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.

Posted in observation, weeds, wildflowers, working from home | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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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The Rocky Mountain

Pikes Peak on March 20, 2017, almost devoid of snow.

In the usual pattern of spring weather, the promontory on our northeastern horizon gleams white like an alpine stereotype. The broad hulk of Pikes Peak is fronted by layered foothills and crags, which cascade down toward a grassy pool called High Park, from whose western shore extends a line of dune-like rocky wrinkles speckled with pinion pine. These relatively lower regions make up the middle ground of our view, and snow doesn’t last long on that terrain. The sun’s light is wintry and the angle of its rays acute, but it’s still intense, and swiftly resets the color scheme from blue-shadowed white to tones of earthy tan and evergreen dark.

The winter just passed was indecisive, with months of erratic weather whipsawing between unseasonably warm and bitter cold as the jet stream threw loops, carrying Arctic fronts down over our portion of the Rockies and then retreating with tree-snapping Chinook gales. Snowfall was too skimpy and too scattered to linger between storms, most of which amounted to no more than three inches of snow. Many dropped just a trace, a skiff, or a dusting. In March, we were very nearly skunked: not one measurable snow fell until we got an inch on the 24th. The 2.5 inches that fell a few days later didn’t lift the tally over 4 inches, in what’s normally our snowiest month of the year.

A week later, on March 28, with a little more snow.

The fleeting storms would refresh the white atop Pikes Peak, but after a few days the rocks would re-appear, like gray veins emerging out of clean white marble. By the third week of March, the bareness was downright alarming.

Pikes Peak isn’t particularly tall; at 14, 114 feet, it’s number 30 on the list of Colorado’s “Fourteeners,” peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation. Still, it’s our nearest high peak, and a barometer of local snowpack, which is itself an indicator of spring runoff and summer water supplies. Moisture in the soil means water for trees and grasses; lack of water means elevated fire danger. The rocky mountain of March augured an elevated chance for a smoke-shrouded peak in June.

On April 4, we got soppy-wet spring snow, amounting to 10 hard-to-shovel inches. Pikes Peak, as expected, emerged with its snowfields refreshed, its whiteness newly whitewashed. Our snow melted in a few days. Up on the mountain, it lingered for a few weeks, but the purple is now reappearing.

Any respite from dry is fleeting in these parts, and I know that. In the sixteen years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned to draw inspiration from the beauty of the land and the toughness of the plants and animals that call it home. Whenever I start thinking I’ve taken on a measure of this native resilience, however, I find myself upended.

The normal wishes for this time of year are for green and for growing and for color. In its season, the stolid granite of the mountain’s top is reassuring and right, but under these April skies it leaves me unnerved, and I keep finding myself wishing for white.

On April 24, signs of winter still lingering on the mountain, but not a great deal of snow.

Posted in change of seasons, precipitation, snow, spring, weather | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Turkey (Photo) Shoot

On the move: winter feeding.

Wild turkeys are always in motion.

Their persistent mobility has been brought home to me (literally) this winter by a flock of about a dozen that frequented the district around our house. The big dark birds would show up every few weeks, whereupon I would hustle to fetch the camera. I had visions of capturing a wildlife-calendar-worthy shot: the turkeys were so close.

Hunters report that wild turkeys are wily, cautious, and smart, ready to either speed-walk into cover or flush and fly at the first sign of human presence, but our overwintering flock was blasé. When I’d step outside in pursuit of a picture, they’d simply redirect their deliberate pacing and scratching a few feet further removed from the house. I hardly needed to use the camera’s zoom lens, and I could click away with impunity.

I took pictures of solitary birds. I framed group shots. I tried for close-ups. Some of the dozens of pictures I accumulated over the winter were okay in a documentary sort of way: photographic evidence of the proximity of wild turkeys to our place of residence. None were striking, though, and most were just bad. Some depicted turkey-hued abstract shapes against the straw-colored backdrop of our dry winter.

It didn’t help that the turkeys usually came by the house in early morning, when dull flat light conspired with my lack of a tripod to produce photos that were either dark or blurry or both. The turkeys’ unceasing movement was the bigger challenge, though. Unlike deer, who are cocky enough to stop and stare, effectively posing for the camera, or cottontail rabbits, which obligingly freeze motionless, the turkeys were never stationary. They pecked. They strolled at a placid and deliberate but unceasing pace. They scratched. They bobbed their prehistoric-looking heads. Whether walking straight toward the house or offering an appealing profile aspect, they showed an uncanny talent for pivoting the second I pressed the camera’s shutter button.

Toward the end of winter, my favorite turkey-related picture was of the dirt under the barn’s shed roof. After the flock spent the morning gleaning seeds there, the entire expanse was comprehensively rearranged with marks from pecking and scratching. Any scrap of a hoof-print had been replaced by tiny dotted pits from the turkeys’ beaks, footprints reminiscent of peace signs, and scratches like an ancient alphabet.

Then, before sunrise on the first Saturday of March, a honking bird call summoned me out of a deep dumb sleep. I thought the house was being buzzed by low-flying Canada geese, but when the insistent call didn’t move away, my brain reconsidered. Turkey?

Stepping out onto the deck was like walking onto a balcony overlooking the dance floor in an avian singles bar. A mob of turkeys milled on the hillside, the toms fluffed and primped for courtship.

If there’s such a thing as bronzed chocolate, that’s what color wild turkeys are. Carried erect, the faintly iridescent brown feathers were sculptural. The strutting males carried their baby blue chins tucked tight to their dark bodies, the better to show off the colored skin of their heads and wattles, some of which flushed an impassioned red. The brown-on-brown pattern on their carefully fanned tail feathers was set off with creamy ivory bands, and the vivid brown and tan streaks of their wing feathers, extended stiffly to the ground, looked like elaborate basketry.

The males traced circles and serpentines and figure-eights, trying to flash their full-frontals to the hens, which they outnumbered three or four to one. Scrums formed, with a hen at the center, and broke up as she wandered away, seemingly indifferent but perhaps tittering self-consciously, not willing to tip off which fellow had caught her eye.

The visual show was something else, but the sound was astonishing as well. The hens sang a soft backup of muttered clucks to the toms’ complicated bass line of throaty burbles, thrums, and hums. High keeching solos broke out above the jazzy improvisation, and the entire chorus was accompanied by scratchy percussion from dragging wings and shuffling feet, like maracas shaken in no particular rhythm.

I’d been watching and listening and snapping pictures for almost fifteen minutes when the females decided to move on. They headed west at a fast and purposeful walk, leaving the males to wheel around one another for a hapless moment before setting off after the girls. Their come-hither struts deteriorated into comic bumbles of wings bouncing off shrubs and neat tail arches collapsing in the effort to hustle over uneven ground.

It’s not often a person gets a chance to witness the intimacies of animal ritual up so close you don’t need binoculars or a spotting scope. Rarer still, surely, is to observe such a spectacle in one’s bathrobe. My pictures were, true to form, suggestive of the events but not exactly remarkable.

Lucky me, then, that I got a second once-in-a-lifetime chance—including the bathrobe part—a few days later. The turkeys returned, the toms preening and muttering their hottest pickup lines, wing feathers scratching over the cold ground of a late winter morning. The day was more advanced this time, the sun’s soft yellow light catching in artfully fanned tails and glinting off the scalloped pattern of feathers standing up over each bronze-tinted body.

A few of the photos came close to my wildlife photography fantasies, even if the turkeys didn’t exactly stand still.

Posted in animal communication, birds, humans and wildlife, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The Shape of the Wind

An early-morning sun angle highlights the dune-like patterns on snow outside the kitchen window.

I am not, as I have mentioned in this space before, fond of the wind.

In its rush to be elsewhere, air on the move unsettles my universes: the interior one as well as the world outside. The agitated limbs of the ponderosa pines outside the windows might well be emblems of the jittering of my brain’s branching neurons. Wind rumbles around the corners of the house and whumps the walls with gusts that wake me up at night. The noise of its passing displaces all the normal sounds of the landscape with indistinct whooshes, rattles, roars, hisses. I get restless. Focus comes hard, and small irritants provoke outsized reactions.

Layered drift carvings atop the driveway.

Walking is my usual therapy for bitchiness, but for weeks on end this time of year, being outside is less than pleasant. Wind is an unavoidable factor in my local environment, however, which is why I vowed a few years ago to try to become more resilient in the face of it, a promise that has made me slightly less inclined to complain. I bundle up and go out on days that are merely gusty, gritting through with stinging cheeks and watering eyes and snotty nose. Even if the weather is too warm for it, I wear my wooly hat to muffle the insistent needling at my ears, and to contain some of the whipping of my hair.

I might avail myself of the land’s jumble to walk the side-hill running east of the house, where the momentum of a wind ripping out of the west will overtop the ridge with such momentum that the air catches air. In the relative stillness underneath the passing current, I can stumble along snowbound game trails or pick my way over slick frozen ground while the torrent overhead batters the upper branches of the Douglasfir into seething susurration. I draw the line at battling through unnecessary outings on days when blow-me-down gales are making the electric lines howl, but creating my own movement feels like an act of resistance to a force that seems bent on making me feel cooped up.

Etchings left by wind-spun grass.

My vow a few years back also included a resolution to defang the wind’s annoyance factor by seeking out signs of its handiwork. I had some success early this season, staying alert for showy arrangements in the snow. As the winter got drier, though, and drier still, those opportunities sublimated. By February winter had turned to dust. The mild temperatures created a tempting aspect, all sunshine and warmth, but on stepping outside I’m knocked around, shoved, and generally harassed.

Snowing from the ground up.

By now it feels as if keeping an eye out for the shape of the wind makes me complicit in its blowing, which is an uncomfortable wrinkle in my attempt at philosophical equanimity. When it’s not packaged with a cloudburst or a blizzard, the wind twists itself into paradox—obnoxiously persistent and penetrating, yet also hidden. Without a canvas of snow or cloud, wind is just wind, and to remark upon it only adds my whine to the unceasing moan.

Dust feathered drift…or dune drift feather?

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Pink Time

The view never gets old.

In winter, the straw-colored grasslands dotted with evergreen-dark have an understated, action-suspended aspect. Snowstorms change things up now and again, padding the view as if packaging it for shipment. The white expanses and mounds, throwing shadows of bluish-gray, are pretty, and I love watching the slow-motion changes as snowmelt re-paints my surroundings. Depending on how warm the air is and whether clouds interrupt the sun at its work, shades of tan and dark green can reassert themselves in a matter of hours. Since I’m not standing around to watch the process, the progression is revealed in stop-motion images as I pause to look out the windows over the course of the day.

I’m easily amused, and I enjoy these leisurely shows. I do have to admit, however, that the muted tones of a dormant landscape begin to seem a little repetitive in by midwinter.

Fortunately, I can find color indoors. It’s just by chance that most of it runs toward pink.

The bougainvillea that lives in our stairwell put on a little show this past December, adorning several branches with papery pink bracts. My houseplants live in a tough climate; the air is dry and temperature swings wildly in a house where the thermostat is set low, leaving as much heating as is feasible to passive solar and a woodburning fireplace. I also tend to be erratic to the point of inattention when it comes to watering, which is why we have an automatic system down at the garden. For the houseplants, it’s all riding on me, so they’ve got to be tough. I think of the bougainvillea as a bit prissy because it’s the first to wilt in a gestural whine, but it moved with us here from Boulder and has survived the vagaries of my care for something like twenty years. It rarely flowers, though, and would probably do so more often if I kept my watering can act together.

For zingy color and persistence, the prize for wintertime cheer goes the Christmas cacti. I have several of them around the house, the smaller of which are cuttings off a plant my mom left with me when she moved away from Colorado in 2000. Since they’re all related, they all bloom in the same outrageous magenta pink. It’s a shade and intensity I wouldn’t normally favor, but I appreciate their flamenco-ruffle exuberance during the darkest days of our winter. They started putting on pointy little buds in late October, and are still fountaining bright flowers as February gets set to go.

I over-winter my outdoor potted plants down in the greenhouse that adjoins the barn, and I’ve been getting a daily dose of a more demure shade of pink each afternoon when I record the weather. One of the scented geraniums that spends its summers on the deck outside the kitchen was positively ecstatic about its transfer to a humid environment when I moved it inside last fall. The plant promptly exploded with clouds of girly pink blossoms, and it’s still going months later.

These off-season blooms are exotic, products of hybridization and the whims of people on the hunt for ways of brightening the northern winter, when the local flora is locked in somber and sensible dormancy. For me in this place, potted flowers are part of the “urban”: that impulse—and the ability—to tweak my habitat according to preference or taste.

But there’s still native color to be found in these deep winter days. It’s fleeting. I need to look up, not down. And I have to pay attention at the right time of day.

Sunrise in the south, tinting the Sangre de Cristo mountains pink behind Cap Rock Ridge.

Our icy winters skies make for spectacular displays, especially at sunrise. There are mornings when first light sets the entire horizon aglow. These wraparound sunrises tend to come in soft pastel shades of lavender, peach, and petal pink. When conditions produce a more focused and concentrated sunrise show, colors run toward crimson or orange, sometimes veering into lurid shades, as if the world had upended overnight and magma got spilled across the sky. I’d say the fiery gleaming is almost unsettling, except that it makes such a nice break from all the pink.

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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.

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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.

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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