Sweet Moondo

In the background of all the unnerving events of 2020, a more private anguish has been unfolding for us.

Back in early March, on one of the days I was rushing off to one appointment or another, I was driving past the feed boxes where the horses were eating their breakfast—except only one was munching. Jake’s head was down, all business with the hay, but Moondo was standing off to the side, uninterested. I stopped to check on him, but could see no obvious injuries or signs of distress. He greeted me cordially, as always, but a horse not eating on a chilly winter morning was cause for concern. He’d been even more finicky than usual for much of the winter, and had lost some weight, so I called the vet and scheduled a check-up.

The diagnosis, two days later, was chronic kidney disease; the treatment, effectively, palliative care.

In a pattern that would repeat at irregular intervals over the next few months, Moondo’s appetite returned, and he maintained his regular daily schedule, leading Jake out into the pasture to graze and nap and, at the allotted times, sauntering back in for water or to wait near the gates at feeding time. The notable change in his daily plan was giving him time alone in the morning with extra portions of grain and hay, as we tried to entice him to eat enough to maintain his weight.

This last development outraged Jake, but the extra calories helped stabilized Moondo somewhat. Doug and I got used to our own new daily schedule, with the added feeding and with twice-daily reports to one another regarding quantity consumed, or not. Every ten days or so, Moondo would lose his appetite, and nothing we could offer appealed to him. He’d wander away, leaving his leftovers to a mule deer doe and a family of ground squirrels. I tried different feeds and combinations, eventually discovering that plain oats would sometimes entice him to eat a little, like a queasy person nibbling a saltine cracker.

What he craved most, though, was the thing I was least able to provide: fresh grass. Although warmer weather in April and May brought a weak flush of new growth, the persistent dry weather meant the plants were unable to regenerate under the horses’ grazing. June was parched and throughout the first half of July, every monsoon thunderhead that formed either failed to rain or dropped its precipitation somewhere else.

Still setting the schedule, July 2020.

I started hand grazing him, the two of us meandering along the driveway, through the meadow next to the road, or in a circle around the hay garage, where he usually dedicated focused attention to a patch of mountain bluegrass near the gutter downspout. Out in the meadow, Moondo trailed like a hound, nose skimming the ground for the scent of favored grasses like low-growing blue grama and dropseed. I’d mostly hang on to the end of the lead rope and let him pull me along wherever he wanted to go, although once the bunchgrasses began setting seed, however sparse, I would steer him to patches of fescue and mountain muhly. He would gather the sprays of stems with a deft twirl of his upper lip, yank, and chew with something close to enthusiasm. If he spotted a Platte thistle, he would drag me over to it and take his time nipping off flowers and buds, rolling them carefully on his tongue to find the least prickly angle on which to bite down.

He’d been getting a little wobbly, so I was careful to avoid steep terrain or rocky ground. One day when we were across the driveway from the barn, however, he threw me a sly glance before he hopped up the cutbank and set to work grazing the bunchgrasses on the sharply angled slope. He’d had his eye on that patch for a while, but I’d been stopping him from climbing the bank, worried he’d fall. He’d seen his opportunity and taken it, so I let him graze for a while, zig-zagging across the slope until I maneuvered him to a place where he could step down with relative ease.

I thought I might be able to buy enough time, and sustenance, to get him through until it rained. Despite a couple of hours of hand-grazing each day and as much hay and grain as we could persuade him to eat, by mid-July Moondo had gotten painfully thin: a mobile lesson in equine skeletal anatomy. He still was acting like himself, mild-mannered yet opinionated, but he began to spend long hours withdrawn into something more like a stupor than a doze. Grazing at the bottom of that steep bank near the barn one afternoon, he paused in his eating and adjusted his feet. I thought he was going to have a pee, but no: his eyelids drooped and he dozed off. I had to wake him and lead him slowly back to the pasture.

A day or two later, out along the road, he nosed past the patch of seedheads I’d taken him to, looking for something he couldn’t find. When he also bypassed a Platte thistle with juicy open flowers, I knew he had turned a corner, and was heading to a place where I couldn’t follow. We put him down on July 20th, burying him behind the barn near his old friend Max.

Moondo came into my life in the fall of 2004. Having space for horses was part of what brought us to this area, but I did not anticipate how much their presence would alter how I think about and understand the human relationship to place. Thanks to Moondo and his pasture-mates—first old Blue, then dignified Max, and now survived by Jake—I’m aware of different dimensions of the landscape. I often think about different ways of sensing, of seeing, and I try to imagine what I cannot sense, cannot see. I’m confident I know this place differently and more deeply because of Moondo, but I’m also certain I know precious little compared to him: he was hypervigilant and curious, feeling the land under his feet and the wind through his mane 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Events this summer have pushed me to think a lot about privilege, about loss and change and death, about what I value, and about the values members of a human society share. Losing Moondo has magnified the months-long sense of unbalance and insecurity, but if he were still here, his presence would offer the same counsel it did for nearly 16 years. Pay attention. Position yourself to catch the first light of the sun. Accept that the wind will blow, and learn where the ripples of the hillsides swirl it toward calm. Take cover from the thunder, but be prepared to tough it out when the cold of winter sets in. Leave the rattlesnakes alone. Savor the grass. Just stand still sometimes, and be where you are.

On one of the days in mid-July when we were out in the meadow, Moondo abruptly stopped nibbling and set off at a determined march across the meadow. He tugged at the rope, hauling me along until we reached the edge of the ridge, where the ground fell away toward the northeast. He went there not to eat, but to look. We stood there for several minutes, side by side, gazing across the wooded slopes and rock-jumbled grasslands between here and Pikes Peak, quietly taking in the view.

What a place.

What a horse.

2006

Posted in horses, observation | Tagged , , , | 28 Comments

Isn’t This a Long One?

January last seems impossibly distant. Memories from back then are round-edged and worn, like relics of a lost civilization. The pandemic was dawning, of course, although few of us in this country had a clue what was to come. Lockdowns, masks, grimly mounting death tolls? Other people’s burdens, far away.

Late January: The color of our winter.

I was more concerned with work that took me away from the comfort zone of my home office—and with the weather. After multiple storms brought plunges into single-digit temperatures and two feet of snow in October, we were braced for a hard winter. A low of minus 7 the night before Halloween carried us into November, which delivered another foot of snow. But then the pattern abruptly changed. December brought two dribbly little snowstorms, January a handful of flurries that tallied less than two inches. Precipitation was respectable in February, but it came in small accumulations, snow flashing and vanishing on the hillsides like a time-lapse film, white in the morning, tawny brown by afternoon. March, which is normally one of our wettest months, repeated the pattern but with half the snow. Through April, May, and June, small storms passed in feverish pulses, chills between over-warm days.

Out in the pastures, the grass started to come up, stalled, and went dormant again. Buds swelled on the two cherry trees in the garden, but only one of them bloomed; as the incessant cycling of too hot/too cold persisted, the buds petrified on the dying tree’s branches. I’d been smug about landscaping plants up near the house, sure the remnants of October’s drifts were protecting them from temperature swings and desiccating winds. True, perhaps, but I’d forgotten: season-long drifts like those also shelter rodents. Safe under the crust, the voles nibbled the bark off honeysuckle and dwarf lilac stems, clipping through some but killing many more by girdling them.

One sad little lilac.

Over on the east side of the house, the white-flowering tea rose had been freeze dried in the first of fall’s wintry blasts, its leaves and fully-open flowers preserved in monochromatic browns. Certain it was dead, I was preparing to hack it out of the ground when I noticed a few fringes of dark green unfurling at the base. The old leaves and flowers shattered as I cut away the dead stems, but the plant re-emerged; like the lilac and the honeysuckle, it is malformed and scraggly, but alive.

The fuscia rugosa rose had leafed out as usual; tucked in a corner of the stone retaining wall, it was sheltered from the worst of the wind. When a smattering of sweetly tapered rosebuds began to form on both roses, I enjoyed a day or two of optimism—signs of hope!!—before every bud was systematically nipped off by a browsing mule deer.

I can’t really fault the deer, of course. The drought is stressful to us but potentially deadly to them, and flowers are food. Little surprise, then, that they also ate the blue columbine and delphinium: whole plants, browsed down to the ground. Nor were the native wildflowers immune; all the slender-tube skyrocket I’d managed to start from seed near the house where I can see them and watch the hummingbirds feed met the same fate as the roses, with every flower spike eaten. When I looked out the window one day to see a doe nibbling on the lopsided lilac, I barreled out the door, yelling, calling her something worse than a bitch.

Meanwhile, the plague was unfolding.

No, not that one.

Miller moth outbreaks are a regular occurrence along Colorado’s front range, and they’re worse in dry years. The adult form of the army cutworm, the moths migrate west from the plains to spend the summer in the mountains. Well, we’re in the mountains here, and if the moths were passing through on their way to higher country, they took their time doing it. The hay garage and barn are well-vented and riddled with crevices, so the moths easily find their way in but can’t seem to navigate back out. For many weeks, I clamped my jaws shut whenever I opened a door to one of those buildings, lest a flighty insect find its way in my mouth rather than just pelting me in the face. In the barn, they stacked themselves in a linear cluster in one back corner, a floor-to-ceiling dark column that shivered slightly, as if that portion of the building were coming to life, or perhaps, like something out of a nightmare, decomposing.

Moth marks left on the walk-out door of the hay garage.

Their numbers in the house were minimal in comparison, but their desperate fluttering set my nerves on edge. Moths puttered frantically at the windows and flailed around the reading lamp at night, threatening to plunge into my wineglass. They flew out of the tubes of the cellular blinds and occasionally out of the fold of a hanging towel. They drowned in water glasses and left brown spots of what the extension office website assures me is not shit, but meconium, “waste stored during pupal development” (so, wait: aged shit??) on windows, windowsills, walls, the blinds. I picked up my muffin one morning, and the moth that had nestled up against it stayed prone on the plate; I’m not sure if it, too, had been warmed for 11 seconds in the microwave. The paper was still on the muffin, so I ate it anyway, albeit without great enthusiasm. Another day, I poured my first cup of morning tea, not quite so groggy that I didn’t notice the dark blob flowing into the mug with the amber liquid: a moth that had crawled into the spout of the teapot and gotten itself lightly poached.

The moth outbreak subsided, eventually. The same cannot be said of the rodent population, which has rebounded following a die-off a few years ago. After two virtually chipmunk-free summers, they are back, as are the golden-mantled ground squirrels, woodrats, gophers, and, of course, the shrub-mangling voles. Mice, too: they found their way into the house through a split in a third-floor window screen. Agile chipmunks and woodrats resumed using the second-floor deck as an elevated latrine. An eggplant plant coming along nicely in a pot out there was felled in the night, its sizeable stalk, limp leaves still attached, left lying across the rim of the pot like a taunt. Out on that same deck one day, movement caught my eye on the ground below: a 14-inch stalk of lupine in full flower, vanishing down a gopher hole. Golden-mantled ground squirrels, which have tended in the past to be shy and willing to pack up and move if I chase them a few times, were undeterred this year. They bounded away from my threatening feints like terriers at play, and then pranced back toward me when I brought out the horses’ feed pans, eager to stuff their cheek pouches with oats.

This might sound cute, but I assure you it was not, particularly when the exuberant family groups started to attract the attention of rattlesnakes. Whereas we might lay eyes on one, possibly two, and often no rattlers over the summer, this year so far we’ve encountered eight* on foot and have seen a further four or five on nearby roads. Leading Moondo back to the pasture one afternoon after letting him graze on a tall patch of grass, we crossed paths with an almost-four-foot-long rattlesnake, heading the other direction. Like a focused commuter on a sidewalk in Manhattan, it shifted course slightly to avoid a collision, but otherwise ignored us entirely.

Headed in the right direction: away.

Compared to the many upheavals we’ve experienced in public life this year, my local troubles might sound like welcome diversions. But it’s all adding up, and my reactions to these minor aggravations are increasingly overblown. Every slight seems filled with foreboding, with a sense that the world is tilting too far out of whack. Even more than events in the national news, the drought magnifies the sense of ominous acceleration. Where I live might be great for social distancing, but right now we’re in a slow-moving natural disaster. To be safer at home involves being an eyewitness to stunted grass and wilting shrubs and a dearth of wildflowers (particularly when compared to last summer’s abundance) and dark-bellied clouds that pass by, always on their way to rain somewhere else. I worry about our water well, I worry about overgrazing the pastures, I worry about fires.

In the face of it all, I’m inclined to withdraw. I can rationalize cutting myself off by pleading sheer fatigue or state mandates or worry over risks posed by others’ nonchalance. Surely it’s best to narrow my bubble of interaction.

This makes sense with regard to COVID-19; the very nature of a public health crisis is the ease by which one person’s action (or lack thereof) can put others at risk. The tricky nuance is that while physical distancing is a sane recognition of the hazards of a global pandemic, the impulse to disengage from public life is exactly the wrong response to everything else. The common denominator in the pandemic, the current social justice movement, and the global climate shifts that have spurred this years’ drought into high gear is how we, as individuals, act (or not) in response to vast collective problems. None of this is just about me or just about you, and yet it is about me and about you.

The problem with the impulse to self-protect lies in how easily that instinct morphs into self-interest: suddenly it’s all about me, full stop. This is the basis for arguments trying to convince us that giving consideration to matters of mutual well-being threatens our autonomy.

By choice and preference, this blog tends to focus the particulars of this place, but that’s not to say I draw a hard line between here and there. Drought, online discourse, critter trouble, social unrest, and public health are all related in that they illustrate how intricately my existence here is joined to natural systems and networks of human interdependence.

I’ll be the first to admit that the chaotic days of this very long year are testing my willingness to keep tracing those connections. I keep reminding myself that moving my attention back and forth from the bubbles encircling myself and my loved ones to the broader orbit of civic life and environmental consideration—and then back again, from global to local—isn’t such a big deal, really. The scale has expanded, but those shifts are nothing new. Switching our attentive capacity between self and other is an ancient survival skill. True, the pace and the intensity of what’s being asked of us now is debilitating, but as a social species, human beings wouldn’t still be around if we hadn’t learned a long time ago how to toggle our thoughts and energy between personal and group interests. And I suspect that the movement of our gaze between those poles is usually when we notice the opportunities lurking amid the crises.

In the interest of full disclosure, and because we need a little color, the clematis did NOT get eaten this year.

*During the writing and editing of this post, I had to change this number twice.

Posted in gardening, humans and wildlife, precipitation, rodents, trees and plants, weather, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

This Social Distance

I didn’t know there was a name for my quirky lifestyle.

Practical logistics dictated by our choice to move to a distinctly rural and reasonably remote area in the spring of 2001 amplified the tendency to social distance, but I’ve been working from home, staying put except for essential errands, and communicating mostly via email or phone since the 1990s. Isolation suits my personality.

There are differences, of course. Under the old voluntary regime, we traveled and hosted visitors, occasionally had dinner in town, spent the night with friends. Limiting social contacts had to do with where we live rather than compliance with a mandate from the governor.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is global, but our individual experiences in it are anything but universal. The stupid irony for me is that conditions I would ordinarily take in stride, perhaps smugly dispensing advice from my socially-distanced-by-choice aerie, have been denied me these past months.

Last fall, hubby and I began a construction project down in Cañon City (which, despite the 30 miles between here and there, is our both our nearest town and legal address). Back in 2011, we bought a run-down property to fix up as a rental. It took us seven months to renovate the three dwelling units, and apparently we didn’t learn our lesson because we eventually bought an additional three houses, all in various states of neglect or disrepair. A few years ago, we looked at the maintenance costs on one of them (a 110-year-old Victorian dubbed “The Princess” because it was cute but extremely demanding) and decided to sell it and roll the money into a new build: a house constructed to modern standards, without time bombs lurking in the plumbing or a stone foundation subject to the upheavals of expansive soil.

October 2019. The the house that once stood here had been condemned and bulldozed before we bought the property.

Long story short, I spent the winter coordinating concrete guys and framing contractors, plumbers and electricians, the electric company and landscapers. In February, as Covid-19 progressed from international news to national, I dashed through home improvement stores, laying in paint and light fixtures and tile; picking out sinks and door handles and shelving, all so finish work could proceed even if retail outlets shut down. By March, work that fell within my skillset started: caulking and painting, grouting the tile floors, installing subway tile around the tub and on backsplashes, and a seeming infinitude tedious and/or time-consuming yet hard-to-name tasks.

By the time Colorado’s governor imposed a statewide stay-at-home order in early April, I was pooped: more than ready to accept a delayed completion and shelve the project for a while. Construction had been deemed an essential business, though; the contractors kept working, and thus so did I. I rationalized my failure to comply with the stay-at-home order by telling myself I was adhering to a stay-at-houses protocol. I was either at home or at the vacant house-to-be, entering the closed carapace of my car to commute in between. I avoided public spaces and did my best to socially distance from the handful of contractors who passed through the small house completing their work. I treated the lumberyard the same way I treated the much more crowded grocery store: delaying as long as possible between trips, donning my homemade mask, hustling through the aisles with focused intent, touching as little as possible, washing and sanitizing afterward.

Colorado transitioned to a “Safer-at-Home” phase on April 27, at which point the new house was nearing completion. A few weeks on, we’ve passed our final city inspection. We’re putting the final touches on exterior paint and doing some landscaping, but the house is done and functional. It’s compact yet airy, sturdy and energy efficient. As all of us continue the bizarre and stressful ride of what is, lest we be persuaded to forget, a global infectious disease crisis, I hope it will provide snug shelter for someone through the remainder of the pandemic, as well as in the less tumultuous and disturbing times the future surely holds.

May 2020, slightly different angle.

I don’t, honestly, know what to think of the past few months. The inability to think has been a distressing side-effect of the construction project, the virus, and ongoing sleep interruptions. I’ve been incapable of finding the time or energy for reflective thought. I’ve been stressed out and distracted, consumed by decisions and esoteric engineering requirements, by meeting schedules and paying invoices and figuring out how to navigate problems and mistakes, by facing down grunt work, by trying to maintain my cool with competent contractors who nevertheless do stupid shit or, by failing to communicate their needs and expectations, allow me to do stupid shit…not that I needed any help.

I suppose what I’m feeling now is what many other people are feeling: dazed and a little lost, baffled by upheaval and uncertainty, unsure how to behave and what to believe in a world so abruptly recalibrated. No matter what direction I look, the human costs are awful: incaution can kill while an abundance of caution wrecks quality of life. Droves are out of work and out of business; others frazzled and worn down by ever-shifting demands. The news abuses my emotions with its swerving tenor: noble, tragic, dumb, craven, beautiful, wise, asinine. The wide spectrum of our responses stuns me, until I remember that’s just us, being human. It’s the pace and amplitude that’s so unsettling…isn’t it?

Like many other people, I had plans for the spring of 2020, plans that have in no way panned out. But it’s the disruption of everyday routines that feels most traumatic. The construction project would have wreaked more havoc than I anticipated, but the pandemic has set off unending waves of shock, stress, dismay. Having been away from home so much, I feel unmoored. Whether it’s yakking to myself in my journal, composing a long email to a friend, trying to organize my thoughts on a topic for an essay or a blog post, or settling in for the slow iterative slog on a chapter of this book I’m working on, stringing words together at my desk is what helps me maintain a sense of sanity.

Perhaps the sense of loss I feel is just wishful thinking. Probably it’s fantasy to believe I would have been better equipped to comprehend the pandemic and its incessant knock-on effects if I had been able to embrace my stay-at-home proclivities.

I don’t know if the coming weeks and months will bring any clarity or peace. It’s possible that without the distraction of the building project, my unease and weariness will only grow. But I do know that the concept of “Safer at Home” hits me with a poignancy I’m sure the governor did not intend.

My June destination.

Posted in home, working from home, writing | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

On Not Riding

At a writing workshop I attended back in 1998, our instructor, Marita Golden, urged vigilance against opening a door in an essay if we didn’t intend to lead readers through it at some point. In other words, don’t distract your audience, or cloud their expectations, by using details not pertinent to the narrative focus. This is a variation on Chekhov’s gun, a principle based on the playwright’s advice that if a pistol is hung on the wall in the first act, it should be fired in the second.

So, in writing about our equine pets back in November, when I mentioned being queried about whether I’ve been riding lately, I knew I was framing a door in this blog, and should eventually lead readers through.

When it comes to not riding, lack of time is the standard rationalization, even though we all know time is in no shorter supply now than it ever was. Prioritizing how to allot the hours of my days is a luxury I’m grateful to have, but choosing what takes precedence after work, necessary chores, and activities of daily living are complete is more convoluted than I’d like it to be.

Allocating as much time as I can to writing has been one reason for de-prioritized riding. Unfortunately, this has a knock-on effect on the physical side of things: sitting at a desk more and riding less leads to being more out of shape; being out of shape makes it harder to motivate myself into the saddle. Being out of shape makes riding a bit less fun when I do manage to do it–and sometimes considerably less fun after I’ve done it.

The matter of my partner in the endeavor presents further complications. For fifteen years, Moondo has been my riding horse, but as he’s gotten older and his neurological issues have worsened, I’ve become less demanding and more cautious.

Since we have two horses, the obvious solution would be to simply ride Jake instead of Moondo. And, indeed, this would be a simple matter if riding a horse were like riding a dirt bike. Swapping mounts in that case involves little more than momentary adjustments to compensate for differences in feel or the configuration of the seat.

Riding is a partnership, though, and the larger part of “knowing” how to ride involves learning how to make yourself receptive to the back-and-forth needed to communicate in a distinct dialect—a shared body language in which neither party is a native speaker.

Jake is perfectly rideable, but he doesn’t have any training in dressage, which is the riding discipline I fell in love with back when I was a teen. Even if I were riding him regularly, it would take a year or two to teach Jake what Moondo knows.

Moondo isn’t a world-class dressage horse, but he is a nerd, interested in learning and perfectly happy running through exercises in the arena. In his prime he was quite zippy, too, and always eager to show off his moves. Jake is smart and he’s athletic for his size, but he may never be as thrillingly responsive as Moondo. Right now, riding him is like driving a 1970s station wagon that needs a tune-up. The steering is sloppy, the brakes are spongy, there’s a delay when you step on the accelerator. Moondo is getting old and he’s got a bad knee, but riding him is still like driving a souped-up little coupe in comparison.

It must also be said that Jake is a big horse, and by that I mean not just tall but also W-I-D-E. Getting my legs around him would be taxing even if I were in decent riding shape. Did I mention I’m out of shape?

Even all that, however, doesn’t outweigh the most powerful deterrent to riding Jake rather than Moondo: guilt.

Moody is very expressive, and if I get on Jake he stares over the fence at us with an expression of forlorn consternation. His eyebrows knit in affront, and the antenna of each ear swivels backward at its own perturbed angle. The wounded look is gut-wrenching, frankly, which ratchets down the fun factor.

Not that Jake is indifferent to being the unridden one, left in the pasture. He tends to express his objection more energetically, vying for my attention by, say, galloping laps up and down the fenceline, throwing in an occasional fart-punctuated buck as an emphatic “Hey, look at me, look at me!”

One solution would be to ride both horses, but did I mention I have trouble figuring out how to prioritize riding even one? Or that I’m out of shape?

Even though I haven’t ridden regularly for a couple of years, I do ride irregularly: I’ll reach a point where I am determined to throw a leg over a horse, dammit. I reached that point one day last fall, and was further determined to document the event. (A between-the-ears angle has a history that predates the smartphone era; perhaps the most famous image from this vantage is a painting by English artist Snaffles (Charles Johnson Payne), titled “The Finest View in Europe“).

I gave Moodles a quick grooming, saddled him up, led him to the mounting block, and swung aboard. He moved off before I was fully settled, which he’s not supposed to do, but who could fault an old horse still eager to do work he enjoys?

We warmed up with a few turns around the arena, Moondo’s ears tuning toward me then to the track ahead, and then back again. Like me, he seemed a little aggrieved that the movements were a bit rickety, the proper positions harder to get in than they used to be, but I think it’s fair to say we were both enjoying ourselves.

Jake, meanwhile, had retreated to the far end of the Long Pasture as if indifferent, pretending he would pass the time nibbling around the feed bins.

Instead, he flipped the metal feed tank upside-down, and started beating on it with one hoof. If you zoom in close enough, you can see him in the background of the picture above. Here, let me help you:

As I said back in November, the horses make me happy. They also exasperate, inspire, annoy, or make me laugh–and sometimes some combination of any of those the same time. They’re beautiful, smart, hilarious, smelly, annoying, knot-headed, expensive. As comrades in life, they make me think, point my attention to things I wouldn’t otherwise notice. They open up new perspectives, stretch my senses. They exercise my emotions, my mind, and, occasionally, my muscles.

Finest View in Colorado.

Posted in animal communication, horses, writing | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

On Not Writing

The classic, and in some ways definitive, advice on writing is this line by Mary Heaton Vorse, as chronicled by Sinclair Lewis: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” In this era of standing and treadmill desks we might need to amend the insistence on sitting, and given the abundance of digital distractions we face, it’s probably worth specifying that what happens while one is seated actually involves the stringing together of words—not surfing, not streaming, not gaming, not clicking “like” or “follow.”

Persistence is the trick, which is presumably why, even though there is really only one way to write, there are innumerable variations on the theme of not writing.

One might, for example, simply evade. Or procrastinate. A writer might quit, or declare himself hopelessly blocked. She might indulge in a planned and duly scheduled break. They might decide it’s more rewarding to sit down and read something someone else has written (although you might see this tactic defended as “research” and rationalized as necessary preparation for writing).

This photo, like the others in this post, has nothing to do with not writing other than that I took the picture in the interval between November 2019 and February 2020, while I was not writing on this blog. These are the last of the 2019 crop, harvested on December 15 off vines I pulled up in early October and hung upside-down in the greenhouse, where the fruits gradually ripened. I sprinkled these with salt, oven-dried them, and stored what we didn’t eat that night in the fridge in a jar covered with olive oil.

Writers also fail to write by first writing and then declaring the results crap that should not be inflicted on the world. Hitting the delete key or powering up the shredder is, then, positioned as a public service.

Taking pictures is a popular means of not writing, particularly if one is traveling.

Writers and aspiring writers, like everyone else, have to meet the plumber or shovel snow or care for a sick horse (or kid or spouse or parent). Jobs happen. Life intervenes. Time runs short.

Not writing can also be the result of being unable, despite wanting and planning and good-faith intending. Applying the seat to the seat may come to naught, not as a result of stereotypical blockages borne out of a lack of ideas or an overabundance of anxiety, but from straight-up cognitive failure due to fatigue. I’ve been rather vexed to find myself plagued by this form of not-writing periodically of late. I imagine that writers with young children regularly suffer from this variation, although my experience stems from later-life-stage circumstances, aka night sweats. I’ve had extended episodes of interrupted sleep over the past few years, wakening about every ninety minutes to throw blankets off in an overheated panic, only to drag them back over myself twenty minutes later in a post-sweaty chill, leaving about an hour in which to doze off before the next round. This aggravating nocturnal rhythm brings on a daytime brain fog so thick that mundane tasks require close concentration and a monumental effort of will. I might sit with conviction, but that doesn’t mean my capacity for attention has accompanied me to the chair. In this state of mental dismemberment, much of my writing consists of lists, which I then either lose or forget to reference.

I don’t want to legitimize list-making as writing, but this matter of scribing one item in lieu of another points toward a distinct form of not-writing. Ironically, this particular version can yield published work; I suspect quite a few of what are called “craft essays” owe their existence to writing about writing as a way of not writing. Avoiding writing by writing about not writing no doubt accounts for a related genre.

Last puff of snow atop a blanketflower seedhead, February.

I’ve been doing a lot of not writing by writing one thing rather than another lately, although in my defense the writing I’ve been working on during my absence from this blog relates to my book-in-progress.

That project revolves around scientific literacy, a topic I’ve been interested in for a couple of decades now. Back around the turn of the millennium, I was finishing up a PhD dissertation on public perceptions of science, and I’ve always thought I would be able to spin that research into a book. The challenge has been, and remains, how to write about the subject without descending into dull exposition.

Herd of pronghorn in the pasture, January. We’ve seen them here occasionally, but never in such numbers.

It’s easy, too, to lose the thread. We tend to think of scientific literacy as the facts-you-need-to-know about science, so staying focused on the dynamics of the nonspecialist’s encounter with scientific information and ideas is surprisingly hard. I’m interested in the interior aspects of scientific literacy: in science as refracted through self. Explaining what I mean by that isn’t easy, which is why what I’m working on is a book and not an essay.

Last summer I set myself a goal, and a deadline. I needed a push to get the fragments of rough draft I’ve accumulated so far coordinated into functional chapters. And so, starting in November, that’s where my writing energy has gone. For the past few months, when I sat down in my office chair to write, that’s what I was working on. The book took some measurable steps forward, although it is very, very far from done. The project remains vulnerable to all the hazards faced by an immature thing in this big busy world, including parental neglect and the predations of criticism. I still might lose my nerve. I can see so many ways I might not write this book.

For now though, I’ll keep putting myself in the chair. Some days I’ll work on that, but I’ll also try to get back to working on this other thing.

*You can find an account of the saying’s origins here.

Full moon rising over the barn on a frosty evening, November.

Posted in procrastination, scientific literacy, writing | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Pets

For a whole bunch of different reasons, we do not have housepets. Actually, in the case of cats, there’s one very good reason, which is that Doug is highly allergic, even though he likes cats and they universally adore him.

We’re regularly asked why we don’t have a dog, and the answer there is complicated because, as I said, there are a whole bunch of reasons. We’re re both worriers, for a start, and a dog would be a source of worry. We share the landscape with mountain lions and bears.

A dog’s outdoor time would have to be supervised, or we’d need to put in a fenced area. The house sits on granite, so setting posts would be a major headache–and I dislike the look of fences around the house, anyway. And what if it took to chasing deer, or elk? What if yodeling coyotes set it barking at night, when we’re both lousy sleepers as it is? What about rattlesnakes, or porcupines? What would we do when we travel, with no neighbors nearby to look after it?

Besides, it’s not like we don’t already have pets; they just don’t live in the house.

These guys: Jake and Moondo

I’m asked whether I’ve been riding lately even more often than Doug and I are asked why we don’t have a dog. The answers to that one are best left for another day. I’m a little touchy on the subject, which is probably why I detect, or think I detect, an unstated question under the question: Why do we bother to have horses if we aren’t riding them?

The answer there is simple. They make me happy.

I look for the horses every time I’m outside. I love to watch them, to see what they’re doing. I enjoy visiting with them in the pasture, and feeding time is a ritual that anchors my days. This is real life, not a fairy tale, so our interactions aren’t always a delight. They have personalities, and moods, as do I. We bicker sometimes, and get on one another’s nerves.

But mostly, these guys make me smile, if not laugh. Who wouldn’t want that in their life?

Winter dinnertime.

Under summer skies.

Under confinement during Jake’s convalescence.

Priority: nice view.

Priority: FOOD.

Although getting scratched in the pasture is nice, too.

 

A serious guy who is sometimes funny without meaning to be.

Total clown.

Posted in horses | Tagged , | 6 Comments

This Fall Interval

In this interval, we hauled the hay, stacked the wood, stowed the cushions from the outdoor furniture. We transported the flowerpots that spent the summer adorning the decks around the house down the hill to the greenhouse. If the plants survive the travails of overwintering, they’ll take the ride uphill again in spring; otherwise they’ll be committed to the compost pile.

In this interval, we’ve unhooked the hoses and winterized the watering system in the garden. We ate fresh peas and beans until we got tired of the legume regimen and I blanched and froze the rest. The tomatoes plumped on their vines but refused to ripen until I brought them inside to a warm windowsill, where the uniformly green forms gradually matured into a collage of red, reddish-brown, and yellow.

In this interval, the mule deer bucks strut under their sharp antlers. They’ve grown husky at the neck and now spar with one another and harass the does. We hear bull elk bugling on the hillside below, drawing the attention of mates, rivals, and hunters.

In this interval, the grass has spun itself gold in the wind. The aspens, leaf by leaf and branch by branch, splashed the landscape yellow, taking that assignment over from the late blooming sunflowers. Polka dots of rust erupted on the leaves of the currant bushes, which then fell to the ground, where the sticky geraniums were closing out the season with a leafy flare of lurid red.

In this interval, the first frost came late, but arrived as a killer, a plunge into single digits that switched off the kaleidoscope turn—green, saffron, maroon, umber—of the scrub oak on distant slopes. Within a day after the cold snap, there was but one fall color: brown. The winter preview did not open on a feature presentation of Indian summer, not this year. The advertised show cued up immediately after the coming attractions had played. Snow has already come and gone, come (a little) and gone, and now come again.

Is there a season more complicated than autumn? Fall is bright color and fading. Preparations for the long dark are interspersed with events of celebratory gratitude. This season offers relief from the frenetic pace of the summer’s long days with its own lists, but these tasks are blessedly well-defined and finite, so unlike the ceaseless churn of warm-weather chores. For all its busyness, summer seems absurdly simplistic in comparison, and spring, with its melodramatic swings between promise and blizzard, is at least consistent in its teasing. Winter is the judicious and slightly cranky sage, counseling reflection, patience, and endurance in gruff no-nonsense terms.

Autumn, though? Autumn is melancholy and anticipatory at once. Fall portends rest, poses an ending that intimates a re-start, but only after a duration appropriate for contrition. All feels ephemeral, gradual, a slow coast toward stillness, a sense of closing that mostly—mostly—manages to avoid the provocations of finality.

Posted in change of seasons, color, fall, gardening, spring, summer, winter | 9 Comments

On Tomatoes

Homegrown, thanks to bedding plants from Desert Canyon Farm.

Revolting.

If you had asked me when I was a kid what I thought of tomatoes, that’s probably the word I would have offered—or “gross” maybe, or “disgusting” when I was a little older. Actually, you probably wouldn’t have had to ask. If a tomato, or slice or dice thereof, was anywhere in my vicinity, I would declare the judgment unsolicited, most likely accompanied by a gagging sound effect or hands-at-my-throat choking gesture.

When I was in high school and first heard George Carlin’s bit about tomatoes not looking like they’re fully developed yet, I laughed with the overblown hilarity reserved for the most fanatical of partisans.

At an extended family Thanksgiving dinner one year, I was pressed into service slicing tomatoes. One of my aunts paused to watch for a second before commenting icily that I didn’t know how to slice tomatoes. I think I smiled tightly and said, “Nope,” while I snarled internally: “I sure as shit don’t, and I can’t believe I’m touching this slimy disgusting thing, how can you people put them in your mouths??”

Then came salsa.

In my late twenties, I discovered the zippy charm of a good fresh salsa, redolent with onion and cilantro, laced with the hot crunch of jalapeno or serrano pepper: so addictive with salty tortilla chips. It was good, too, over burritos, tacos, or beans with rice: easy-to-prepare meatless staples I relied on as I entered into live-in arrangements with, then engagement and marriage to, a vegetarian (who has since lapsed…but his meat-eating hasn’t changed my relationship with fresh salsa).

Still, I always diced the tomatoes very, very small. A tomato was an object of suspicion, ever worthy of cautious handling. I never allowed a bit of tomato to pass my lips unaccompanied.

These days, I wouldn’t say I particularly like tomatoes, and I still refuse to eat them on their own. If I see someone pop a naked cherry tomato into their mouth, I cringe involuntarily. But I keep fresh tomatoes on hand for cooking, and I’ve come to appreciate them in salad, provided they’re well chopped up.

Not quite vine ripe, but getting there. This plant is in a container, so it will move indoors when frost is due.

I grow them—or try to do so; our high elevation isn’t conducive to timely ripening—because they’re so versatile as an ingredient. I even have a couple of recipes that feature them in starring roles.

Roma tomatoes are still probably available in your farmer’s market or, perhaps, in your garden. They’re popular as a paste tomato, but the meaty flesh makes terrific gazpacho. If the weather’s still as hot where you are as it is here in Colorado right now, give this no-cook recipe a try.

Even if you don’t particularly like tomatoes, you might like this.

 

Tichi’s Gazapcho
(from José Andrés’ Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America; I’ve included my comments and adaptations in italics)

2 pounds (about 10) plum tomatoes (if you use a less meaty tomato variety, skip the water while blending; be aware that this recipe will not redeem hard, mealy, or insipid tomatoes).

½ pound (about 1) cucumber

3 ounces (about ½) green bell pepper (I like a little kick, so usually use something with some heat; poblanos have the perfect combo of bite and flavor, but make the color of the soup a little murky; cubano peppers, if you can get them, work well)

1 garlic clove, peeled (if you don’t like living with raw garlic flavor in you mouth, heat the garlic in some olive oil for a few minutes to de-fang it)

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (this is worth seeking out; red wine vinegar will serve in a pinch, but sherry vinegar is a magic elixir: trust me)

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil (if you have the conviction, go for it, but I’ve never used anywhere near this much; start with ¼ cup and use more if you think it needs more richness)

2 teaspoons salt (start with 1 teaspoon, add more to taste)

Core the tomatoes, peel and de-seed the cucumber and pepper, chop everything in rough chunks, and put it in the blender with the garlic, sherry vinegar, salt, and up to a half cup of water. Blend smooth. Adjust the vinegar, oil, or salt levels to taste. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

That’s it. Tasty and remarkably filling, what with all that fiber bound up in some nice rich olive oil. The original recipe calls for straining, but I never bother; there’s also a very fussy garnish protocol in the original, but the whole point of this, to me, is how easy it is.

The gazpacho keeps for a day or two; if it tastes flat, mix in a few drops of sherry vinegar and it will perk right up. It might sound crazy, but I love making this for road trips: put it in a mason jar to sip on as you drive. It’s flavorful and filling enough that it will keep you out of the chip bag.

If gazpacho season has passed where you are, fear not. Here’s another recipe from Andres’ book that’s perfect for fall. Lay in some more plum tomatoes and make a big batch of this for the freezer.

Romesco sauce, in case you haven’t had it before, is WAY better than ketchup. Have it on burgers, with steak, or with egg-based quiche/torta/tortilla recipes. Serve it with grilled veggies and the vegetarians and vegans in your life will swoon.

Ready for the grill: zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, radicchio, and red onion tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and a touch of vinegar (might I recommend sherry vinegar?); throw slices of marinated eggplant on separately so you can monitor their cooking better.

This is kind of an idiot’s version of molé: much easier to make but very complex,  and with some crossover of ingredients. Having said that, this isn’t a particularly simple recipe, so give yourself time to lay in the ingredients plan to make it on a cool day when you don’t mind running the oven. It’s worth the effort: you’ll be able to pull some summer out of the freezer come winter.

 

Romesco Sauce

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil (Spanish), plus extra for coating the vegetables (again: works fine with less)

1 red bell pepper

6 ripe plum tomatoes

1 head garlic, halved, papery skin removed

1 Spanish onion

3 ñora chili peppers (or other dried sweet pepper)

¼ cup blanched almonds

1 oz. white bread, crust removed

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon Spanish sweet paprika (I also like to add a pinch of smoked paprika for flavor/heat)

½ tablespoon salt

Heat oven to 350 degrees; brush olive oil on the fresh pepper, tomatoes, garlic, and onion, place them in a roasting pan, and roast until the veggies are soft, about 25 minutes.

While the vegetables are roasting, soak the ñora chilies in hot water for about 15 minutes. Strain, and remove the seeds. Place the chilies in a blender and puree until smooth. (You can sieve the puree, but I’ve never done so.)

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small sauté pan over low heat. Brown the almonds slightly, about 1 minute; remove. Raise the heat to medium and add the bread; cook until it’s nicely browned, about 30 seconds on each side. Remove and set aside.

Add the pureed chili to the pan and cook for about 30 seconds, then remove the pan from the heat.

Once the vegetables are out of the oven and cool enough to handle, peel them, and seed the bell pepper and tomatoes. Place the roasted vegetables in a blender or food processor and add the almonds, toasted bread, pureed chili, vinegar, paprika and the remaining 7 tablespoons of oil. Blend until it forms a thick sauce. Add salt to taste. Serve at room temperature.

To freeze: I measure out 1 cup portions, pour them into plastic containers, and freeze. To save space, you can pop the frozen pucks out of the containers, wrap in waxed paper, label and store in zip-top bags. You should plan on refreshing the sauce with a dash of sherry vinegar when you thaw it.

Roasted vegetables ready for blending. You get a smoother sauce if you peel and de-seed the tomatoes and peel the peppers, but I don’t always bother.

Posted in cooking and recipes, fall, gardening, summer | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Vacation Reflections

Well, vacations—both the planned of July and the unplanned of August—are over: time to get back to writing work. What better way to get back into the routine than to reflect on the break?

About not writing in August, there’s nothing to say other than it happened. As for the July blog vacation, I recognize a level of absurdity in calling daily posts a “break,” but the idea was to relieve myself of the obligation to find a topic, draft a narrative, check sense and logic, organize the right words in the right order, edit, and all that. My break was intentional, total, and extended to my work-in-progress as well as the blog: I was released from guilt about a lack of progress. No angst, no pressure, no recrimination.

A separate goal was to maximize time outside while the wildflowers were at their peak, and to share the show; I wanted to spend some of my summer idling and ogling rather than immersed in The Busy.

Featuring flowers native to my part of Colorado offered a way to provide context without narrative. I knew going in that including names would complicate the project, but felt they were an important element in properly sharing the bloom. A flower picture on its own is a taxonomic assignment; pair it with a name and the viewer’s curiosity has a head start, should he or she be inclined to learn more.

The problem with plant names is that they sound definitive even though they’re not. Common names rely on whimsey, tradition, and local convention. Formal names lean on classification systems subject to debate and revision.

Then, when it comes to naming plants, we’re talking about living organisms rather than products manufactured within consistent and well-defined specifications. In flowering plants, elaborations of form, color, and scent are executed in the interest of reproduction. Even if plants are not locomotory, they do get around, if you know what I mean, and diversity is part of the point of sexual re-mixing.

In addition to the uncertainties built into labeling and genetics, you also have to take into account the fact that the field guides we use in identification are texts. As such, they perform a sly bait-and-switch. Declarations therein propose answers but cannot ensure certainty on the ground. Drawing a conclusion requires judgment, which almost inevitably demands further reflection, inquiry, or observation.

What field guides are best at is directing your attentiveness. They point the user to field marks and identifying characteristics. A good plant guide will coax you to look not just at flower color and petal shape, but also at the size of leaves and the height of the plant, at growth habit, soil type, slope exposure, moisture and light levels.

The daily blog posts of this past July were insistent and specific reminders of where I am, but they also located my local flowers and my experiences of them within a larger framework of human knowing and life on this planet. I hope my bloom-a-day July captured the gratitude I feel for this place, and for the privilege of being here.

What fun to have an excuse to immerse more deeply in my place. To go walkabout across this piece of Colorado’s bounty with the sole aim of documenting its divers wonders was a gift whose value I’m still finding ways to comprehend. It’s humbling to know just ignorant I remain, despite this latest chapter in my decades-long attempt to understand where it is I’ve located myself.

One of the mysteries I’m confronted with is the origin of the fantastic bloom. Unlike other parts of Colorado, where record snowfall fed botanical exuberance with unusually abundant water, the big NOAA rain gauge I monitor shows that year-to-date precipitation at this site is merely so-so.

I speculate that temperature was more critical to our spectacular 2019 Wildflower Summer than snow and rain. The winter was cold, and snow sat on the ground for months. The cover protected soil and plants from desiccating wind, and the accumulation provided a sizeable infusion of water once the ground thawed. All of our May precipitation came as snow, which soaked in more slowly than rain and kept the brakes on plant growth with cold temperatures. And then, unlike the pattern of the last several years, during which June seared with an unrelenting blare of hot, sun-filled, rain-scarce, and fire-prone days, the weather stayed cool. The weather station recorded 1.85 inches of precipitation: respectable, but not extravagant, unless you compare it to June 2018’s dismal 0.09.

And then came July. The weather warmed, and more rain came–in moderation, but it came. Plants up here know what to do with water; my 31 days of wildflower porn is a testament to their talents.

I’d like to think the display was memorable enough without my self-assigned documentary project, but I’m not sorry I challenged myself to record the field marks of an extraordinary season.

 

Postscript: At the end of July, I tallied up the plants I hadn’t gotten to, along with those that don’t bloom in mid-summer. There are enough native flowering plants I didn’t manage to document in July that I could to the bloom-a-day project for another month, without repeats.

 

Posted in observation, trees and plants, wildflowers, writing | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Sunny Flowers

If you’ve been following this series of blog posts featuring the wildflowers blooming in our part of Colorado this July, you may have noticed a relative dearth of the classic and recognizable form commonly referred to as sunflowers.

The local sunflower types tend to come out later in the summer; at our altitude, many are just beginning to bloom now. Fortunately, that’s just in time to close out my project with a cheery blast.

Identification, you might not be surprised to learn, is complicated; the plant family we’re talking about here (composites, or Asteraceae) includes not only the common sunflower and other disc-and-ray plants such as Black-eyed Susans, Blanketflowers and Coneflowers, but also goldenrods, thistles, nettles, artemisias, dandelions, and, as you might expect, asters.

Following my post on groundsels early on in this project, a friend commented, “You know, you could just call them DYCs, Damn Yellow Composites.”

Duly noted.

 

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments