Cracking Spine of the New Year

Certain holidays, I have to confess, leave me feeling inept or out of touch. Marking the New Year, though: that one I get. I might not always (okay: pretty much never) stay up until midnight, but the retrospective/prospective rituals that accompany the the calendar’s rollover to a new increment make sense to me.

As December winds down, I feel like I do when I’m getting toward the end of a good book: ready to turn the last page. I might riffle back through to review the highlights or contemplate what was meaningful or challenging, but mostly I’m ready to see how things are going to wrap up. Closing the cover brings the satisfaction of completion. The regrets of ending are tempered by anticipation for the next volume.

Probably I’m inclined toward this bookish metaphor because I already have books on the brain. New Year’s Day falls during the time of year I’ve come to think of as my reading season, when I can settle in and take advantage of night’s early fall and fires in the fireplace. The readerly preoccupation is still further magnified by my long-standing habit of keeping a list of the books I read each year. Come December, I’m always a little obsessive about adding a few more titles to the tally, finishing off any half-read books around the house and picking out skinny volumes that will offer a quick read between Christmas and New Year’s.

Before I pull out a fresh sheet of notebook paper on which to list the next year’s books, I’ll look back at the column of titles and think about the ones I most enjoyed or was surprised by. The number of books read is always much smaller than I’d like it to be, so the backward glance is balanced by a forward-looking impulse: the resolution to read more in the new year.

On top of the metaphor of the year-as-book, on top of the season inviting indoor pursuits, on top of my compulsive recording of titles and authors (I used to keep track of the number of pages read, too, but gave that up back in 2009), I like the visual symbolism of an open book: twin fans of paper on either side of the spine. Poised alongside—joined to—the stack representing the finished and known are the unread pages, unknown but promising, poised and accessible. Ready to be turned over, each in its turn.

So, here’s to 2017, may your shelves be well stocked and the days full of discovery.

And if you’re looking for a few good reads to add to your own list, here are three books I read in 2016 that I’ll remember, and think about, and recommend for years to come.

On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula BissOn Immunity Cover

If you prefer your narrative nonfiction packaged in novelistic devices like dialog and descriptive scenes, you might not find much to like in On Immunity, but if you’re a fan of the traditional essay form you should definitely seek it out. Biss writes about ideas, and she examines the themes of immunity and vaccination from pretty much any angle you can imagine: mythology, philosophy, the history of medicine, public health theory, conspiracy theory. At the center of it all is the desire to protect ourselves and our loved ones from disease, and she weaves in enough detail about her anxieties as a new mother to press the point home. That personal thread also provides a relatable context for her discussions of contemporary debates about immunization. The book isn’t a memoir, but Biss offers enough of herself to reinforce what’s at stake underneath all the cerebral tinkering. Challenging, but intriguing.

Desert America: A Journey Through Our Most Divided Landscape, by Rubén MartínezDesert America Cover

I’m a lifelong westerner, and Desert America gave my habits of perception a good shaking. I came away from the book feeling less complacent about my native landscapes. Martínez depicts the deserts of the American Southwest through the filter of “border,” but he’s not just talking about the one between the US and Mexico. Immigration, past and present, galvanizes the pages, but he traces the contours of other demographic and social divides, including gentrification, environmentalism, and addiction. I tend to read—and think—about place through the lens of natural history; these lines, from early in the book, could have been written for me: “We are drawn to the natural beauty of the West out of our alienation from the human, our desire for a landscape without human contradiction.” Martínez, another lifelong westerner, embodies those contractions, writing with journalistic finesse as well as frankness about his own failings and discomfort. The divides he depicts run through people, not just communities and desert ecosystems, and one of the things that’s striking about the book is that an insider’s perspective is so persistently elusive.

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane BroxBrilliant Cover

Jane Brox accomplishes with voice and style what many nonfiction writers hope to create using a first-person narrative: a sense of intimacy with the reader. As a topic for a book, artificial light sounds technical and dull, but Brox keeps every innovation she examines, from stone lamps to candles to gaslights to the electric grid, firmly connected to the human beings that rely on them. Discussing the ancient cave art of Lascaux, she points out that the animals depicted in the drawings represent the herds the artists depended on for food, clothing, and tools—including tallow for their lamps. She portrays the drudgery of making the hundreds of candles required to light an eighteenth-century home through the winter, and the imperative to protect them from rodents. Her discussion of the social impacts of light and electrification, benefits and downsides alike, gently leads you from one small perceptual illumination to the next. To tempt you with an example, I offer this, from her chapter on blackouts:

“…if you were to remove everything from our lives that depends on electricity to function, homes and offices would become no more than the chambers and passages of limestone caves—simple shelter from wind and rain, far less useful than the first homes at Plymouth Plantation or a wigwam. No way to keep out cold, or heat, for long. No way to preserve food, or to cook it. The things that define us, quiet as rock outcrops—the dumb screens and dials, the senseless clicks of on/off switches—without their purpose, they lose the measure of their beauty, and we are left alone in the dark with countless useless things.”

Hands down, my favorite book of the year. It just might make it onto my list of books read again in 2017.



Posted in reading | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Notes from the At-Home Writing Retreat

When my husband decided in October that he’d be making a quick trip out of town in early December, I immediately knew what I’d be doing that weekend: an at-home writing retreat.

A skiff of snow, just enough to make a spot in front of the fireplace inviting.

Credit for my inspiration belongs to Linda Hasselstrom, a friend and mentor who has run writing retreats at her South Dakota ranch home for twenty years (someday I’ll share how Linda saved my writing life back in the fall of 2007). A year and a half ago, Linda and I found ourselves experimenting with the at-home retreat model at the same time; she wrote about her experience on her Windbreak House blog. That piece, like her other posts on writing retreats, is full of the sort of steely pragmatism and insightful generosity anyone who has worked with Linda will recognize.

Having dabbled with the model before, I knew preparation would be key. Doug’s trip provided the necessary solitude, and I immediately started hoarding leftovers in the freezer so I wouldn’t have to cook that weekend (I knew better than to be tempted to use retreat time for dietary asceticism; my brain works harder than usual during these things, and it needs fuel—preferably carbs). I also planned to clear the decks of household chores the week before: bills would be paid, firewood stocked, laundry beat back from spilling into the hall. I established my rules for contact with the outside world in advance. I don’t worry much about unscheduled visitors or phone calls, but the Internet is a deadly distraction. I would be allowed to turn the modem on to check email once a day; otherwise, the wireless hotspot would be off.

A nest on the couch, surrounded by books, writing work, tea, journal.

The logistical details are less important than the commitment such planning represents. By far the most critical aspect of the at-home retreat is mental. The traditional writing retreat involves removing oneself from the everyday, but by definition an at-home retreat takes place in familiar territory, where you’ll be vulnerable to sabotage by habit and routine. Do whatever you need to do to convince yourself that this time will be special, even devotional, and I do not use the word lightly. You’ll be dedicating yourself to words for a few days; craft is part of that, but the retreat spirit runs deeper. It’s selfish, and impractical, and that’s the point. Treat this time as a gift. It’s okay to be ambitious, but don’t impose ridiculous expectations. Plan to write, but also to read, and nap, and walk, and sit still, and journal or sketch. The retreat is a reflective interlude, not boot camp.

By the time my retreat weekend rolled around, this framework of self-generosity was wobbly. I was frazzled and desperate, not because writing had gotten squeezed out of my life, but because I’d been writing hard and getting nowhere. I’d been working on a 1000-word section, about the length of this blog, since the second week of November. I would arrange and rearrange sentences and paragraphs that contained, I knew, what I wanted to say, but the elements just weren’t working together. Every time I thought I’d nailed it, I’d take one look the next morning and shred everything.

The office, with my L-shaped desk. Lots of space, but prone to clutter.

I usually work upstairs in my office. I wanted to break my routine, however, so on Friday morning I launched my retreat by writing in my journal propped up in bed, using a pillow as a desk, the day’s first cup of tea on the table next to me. Avoiding my workspace felt a little like taking a sick day, and I didn’t mind the implications. The goal was self-care, verging on indulgence.

For the rest of the weekend, I wrote and read on the couch in front of the fire, or in bed, and when I needed to work on my computer, I sat at the dining room table. I worked on my pages. I read, and took short walks. I stared out the windows, wrote a lot in my journal, napped. I stayed up late one night and fell asleep early the next.

My back was killing me by Sunday, crying out for my somewhat ergonomic office set-up. By then, though, I’d broken through. I’d given the troublesome pages a place at the center of two full days, and they reciprocated by aligning themselves and then extending to a few thousand words of respectable draft: nothing earthshaking, and yet everything.

I was still working on Sunday, but my mind was starting to drift. I noticed that the Norfolk pine was pathetically wilted, begging for water. With that, the retreat was done. I reheated some lunch, watered the plants, and moved my computer back up to my office. I managed to fit in a businesslike hour or two of editing before it was time to start fixing a simple dinner with which to welcome Doug home.

After those two days, I was mentally wrung out. I knew the at-home retreat had been a success because I felt exactly the way I do at the end of one of Linda’s Windbreak House retreats: dazed but exhilarated, dizzy in the face of everything still needing done but happy with what I’d accomplished.

I’m not a fast writer, and never will be. In the week since I finished my retreat, new pages have been accumulating in their usual very slow way. Whatever had me stuck has released me, for now. I know I would have ground my way through the trouble spot without the retreat, but there’s no question it helped.

The beauty of the at-home retreat is the short commute. Staying in place takes some mental gamesmanship, but I think it’s worthwhile, as long as the technique is used sparingly. Developing a regular writing schedule, for me, required thinking of writing as a job. A writing retreat, whether at home or somewhere else, is intense, and it feels too self-indulgent to be made a habit. Still, I’ll do it again, sometime–and the when I do, I’ll be sure to water the plants before I start.

Posted in working from home, writing | Tagged , | 1 Comment

On Sitting

I walked out of the house with no aim other than to go somewhere and sit: no destination, no errand, not even a camera to box in my attention. I’m not noodling a conundrum from a piece of writing left back on the desk and I’m not on the hunt for sensory titillation that might serve as a topic for some new essay or blog. I’m not trying to foment appreciation.

For the first time in I’m not sure how long, I’m just sitting. On a rock, in the sun.

I don’t meditate, and maybe I resist because stilling my brain and coaching my lungs to find a therapeutic rhythm sounds like a steep learning curve, yet another task for the to-do list. So, sitting will do: non-intention as my intention, at least in moments such as this.


The Bare Hills, which are east of our house but not visible from it, make a good backdrop for sitting.

Writing about sitting is, admittedly, on the agenda, and so my time on this rock is not entirely unencumbered. I am laying the groundwork for later veracity. In the moment, though, the sitting is the thing, and the quiet ordinariness of the setting helps make the mundane act of not acting feel remarkable. The lichen-mottled pink granite under my butt is pretty, but common hereabouts. The sun is shining, but the heat it offers is modest; daytime temperatures are finally headed toward the 40s, readings seemly for the middle of November at high altitude. The breeze, passing by on its way to the Bare Hills, declines publicity by not becoming wind.


I have been thinking lately about sitting as a way of spending time. Not scads of time—that would just be sloth, in my book. The sitting I have in mind is not a platform from which to work or read or watch TV or hold a conversation. I’m not thinking about sitting as rest after physical exertion. No, this is sitting in resistance to restlessness, in fact: sitting for the sake of not doing. Sitting in relative stillness, for the purpose of purposelessness, aware but not attentive, seeing but not looking.

The lack of heedfulness is important, I’ve realized. Having embraced paying attention as a way of acknowledging and honoring my surroundings, I’ve fallen into the habit of noticing. That’s not a bad thing, but I’ve noticed that noticing can become a little grasping. Overindulged, it creates the expectation that my environment ought to provide something noteworthy. There’s much to be said for being open and receptive to what the world has on offer, but sometimes the world needs a break, too.

Solitude is a fixture of this type of sitting, I’m pretty sure. It would take a particular—or peculiar, maybe—type of human companion to be able to share a session of deliberately non-deliberative idleness. An animal companion, provided it has an undemanding personality, would probably be a nice addition, but we don’t have any of those around here. I took a break while I was mending the fence in the pasture a couple of weeks ago, settling cross-legged on the ground for a few minutes. Moondo and Jake each took a turn coming up to me, blowing in wonderment and concern at my unusual seated posture. Their steps were charmingly careful. It was an interval of novelty for them and vulnerability for me, but I was not in a state of dreamy reverie in their looming equine presence.

So, yeah, solitude is best. And it helps if it is autumn, too, I think. Mild air—not too hot or too windy or too cold—is conducive. The inclination to sit in undirected reflection fits the slowing pace, the inward-drawing, the drift toward dormancy of this time of year. The physical busyness of summer tasks is giving way to the internal rhythms of words stilled in written form. Sitting is like pressing the clutch in anticipation of shifting mental gears, a transitional suspension of whirring cogs.

The hard seat of a log or an uneven rock is the best bench: such sitting is a recess, not a vacation, and there’s no sense in being overly comfortable. To sit like this is an interlude; brevity is what makes it plausible, and poignant.

Posted in change of seasons, fall, horses, observation, writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Beyond the Frame

Tent Rocks

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico.

In mid-October, I hit the road for Santa Fe, where I attended the Women Writing the West conference. After a socializing, talking shop, and attending sessions on craft and the business of writing with colleagues for a few days, my husband arrived and we spent an evening on the town before heading out on a week-long road trip.

We hiked at The Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument just south of Santa Fe, then looped west and north. We spent the next day and a half at Canyon de Chelly, a place I’ve long wanted to visit. The extended guided tour and sunrise hike to White House ruin exceeded all possible expectations.

Sunrise over Monument Valley

Sunrise over Monument Valley, Arizona.

Next, we spent a night overlooking Monument Valley, hiking around the West Mitten in the morning before heading north again, to our base for the next few days in Bluff, Utah. From there, we explored the Cedar Mesa area, both in the car and on foot.

As is my habit, I carried the camera and did my best to capture the essence of a place there or a telling detail here. On a trip to the desert Southwest, geography inevitably dominates. Scenery was the rule of our days. With the notable exceptions of rock art and the ruined buildings left by the Ancient Puebloans, the photos I took almost universally managed to avoid capturing signs of the human presence.

I don’t mean to disparage you, my fellow human beings, with this propensity to avoid including people in pictures. I do the same thing with myself, after all: I go to great lengths to avoid having my picture taken by other people, and I find the concept of the selfie ghastly. It’s not that I hate cameras; I just prefer to be the one behind the viewfinder.

pictographs, Canyon de Chelly

Pictographs, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona.

The tendency to frame pictures to eliminate people and crowds could be construed as anti-social, but I prefer to think of it as a matter of framing. I’m taken with the idea that my role as an observer is to point out and call attention to what captivates me, whether it’s in a picture or in an essay. My preferred topics have to do with what’s external (and thereby potentially common) to all of us: aspects of our collective ecosystem.

Butler Wash ruins

Butler Wash ruins, Utah.

It’s worth noting, though, that I’m not entirely comfortable with the implications of my own preference. Whether it’s a matter of writing about the corner of the world I’m in at any given time or one of taking a picture of a sunrise, an animal, or a landscape—all the subjects we categorize as “nature”—cropping people out creates a distortion. The strategy unintentionally promotes the foolish notion that the human domain can be separated from the matrix of the world.

I’m better at dodging this trap when it comes to writing. The essence of this blog or most of the essays I undertake is exploring the give and take between an individual and a larger system, whether that system is biological or physical or cultural. I’m drawn to topics like gardening or our domesticated horses or my conflicted responses to weather and wildlife because of what I learn as I wander back and forth across presumed boundaries. That the encounters are often confounding and sometimes conflicted is part of what makes it all, to me, interesting. The fact that I’m not entirely comfortable with the human-dominated ecosystems of cities and crowds and technology is one of the stories there for me to tell.

Petroglyph panel at the Sand Island site along the San Juan River, Utah.

Petroglyph panel at the Sand Island site along the San Juan River, Utah.

And that may be part of what I found so compelling about taking pictures of the ruins on our recent road trip. Although there aren’t people in them, the photos are about people—the things we build, how we relate to an environment, our transience.

The potential misdirection is that the ruins might imply that what’s enduring about human beings has to do with our stuff, which I don’t think is the case. Maybe I’m preoccupied with finding something—anything—positive to hang onto as the tides of negativity and spite continue to wash over me in this foul-weather election cycle, but I’d like to think those walls and chiseled stones convey the human capacity for vision, including the ability to see ourselves at home, even when the environment is harsh.

White House ruin, Canyon de Chelly

White House ruin, Canyon de Chelly.

Posted in driving, observation, travel, writing | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The Long View

colorado aspen trees

The aspens are there, in the distance, in the folds of the hills.

The iconography of changing colors garners plenty of attention this time of year. Deservedly so, I suppose; even here, where the most charismatic foliage species are pretty rare, there’s a good show. The mounded forms of currant and mountain mahogany flare like earthbound mini fireworks, puffs of red and orange lighting up the meadows. The scrub oak rusts on hillsides in the middle distance, and on far slopes yellow semaphores signal the location of aspen groves have been blending in with the evergreens all summer.

I enjoy the colors, to be sure, but this year what I’m noticing most is how the changes pull my mind away from the tight focus on chores that’s conscripted my attention for the past few months.

Summer, it seems, has become my season of immediacy. Each day presented at least one item that had gone critical and needed to be done right away. The Gotta-do regularly shoved the Oughtta-do farther down the list, chaining days together with a seemingly endless litany. I felt like a trotting horse rigged with blinders, hustling from one furlong pole to the next on an endless circular track: meet the electrical contractor, mow that patch of cheatgrass along the road, finish stringing the cross-fencing in the big pasture, pick the alpine strawberries before they rot on their stems, get that index project off to the publisher on time, haul a load of hay, meet the electrical contractor, pull the thistles below the barn….

late summer purple aster, broom snakeweed, and sunflower

The snow was too fleeting to catch, but the flowers lingered.

The end of August brought a few days of unsettled weather. A gang of clouds loitered around Pikes Peak for a few days, and when they finally dispersed the mountaintop was gleamed, fleetingly, with snow. The incongruity of the whitewashed peak rising behind sunflowers, purple asters, and broom snakeweed rioting next to the garage smacked my eyeballs hard enough to break my stride as I came and went. Wow. Change is coming. I paused…but kept running.

On the autumnal equinox, I woke to a chorus of bull elk greeting the rising sun with drawn-out wails and squealing cries, all sounding like they were calling through a long hollow pipe. I know the bulging is lusty, but by the third hour it had veered toward the comic. I envisioned a band of wayward dinosaurs congregating beyond the first line of pine trees. The calls were near enough that I kept wandering to the window, expecting an animal—probably an ungulate but just maybe a giant lizard—to hove into view.

fall foliage: scrub oak

Scrub oak on the hills.

And now, fall. It seems odd that these shorter days—less daylight in which to execute the frenetic charge, right?—abruptly feel less intense. The big summer projects are mostly wrapped up. The annual weeds have spent themselves and, having dropped whatever seeds I could not intercept, are beneath notice to me now, almost. The perennial weeds are still growing, but their efforts are directed rootward, safe from weed whacking and tugging hands. The garden was brushed by frost in late September, and the forecast suggests it will be felled by a string of hard freezes this week. The to-do list is still on my desk, but it’s extending more slowly. The tasks it records are starting to migrate inside the house, and inside my head, where long-deferred writing projects are floating back toward consciousness.

golden eagle soaringWithout the press of weather- and deadline-dependent projects, distractibility is re-entering my days. My task-based myopia is more likely to be interrupted, as when the raspy kee-yeech kee-yeech kee-yeech of a golden eagle crying as it soars along the spine of the ridge summons me to the window; I watch as the bird shrinks to a brown hyphen in the distance. Instead of collapsing into a coma after dinner, I stroll down the road with my husband, or at least step outside to check the compass bearing of the Milky Way. Waiting for a cup of tea to brew or finishing the last bites of my lunch, I stand on the deck, listening for elk and looking at the gentle hills of the middle distance, where I might see the last clumps of scrub oak color-shift from leathery green to rust or topaz, if I stand there long enough.

Posted in change of seasons, color, fall, observation, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Beautiful Weeds

Dandelion arrangement

Dandelions are the epitome of weediness for some people, but the only ones I root out are those that sprout inside the garden wall. Otherwise, I save my energy for plants I consider way more obnoxious.

I’ve been looking at them—and looking for them—all summer long, aiming to pull, or whack with the string trimmer, or spritz with an acidic shower of vinegar, or pry up with a shovel.

And even when I’m not approaching weeds with murderous intent, I’m thinking I should be doing so, lest they set seed and replicate themselves, sprouting in greater numbers next summer to consume yet more of my time and energy.

If you were to encounter me on a roadside hereabouts in July or August, you would likely wonder at my sweaty single-mindedness. I can only explain my summer season intensity by noting that weedy seed set feels to me like a deadline, looming over my life with the potential for devastating effects if missed.

The weeds are many, though, and for the second year in a row quite well-watered. In an effort to keep my self-imposed task from overwhelming me completely, I recently started carving out moments to pull back for intervals of appreciation.


Common mullien (Verbascum thapsus) isn’t all that common up here, and I’d like to keep it that way, because it seeds prolifically and spreads easily. The woolly leaves are unpalatable to wildlife. The crown effect of the blossoms sure is cute, though.

The definition of a weed is a plant that’s growing where it’s not wanted. I most vehemently do not want these plants on my home ground, but I recognize that this judgment rests on subjective criteria. This factor of personal skew puts the adjudication of weediness on a par with determinations of beauty.

And so, while the bindweed might smother native plants, and the pennycress hogs water that could be going to the wildflowers and grasses that sustain the local fauna, and the cheatgrass poses a fire hazard, I’m forced to concede that these plants are also marvelously intricate in their functioning and, occasionally at least, beautiful.

And so, I’ve allowed my mind to stray toward grudging admiration at times. I’ve stopped to smell the Canada thistle and to appreciate the soft-serve swirl pattern evident in the bindweed’s bloom.

And then I keep pulling, or whacking or spraying or digging.


Despite its name, Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) originated in Asia; it hitched a ride to Canada as a contaminant in seed crops, perhaps as early as two hundred years ago. In addition to producing seeds with dandelion-like fluff to help them ride the wind, the roots are well-studded with nodes that readily establish as a new plant. Our scattered local populations have proliferated primarily due to the annual grading of our gravel roads. The flowers look like they took a cue from Dr. Suess, and have an alluring fragrance–if you dare to get close enough to the spiny stems for a sniff.


The iconic tumbling tumbleweed (Salsola iberica, or Russian thistle) established itself in the West in the 1800s, kinda like the cowboy. The plants disperse widely by, as you might have guessed, tumbling in the wind. Before they dry out and assume their easy-rolling dried basket form, the stems display festive red-and-green striping…although the spine-tipped leaves are unfriendly at any age, in any color.

Buckhorn plantain

I’m directly responsible for most of the Buckhorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata) that turns up on our place: it comes in with the horses’ hay. Fortunately, the horses help me out with control: since they find it tasty, plantain seldom sets seed inside the pasture fence, giving me more time to go after it with my shovel. It’s kind of charming to see how the small flowers work their way up the the green spike.


Pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) proliferates quickly to form dense stands. It favors the sites of the ephemeral ponds that form after our summer monsoons. The plants sprout and ripen as the water recedes, the inward progression of new growth creating striking eye-like discs, with muddy pupils.


Both the name I’ve always known it by–bindweed–and the Latin–Convolvulus arvensis–have an ominous ring, while its other common names (creeping jenny, wild morninglory) make it seem slightly less malign. The plants ramble, climb, and choke; they love disturbed roadsides but are perfectly happy in locations occupied by other plants; they simply climb whatever’s there to claim the available sunlight. Below ground, bindweed is just as pugnacious, with roots that can penetrate as far as 30 feet down–in case you’ve ever wondered where it gets the energy to regrow no matter how many times you’ve pulled it. The seeds persist for decades. Those white flowers are, however, almost disarmingly charming.


Downy brome, or cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), is a notorious invader, greening up early and ripening fast enough that populations of it will often sow a second crop in a single season, taking diabolical advantage of monsoon rains. When dry, cheatgrass stands are highly flammable. The plant also spreads by catching a ride in animal fur or people’s socks, as you may have discovered if you’ve hiked anywhere in the West. As it ripens, though, it turns a striking shade of purple-bronze.


Posted in weeds, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Praise of Perennials


An abundance of lovage, which I haven’t figured out how to use.

I regularly lose control of the clock. Hours and even days seep away through pinholes and hairline cracks somewhere in my spacetime continuum.

Lately though, I appear to have lost control not only of the clock but also of the calendar. Whole months are getting away from me. On the Fourth of July weekend, I found myself finally transplanting petunias, pansies, and dianthus into the ceramic pots I keep on the decks in the summer—a chore I normally complete around Memorial Day.

I did manage to get some garden seeds in the ground before I left for an eight-day trip in early June, but the effort was rushed and I planted leftover seeds from old vintages because I hadn’t gotten around to ordering fresh seed in late winter or early spring. No calculated phased planting of cold-hardy crops, not this year. Six weeks later, I’m replanting rows of lettuce and carrots that failed to come up, and filling in other bald spots in the garden with leggy plants from the local nursery, top-heavy in their now-undersized plastic pots.

chive blossoms

Chive blossoms ready to open.

What’s funny, or odd, or interesting—or perhaps all three—is that in this early part of the summer, none of that matters. The first crops have come out of the garden right on schedule.

The chives poked up through the tangle of dead strands from last year right on time, starting in late April. I’ve been sprinkling little green hoops of minced leaves and the lavender florets from the blossoms over salads, sandwiches, and eggy scrambles ever since.


Spring asparagus, which keeps popping up all summer.

Spears of asparagus appeared in May. As with everything else in the garden (except the alpine strawberries, on which more in a moment), the asparagus bed is neither large nor prolific, but I pick a few spears every couple of days and either slice them raw on salads or store them until there’s enough to cook up a batch. The mix of skinny and fat stalks looks a little haphazard on the plate, but the asparagus is tender and delicious.

cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms.

They won’t be ripening for a few weeks yet, but little green cherry beads have replaced the white blossoms of spring, and are dangling thick on the tree that’s been in the garden for years. The fruit is more scattered among the dense leaves of the new tree I planted two years ago, but there’s certainly more of it than last summer, when the tree yielded exactly three cherries. The birds got two of them; I plucked the third before it was quite ripe and ate it there in the garden with a defiant flourish, determined to get my share of the crop. Barring hail—and assuming I won’t be too distracted to get bird netting wrapped over the trees’ branches in time—we’ll soon be enjoying our annual tart cherry fix; between the two trees I should have a little fruit to stash in the freezer.

white alpine strawberries

White alpine strawberries, blooming in abundance.

As to those strawberries: I started picking white alpine strawberries a handful at a time in mid-June, and now I’m picking them by the pint. The plants usually bear all summer, but I’m not seeing lots of new blossoms, so I wonder if the harvest will peter out early this year. I’ll be at peace if that’s the case, grateful that the early surge of strawberries has helped compensate for my delayed action in other parts of the garden.

I also started picking rhubarb weeks ago. Like the asparagus, the bundles I bring back to the house are anything but uniform; the stalks are long and short, thin and thick. Chopped up and simmered with a little brown sugar, however, the flavor is exactly as it should be: teetering from sweet to tart, the stalks creating a distinct category of fruitiness. Served warm with chilled yogurt, the compote is fit for dessert and breakfasts both, and I also substitute it for the mashed bananas in my Mom’s reliable banana bread recipe. When I started making rhubarb bread this way a couple of years ago, it promptly became my favorite quick bread. This weekend, the abundant strawberries joined the rhubarb in a flavorful crisp for dessert. With plenty left over for breakfast.


The rhubarb in April, edible stalks still just a promise.

That the perennials in the garden provide, regardless of whether I have my act together or not, is a matter of immense relief. I fully appreciate the seasonal rituals gardening imposes on my life, and it’s not that I’m trying to find a way to cheat the system. But when I lose control of time the way I have this year, it’s nice to have a scattering of the “homegrown” for the table.

And since I didn’t miss the planting window for the garden completely, the time-slip has meant that some of the quick growing crops are—Hey! Presto!—now ready. Tonight’s menu will feature homegrown rapini, sautéed with a little garlic and dressed with good olive oil. The last of the lettuce from the grocery store will be joined by leaves cut fresh from the garden in a salad that will, no doubt, be sprinkled with a generous handful of homegrown chives.


Chive blossoms for spring; chive leaves all summer.

Posted in gardening, procrastination | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Seeing Voices


Vermont marble walkway, leading to the Bread Loaf Inn.

Back in early June, I packed my too-heavy suitcase (too many books, too much paperwork) and left the horses and the garden and the weeds and the house in care of my husband. I was off to Vermont, to the verdant roll of hills thick with maple and birch, to woods skirted with hay-scented fern and incised with carefully mowed meadows.

I went “Back East,” as we say here Out West, to attend the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ conference, a gathering of essayists, poets, and fiction writers sharing time in the neighborhood where Robert Frost summered for decades. Navigating groups of people I don’t know brings surges of anxiety, but that subsided as the days went on and I practically wallowed in the luxury of being surrounded by scores of individuals who prize the written word.


Visiting Robert Frost’s summer cabin.

The pragmatic gear turning at the center of my days was a writing workshop led by Scott Russell Sanders. In our hours together, members of the group discussed one another’s work, the writing process, and the craft of personal essay. My newly-met colleagues are all smart, funny, and generous; I learned a lot and was—am—grateful for the workshop experience.

When I think back on that week, though, it isn’t the nuts and bolts of writing that stands out, but the alchemy of it.

Writing casts a spell. Reading, we fall under it, defying the laws of time and space to journey beyond the confines of physical location and personal moment. That this happens even in my chosen genre of nonfiction, where the contract between author and reader specifies real-life truthfulness, only adds to the sense of enchantment.

This conjuring is a do-it-yourself project, an interior passage—usually. At the conference, our days were bookended with faculty presentations: lectures in the morning and readings to close the day (or, depending on your point of view, as a prelude to the opening of the Barn Pub). As each author took his or her turn at the lectern and began to speak, their words were layered with the sensory details of the place: the angular shadows of the Little Theater’s dark wooden beams, soft air and the chitter of chimney swifts drifting through the open double doors in the mornings, the incense of woodsmoke and the snap of flame in the open fireplace on chilly evenings at mid-week, the laughter and small murmurs of agreement—and occasional outbursts of whooping and applause—from the audience of compatriots. Like cloisonné, or a lacquering technique, the overlay of voice and space and scent and language created occasions gleaming with unexpected depth.

The power of writing doesn’t require an in-person reading, of course. Listening to a writer is an embellishment on an exchange of ideas that benefits from but does not require the flourish. But hearing an author read aloud wrinkles time a little, invoking the ancestral oral tradition from which written technology sprang eons ago.

IMG_3409Those readings and talks at Bread Loaf were temporal, too, in their transience and in the steady accumulation of days between then and now. I carried their echoes home in memory, though, and packed as books in my then-still-heavier suitcase, their substance captive on paper. Now, whenever I start to read the work of Jane Brox or Robert Michael Pyle or David James Duncan or Scott Sanders, I’ll hear the cadence and rhythm of their voices in my mind’s ear.

Even more wonderful is that I have sensory snapshots to draw on as I explore poetry and fiction by writers I wasn’t familiar with before—Rubén Martínez, Belle Boggs, Maurice Manning, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. These voices, new to me, rang in from the periphery of my nonfiction perspective, gently suggesting that what I think of as focus might just as easily be tunnel vision.

And, because Scott Sanders had each participant read a passage from our work-in-progress before the group discussed it, I’ll also be able to hear the voices and see the faces of the women from my workshop group, writers I’ll no doubt be reading more from in the future.


The Bread Loaf Campus.

Posted in reading, travel, writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Still Learning from Horses

Moondo Pikes Peak 2004

Moondo, in fall 2004, just before he moved from the east side of Pikes Peak (background, left) to the west side.

Moondo, my little red horse, is a complicated character. I wrote about his personality and opinions in the “Horse Lessons” chapter of Between Urban and Wild the book.

A number of years have passed since then, and I can report that Moondo still has very clear views on how the day’s schedule should unfold (according to his agenda), which water source is best (automatic waterer, not stock tank), where he should be scratched (varies by season: at the base of the ears, where icicles collect in his forelock on snowy days, in winter; on the belly, where the flies pester him, in summer), and whether ATV-riding and target-shooting are acceptable activities for neighbors to engage in (NO, and DEFINITELY NOT).

His pasture-mate, Jake, bears the brunt of Moondo’s conceit, and while I sympathize, I can’t help but be amused, most of the time. Jake outweighs Moondo by a couple of hundred pounds. He’s ten years younger, and he’s a dominant personality in the equine pecking order. Yet Moondo regularly manipulates Jake to get his way.

Jake Moondo

Jake: “Got any food?” Moondo: “Did I authorize this visit?”

Moondo prefers the Big Pasture to anyplace else. Jake cares about food, in quantity, wherever it’s located. If Jake heads toward the barn to eat hay when that activity is not on Moondo’s agenda, diversionary tactics are called for. I’ve seen Moondo trot briskly past Jake to take the lead, as if concurring that going to the barn is a very fine idea. Once Jake is plodding mindlessly behind him, Moondo will gently veer gently off course and lead the way to the central basin of the pasture.

A related technique also involves hustling to get in front of Jake, but this one exploits appetite rather than herd mentality. Out in front, Moondo will stop abruptly to chomp grass, as if he’s just stumbled across the tastiest patch that’s ever sprung in the pasture. Jake cannot resist investigating gustatory enthusiasm, and once his head drops to begin eating, his brain apparently forgets where it was headed just moments ago.

The horses’ relationship isn’t entirely brains versus brawn. After he got bit on the nose by a rattlesnake a few months after he arrived here in early 2012, Jake acquired a fresh respect for Moondo’s opinions. I wasn’t there to witness the strike, but I’m pretty sure Moondo was jumping around behind him urging Jake to Leave that thing alone!! Nowadays, if Moondo gets anxious about something, Jake responds to the mood even if he doesn’t comprehend the threat. They both retreat to the center of the Big Pasture, where they stand close together, on high alert.

observant horses colorado

Moondo and Jake watching an Army helicopter flying over the area.

I’m happy about Jake’s reciprocal vigilance, particularly since Moondo is starting to get up in years, having turned twenty-two on May 27. There are different ways of calculating horse age in human years, but if Moondo were a person he’d be in his late sixties to early seventies. He remains mentally sharp, physically tough, persnickety, and generally healthy, but he suffers from a nerve disorder that’s slowly getting worse. I’m glad he has a younger companion to help keep him moving and active, although I do wish Jake wouldn’t shoulder-block the old guy around quite so much. Then again, when Jake got too pushy the other night, I watched Moondo execute a double-barrel kick that nearly connected with Jake’s chin, so I guess he can still take care of himself.

Moondo and I have known one another since 2004. I’m pretty sure he came to the conclusion early on that I’m a little simple and in need of guidance. His expression is both earnest and sincere when he twangs the top line of the electric fence and then looks pointedly at me: You know this thing isn’t on, right? He’s clearly exasperated when I don’t promptly respond to his rolling the hay tank over with a bang: You know this thing is empty, right? (he might not be food motivated, but when the appointed time comes a horse has gotta eat).

I’ve watched Moondo negotiate the terms of his relationship with the three different horses he’s shared the pastures with over the years. He’s not a dominant personality, but he has a talent for waiting out clashes and hammering out power-sharing agreements.

Like his other companions, I find him exasperating at times, but also smart and steadfast. I know a little bit about how his mind works, but don’t pretend a horse whisperer’s insight into his soul. I admire him, as a member of the equine tribe, as a life-long resident of the outdoors, and as a keen observer of this place. He’s annoying and funny, but also a wise guide, pointing me toward different ways of looking at and seeing the environment we both call home.

Posted in animal communication, horses, observation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


Colorado Western Bluebirds

The winners of this box, this year: Western bluebirds.

From a distance, not much has changed. Almost-mid-May from the house looks pretty much like just-past-mid-March. The difference, as it so often is, is in the details. The expanses of grass, passive and still eight weeks ago, are now host to fluttering, creeping, scurrying. The birds are back, the bugs are getting busy, and the rodents are out and about again.

After a few weeks of fierce squabbles, with males wing-beating one another to the ground, pairs of bluebirds have claimed the local nest boxes: Western bluebirds up near the house, Mountain bluebirds down by the barn. The couples are busy setting up the summer’s household and gleaning insects from the bunchgrasses.

Chipmunks, voles, and pocket gophers are on the move, a development less charming to me since they eat plants I want instead of insects I don’t. I’m not the only one who’s noticed them, however. I’ve seen as many as three red-tailed hawks at a time contemplatively soaring over the pastures south and west of the barn. I’m sorry to report to the soft-hearted among you that the gophers squeaking in alarm fills my heart with glee.

pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens)The pasqueflowers have popped up, running a little late. I don’t know what to read from the timing of their bloom, whether it’s a report on conditions from the passing winter, or a prediction about the coming summer, but I do know the fuzzy lavender cups elicit a surge of fondness out of proportion to their subtle color and modest stature.

Inside the garden walls, the snippets of color I was so desperately seeking two months ago have emerged in extravagant displays—concentrated and contained, to be sure, islands of green and purple and red and yellow scattered in the seas of brown that are the unplanted vegetable beds—but reassuringly bright. No worries, the tulips and chives and muscari and rhubarb seem to say, We’re back.

garden chives    muscari    species tulips

This is the Rocky Mountains, though, and even if springtime arrives with the heavy symbolism of renewal it carries throughout the temperate zones, this is perhaps the most fickle time of year in a region notable for its fickleness of weather. Sunshine one day is followed by gloom or fog or snow flurries the next. The temperature wanders up and down so fast I step outside to assess before I go for a walk: jacket and sun hat, or coat and woolly cap? Optimistic plans for washing blizzard-flung sludge off the windows or puttering in the garden, formed of a sunny dawn, are blown flat by a cold gale before I’ve finished my morning tea.

April snow

Ready for dinner, April 29.

And at this elevation, of course, April showers arrive in solid form.

As I prowled the garden happily in the waning days of April, framing pictures of the color I’d been craving for weeks, I knew change was in store. I’d been watching the forecast.

The snow started on Wednesday night, disintegrating to slush against the warm ground. The pace of accumulation was faster than the melting, and insulating batts thickened atop the slush. By dark on Friday we had more than twelve inches of wet spring snow on the ground, the biggest snowfall of the winter. Thanks to that one storm, we collected more snow in April than in January, February, and March combined.


The rhubarb patch, late April.

The snow never stopped melting from underneath, and didn’t last long. Within a few days, the splashes of color in the garden were back on display, even if the foliage was a bit flatter and bore some kinks and crimps.

I’m glad of the speedy re-emergence of color, whether it’s the blare of daffodils or the blue flash of a Mountain bluebird’s breeding plumage or the rhubarb’s red and green umbrellas slowly uncrinkling. Yet I find myself—fickle me!—also plotting how to hang on to the last vestiges of winter. This sounds ludicrous, given how long I’ve been itching for signs the season will end. But winter here is also water and, satisfied the world will not remain monochrome forever, my thoughts have now turned toward mulch. Dead, yes. Brown, also yes. But effective, too, at holding moisture, protecting the surface soils from the high-altitude solar intensity that’s on its way and the winds that never, really, stop. Those winds will slow down a little now, though, relaxing from their mulch-stripping pace. The blank spaces of the vegetable beds and the now-exposed flowerbeds around the house are crying out for a spring-weight blanket, a covering layer that will help them preserve the wet of snowmelt mud as long as possible.

Posted in birds, change of seasons, color, gardening, precipitation, rodents, snow, weather | Tagged , | Leave a comment