that he can be flighty and that he takes offense easily. He’s incredibly opinionated; I’ve mentioned some of his preferences and creative ways of expressing himself in this space before. Years ago, before I knew that he didn’t have much of a sense of humor, I bought him a jolly ball. These are tough rubber balls with a handle molded onto them, so horses can pick them up in their teeth and toss them around. When I gave him the ball, Moondo sniffed it once and gave me a mortified look that said, “You don’t expect me to play with that THING do you??” He never went near it. When I gave it to a neighbor a few years later, her little mare played with it so hard she popped it within a day.

Jake, Moondo’s pasture-mate, is smart, albeit in different ways than Moondo. He’s a goof and a show-off. He scratches his ankles by crossing his front legs and rubbing one foot up and down. He tries to steal peoples’ hats. When tied, he has a hard time standing quietly: he’ll bop the metal clip on his lead with his upper lip like an OCD desk jockey clicking a ballpoint pen; he’ll run his teeth back and forth along the metal rails of the pipe corral; he’ll see how much of his lead rope he can stuff in his mouth. He was probably spoiled earlier in his life, given treats or praised when he did something his handlers thought was cute. Now he’s like the guy who’s convinced he’s the funniest one in the room—that guy who is kinda funny, initially, but who quickly gets annoying because…He. Just. Won’t. Stop.

Jake has a sweet side, but he can be petulant and he insists on testing me regularly to see if I’m still a killjoy who likes all that stuff around manners and maintaining personal space. After five years, I’m still not used to the idea that I can’t just hang out and relax with him the way I can with Moondo.

Jake in his stall, week eight.

There’s been even less in the way of relaxation with Jake lately. We cross-fenced the Big Pasture last summer so we could rest the grass on half of it each year. Jake tolerated the arrangement until the first signs of greenery started poking up this spring. Those sprigs weren’t even grass—the pale fronds of fringed sage are the first things that green up in these parts—but Jake didn’t care.

The conventional wisdom is that details make for better storytelling, but I’ll spare you the gory particulars. Suffice it to say that even smart horses do dumb things, and Jake’s insistence on gaming the cross-fencing system resulted in a to-the-bone laceration on his left hind leg, a trip to the equine hospital, a splint, antibiotics, regular changes of an elaborate stacked bandage, and stall rest.

A quick note about that last one: “stall rest” has a serene ring to it, but there’s nothing restful about the practice, at least not for non-equine members of the caregiving team. Stall rest means a shitload of work involving, among other things, many loads of shit.

Moondo, happy to hang out in his stall (note that the half-door isn’t closed); Jake is less happy to be hanging out in his (and yes, the stall latch is heavily reinforced).

It hasn’t been easy for Jake, either, I know. He’s a big, strong, athletic horse, and although the slow-feeder hay nets (he wrecked a couple over the course of this process) kept him mostly pacified, being confined to a 12 ft. by 12 ft. box for weeks on end was hard. Luckily for him, Moondo has nearby through it all, hanging around in his stall or in the pipe corral—although I have to admit that his role as steadfast nurse-companion was enforced by the closed corral gate.

Ten weeks on, Jake is out of bandages and is getting hand-walked twice a day. Moondo now gets time out in the Barn Pasture, while Jake stretches his legs in the pipe corral. I’m beginning to catch glimpses of life beyond stall rest.

The recovery process is ongoing, and there will no doubt be complications—some of which I didn’t already know about.

 

 

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