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.

img_3625

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.

img_3600

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.

img_3609

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.

img_3453

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.

img_3473

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.

img_3611

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

lovage

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.

asparagus

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.

rhubarb

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.

chives_2

Chive blossoms for spring; chive leaves all summer.

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

Seeing Voices

IMG_3365

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.

IMG_3367

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.

IMG_3388

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

Winterspring

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.

rhubarb

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

Good News Follow-up

IMG_3318On Friday, May 6, the Colorado Authors’ League (CAL)  announced the  winners of their 2016 Writing Awards, and I was honored to be recognized for this blog.

My sincere thanks to CAL for all the work the organization does to support and recognize Colorado Authors, and big congratulations to all the other finalists and winners!

 

Posted in writing | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

A Little Good News

http://coloradoauthors.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/CAL-logo-250px-high.jpgIn early April, I learned that my project here has been named a finalist in blog category of the 2016 Writing Awards sponsored by the Colorado Authors’ League (CAL).

There will be a reading event at BookBar in Denver, Colorado (click here for details), on Saturday, April 30, 2016 . Finalists in the the Feature ArticleBUW cover art, Blog, and Essay categories will be reading and discussing their work. The event runs from 2:00 until 4:00 p.m., and authors who have also written books will have them available for sale and signing (that includes me, with  Between Urban and Wild the book). This will be a fun celebration of Colorado writers, so if you’re in Denver, stop by!

Founded in 1931 to “foster the art and craft of authorship,” the Colorado Authors’ League is celebrating its 85th Anniversary this year. The organization fosters networking and learning opportunities for its members and works to and develop creative writing through education and events.

The 2016 Awards recognize work published the previous calendar year. The 2015 blog posts included in my “Between Urban and Wild” (the blog) entry were:

IMG_2329The January Plan

IMG_2298The Conundrum of Cute

DCP_0379The Slowest Season

IMG_2699The Hazy Days of Summer

IMG_3017On the Theme of Running Late

CAL Writing Award Winners will be announced at the annual CAL banquet in Denver on May 6, 2016.

Posted in writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Between Urban and…Urban

in the Bowery

Relaxing on the terrace, looking on to the new One World Trade Center tower (center).

Even though we live in the sort of place most people escape TO, my hubby and I feel the impulse for a break now and then. Sometimes the change of place from this semi-arid ridge in central Colorado’s mountains is wet and coastal and occasionally it’s foreign, but often it’s a short city break. We eat in restaurants, take long walks on chewing-gum-freckled sidewalks, rely on public transportation.

There’s plenty about these trips that unsettles me. The charms of air travel withered long ago. I sleep poorly in noisy and over-illuminated cities. I’m distressed at how much harder it is to minimize my participation in the disposable economy while traveling. I’m unnerved by the press of people. I dislike the persistent befuddlement of being stripped of my insider’s native confidence. Yet for the brief interlude of a few days, spending time someplace that bears no resemblance to where we live, be it by sight, sound, smell, or rhythm, can be revitalizing.

New York tenement neighborhood

New York tenement neighborhood.

At the end of March, Doug and I flew to New York City to spend a few days in the urban frenzy and to visit my mom and brother. Doug had scored an online deal for a hotel and our time there aligned with a couple of days of fine spring weather. We socialized with family and friends and visited a couple of museums, but spent a lot of time wandering the streets, taking in the bustle and intricate choreography of that frenetic and assertively urban environment. In our temporary local neighborhood, we strolled past stores selling durian fruit, used restaurant equipment, shoes, high-end lighting, fancy clothes, cannolis. We strode streets and ambled avenues while dodging workers, tourists, bikes, food carts, and forests of steel construction scaffolding sprouting on walkways in every neighborhood. We squinted in the glare of glass-clad high-rises, admired the rusting fretwork of fire escapes on refurbished brick tenements, and noted that construction fashion trends have brought concrete back in vogue.

Overlooking the High Line and The Standard hotel from the Whitney.

Overlooking the High Line and The Standard hotel from the Whitney.

The city is not the environment I claim as my own, and I’ve managed to arrange my life to hold the urban, the world of people, at a distance much of the time. The urban pole of my everyday existence consists mostly of books and words, of our house and outbuildings and vehicles and the infrastructures that support them, and of the technologies that enable my at-a-distance participation in twenty-first century society—including the electronics that allow me to publish these reflections.

There’s plenty about the human universe that makes me glad of my selective engagement, and I recognize that I’m privileged in being able to regulate my exposure. Somewhere in the course of every single day I find opportunity to consider what human arrogance, cruelty, or apathy has most recently wrought.

In the city, you’d think all that would be amplified, and in some respects it is. The human imprint in a place like New York is so profound that it takes special attention to detect anything of the wild. I can’t help but ponder the hubris of hiding our collective human reliance on natural systems beneath clever systems of concrete, steel, and glass.

Beyond all that, though, and beyond the mental recalibration of a few days away from work routines and the refreshed sense of gratitude for my home place, an interlude of voluntary submission to the metropolitan crush matters to the point of necessity. Time in the urban environment reminds me that all the negatives arise, in part, because people are such amazing animals.

Outdoor terrace at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Outdoor terrace at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The in-your-face intensity of so many human souls gathered close together in a large city confronts me with undeniable evidence of our ingenuity, grit, diversity, and grace. Whether it’s the unexpected spices on the duck breast I ordered for dinner, the efficiency of a crowded subway, a building packed with artwork, a novel architectural declaration, or a friendly greeting rendered in an unfamiliar accent, I come away awestruck at our capacity for invention, affability, and collaboration. I’m floored by the human ability to make things, and make things work. In the city, I’m all but assaulted by an astonishing wealth—not of money, although that’s certainly well in evidence—but of improvisation, hard work, adaptability, creativity, and perseverance.

Nice work, everybody.

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

A Monotony of Mild

mild winter

Just enough snow to cover the ground.

The winter started out cold—fiercely so, in fact. Icy air preserved the scanty accumulation from small snowstorms for weeks, solidifying it to slick veneers anywhere it was packed down—on roads, on the pathway I follow to and from the barn. The thin snow cover lingered for weeks under the oblique winter angle of the sun. By January, even though we were enjoying those additional minutes of daylight each day, I was braced—for bitter winds, for more ice, for the drifts that would pile up as storms fueled by an El Niño weather pattern delivered us a winter to remember.

Instead, it got warmer. Since the first of the year, we’ve received exactly three snowstorms of four inches or more–and the biggest of those was less than seven inches. Over the weeks between each storm, mild temperatures and breezy winds whittled away the snow, leaving nothing other than a few shabby drifts and grayish rags at the feet of the evergreens on north-facing slopes. Rather than El Niño, we’ve gotten El Nothing-o.

IMG_3180

Beautiful…but mostly unchanged for months.

Despite the near-absence of winter, I find myself ready for spring. The press of snow clearly isn’t what’s weighing me down, and it’s not that I’m craving balmy temperatures, either. The weather so far in March, has been, like all of February and most of January, freakishly warm. No, the object of my desire isn’t a thaw, but a break in the monotony of mild.

Winters up here are long, but they’re also dynamic. Snowstorms—even the little ones—remake the landscape. The canvas doesn’t stay blank for long; the snow records the passage of animals and is etched with sinuous patterns by the wind. The sun applies a deft hand on all but the very coldest of days, sketching dimension and contrast with a heat-based technique that selectively erases the gesso of snow.mountain bluebird

Without snowstorms, the melt-paintings haven’t been on display lately, and as much as I love the sepia-tinted landscape of our winter grasslands, I’m ready for a change. My eyes have begun thrill-seeking, hunting for color. They lock on the vibrant flash of early cinquefoilthe mountain bluebirds that began showing up in late February, fluttering from fence wire to ground to pine bough to ground to fence post like scraps of wind-flown cerulean silk. Out in the pasture, rosettes of cinquefoil leaves unfold in puddles: tiny but assertively green. My heart gives a little lurch at the sight of the season’s first crocus ready to unfurl its purple-veined petals in the early rhubarbprotected space of the garden. In another planting bed, the bright red capsule protecting a wadded leaf of rhubarb peeks from under last fall’s dead brown leaves.

Flutters. Glimpses. Peeks. Not entirely satisfying. The reticence, even in the face of so many weeks of unusually warm weather, is appropriate, however. That there isn’t a lot going on is exactly how it should be, since technically it’s still winter up here—and will be for weeks after the upcoming equinox.

spring snow flurry

Not a blizzard, just a flurry.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m missing the bluster of March blizzards. The irony of spring up here is that it rides in on wintry weather: fast-moving storms that blow through with whiteout drama one day and eye-searing sunny brilliance the next. I’d be happy for the sloppy plop of spring snow slipping off the evergreen boughs. I wouldn’t mind heaving some heavy shovels-full off the front steps, splatting the slush onto the flowerbeds. My eyes are restless, but my nose is, too. With no snow to melt, there’s no mud to scent the air with the tantalizing promise of wet earth.

Posted in change of seasons, color, snow, spring | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Reading Season

IMG_3106

From fall into winter…

The pattern makes sense: that these winter months are a time of retreat, a withdrawal of sorts from the outdoor domain of wild that orients a significant part of my life. The weather is cold and even if it’s not—even if temperatures are freakishly warm, as they have been for most of February this year—the wintry factor of wind keeps me sequestered inside, more often than not.

That the body is confined certainly doesn’t mean the mind is. Winter is my season of exploration, of wide-ranging and wandering, of time spent at large in what I think of as the urban aspect of my life: the human realm, the social, cultural, technology-oriented domain of people, the things we make, and the things we think.

Books are a crossover of thinking and doing. I’ve been hinking about and reading them a lot lately, both because it’s that time of year and because literacy is a key theme in the new writing project I’ve been focused on since fall.

Writing seems like an archaic technology, and I suspect our ease with the technique of coding and decoding letter-forms inclines us to be dismissive of the written word these day. It’s so easy to exchange videos and pictures, images filled with color and movement and faces. Still, we rely on words, static and rendered mostly in black and white, to provide context and spirit, even if they’re formed up into the simple sentiments of “Hi” or “Wish you were here” or “I thought you’d like this.” Words hold their value as the currency of our much-vaunted connectivity these days, even if we’re seduced into twittering them down to the most character-limited formats we can get away up with.

My life up on this high windy ridge revolves around words—mostly cast in type but also written out the old-fashioned way, in ink on paper. Outside of my partnership with my husband, my paid work and most of my relationships proceed according to the rhythms of characters arranged in lines. I stay in touch with friends—the ones just down the road as well as the ones who live on other continents—via email. I spend my working hours indexing books that arrive on my computer as a stream of data. To say that I’m “researching” a new piece of writing is code for saying I’m reading books and articles. “Working” on an essay means I’m handling words, shuttling them back and forth from keyboard to page, drafting, reworking, looking up (as in flipping through the old-fashioned paper dictionary and thesaurus), wrestling, negotiating, scribbling out alternatives, checking them, trying again when they’re found wanting.

Maybe because writing is such an extended and sometimes tedious process for me, I prize reading: I appreciate spending time with the fruits of someone else’s labor. The marvel of it all is that I can be anchored in the wild place I want to be and still be exposed to the wider world, the urban universe of people and ideas. In theory, I’m far from the madding crowd, but from where I’m sitting it feels like I’m in the thick of it all.

IMG_3173

A mix of titles recently finished and on the to-be-read list.

Since December, I’ve been beckoned to think about food and cooking and immunity in new ways. I’ve considered scientists’ thoughts on ignorance and just how wrong Descartes was with his perfunctory separation of mind from body. I’ve accompanied a writer exploring the intersection of biomedical research with one family and listened in on history as Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses writing and reading. Right now, I’m weighing the argument that introverts are at a disadvantage in American society. My brain, in short, has been a busy place lately, all thanks to a collection of 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks.

I spend most of my time on this blog celebrating the place where I live, but it’s worth a shout-out now and again to the influences that bring dimension to that point of view. Some of those perspectives arrive by way of digital video and audio radio signals, but the ones that make my heart glad and encourage me to see my surroundings more carefully are almost invariably the symbols that make up the English language. My favorites take the form of the long, slow, human conversation we call books.

A selected list of the winter’s reading, so far:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan

The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, by Robert D. Richardson

On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss

How the Body Knows its Mind, by Sian Beilock

Ignorance: How it Drives Science, by Stuart Firestein

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

Posted in inside/outside, observation, reading, working from home, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment