Stories can connect, teach, and even redeem

In the past two weeks, my articles have been published in two very different magazines, on two very different subjects. Both were stories that intrigued me, ones that I suggested to the editors, and they decided to publish. What links these two stories? Read the beginnings below, and see if you can tell.

The first, “Dust to Dust,” came out in High Country News February 2nd. Here’s how it starts:

Just around a bend on Highway 141 in the stark sandstone landscape of western Colorado, the winding San Miguel River canyon suddenly opens. Here, on a dusty flat near the Utah border, the map says there’s a town called Uravan. But all that remains of its clanking mills, stores and neat rows of houses are acres of freshly bladed reddish dirt and two metal buildings surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. High above, along a mesa edge that frames blue sky, junipers cling to sheer cliffs and piles of ochre rock spill from the silent mouths of abandoned mines.

This bleak place has more than once played a pivotal role in history.


The second, “A Buzz in the Garden,” is in the premiere issue of a new gardening/lifestyle magazine, Zone  4: Living in the High Country West. It opens this way:

“Bees captivate people,” says biologist Jim Cane of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s bee lab in Logan, Utah. “Maybe it’s their hairiness, or their activity, or their behavior. Once people get past the fear of being stung, they are captivated.”

When we think of bees, most of us imagine honeybees, relative newcomers to North America first imported by European colonists, or else aggressive, yellow and black wasps. But Cane is talking about another set of creatures altogether: North American native bees, nearly 4,000 species of them.

“Dust to Dust” is the story of a town that once produced radioactive uranium, including some used in the production of the first atomic bombs, a town that became so radioactive in the process that it was scraped away–every house, every curb, every building and garden–by a SuperFund cleanup, a town so loved by its former residents that they fought to keep just one building still standing, and having lost that fight, they tell each other its stories over and over to keep the memories alive.

“A Buzz in the Garden,” which first appeared in a different form in Audubon magazine, is the story of insects few of us know and all of us depend on, North America’s native bees, pollinators of some of our food crops and all of our flowers, wild and domestic. Without these hard-working, diverse and fascinating creatures, plants as we know them wouldn’t exist, and we wouldn’t either. And they’re in trouble, threatened by pesticides, invasive bee species, climate change, and development.

What links these two stories? Loss. In the first one, a town is wiped out, endangering the details of its history–the way wives washed the red dust off their husbands’ work clothes in the same washing machines with their kids’ sheets and stuffed toys before anyone understood radioactive dust, the tricks they used to grow vegetable gardens in that baking soil, why the mill was called the Joe Jr., how they survived the lonely winters. Those stories are not just the stuff of the vanished town of Uravan, they contain instructions about how to live, or not live, in that particular landscape, like cultural DNA. Wipe them out, and we lose lessons we might need to survive.

In the second, we are just beginning to understand the incredible diversity of native bees on this continent, and how closely they are tied to native and crop plants, and thus our lives too. And as we learn about these insects, they’re vanishing. We’ve lost a handful of species already, and we don’t even know how many are out there that we haven’t discovered yet. Why does their story matter? Because they are part of the community of the land that animates this continent, the lives that weave the fabric of the landscapes we live on, the places that feed and clothe and house us, too.

The second thing that ties these two stories is resilience. The human community of the San Miguel River valley where Uravan used to be may be isolated and struggling, but it’s a creative and tenacious community of people who still gather in annual reunions to trade stories about the vanished town and honor who lived there and what it meant to the valley and the world. They have their own small museum, active local historians, and a web site that makes their stories available. Their love for the place–harsh and radioative as it may have been–is evident. Uravan lives on in their words.


North America’s native bees live on too, and it turns out that many species are more resilient than anyone would have guessed. Making homes for native bees, it seems, doesn’t require huge acreages of land, or enormous budgets. For many species, it’s something any gardener can do by planting say, a ten by twelve plot of bee-friendly flowers, especially species native to that place. (And forgoing pesticides, which it seems, are death on all kinds of bees, including imported honeybees.) In my yard native bees love the sidebells penstemon, silvery lupine, and Rocky Mountain beeplant, as well as the horticultural lavender, tomatoes, squashes, and the sunflowers that the goldfinches plant inadvertently when they probe the flower heads for those nutritious seeds and scatter some as they eat. A little habitat makes a big difference.

That brings up the third thing that ties these stories together: redemption. While the physical town of Uravan became so radioactive it was a health hazard, the SuperFund cleanup redeemed the place. The river is no longer periodically poisoned with radioactive soil, the wind no longer blows radioactive dust through the air. And the residents continue to keep its stories alive. So too with native bees: by telling their stories, we learn of their existence and what these buzzing pollinators mean to us. We can take positive steps to provide them with the food and habitat they need in our yards and gardens, our parks and open spaces. And that gives us a shot at redemption, at showing our species can live generously and have a positive influence on the community that makes up this living, breathing planet.

I’ll be on the road next week in Central California with Richard. We’ll spend some time on the wild Big Sur Coast, visit some friends, and belatedly celebrate the 30th birthday of our “kid”–Happy 30th, Molly! She’s running her first marathon on March 1st, and we’ll be there to cheer her on. So I won’t be blogging again until the following week, when I’ll have news about my memoir, Walking Nature Home. Talk to you then!