Best Tip for Getting Out of Your Head

After weeks of grinding away on a recalcitrant chapter for my book project, I am dazed, cranky, frustrated, and thoroughly sick of being in the same room with myself.

Deciding that it’s time to get out of my own head, I do what a lot of us do these days when we’re wondering how to go about something: I google it.

I scan the first several articles. Go there—by talking about it. Don’t judge. Be slightly inappropriate. Be in the moment. I huff, and, knowing me, snort derisively. Moving on to the links further down on the results page, I’m now scanning faster. Meditate. Exercise. Talk to a Stranger. Breathe. Focus on others.

Pfffft. I’m agitated at this point because, let’s face it, by googling “getting out of my head,” what I’m actually looking for is the article or research or commentary or blog that validates what I already think.

Having clicked through the first page of websites—Practice mindfulness; focus on others (again); write your gratitudes—I shut down the search window, put my computer to sleep, and go do exactly what I was planning to do in the first place.

I’ve learned over the years that what’s going on when I’m feeling like this is that my brain is starving. The restlessness, the inability to focus, and being generally pissed off at the world all mean that my brain has run out of gas.

The fuel it needs is low-tech and 100-percent reliable. I need to read a book.

This works every time—although I need to qualify. I’m talking books here. Long-form. No distracted flipping through a magazine or swiping through websites, no matter how “informative” they ostensibly are. I don’t use an electronic reader, but if I did my rule would be that it must be disconnected from the internet.

Now, I’m always “reading” a book, and more often two and even three concurrently. They’re scattered around the house, dutifully at the ready, bookmarks waving from between pages urging me to come back soon. These are typically books I should be reading, however: they’re related to what I’m trying to write about, or they’re the latest Important Book, by Important Author that’s come across my radar. Most are accessible and well-written and on topics that interest me, but they require focused attention. I’m often making notes or thinking about whether the content relates to what I’m working on myself.

To be a sure thing, reading to get out of my head calls for a book that flows and is off-topic from anything that preoccupies me at the time. I need a book I can be with for hours at a time, one I can read without working at it too hard. A book that’s so engrossing that I don’t feel like doing anything else until I’ve turned the last page is ideal.

Fuel. Brain sustenance–and junk food is permitted in this instance: a speed read through a hokey novel or a glib self-help title is just fine.

To switch metaphors, this is novelty-seeking behavior. Reading this type of book should be like peering through the slats of a stranger’s window blinds, a voyeuristic glimpse into the intimacies of a different life, or lifestyle. This book should reveal a slice of the world that I’ve never seen or considered before. Fiction can be good for this, obviously, and since I don’t read a lot of fiction it makes a nice change. Many of the contemporary novels I’ve tried to read in the last few years are so contrived and overwrought that I’ve lost patience with them, though, so I’ll sometimes pull a familiar sci-fi volume or a Dick Francis mystery off the shelf in the basement and make do with that. But: novelty. New territory is best.

The book I start reading after lunch is one I bought at the Colorado Book Festival a couple of weeks ago*. I read for a couple of hours in the afternoon, feed horses, take a short walk, and, since I’m on my own for a few nights while Doug’s away on a business trip, heat some leftovers for dinner. I spend the evening reading.

I finish the book the next day and, since my brain is still fussy, I pick up another, this one by a local author I met last year**. I finish that one the following day, then grab a book that’s been languishing on the coffee table for a few weeks, mostly read, its bookmark lolling out like the tongue of a dog eager to be taken out for a run***.

At the end of three days, I’ve read 2 ¼ books and have started in on yet another. I can feel the binge winding down, and this last book will be good for nibbling at in the evenings: I don’t feel compelled to finish it in one sitting, or in a day. I am less strung out, more cheerful, less frustrated by my chapter, more interested in life (it helps, no doubt, that in burying my head in books for days I have successfully and comprehensively avoided paying attention to the news).

There’s something about the immersive experience of a good book that’s like nothing else for snapping my brain out of a tizzy. The magic of a book isn’t that it actually gets me out of my head—I think that’s called death—but that it lets someone else in. A different voice takes the floor in the internal chamber. The narrative switches. The imagery is unfamiliar. The location is probably far from my home terrain. The problems are different from mine, and may well be far more challenging than anything I’m facing.

Having gotten out of my head by retreating into it—with company—the one thing that still has me a bit crazy at the end of the week is the fact that not one of the websites I had perused mention this simple, accessible, and effective tool. Sure, you could argue that reading a book is a way of focusing on others, but I don’t think that’s what the authors of those bits of advice had in mind. I’m a little sad about that, but figure I can rectify the situation with a post dedicated to the technique.*Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, by Patricia Raybon and Alana Raybon. I met Patricia a couple of years ago through the Colorado Authors’ League. On one level, this is a family memoir, and like the best of that genre it is intelligent and brutally honest, offering insights into human relationships through the lens of personal experience. I learned things I didn’t know about Islam, things I didn’t know about Christianity, and things I hadn’t thought about regarding interfaith conflict and dialogue.

slide-1**Radical Survivor: One Woman’s Path Through Life, Love, and Uncharted Tragedy, by Dr. Nancy Salzman. I met Nancy last year at a writing event we both presented at. This, too, is an intimate story that ripples wide. Nancy lost her husband and two sons in a small plane crash in 1995. The book honors the lives of her “boys” and offers a portrait in endurance through loss that will get you out of your head in a hurry. It’s harrowing but has grace notes of humor and you will learn a lot about coping (not faith-based, incidentally) and how to write a note of condolence from the many examples of supportive correspondence Nancy includes in the narrative.

***Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I really love this book. Kimmerer is so smart and so gentle and the braid of this narrative is absolutely captivating. I had to come back to it from a break only because there is so much to think about AND because Kimmerer’s theme of how science fits in to other aspects of our lives is so directly cogent to my own writing at the moment that reading it has demanded close attention of me, and thus wore me out. That’s my own personal stuff though. I think YOU should read it because it’s everything narrative nonfiction can be: lucid, lovely, grounded, and truthful; challenging in the topics it discusses as well as the ideas it presents.


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Object of Attention

Tracks on the road (including mine), winter 2016-2017.

One of the things I’ve missed most in this dry and largely snowless winter has been seeing animal tracks. The clean surface of a light snowfall is like a tightly-stretched painter’s canvas, ready to receive marks that reveal ongoing bustle in a season when everything seems, at first glance, to be in stasis.

After a few inches of snow fell over course of the day on February 10, for example, I came across fresh coyote tracks in front of the barn when I went to feed horses at sunset. The snow was still falling lightly, dotting the impressions with a scattering of flakes: the coyote and I hadn’t missed one another by much.

The wind came up overnight and refreshed the snowy canvas, and by the next morning my bulky footprints from the evening before had been erased. A fresh line of oval pawprints, which I initially took to be the coyote looping past again, lead up to the house. When I went out on the deck for a closer look, however, it was obvious that the tracks had been left by a feline, not a canine. A very large feline.

Up the driveway and past the garage…

This is how we usually “see” mountain lions: by their tracks, in winter. They’re discreet, so we don’t generally see the corporeal animal, and I’m not a good enough tracker to notice their tracks without the aid of snow.

Most often, when I do come across the tidy rounded prints, they’re over on the hillside northwest of here, where deer and elk frequently travel. The last time I saw big cat tracks close to home was a few years back, along a game trail that’s bisected by our driveway. This time, though, the house itself—and possibly our presence therein—appeared to be the object of attention.

The oval divots leading up the driveway passed the garage so close the cat might have grazed the wall’s rock facing with its whiskers. On the back patio, the tracks executed a loop around the hot tub and showed a pause at the sidelight window next to the back door. That window extends almost to ground level, and it looked like the mountain lion had peeked through the glass.

…with a pause at the downstairs patio window…

From the patio, the trail veered away from the house for about forty feet, but then abruptly doubled back, as if the cat had started to leave but changed its mind. The prints angled to the uphill side of the house, edging close to the low deck outside the kitchen. They recorded another pause, to check out another ground-level window with a view onto the stairway. The cat carried on along the wall, passed under the front door deck, and crossed the planting bed next to the outdoor stairs. It left in the same direction from which it had approached.

This trail in the snow was thought-provoking for the physical evidence of the mountain lion’s presence, to be sure, but even more so for the curiosity it seemed to suggest. Attempting to discern intent from an animal’s footprints is a fool’s business, but as the days passed my mind kept returning to the directness of the tracks’ approach, their steady and unwavering stride, the pauses at the windows.

…and a stop at the stairwell window, too.

Large predators have a way of recalibrating how we humans think about ourselves, reminding us that we still qualify as meat. The world can use all the humility it can come by, I think, but beyond this the predator-prey binary seems awfully limited. Assigned to our respective roles, there’s not space in which either the cat or the human might maneuver.

I could easily read menace into the tracks around our house, and there’s little question the mountain lion checked the place out. I doubt it had dinner on its mind, though. I think it was inspecting the building in the same spirit as I would later examine its tracks—as a resident animal keen to learn more about local goings-on. Rejecting the easy antagonism of predator-prey—a variation on the simplistic us vs. them—made the cat seem more interesting, for sure, but it inspired self-reflection too. I spend more time than perhaps I should fretting that my life here is detrimental to the wild environment. Seeing the cat as the observer shifted my optics enough that I was able to catch a reflection of myself as just another critter, settled in my den with my mate on a winter’s night, comfortably at home.


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Colorado Book Festival

If you’re in the Denver area, don’t miss the Colorado Book Festival on Saturday.

This free event runs from 10:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., March 3, at the Denver Public Library. Peter Heller and Patricia Limerick will deliver keynotes and The Tattered Cover will be running an on-site bookstore.

You can and follow the event on Facebook, or visit the website to get all the details , including bios of the 100+ authors that will be in attendance to talk about their books, blogs, and other writing pursuits.

I’ll be one of those exhibiting authors, even though that means I won’t be able to attend the full lineup of panel discussions, on topics as diverse as cookbook secrets, helping children choose a book, writing truth to power, and bridging landscape and story.

I hope to see you there!

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Winter Companions

On a February afternoon, I have company on the way back from a walk down the road.

About two dozen dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are foraging for seeds on the shoulder of the gravel road. They’re bouncy little gray birds, more round than slim, with a patch of russet feathers across their shoulders, as if they’re wearing capes to ward off the chill on this north-facing slope, already fallen into shadow in early afternoon. As I approach, the entire flock flies up, tittering as they scatter and vanish into the conifers next to the road. They soon emerge, though, one bird here, three birds there, their wings puttering softly as they fly farther ahead and land on the side of the road again. Soon all of them re-assemble, scratching at the dirt and peeping like chicks at a feed store in spring.

Different day, same road, perhaps the same birds, albeit a smaller flock.

I keep up my steady walking pace, and when my steps bring me to the edge of whatever perimeter they’ve agreed to, the birds flush again, again veering into the trees over the bank of the road. They chitter more loudly and speedily as they fly, but the calls from their hidden perches are quieter, more discrete. Then, a few at a time, they swoop back out, settling still farther up the road in a loosely knit group, cheeping and pecking.

We keep going this way: me walking, the birds gathering on the road and flying into the trees before returning to the verge, skipping themselves along in front of me as the scrutchscrutchscrutchscrutch of my boots on the gravel keeps time like a metronome. They could burst away, could scatter, could swerve to the far side of the road, could stay in the trees until I pass, could resume their foraging in peace behind me, but we carry on together. We’re weaving a kinetic skein, motion and sound knitting birds to human, woods to dusty road. I walk and the birds forage-fly-perch-fly-forage a dozen times and more. Finally, at the top of the hill where a neighbor’s driveway leads away from the road, the birds angle off as I carry on straight. We’ve traveled together for a good ten minutes, covering more than a quarter of a mile.

Not this year: tracks left by a flock of juncos after a dusting of snow.

Juncos are common here, as they are in much of the country, and stay year-round. I admire them greatly for sticking it out in winter. That the landscape feels more exposed when the grass withers and the leaves fall seems obvious, but these seasonal changes also bring a shift in scale. The birds are the same size—in fact, they’re often fluffed to relative rotundity and surely look bigger than in summer—but they seem smaller in my eyes: soft dots of gray against a backdrop made more vast by the monochromaticity of brown or (far more rarely in this dry year) white.

I have to admit that I’m also smitten by the fact that the juncos are so tolerant of me. We run in the same circles this time of year, meeting along the roads or out near the boxes where my husband feeds the horses hay in the mornings. The birds fly away to the nearest tree when I come too close, but they’ll return if I stand still, as if to say, “Oh, it’s you. We didn’t recognize you at first.” They venture into the barn, too, on really cold days, sifting through hay and chaff on the stall floors. We’ll startle one another in that setting—they don’t see me approaching, and when I roll the front door of the barn open they explode out the stall doors with a rush of wings that sounds, inside the confined space, as if it belongs to a much larger animal.

I love coming across their tracks in fresh snow, where their wiry feet create artful abstracts of fine lines and angles. When they scratch assiduously in one area, they’ll sometimes clear the snow entirely, leaving a dark lens of dirt that’s scuffled lighter toward the edge with an ombré effect.

Summer, 2015.

When a pair of juncos nested inside the garden wall a couple of summers ago, I was grateful for their forbearance as I eavesdropped and stalked the family with camera in hand. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the juncos more generally: for their unfailing presence; for their seeming imperviousness when the weather turns miserable; for their businesslike gleaning; for the clean white bands that flash on either side of their tail feathers, making it easy to identify them at any distance; for the dry click they sometimes make, calling to mind a Geiger counter offering a reading of an element invisible to my senses.

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Kindling the Fire

As chores go, I quite like chopping kindling. So many household tasks are unpleasant to do, even if they’re wonderful to have done. The actual chopping of kindling verges on the pleasurable, though…provided I’m not fulfilling the duty on a just-in-time schedule.

On chilly afternoons when I open the wood drawer to discover that I’m out of kindling, the job is a hassle. I’ll end up whacking a handful of sticks off a chunk of wood I find in the garage, leaving a mess of chips to sweep up. Surely the worst kind of chore is one that creates another chore.

When I’m in a hurry, I also only chop enough kindling to light one or two fires, which means I get stingy. I strike a match and cross my fingers, hoping the log will ignite from the barest possible amount of tinder. This rarely works; bright flames flare through paper and my measly few sticks, then flutter to death like a moth on a windowsill. I grumble, crumple more paper, and scrape the detritus of bark and wood chips off the bottom of the wood drawer, hoping to catch a break from thermodynamics.

Last week, I chopped kindling under ideal conditions. The day was mild and the wind was taking a breather. The weekend forecast was calling for snow and cold, making the task relevant, but it was not, in the moment, urgent. I took the hatchet out to the woodpile, where I could work in the sun at the tall chopping block, take my time, and leave the mess to slowly decompose along with the bark litter left from unloading, chopping, and stacking firewood. I cherry-picked through the split pine in the woodshed, looking for chunks clear of knots. The wood was cold enough to be slightly brittle, and when I gave the first log a sharp whack, it parted with a satisfying twangy snap.

I broke the log down into five or six pieces, then picked up one of those chunks, ready to settle in to the detail work. Placing the hatchet blade about a half inch from an edge, I tapped the chunk on the chopping block to bite metal into wood, then lifted the wood with the hatchet. A couple of raps split off a nice stick of kindling. I repeated the operation, whittling each chunk down to sticks, then picked out another log and started in again.

My brain is weirdly content doing meticulous tasks like this. Splitting kindling lends itself to a meditative pace. The job isn’t particularly noisy, or sweaty. It’s not technical or intricate, but the safety of my fingers calls for an attentiveness steadied somewhere between concentration and apathy. The rhythm is relaxed, even soothing, and the scent of pine is fresh and clean. The results are tangible, progress evident in the pale cross-hatch accumulating around my boots.

This would no doubt be a horrible job if I had to do it for hours at a stretch and for days on end, but it only took about twenty-five minutes to chop enough kindling to fill both the box in the garage and the one in the wood drawer in the living room. We’ll have enough kindling to start fires for a few weeks—without skimping.

Even when I’m not feeling particularly cold, I light a fire most nights this time of year. From a practical standpoint, it keeps the house warm enough to stop the furnace from kicking on until the wee hours of the morning. I appreciate the glow, and the flutter and pop. A fire is good company; keeping one burning is like a conversation.

But in a winter like this one, the fire is more than cheap heat or friendly light. The past couple of months have been odd—unnervingly dry with the atmosphere making moody swings from too warm to too cold and back to too warm again. This year more than usual, the fire is ritual. The recurring act of putting match to paper to light the kindling that sets fire to the log is an invocation, a way of honoring what is normal, or merely familiar.


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Waiting on Winter

Sculpted snow drifts: not this winter, not yet.

For the past few years, a wintertime fancy has crept over me in fall. As the leaves of the scrub oak tan themselves to the color of unoiled leather, I begin to think of the looping rhythm of my days shortening along with the duration of the sun’s light, spiraling gradually toward interiority. I think about the coming retreat into the house, the retreat into my office, the retreat into books. The high-mountain winter will lower its curtain, and I will, along with many of the local fauna and most of the resident flora, settle into a state of outward stillness, a hibernatory suspension of all that is frenetic and busy.

This is, it should be said, a snowy fixation, which is where the problem lies—or does not lie—this year, because we have had so little snow. The 2.4 inches that fell a couple of weeks ago was our biggest snowfall of the winter to date. With the chance of further precipitation in the next few days virtually nil, December 2017 will clock out with a quarter inch—0.25”—of total moisture for our location. In the twelve years I’ve been recording precipitation as a weather station for the National Weather Service, only the drought years of 2010 and 2012 have been drier in the fourth quarter.

The dry weather is unnerving enough, but all of November and most of December were also freakishly warm. We’d get a snap of cold as the jet stream played Crack-the-Whip, throwing loops of Arctic air over the Colorado Rockies, but those episodes didn’t seem to last more than 24 hours. The daily average temperature for December this year will be almost six degrees warmer than 2016, and eight degrees warmer than 2015.

On a hike a few weeks ago, I nearly tripped over my own feet trying to stop short to see if I’d seen what I thought I saw underfoot: flowers among the silvery leaves of a mat of pussytoes. Antennaria species get their common name from their flower clusters, which resemble the pads on an upturned cat’s paw. I bent over to look more closely and there they were. The pale fuzzy nubs were kitten-sized and nestled tight down in the silvery rosette of the plant’s leaves rather than lifted up on stems, but they were flower clusters sure enough. In December. At an elevation in the neighborhood of 8400 feet. Flowers in December are not unwelcome, but I was disturbed to discover them as natives rooted outside rather than exotic potted imports on a sunny windowsill.

Pussytoes (Antennaria species), blooming on December 29, 2017.

The wind is also conspiring to confound my visions of wintry repose—although, to be fair, the wind always blows this time of year, and it always robs me of any sense of serenity when it does. When combined with the drone of news reporting late-season fires in California and South Dakota, however, the rumble of gusts battering the house shivers me like a premonition of doom.

In the days before Christmas, temperatures finally cooled to more seasonally appropriate levels. This helps, a bit, but my mood remains wary. I feel as if the buzz of anticipation that energizes the holiday season—so many events to prepare for, mark, and recover from—has acquired a doppelganger. After the good cheer of celebration has faded away, I’m still watchful, as if there’s an item I haven’t marked off the list, no matter that I’ve checked it twice.

The landscape persistently reminds me that something’s different from the oughtta-be. It oughtta look like winter outside, but the grass is tan, the ponderosas evergreen dark, the mountains on the horizon gnarly gray. Dirt puffs up from beneath the horses’ feet. A few pale dustings of snow have appeared on Pikes Peak, but they look no more wintry than the hail left behind from a passing summer thunderstorm—and they don’t stick around all that much longer. I know it’s December, but aside from the bare scrub oak and twiggy shrubs, it just as easily could be October or April

Sunset in the east, over a rocky Pikes Peak, December 29, 2017.

I could go out and chase winter. In the deep shade of dark timber on north-facing slopes, the ground is piebald with patches of desiccated snow, as grainy and gritty as sugar. Cold air lurks on low ground, trapped by long shadows and overshot by the oblique angle of the sun’s rays. Hidden in the deep folds of gulches or draws, I might find trickles of water clucking under panes of ice.

So, yes. I could find winter if I went looking. But the point of this time of year is that you don’t pursue it. Winter comes to you—stalks you, even, lying in wait as ice on the doorstep, reaching a cold finger under your coattail, stealing your breath and fogging the windows.

Winter can come for me. I’ve been waiting to be harassed into retreat for weeks. And out on the dry and wind-lashed hillsides, I imagine that the pale green starburst mats of the Antennaria are ready too, for the stillness that waits beneath cloaking damp.


Postscript: My apologies to those living in the eastern United States, for whom winter has come hard as I type these words, not merely pursuing but pinning down and biting.

Warm wishes to everyone for 2018.


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Leaving Words at Home

Cherry Grove, Fire Island, summer 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Hraunfossar waterfall, Iceland, fall 2012

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

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

Sunrise, Palm Springs, November 2017

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

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

Istanbul, fall 2014

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

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

Mount Pico, Pico Island, Azores, summer 2017

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Late Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mule deer, through the kitchen windows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Windbreak Anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

South Dakota skies overlooking one of the corral fences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still could.

I keep choosing not to.

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

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

Resting in the net on the South Dakota Prairie.

Posted in learning, poetry, reading, writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Off Kilter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in change of seasons, fall, impatience, time, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments