Re-Storying the Land

Richard and I have just returned from a stay at The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in northwest Colorado, the site of our working residency through Colorado Art Ranch, and our project to transform a quarter-acre of unused, water-consumptive lawn behind the historic ranch house into a “learning landscape,” a garden that honors and interprets the place and its heritage.

The aim of the project as we see it is to “re-story” that lawn. The word “re-story” as applied to landscapes comes from ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, author of numerous books on food and the culture that produce it, including Coming Home to Eat, one of my favorite locavore manifestos. (Gary is also a founder of RAFT, Renewing America’s Food Traditions.) Gary’s work advances the idea that the stories of a place–stories of the human community and cultures, and stories of other species and their lives and communities–form our relationship to a place. Thus, to “re-story” a place is to restore our connection to the particulars of that place, the things that make it unique and worth knowing and loving.

Barn

“Re-storying” any place involves listening to its stories: seeking out the stories of people who have lived there, delving into the written history, and “listening” the land itself by learning which other species live there and observing the comings and goings of the community of nature. (That’s the historic hay barn of the ranch above at dusk, with the unique cottonwood-boxelder riverside forest beyond the barn, and the hillsides clothed with sagebrush and Gambel oak rising in the background beyond the meandering Yampa River.)

Richard and I are very much in the listening phase of this project, and we spent large chunks of the weekend giving public presentations about the garden and then listening to people from the Yampa Valley and beyond tell stories that may well weave their way into the interpretive garden.

Among the stories we’ve harvested so far, our favorites include the one about the Dawson family, who owned the ranch before the Carpenters, and the hunting party in the early 1900s that brought home a brother and sister pair of wild bighorn sheep. The bighorn kids had the run of the ranch yard as pets until they ate the prized patch of rhubarb, leaves, stalks and all, at which point the sheep morphed from pets into dinner. Rhubarb is a heritage edible plant in the Yampa Valley, especially prized in the days before supermarkets and car travel as an early spring source of vitamin C. Rhubarb will thus have a place in the re-created edible garden, along with the story of those bighorn sheep siblings…

Then there’s “do-me-good,” a sort of sweetener for the vats of iced tea brewed to serve the family, the haying crews, and the legions of visitors who came to the ranch in its heyday. As recollected by a granddaughter of former ranch owner Ferry Carpenter, this concoction of mint and honey was cooked to a syrupy liquid that filled pitchers next to the vats of iced tea. Pour your tea and add a slug of “do-me-good” and presumably it will (do you good, that is). Mint and the story of do-me-good, plus a sense of the huge amount of food prepared in the ranch kitchens every day, will also get their place in the garden.

There’s yampah itself, the plant whose name graces the river and the whole valley. This wild relative of parsley and parsnips blooms in late summer in white swaths in the sagebrush meadows.

Yampah

It probably wasn’t the delicately lovely flowers, as in the photo above by Paul Slichter, that were so impressive that they inspired the river’s name. Most likely it was the fact that yampah was a staple food: its startchy roots, the size of small new potatoes, were roasted and eaten whole, ground into a flour used for flat-breads and griddle cakes, and used as thickener for pemmican. Yampah fed the Ute Indians, the European settlers, the grizzly bears who dug its roots in spring… Yampah was the area’s potato before potatoes arrived from Europe (though they originally come from the Andes in South America, but that’s another story), and was such an important part of the natural larder that its name now graces the river and its fertile valley.

Ask a resident of the valley today the story of the river’s name, and they likely won’t know. The story of the area’s signature plant has been severed from the landscape. That’s the kind of link we want to honor in the new gardens at the Carpenter Ranch, and we envision returning yampah’s story in part by recreating a yampah meadow, characteristic plant and all.

Lawn

When Richard and I sit on the deck behind the interpretive center at the Carpenter Ranch, we don’t see a disused lawn. We see the new edible garden with raised beds sprouting where the kitchen garden was before the kitchen, milk house and potting wing burned down decades ago. We see rhubarb sprouting along with mint, raspberries, potatoes, green beans, and other edibles that are important to the heritage of the valley. We see wide perennial borders sprouting hollyhocks, daylilies, hardy irises, and other flowers that persist long after area homesteads have been abandoned.

And we see a swath of yampah meadow sprinkled with sagebrush and other wildflowers, “re-storying” this landscape for all to see and smell and touch–and be touched by.

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