It’s been a year and a half since the Guy and I met, and we’re still learning each other. We have so much in common–from the books we’re reading, the ideas we share, and a mutual need for time in the big wild, to a wide circle of friends we met separately long before we met each other. We share a passion for science and spiritual seeking, a love of horses and dogs, and cooking and food.
We’re also very different in some ways that are critical to nurturing a relationship.
Take communication. I am, in the Guy’s parlance, “a word person.” When I am trying to figure something out, I talk about it. When I am upset, I am vocal. When I am happy, I am voluble. Words are my way of communicating.
The Guy is much more internal. He tends to work through things in his head before he’s ready to speak. (Not that his body language doesn’t “speak” for him.) He likes silence. He needs space. And sometimes he forgets entirely to communicate in words what he has already processed in his mind.
Those differing communication styles have tripped us up more than once. I’m learning to leave space for his silence; he’s learning to use words to acknowledge his moods and let me know they’re not aimed at me.
One thing he communicates often is that he loves me. He doesn’t always say it; he acts it.
It’s the little things: The gentle pat of his hand as he passes me in in the bathroom as we’re dressing in the morning. The way he remembers to put my milk out on the breakfast table along with the half ‘n half he prefers.
When he heads outside to feed the horses, he often backtracks before he going out the door to kiss me.
When he borrowed my truck to visit a dying friend in the hospital a few hours away, he washed the truck on the way home. When I make dinner, he clears the table and washes the dishes without comment. (When he makes dinner, I do the same.)
For Christmas, he gave me a pair of riding chaps, the kind he has and I wanted but was too cheap to buy for myself. Then he gave me a pair of long johns too, just to make sure I’d be warm on winter rides.
He found me a saddle that fits my slender frame perfectly, and he oils and cleans it when he cleans his saddles.
He listens when I talk, even when he doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. He doesn’t pretend: he listens with his whole body, with a kind of attentiveness that is rare and precious.
When we’re apart (which is more often than not for our long-distance relationship), he remembers to call to catch up, even though neither of us really likes phone conversations. But they’re a way of tending our bond. He also sends me photos of the horses, links to news articles he knows will interest me, and funny cartoons.
He’s not demonstrative in the sense of hugging or holding hands often in public. But when I’m upset, he always remembers to hold me.
And at night in bed, he pulls me close. When I turn over, he rearranges himself to snuggle against me. Every time. And every time, it makes me smile.
He doesn’t have to say, “I love you.” His actions say it. Words matter, but as I’m learning, actions can speak the language of love too.
When I wrote about taking a sabbatical from forcing my writing to earn a living back in November, many of you left supportive comments on the blog or on social media, all of which I very much appreciated. Now that I’m two months in, I thought I’d let you know how it’s going.
Which is probably not the way you may have imagined. I’m not spending my days in leisurely reading and contemplation of the universe in its wondrous and chaotic ways. Nor am I writing up a storm.
What am I doing? A lot of planning for the April release of Bless the Birds, my upcoming memoir. I’ve been sending advance review copies to magazines and newspapers that have book review sections, which involves a lot of tedious looking up of addresses and editors’ names, and finding their requirements for review copies in these COVID times when many people are still working remotely.
I’m also dreaming up virtual book events involving bookstores and libraries. The idea I am percolating is a series of internet-based conversations with fellow authors whose work intersects with mine, exchanges on topics that relate to our work.
One idea, for example, is a conversation with my over-the-ridge neighbor, Kati Standefer, whose absolutely stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowers, tracks in gorgeous and raw prose the human and environmental cost of the defibrillator implanted in her chest that both saved and irretrievably altered her life. We could talk about living on the edge of death, a subject we both know more about than we’d like. My dream is to have that event sponsored by Collected Works, my favorite Santa Fe bookstore, as my book launch event.
I’d like to have a conversation with Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire, among other fine books, about stumbling into the understanding that the world outside our skin boundaries, the wild world nearby, can save us. I’d like to talk with Kathy Moore, author of Earth’s Wild Music, about what humans lose when we lose other species, when the tapestry of this living planet frays beyond what seems repairable.
I imagine these virtual events as a series of thoughtful interactions between people you’d like to listen to, conversations that explore ideas you’d like to know more about. Conversations that are inspiring and thought-provoking, and yes, might relate to our books, but are mostly offerings from us to you.
Because what I’ve realized during this sabbatical is that, while I do have a book to promote, what’s most important to both the writer me and the scientist me is that I have experiences and ideas that I want to share, and I know writers whose ideas and experiences I want to delve into. So if I can combine those things, book promotion will be something useful to all of us, instead of merely an exercise in selling something.
In dreaming up this series of conversations, I’m taking a non-traditional path, focusing more on what I have to share than on sales. Because that’s in alignment with why I wrote, which is to offer something I know to others in a way that I hope will be useful, inspiring, life-changing, or simply worth the read.
I owe this realization in part to work I did last year with Beata Lewis, goddess of transformational work (you could call her an executive coach, but that’s too limiting), and work I am doing now with human-centered marketer Dan Blank of We Grow Media. Both of them pushed me to look beyond the conventional view of what success in writing means, to integrate the left-brained scientist and the right-brained writer, and to listen to what my heart and spirit ask of me.
Which occurs to me is very much in the spirit of this sabbatical: reflecting on who I am and what I am doing with my life.
Hence this new mission statement:
I aim to restore our love and care for this numinous Earth, and help us be our best and kindest selves–wholly at home on a healthy planet.
As we come to the end of 2020, a year that has been tumultuous and difficult in ways we all know, my impulse is to kick the old year in the rear and unceremoniously slam the door behind it. Instead, I want to remember the blessings that came my way, so that I can welcome 2021 with my heart open and my gratitude foremost.
Those blessings? What comes to mind first are the Guy and his dog and horses. I who was perfectly happy to live the rest of my life solo now have a loving partnership again with a man who shares my bond with these Rocky Mountain landscapes, with the literature that rises from them, and who also shares my need for time in the wild.
For my birthday, he gifted me with four days in the remote Washakie Wilderness of northwest Wyoming, just southeast of Yellowstone, where I worked as a young field ecologist. It was pure heaven. Our long-distance relationship isn’t simple, but the rewards are beyond words. My heart is full, and my understanding of the world is enriched by his company, knowledge, and insights.
Another blessing has been time with friends and family, much of that virtual. But in these socially distanced COVID-19 times, the connection with the people I love and whose company nurtures me is so critical.
I treasure the in-person time so much more now that it’s rare. Visits like the walk I took yesterday (masked and socially distanced) with the memoirist Kati Standefer are what sustain me in these challenging days, mind, body, and spirit. (If you haven’t read her stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowers, do. You’ll understand why Oprah picked it as one of the top 100 books for the year, and it was an Editor’s Choice book at the New York Times Book Review, plus landed Kati on NPR’s Fresh Air.)
We trekked up a dry stream-bed near her house at the base of a red sandstone ridge, talking about life and writing and memoir, why we need solitude and the wild and what love is worth, anyway. We hung out with her chickens, and discovered a shared love for Stranahan’s whisky. I found the large heart rock in the stream-bed and lugged it back, knowing somehow it should come home with me.
I needed that high a few hours later when I learned that my friend and writing inspiration, Barry Lopez, had died the day before. It’s been that kind of high-slammed-by-lows year, and I am so fortunate to have a community who cheers me on. Thank you all.
Another blessing has been time on the land. I live in the rural West, outside Santa Fe in the winter, and in northwest Wyoming in the summer. In between, I spend time on the Guy’s farm, getting to know a whole new landscape in the broad swath of the sagebrush county I call home. Living where there are few people and lots of open space makes it easier to stay safe in COVID-times, and means I get abundant vitamin N, time in nature, to keep me healthy and reasonably sane amidst the tumult of the larger world.
Bless the Birds is the book for our times. It’s a splendid blend of landscapes, relationships, creative work, and spirituality–finding meaning in life framed by an awareness of death. I have a dozen people I want to share this authentic, honest, hopeful memoir with. You will too. It’s a treasure.
I am honored that this memoir, my thirteenth book, resonates with writers whose work I admire. (The book is due out in April, and if you are so moved you can pre-order it through Amazon, Bookshop–which supports independent bookstores–or your local bookstore.)
And in this year of so many endings, but also new beginnings, I am grateful for this beautiful new website, courtesy of my multi-talented and generous friends Tony and Maggie Niemann of Tracks Software. I’m not sure what I did to deserve Tony and Maggie, but I truly appreciate them!
One more gift of this difficult year: a new appreciation of simply being here. Alive, relatively healthy, and comfortable. I can take a walk in the near-wild every day. I can write, laugh, read, ride, cook, and love. I have faith that 2021 will bring positive changes. For all of these things, I am truly grateful.
May the new year bring us all chances to be kind, compassionate, and live with our hearts outstretched. Be well!
“I realized today that I’m just burned out,” I said to the Guy on the phone one evening. “I’m writing, but it’s not going anywhere. I can’t find the thread, and I don’t know what I want to work on.”
“Do you want a suggestion?” Right there is one of many reasons I love him: he’s thoughtful enough to ask before offering his opinions. I’m working on getting better at that.
“Here’s a thought exercise that I do about once a year: Ask yourself what you would want to do if you learned you only had thirty days to live. Write down whatever comes to mind without judging. Then repeat the question for longer time increments–if you had six months, or a year, or five years.”
“Great idea,” I said.
The next afternoon, I settled into my comfy chair, sunlight streaming in through the sunroom windows at my back, cleared my mind, picked up pen and writing pad, and began the Guy’s “what if” exercise. It didn’t take long; from the perspective of only having so much time to live, the answers came easily.
Looking over my lists, I was struck by how congruent my “what if” wants are with the life I’m living now. If I knew my life would end sometime in the next month or in five years, I would want to prioritize time with family and friends, finish a few projects around the house here and at the Guy’s farm, hike and/or ride every day, take another wilderness pack trip or two, work in Yellowstone and at Ring Lake Ranch, and write.
As I read over what I’d written, I noticed one thing I did not mention. Nowhere on any of the lists was wanting to earn more money from my work or become famous or be published in the New York Times or The Atlantic or O Magazine. The list included what I love to do, but no career ambitions.
And there was the “aha!” moment: I included writing, but not any specific outcome for the writing.
I’ve been a freelance writer for 32 years. Writing has been my career, my purpose, and provided my income. (Never a big income, but still an income.)
For thirty-two years, the income-earning was so tied into my writing practice that I couldn’t even consider a piece of writing without thinking about where to sell it. If that sounds crass, it’s not. Writing was my job. I couldn’t sit around and wait for the muse. I had contracts, deadlines, advances, editors depending on me to produce what we had agreed on.
I never wrote anything I didn’t believe in, nor did I compromise. I accepted assignments and wrote pieces–from short essays to whole books–that I thought would in their own small way make the world a better place. And perhaps they did.
But they didn’t feed my soul.
And that, I realized, is the problem. I am so used to writing for an income, as my job, that I have very little practice in writing just to say what I want to say. Writing and earning an income are intertwined like two vines that sprout next to each other at the base of a garden wall. As they grow upward, their branches weave so tightly together that each vine shapes the other. Separating them is nigh to impossible.
I’m tired of forcing the words to make my living. I want to just write. Whatever that means and whatever comes. Without considering where to sell it.
So I’m going to take an (unpaid) sabbatical. I have two book reviews and one manuscript evaluation on my desk. When I’ve met those deadlines, I’m not taking any more writing assignments until spring. I’m going to get up each day and “see what unfolds,” in the Guy’s words. I’ll walk or hike or ride, read, keep up with publicity for the release of Bless the Birds, and yes, write–but only if I have something to say.
Imagine: Months to recharge and reflect, with no agenda. I can’t wait to see what bubbles up….
Before Badger, the Guy’s Vizsla, lies down on his heated mat on the couch to snooze away the time between walks and other outings, he always turns around two or three times, ruffles up his blanket, and then settles in with a big sigh. He’s customizing his spot to suit him.
(And that canine remodeling is why my beautiful blue leather couch wears a sturdy gray dog cover when Badger is in residence. As for the heated mat, Badger is almost thirteen–he’s earned his perks.)
I’m not so different than Badger. With every move in the past nine years since Richard died, I’ve engaged in my equivalent of circling several times and rearranging the blankets in each living space: remodeling.
The first move was to Creek House, the little house I helped design and build for myself in Salida, so that was a bigger deal than remodeling. I made that space my own in spades–I guess you could say I circled quite a few times!
Then came Cody, and the seriously dilapidated mid-Century modern house that I rescued, renovating from basement to roof, bringing house and yard back to beautiful life. That circling and rearranging the blanket took nearly two years, but it was oh-so-satisfying. (The neighbors were thrilled that the neighborhood eyesore turned beautiful too.)
Followed by my move to Santa Fe, and into a small condo that really didn’t need work, but was pretty tired. I replaced worn carpet with vinyl plank floors, renovated the galley kitchen, replaced the aging metal windows with new and more efficient wood ones, and updated the furnace and water heater. And added color to the walls.
When I bought Casa Alegría, my current house, my intention was only to fix what was actually wrong, including a faulty pellet stove with a pipe not up to code, leaky windows, and a mouse-infested attic over the garage and laundry room. And of course paint a few of the boring white walls more interesting colors.
I guess it should be no surprise that I haven’t limited myself to just those projects.
Casa Alegría now boasts a new, efficient and safe woodstove, new windows and screen doors, plus an exterior door replacing a small window, an attic that is properly sealed and insulated (and bio-cleaned so it doesn’t stink), photovoltaic panels on the roof that generate clean power for the house and excess for the power grid, new mini-splits delivering incredibly efficient heating and cooling, a new garage door that actually seals out cold and rodents, and of course, colorful walls.
My latest project as I settle in? Replacing the small flagstone patio in the backyard that was so buried under dirt and debris that I didn’t discover it until I used a shovel to dig out some weeds and hit rock.
As I circle and settle, I am contemplating what else I need to do to make this place fit me, the way Badger makes his couch space comfy. But first, I think I’ll just drag a chair out onto the patio and admire my new outdoor room. Before fall changes to winter with tonight’s snowstorm….
At the end of our summer work in Wyoming, the Guy gave me what may rank as the best birthday present ever: a pack trip into the Washakie Wilderness, part of my old fieldwork area in the Absaroka Range southeast of Yellowstone National Park. Just the two of us, his four horses (two for riding, two for packing), and a stretch of glorious days away from cell phones, internet, news, and other humans. (We did see three other people on our last night as they rode by our camp.)
I haven’t been on a backcountry pack trip in decades, since the years when I traversed these mountains in my work for the Shoshone National Forest, before graduate school and meeting Richard and Molly. Who–bless their hearts–did not have the same need for time away in wild places as I do. As I write in Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, my forthcoming memoir:
We managed just one family backpacking trip, a weekend outing to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, for my birthday that fall in West Virginia. Richard and four-year-old Molly were so miserable that I took pity on them after the first night, and we packed out. On the way home, we stopped for “real food,” in Molly’s words, and Richard’s favorite dark-roast coffee. I never tried backpacking with them again.
For me, this trip into the South Absarokas, home to more grizzly bears, wolves, and elk than people, was a dream–and another step in reclaiming the part of myself that I had set aside during my nearly three decades with Richard and Molly. I never expected to get back into the wild country I learned so well over the miles of hiking and riding for my work back then, and came to love so deeply that it has been the home of my heart ever since.
When the Guy and I first started talking about taking a backcountry trip last winter, we imagined something more ambitious, a through-ride that would trace the route of a solo backpack trip I took in my mid-twenties, cutting through the Thorofare Valley in Yellowstone. But as the time for the trip got closer, we scaled back those plans, deciding that for our first pack trip together, it would be wise to plan a shorter and less rigorous route.
So we did some day-rides into the mountains to hone our skills and to get the horses in shape. Then we picked a drainage were we could ride in, establish a base camp, and explore from there. We scouted the area first, riding the trail we would take, and found a meadow that looked perfect for our basecamp: big enough that it offered abundant native forage for the horses, a creek tumbling through, and several good sites for our tent and cooking areas (which needed to be far apart so that we were not sleeping next to anything that smelled like food).
Once we knew where we were headed, we went into trip-preparation mode: pulling together maps, food, emergency supplies, and pack gear; we checked the tent, and pulled together our sleeping bags and pads, and personal gear. The Guy inspected the pack saddles and supplies, and did a test-pack of the panniers and bags, and weighed everything to make sure we weren’t giving the horses too much to carry. The night before we were to leave, we loaded the gear into big horse trailer.
The next morning, we fed the horses early so they would have time to finish their hay before we left, and then finished preparing. We were on our way by the time the sun began to warm the late-summer air, and reached the trailhead at mid-morning. It took about an hour to get the horses saddled, the packs on and lashed down, and then we were off, riding up the valley toward the distant peaks and high plateaus, and away from people and wifi and cell phone reception.
At first, the horses were jumpy, starting at deadfall, and hopping sideways when some ducks took off from a nearby pond in a rush of feet slapping the water’s surface. But pretty soon we all settled into a good trail rhythm. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and the forest smelled of pine sap interspersed with musky threads of other animals.
We stopped for a snack near a lake with a marsh full of birds, and lupines, pussy-toes, and other wildflowers blooming in the forest. The horses grazed the lush grass hungrily, and when we rode on, they were all still munching. I led our small string on the way to the lake, and the Guy took the lead from there on.
We reached the meadow where we planned to camp by mid-afternoon, unsaddled the horses, arranged the tack on a log where it could air out, and then set up the highline for the horses, the overhead line where they would be secured at night.
Once the horses were settled, we ate a late lunch, pitched the tent, set up our camp kitchen area, and relaxed in our camp chairs in the shade of a big lodgepole pine tree. I wrote and the Guy meditated, and then studied the maps. We both absorbed the quiet.
Around dinnertime, we unhooked the horses, put hobbles on their front legs, and let them graze the meadow, keeping an eye out to make sure none hopped far enough to get to the trail. The Guy got out the stove, boiled water from the creek, and I “cooked” dinner, pouring boiling water into a pouch of freeze-dried Thai-style chicken dinner, and adding some fresh vegetables. Ten minutes later, we shared a surprisingly delicious hot meal as the pink light from sunset faded from the peaks and then the clouds, and the moon sailed across the evening sky.
Before dark, we hooked the horses on the highline, and then we each brushed our teeth, took one last foray into the woods to pee, and headed for the tent and our cozy sleeping bags.
And so our days went: Up with the sun, set the hobbled horses to grazing, make breakfast, decide on the day’s ride, catch the horses, saddle up with lunch in our pommel bags, and hit the trail. Back by late afternoon, set the horses to grazing, relax in our camp chairs, make dinner, hook up the horses, and crawl into the tent and curl up together.
One morning we woke to rain pattering on the tent, so we didn’t start our ride until ten, but we still had time to explore the big meadow at the head of the valley (the photo at the top of the post) and the smaller meadows above it, green and boggy and filled with elk sign–wallows, scat, and tree-bark scars where the bulls scrape the velvet from their antlers. We rode past the end of the trail, forded the creek multiple times, ducked under branches and worked our way around deadfall timber as far as we could go, just seeing what was there, and then headed back to camp.
Another morning we got an early start and took a steep trail that zigzagged up a side valley, climbing up and up and up and up through the forest, and then traversing a narrow ledge of trail high above the cascading creek. “That’s real mountain riding,” commented the Guy when we were safely past a particularly vertiginous stretch.
We stopped to let the horses graze in a sedge and hairgrass meadow surrounded by dead whitebark pine trees (killed by white pine blister rust, an invasive pathogen). I commented that this was prime grizzly bear habitat despite the dead forest. Just above the meadow, I spotted one of the largest piles of grizz scat I’ve ever seen smack in the middle of the trail. We stopped to look, and reassured ourselves that it wasn’t that fresh–only later did we admit to each other that it had probably been no more than an hour or two old.
We rode on, listening and looking for bears, and saw none. Just more piles of scat, berry bushes everywhere–raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, and currants; and a several-month-old kill of an elk calf, with not much left but some pelt and scattered bones with tendons attached. I’m pretty sure that big boar grizzly who left the poop knew exactly where we were. We rode with all senses alert, in the knowledge that we could be lunch if we weren’t careful.
That trail took us high into an alpine basin above tree-line, where we stopped for lunch and let the horses nibble alpine turf while we ate. A golden eagle soared above the high ridges, and a peregrine falcon whizzed by on the hunt. Far in the distance we could see the next mountain range to the south. The wind whistled among the rocks, and storm clouds began to built overhead, our signal to head downhill.
That evening it rained and then hailed, pea-sized pellets hurled on chill winds. The next morning, we woke to frost on the meadow. We ate breakfast as the horses grazed, and our tent dried in the sun. Then we packed up and headed out, the horses frisky because they knew we were on our way back to the trailhead.
By the time we reached the truck and trailer, the weather had shifted and the wind was gusting hard, and we were ready for a shower and a good dinner. The next morning, snow dusted the peaks above where we had camped, a foretaste of fall.
I call that trip my birthday present because the Guy provided everything: his horses, the packing gear, even the food. All I had to do was show up with my personal gear, ride well, and be good company.
And because it brought me something I had forgotten how much I needed: time away from the hustle of the human world, the bad news that deluges us every day, and the pressure to respond to every signal in our culture of instant communication. For those days in the wild, my system returned to solar time, and my senses tuned to the weather and the shape of the landscape, the sound of elk bugling and the smell of bears.
(On my actual birthday last week, the Guy gave me another perfect present: an increment core for sampling trees, but that’s another story.)
I came away from our wilderness time tired but happy, feeling competent and alive. The trip reminded me of what matters most: living with love and kindness, and practicing stewardship of this Earth and we who share it. I needed that time to refresh my spirit and strengthen my heart for whatever comes.
One of the first long phone conversations The Guy and I had last fall when we were getting to know each other centered around the question of what “home” meant for each of us. The exchange was sparked by something I said in the seminar I taught at Ring Lake Ranch, where we met: home for me is the Rocky Mountain region wherever big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata in the language of science) grows. The “seas” of this aromatic shrub that fill valleys and basins throughout the region, I explained, define the area I call home.
The idea that the geographic range of a particular plant could delineate “home” intrigued The Guy. He thought about that concept over the next few weeks while he hunted bighorn sheep on foot above treeline in the mountains of central Colorado. In his long and physically active days of climbing thousands of feet from the valley bottom where he was camped to the high ridges where he sat and glassed for sheep, he had plenty of time to ponder what home meant for him.
“No sheep died,” he said when he called to report on his wilderness hunt, “but I had an interesting realization.”
“What was that?” I asked from my Santa Fe condo, where I was packing for a move to the house I had just bought in the spaciousness of the high desert outside town.
He described hiking uphill through open ponderosa pine forest, the dappled light of aspen groves, into the high-elevation Douglas-fir and spruce forest, and then the widely spaced groves of bristlecone pine, before emerging above treeline in the windswept expanse of the alpine, with its turf of plants no more than a few inches tall.
“I realized that I’m not comfortable in the alpine,” he said. “It’s not my place. It’s too exposed.” Where he felt at home, he said, was the mountain forests and woodlands, the shrublands and meadows. “I realized that my home range could be described by the range of dusky grouse in the Rockies.”
While he talked, I looked up dusky grouse. There was the range map: a wide swath of the Rockies from Canada to northern New Mexico, a near overlap of the region I call home. I remembered seeing a male dusky grouse displaying on a gravel road in a sagebrush-filled valley not far from his farm on Colorado’s West Slope.
We considered the way the part of the West we both call home overlapped, and discussed how we each felt drawn to the whole swath, rather than one particular place. “Maybe for people like us,” I said, “home is not a single location, but a whole area. ‘Home range,’ instead of home. A range we migrate through over the seasons, rather than a fixed spot. ”
He was quiet, thinking. “I like that idea,” he said. “The way people once moved in search of food and shelter, occupying a whole region instead of settling in one place.”
“Exactly!” I said. “For you and me, home range could extend from the high desert in northern New Mexico in winter to Wyoming in summer, with the the farm in spring and fall.”
Over the months since, as we have worked at the delicate process of interweaving two separate lives–sometimes easily and sometimes crashing headlong into each other’s tender spots–the idea of home range has given us a road map. We spent much of the winter at my house outside Santa Fe exploring the high desert on foot and horseback.
In late March with the pandemic swelling, the herd headed north to the farm under safer-at-home orders. As The Guy pointed out, farm work is inherently socially distanced. It also does not wait: when spring comes, the hayfields must be prepped and the irrigation pipes laid out, or there will be no crop.
I stayed behind in New Mexico until it was safe to leave, and then followed them north. At the farm, I plunged into learning irrigation, starting invasive weed control, pruning shrubs and trees, and other chores. Out in the hayfields, it was just me and the mule deer and the swallows and magpies, plus several hundreds of thousands of brome and bluegrass plants.
The pandemic seemed far away. Except on our occasional trips to town for food and farm supplies, when we wore face-masks and practiced social distancing. In this rural county, with fewer than 20,000 human residents, crowding is rarely an issue.
Farm work left us little time to fret about the radical changes to the larger world–our work-days ran from dawn to dusk. It was oddly soothing to be too worn out at the end of each day to obsess over the news.
Then came summer, when I would normally migrate to the northern end of my home range to Yellowstone National Park to hand-eradicate invasive weeds, and The Guy, the dog, and the horses would migrate to Ring Lake Ranch to work. Because of the pandemic though, Yellowstone stayed closed for longer than usual, and then opened for day-use only. Which meant my work was canceled, since I camp in the park to be near my research site.
When Ring Lake Ranch opened (later than usual and with half the guests), The Guy suggested I spend part of my summer with him, the dog, and the herd at Ring Lake. So when irrigation chores slowed down, I headed north following their migration route to the ranch. I spent several weeks there surveying and controlling invasive weeds, and writing up a management plan. And then returned to the farm to work on weeds in the hayfields.
The idea of home as an annual migration between places has–somewhat paradoxically–kept me grounded through these tumultuous times. Wherever I am in this range of landscapes and communities, whether northwest Wyoming, western Colorado, or northern New Mexico, I am at home. And whether I am with The Guy, the dog, and the horses, or not, we are connected by the heart and by our shared bond with these places and people. The challenges we face are as much internal as external as we navigate the new world of belonging to each other.
Home is the earth beneath my feet, this growing relationship, the weeds I work with, the human community, this changing world. It is the territory I nurture with my whole heart, the life I seed, the world I belong to.
Home, however we define it, is where we belong, where we take refuge, who we love, what we stand for. In these times, home could be what saves us.
When I was a young child, perhaps four or five years old, I spent hours playing with the water from the hose that soaked my mother’s flower beds, using a trowel to draw channels in the soil to direct the water to particular plants, and shaping earthen dams to capture the flow. Once when my grandparents came for a visit from their faraway home in Florida, my engineer granddad watched me play, and then bent his tall form to my level.
Using a stick, he drew various channel designs in the dirt, and gave me a short lesson in fluvial hydrology, showing me how a curve could slow the water down, a deeper channel would hold more flow, and how “stacking” a series of curves would create meanders to reshape my miniature river. Before my grandmother called him into the house, he also demonstrated how to use pebbles to strengthen the downstream face of my dams, and how to curve the dam to better cup the flow. (My proper Scots grandmother did not approve of her only granddaughter playing in the dirt. She wanted a girly-girl, dressed in ruffles and patent-leather shoes, with flyaway strawberry blond hair neatly confined by the bunny-shaped hair clips she brought me.)
I was fascinated by Granddad’s lesson, and practiced it assiduously after he and grandmother left. I learned how to sculpt a channel so it would keep itself clean and flowing at just the right volume and speed to not flood the plant. And to shape a dam to spread the water out, as well as retain it.
I had forgotten that part of my childhood until I found myself walking the main hayfield at the farm the other day, using the toe of my rubber irrigation boots to clear debris from the shallow channels that carry water from the irrigation pipes across the field. I heard my mother’s voice in my head calling me “Farmer Susie,” and saw her shaking her head with a loving smile as she and my dad wondered where my passion for channeling water, tending plants, and digging weeds came from.
Back then, with a child’s naivete, I thought I would grow up and live on a farm or a ranch, and work with water and plants and horses. How that was going to happen, when I grew up in the suburbs, and neither of my parents had ever worked in agriculture, I never considered. I just knew I would. In my teens and twenties, I worked in a stable, taught riding, helped out with friends’ farms and ranches, and even for a brief time, had my own little acreage and a few horses. Until I went to graduate school, and fell in love with Richard and Molly.
My life turned in the direction of step-motherhood and writing, and tending our little household as we followed Richard’s academic career through nine moves in 14 years, eventually settling in Salida, Colorado, where we bought and revived a half-block of blighted industrial property. Not exactly my dream farm, but it afforded space to replant a swath of native mountain prairie, cultivate an enormous organic kitchen garden (my friends called it my mini-farm), and restore a block of urban creek, reviving its green ribbon of native shrubs and trees and returning its healthy sinuosity, thus applying my granddad’s lessons in fluvial hydrology.
And now, 60 years later, here I am spending spring and part of the summer on the Guy’s small grass-hay farm. My forgotten farm-girl is thriving, happily learning the irrigation system and managing water, digging out and controlling invasive weeds, censusing frogs in the pond, planning pollinator and songbird plantings in the woodlot, and even mucking the dry lot. (Four thousand-pound horses times a bale of hay each day equals more horse manure than you would think!)
“Why do you care about this place?” the Guy asked one night a few weeks ago as we were walking back across the hayfields in the evening after moving a whole slew of irrigation pipe. He was tired, and feeling a bit cranky. I considered as we walked through fragrant grasses, listening to the “pee-nt!” calls of invisible nighthawks as swallows fluttered overhead. I watched the sunset fade over the distant line of Grand Mesa.
“First,” I said, picking my words, “I admire what you’ve done with the place. You took a chunk of played-out land with tumbledown buildings, and turned it into a healthy farm, with a lovely and well-built house and barns, productive hayfields, and habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.” He nodded and I went on, trying and failing to keep the emotion out of my voice, “Second, the place speaks powerfully about who you are, someone who not only nurtures the fields, but who also tends the rest of the community, human and wild. I love that about you. I want to help.”
He switched on his headlamp and was silent as we walked in the cone of its the light. Finally he said, “Thank you for showing me how you see it.”
There is more I want to say, but he’s not ready to hear it. He’s cautious, slow to trust. So I’m being as patient as I can be. Someday, I’ll add this: “I love the place because it’s yours. I want to belong here, with you–for as long as we have.”
For now, I’m content to irrigate, work with weeds, and plan native plantings to expand the existing wildlife habitat. The orioles are chattering in the towering elms, the catbirds foraging in the garden, and the robins are singing. He and the herd have gone to Wyoming to work, and he trusts me to tend the farm while he’s away.
One of the ways I’m staying sane through the coronavirus pandemic is focusing on house renovation, chipping away at my punch list of what needs to be done to make Casa Alegria sustainable and ready for its next three decades of life.
Perhaps engaging in renovation seems frivolous in these times, but it’s part of my calling to heal my community, wild and human. That includes tending land, buildings, and those species with whom I share this Earth. Right now, it especially means putting money back into the human community by buying my supplies locally, supporting local businesses, and employing local tradespeople. It’s my way of giving back in a time when so many are struggling.
House renovation isn’t something I was born to. I didn’t grow up using tools or understanding how buildings work. My interest born of necessity. When Richard, my late husband, died of brain cancer in 2011, I was left with a staggering amount of medical debt. Most of our assets were tied up in a beautiful but unfinished house that he had built and the adjacent historic studio he had partly fixed up. I needed to sell the whole place and I couldn’t afford to hire out the finish work. So with the help of generous friends, I learned how to use tools, materials, and design; and to hang doors, install baseboard, fabricate counters, put up drywall and other wall coverings, shape copper and sandstone, and mill trim. It was grueling but empowering work.
By the time that property sold and I paid my debts, I was deep into my next project, overseeing construction of my first-ever solo abode, a small passive-solar house plus a garage topped with a guest apartment. I loved that little house, and had a hand in every last detail, from the re-purposed gym flooring in the apartment to the hand-carved bathroom sink in the main house.
Then Wyoming called me home to be nearer to my aging dad, and my brother and family. I found what I thought would be my forever home, a gorgeous and incredibly dilapidated mid-century modern house built the year I was born. I spent two years renovating it from the scary boiler in the basement and the eccentric wiring, to the non-functioning bathrooms and the roof, with the help of my hard-working and easy-going contractor, Jeff. I redid the yard too.
As I was finishing that project, Dad, who we all thought would live at least another decade, died of an aggressive cancer. I considered my options, put the house up for sale, and decamped to the warmer climate of Santa Fe, where I already had a circle of friends, plus a little rental condo. I bought another condo in the same complex, and dove into another renovation project: replacing the carpet with plank floors, re-doing the galley kitchen, and painting the all-white walls lively colors. After I moved in, I also replaced the dying furnace and the old, leaky windows and sliding glass doors, and added a French door from the second bedroom to the patio. While I was at it, I renovated the rental condo too. (I may be certifiable, but I really enjoy bringing new life to neglected living spaces.)
Last fall, I realized that I am not a condo person. I need more space and fewer people nearby. So I found Casa Alegria, sold both condos, and moved. When I broke the news to my brother, he said, “If you move again, or buy another place to renovate, we’re going to stage a family intervention.” He was kidding. I think.
I reassured him that my new house only needed “a little work,” and I wasn’t planning on moving. The latter is true, and the former is subject to interpretation. My definition of “a little work” may be generous.
Here’s what I’ve had done since moving in November: removing all of the insulation in the attic over the garage and laundry room in order to evict the resident rodents and their leavings, blowing in new insulation, installing gutters, plus installing a new garage door that actually seals (to keep out said rodents). Then came replacing the old, marginally functional pellet stove replace with a new, efficient woodstove. During all that, Carlos, my wonderful handyman, replaced all of the clunky light fixtures with more graceful ones that use energy-saving LED bulbs, and also painted some of the walls to offset the pervasive whiteness.
The next big renovation project was replacing most of the open-able windows in the house, and a few exterior doors too. The old ones were leaky metal, the new ones are tight, and the same style with divided lights, but they are wood on the inside, and power-coated steel on the outside.
We were in the middle of the permit process for the next project, a roof-mounted photovoltaic system, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down New Mexico. After a few weeks, the crew came out with masks and gloves and installed my system. Last week, Public Service of New Mexico connected it to the grid, so my electric meter now runs backwards! (Those solar panels produce about twice as much power as we use.)
What’s next? A little yard work, some mechanical work (adding super-efficient heating and cooling units to replace the old and very inefficient electric baseboard heat), and down the line, replacing the leaky windows in the sunroom with more efficient ones. But for now, I’m going to head for my guy’s farm. His gardens need renovation, and I know just the person to take on that project.
Stay safe and well. Blessings from me to you and yours!
I’ve been a widow for eight-and-a-half years. I midwifed the deaths of my husband and my mom in the same year, so I have experience living with loneliness and grief. But I can say honestly that I’ve never experienced the kind of lows of the past week. I felt the darkness coming beforehand—I’m intuitive and often, I get some sense of what’s coming my way. Sometimes I can use that wordless warning to prepare myself. Sometimes not. This time, I wasn’t successful.
After The Guy, his dog, and the horses pulled out a week ago, headed north, I found myself in tears all the time. Normally, I’m resilient and able to maintain a positive attitude. Not last week. Reading the news, responding to emails and texts from friends and family, learning of people I knew infected with COVID-19, an elderly friend dead from the virus—everything set me off.
It’s not that I was alone. I’m an introvert, so solo time is actually soothing for me. As I wrote in my forthcoming memoir, Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying:
As an introvert living in a body studded with what feels like hundreds of tiny antennae, I am easily overwhelmed by the stimuli of my fellow humans: our voices and words, the noise of our devices, our volatile emotions, and the electricity of our metabolic energy.
No, what had me in tears was simply the overload. I feel the world so strongly: emotions and other sensory information come to me as physical sensations. My body feels battered. That way of sensing the world is very much a gift, leading to rich understanding of humans and our ways, sometimes difficult premonitions, and other kinds of learning.
But it comes at a heavy cost. If the emotional and sensory stimuli build up within me, they’re literally toxic, causing what might be diagnosed as anxiety, but what I experience as acceleration of my heart-rate, erratic nervous system and electrical pulses, and general disruptions to my inner stability. Those symptoms overload my immune system, causing the potentially deadly organ impairment of my Lupus and other autoimmune conditions.
Trying to listen and be empathetic without allowing each day’s swirling whirlwind of stimuli to become toxic has always been a challenge. It’s even more so now–not just for me, for all of us.
Normally, I manage by writing, spending a lot time by myself or in the company of a very few others, and being physically active outside: walking, hiking, digging invasive weeds, renovating houses, or riding. And also—and this last is critical—by touch. I am a “touchy-feely” person: I hug others; I hold hands, kiss cheeks.
I depend on the balm of that physical contact. When I am frazzled and struggling to keep my emotional and mental balance, the warmth of another’s hand, the press of a dog’s muzzle on my leg, or the soothing rhythm of a horse’s muscles invariably help me settle. Touch with other mammals is grounding. I can feel my systems stabilizing and harmonizing with theirs.
We talk about “gentling” horses or dogs—and even people—with touch. Research supports the soothing and calming effect of physical touch on our emotions, our metabolisms, and our overall health, body, mind, and spirit.
Before The Guy, his dog, and the horses came into my life last fall, I met my need for that sort of “therapeutic touch” by interacting with my close circle of friends, my family, and their four-legged companions. Plus regular massages and monthly sessions from my Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Ehrland Truitt, who can feel how my body’s systems are working simply by “listening” with his intuitive and sensitive touch.
Now, in this era of adhering to social-distancing and shelter-in-place as critical ways to control the spread of Coronavirus, I am truly alone. I cannot hug my friends, or even shake hands with the tire guys who dealt with my flat tire yesterday. I have no dog to snuggle with when I’m blue. I am profoundly alone, and after only one week, starved for physical touch. I’ve struggled to maintain my emotional and mental balance.
I realize that I am fortunate to be healthy (in my own slightly impaired way!) and not isolated or dying in a hospital or nursing home, and to have a safe and comfortable place to live. I am grateful for the daily contact-at-a-distance with friends, family, and The Guy. I’m grateful, too, for all of those who are working every day to make sure the rest of us are safe, meeting our essential needs for food and other services, and heroically tending to the sick and dying.
I will survive this time of profound loneliness, this cell-deep grief about what is happening with us humans and this Earth, the blue planet we call home. And I can’t wait until I can hug someone in gratitude for the gift of simply being here, now.