Spring Wildflowers and Weeding: Medicine for the Spirit

One of the things I love about my new neighborhood is that it's not manicured. And an arroyo–a stream channel that is usually dry on the surface but channels water underground–runs along one edge of the neighborhood.

This waterway serves as a pathway for wildlife and humans alike (oh, the nighttime coyote chorus!). At this time of year, birdsong fills the air when I walk at dawn, from the trilling of spotted and canyon towhees to flocks of busy bushtits, hoarse chickadees, and the sweet whistles of western bluebirds. 

The hills above the arroyo are polka-dotted with piñon pines and Rocky Mountain junipers, forming a dwarf woodland of short, wide trees. In between the trees, shrubs, bunchgrasses, and wildflowers stipple the adobe-colored soil.

The houses and condo developments sit within this still-more-wild-than-not landscape, rather than obliterating it. Which delights me, since I can walk out my door and be immersed in nature. While still living walking distance from the neighborhood Sprouts grocery and other urban amenities.  

A winter of abundant precipitation has sprouted a glorious progression of spring wildflowers. Some are familiar from the years Richard, Molly, and I lived in southern New Mexico; others are new. Here are photos of the blooming as I have witnessed it:

Woolly milkvetch (Astragalus mollisimus), the first spring flower to appear on my walking route. It's hard to imagine a more vivid antidote to winter than those magenta flowers.

Unless it is the sunshine yellow cushions of this diminutive bladderpod (Physaria species), which I'll be able to identify once it has seedpods.

I thought the bladderpod flowers maxed out yellow until the fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) started to bloom! 

And then the perky sue (Tetraneuris argenteus) upped the ante to pure gold, like splatters of earthbound sunshine. 

Perky sue en masse, a chromatic splash of color. 

Then more purple flowers began to bloom, starting with plains verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida), which broadcasts a lovely sweet scent. 

Scorpionweed (Phacelia integrafolia) unfurls its lilac blossoms with the outrageously long dancing stamens… 

Just as wax currant's dangling ivory bells open (Ribes cereum). Scorpionweed appeals to native bees, wax currant flowers' abundant nectar feeds  migrating hummingbirds.  

More milkvetches bloom. Thanks to help from Al Schneider of Southwest Colorado Wildflowers, I think the carpet-former with the dainty flowers above is Nuttall's milkvetch (Astragalus nuttalliana).

This ivory milkvetch may be Astragalus bisulcatus, but I'll have to wait for seedpods to make a definitive ID. 

The surprise on this morning's walk was this charming and very tiny bristly nama (Nama hispida), with purple flowers the size of my thumbnail on a plant all of two inches tall!

Of course, all of that wonderful winter and early spring moisture sprouted seeds of invasive weeds too. So I am–of course!–pulling weeds around my neighborhood to help control these aggressive plants that germinate en masse and crowd out the wildflowers that our pollinators and songbirds depend on.

I started with tansy mustard (Descuriana sophia), an annual that sprouts over the winter, and then shoots up a flower stalk with tiny yellow cross-shaped flowers as the soil temperatures warm up. Like all annuals, it seeds prolifically, but is easy to eradicate by pulling the shallowly rooted plants and bagging them, seeds and all, for the trash. 

Now I'm working on cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), another Eurasian invasive annual weed. Its nodding seed-heads are quite distinctive, and it is also easy to pull until it dries out. Cheatgrass gets its common name because it is often the first grass to green up, making whole swaths of landscape look deceptively lush. Until the the grass plants dry out and die a few weeks later, and shatter, scattering their abundant seeds and leaving the soil bare. It cheats grazers of forage and cheats the landscape of nutrients. 

Me, weeding cheatgrass from under the cottonwood trees at the entrance of my neighborhood. 

Helping control the invasive weeds in my neighborhood is my way of giving back to these high-desert landscapes for the gifts they give me. The bird-song, coyote choruses, the wildflowers in spring, the butterflies and hummingbirds now fluttering and hovering past my window. Weeding helps keep the relationships that sustain the world I love intact and healthy. It's also deeply rewarding to see the wildflowers return in the space I've freed for them. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in the journal Humans and Nature:

Ecological restoration is an act of reciprocity, and the Earth asks us to turn our gifts to healing the damage we have done. The Earth-shaping prowess that we thoughtlessly use to sicken the land can be used to heal it. It is not just the land that is broken, but our relationship with land. We can be partners in renewal; we can be medicine for the Earth.

Pulling invasive weeds is my way of being partner in renewal; it is medicine both for Earth and for my battered spirit. 

What is your way of being medicine for this living planet, the only home our species has ever known?

Lessons from Nature: Picking Up Roadkill Redux

I'm writing this from my space at Mammoth Campground in Yellowstone National Park, with rain thrumming on Red's roof, and me drying out after a wet morning of digging invasive weeds. (The photo above is the partial rainbow that just appeared in a brief patch of sun between showers.) The good thing about a couple of days of wet weather is that it's easier to pry stubborn perennial weed plants out of the soil. The bad thing is that all of the plants are soaking wet, so I end up getting pretty wet too. 

Being wet and cold while doing hard physical work is nothing new for me. I've been an outdoors person all my life: I grew up hiking, backpacking, and cross-country skiing; I worked in the backcountry as a field ecologist when I was younger, walking miles every day as I mapped and described forests and grasslands. In recent years, I've done carpentry and renovation, and now I spend my "vacation" time in Yellowstone hand-digging invasive weeds in bone-hard, muscle-aching sessions.  

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), one of my favorite spring wildflowers and the state flower of Montana, is one of the native plants that flourishes where I've removed invasive weeds in Yellowstone. 

What's new is that I'm learning to notice when my body has had enough. Enough stopping and digging, enough being cold, enough wet. And once I notice I'm beginning to tire, instead of pushing myself to do more, I do something I would never have done back in the days when I believed myself entirely invincible: I stop working. Not immediately, of course.

I'm not that good. But sooner than I once would have, usually soon enough to keep my Lupus from kicking in and sending me into a state of feverish shivers and muscle aches that make me feel like someone beat my whole body with a ball-peen hammer.

You'd think I would have learned that lesson long ago, since I've had this autoimmune condition all my adult life. I have learned to mind my energy and my limitations in many ways.

But not with work I love, work that puts a smile on a my face and a light in my soul. When I'm digging in new perennial plants for the pollinator habitat in my yard or wielding tools to do finish work on my house; when I'm digging invasive weeds to restore wild communities in Yellowstone, I am in the zone, making a positive contribution in the world, and I am so not paying attention to my body. That's when I'm likely to work beyond exhaustion and make myself sick, and then have to pull back and take it easier for a few days or a week. 

Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), another native wildflower that flourishes where invasive weeds are removed. I dig weeds to restore these plants and their community.
Only since I've been here in Yellowstone this week, I've noticed myself paying attention to my body and my physical condition, and pulling back before I am exhausted, not after. I'm surprised, but I like it. 

It could be age bringing some belated wisdom–I'll be 62 this September, unarguably a senior. 

Or it could be the badger I saw on my way to Mammoth on Friday afternoon. I was three hours into my drive, thinking ahead to getting to the campground and claiming my site, and getting my first look at my weeding areas. It was a showery afternoon, and I had just slithered through a bear jam (a mama black bear and three cubs near the road) that had traffic stalled for half a mile south of Tower Junction, and I just wanted to get on my way. 

I passed a car stopped dead on the road to shoot a video of an elk, and then swooped around a corner with clear road ahead when I saw a hump of salt and pepper fur fronted by a wide head bisected by a black slash in the middle of my lane: a badger. Motionless.

The body was under my truck and gone before I had a moment to respond, and when I did, I thought, I can't stop. I have to be in Mammoth by four. 

Only that was a badger, dead on the road. The last badger I saw dead on a highway was thirty years ago, and that one set me on this path of speaking for those whose voices we fail to hear and atoning for the thoughtless destruction we cause to Earth, our home. 

The essay I wrote about that first badger, "Picking Up Roadkill," a piece that appeared in the Denver Post, and also formed part of one chapter of my last book, Walking Nature Home, still ranks as one of the best pieces I've ever written. It opened a door in my life, and gave my work new purpose. 

And here was a second badger, and I was in a rush. I cursed under my breath, found a place to turn around, drove back and pulled Red as far as I could off the narrow highway. I reached behind my seat and found my weed-pulling gloves, waited for a break in the traffic, and dashed onto the road. As I  carefully lifted the badger's body from the pavement, I was surprised by how limp and warm the body was, as if the animal was simply sleeping.

For a moment I thought the badger might wake and snap at me. There was no blood, no skid marks, no broken bones. Just the badger's heavy form, soft fur, and brown eyes. Just death.

Tears filled my eyes as I carried the badger off the road and laid it gently on the ground between two fragrant sagebrushes, lupine blooming nearby. I lingered a moment, my hand on that thick fur, saying good bye. And then dashed to my truck, peeling off my gloves. 

"Thank you, badger," I said, as I pulled Red back onto the road and drove on. "I get it. I'm slowing down." 

As I spoke the words, I felt the badger in my hands again, felt the weight of the limp body and that soft fur, felt both badgers, thirty years apart, and I promised my own body that I would pay attention, go slower, be more mindful. Take my time. 

And now, with rain thrumming on Red's roof and the windshield steaming up from my out-breaths, I am doing just that. Taking my time, letting my body rest between bouts of pulling invasive weeds. Savoring my moments. I can't wake that badger, killed crossing the road in its home territory of Yellowstone, theoretically a protected place.

But I can live my life in a way that honors the lives of badgers and all other wild beings by taking my time and doing what I can to mend this battered world and all who share this extraordinary home, our Earth. Me too. 

An elk calf who watched me weed for a while, along with her mom.

Windshield Time: Listening and Making Time


I’ve been on the road since a few days after I wrote the last blog post, driving almost 4,000 miles in two and a half weeks. Which may prompt you to ask, “Didn’t you just write about re-learning your limits?” 


I did. This trip was very much an exercise in making time to remember what I do well and what inspires that doing. With reminding myself (again) how intimately linked the doing good work well and the taking care of myself are. One does not happen without the other. And remembering (again) that doing what I love means nurturing myself in the doing. 


I drove to central California via the southern route (St. George, Utah, Las Vegas, and Bakersfield, California) in order to avoid spring snowstorms in the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada. On my way, I stopped to visit a couple of places Richard and I always intended to see but never made time for, including Carrizo Plain National Monument between California’s Central Valley and the chaparral-covered, sage-scented coast ranges. (Photo at the top of the post.)


I drove into the faulted, grassy hills of Carrizo Plain from the south end, on a paved road so little used the prairie is actively reclaiming the edges and the middle is crumbling. The road follows the fracture of the San Andres Fault, so its term is limited anyway. Nature, as the bumper sticker says, really does bat last. 


I spent a couple of fruitful hours there with absolutely no agenda other than to stroll the unpeopled expanse of grasslands, searching for spring wildflowers and listening to the wind whisper in last year’s silvered grasses as meadowlarks fluted around me. I saw one other person, an intern who had driven the 50-some miles from the interpretive center to check on the un-staffed kiosk near the south “entrance,” where the barbed wire fence is the only sign of the monument’s boundary. We chatted about bird songs and wildflowers, and his work interpreting the Painted Rocks archeology site. And then he left, his truck rumbling away over the far ridge, leaving me with the peaceful winnowing of wind in the grass, sun warming my skin, and those melodious meadowlarks.  


Next stop: San Luis Obispo, where I took the time to spend the night with my dear friend Sharon Lovejoy, author and illustrator extraordinaire, and her husband Jeff Prostovich. (Here’s a blog post that gives a wonderful taste of Sharon and her work.) Some years back, Sharon and Jeff invited me to stay with them in the charming loft above Sharon’s painting and writing studio, with its walls of books old and new on nature and art and life. On subsequent trips to California, I have never had time to take them up on their offer. This trip, I made time, and had the gift of dinner and conversation in their Mission-style Craftsman bungalow, sleeping to rain pattering on the roof, and waking to birdsong and Sharon’s garden.



Part of Sharon’s garden, a riot of plants, from edibles like lemon trees to native shrubs and wildflowers, and a mecca for birds of all sorts. 


From Sharon and Jeff’s, I headed north to the Bay Area. The traffic on the 101 was miserable, and it rained almost all the way to San Francisco, but I saw two double rainbows on the way, which I took to be a good omen. 


The sun came out as Red and I wended our way through the city and then across the Golden Gate Bridge. I made time to stop in Marin City to meet with Nita Winter and Rob Badger, the two incredible photographers behind The Beauty & The Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change, a traveling museum exhibit and coffee-table book in progress. (I wrote an essay for the latter.) Seeing their photos up close was inspiring, as was trading stories of our work. 


From Marin City, I wound my way north and west to Fairfax, and up the narrow road with blind curves to the hillside house of my friend Jenny Barry, designer and packager of award-winning photo, illustrated, and cook books (books she has created have won the James Beard Award, the Colorado Book Award, and many others). Jenny’s husband, architect and sculptor Tom Powell designed their house with its clean lines, great light, and wonderful view. She needed a Girls’ Night, so we wound our way back down the hill to Tamal, a restaurant inspired by the cuisines of southern Mexico, where we ate a leisurely and delicious dinner and talked about our passions: books and publishing and kids and caregiving and ecological restoration. 


The next morning, I got up early and drove west toward Tomales Bay through fog giving way to sunlit meadows and the deep shade of redwood groves, aimed for Point Reyes Station and the Geography of Hope Conference. The Conference, an annual gathering focused this year on “finding resilience in nature in perilous times,” was my reason for the trip. When I first saw the announcement, the theme spoke to me on all sorts of levels: in terms of my ecological restoration work, of finding and nurturing resilience, and just the idea of turning to nature when times feel perilous, as they have for me since the year I midwifed my mother, and my husband and the love of my life through their deaths. 


I saw the announcement, read the theme, and said to myself, “Oh, I would love to go, but I don’t have time.” And then I realized that I needed to make time to go to the conference. My intuition said, “Go! You will find what you need.” I argued, but my inner voice held firm. So I made time. 


And therein is one theme of this blog post: Being the best me I can be means finding time to do what feeds heart, mind, and soul. That is the essence of learning both my limits, and how to love me while doing the work I am passionate about: healing and restoring this earth and we who share our singular blue planet. Finding time, making time, taking time… to do what matters, what inspires, what helps me be who I am, and fuels what I love about what I do. 


The conference promised inspiration in building spiritual and emotional resilience, using nature as a touchstone. We heard from and were inspired by Peter Forbes, former Vice-President of the Trust for Public Land and now Vermont farmer, educator, and facilitator in the areas of leadership, conservation, and social justice; Rue Mapp, founder of the conservation and outdoor leadership program Outdoor Afro; and Caleen Sisk, Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people, the “Middle River People” of the McCloud River in northern California. Three very different people with very different stories, but all resilient and optimistic about the power of nature and culture to help us survive and even thrive in these perilous times. 


Their words and stories shook and reformed my understanding of what it means to be white and privileged, what it means to share the outdoors with people of different cultures and his/herstories, and what it means to have a deep spiritual relationship with a place stretching back many generations, and to heal the wounds of being ripped away from the place, and in the case of the Winnemem Wintu from the source of your identity, the salmon and the river. 


Even more inspiration and leadings came in conversations and stories of of other conference participants, having lunch with Susan Page Tillett, Director of The Mesa Refuge, where I have been fortunate to have a writing residency. In hanging out with Gavin Van Horn, Jeremy Ohmes, and Kate Cummins of the Center for Humans & Nature, a co-sponsor of the conference and an organization I write for now and again. In walking the marsh near the conference center with Kate and talking about our passions, being female in a perilous world, and about dealing with wrenching change.



Sky Road Webb kindling fire with a horseweed flower stalk in a cedar plank. It’s like magic… 


And more still, especially the hands-on work when 100 or so of the conference attendees, ranging from upper teens to 80s, gathered on the banks of Lagunitas Creek to plant over 300 native trees and willow cuttings and restore habitat for the creek’s unique winter-run Chinook salmon. First we searched the muddy banks for dry lichens and twigs to help Sky Road Webb, a Coast Miwok born to that watershed, kindle a sacred fire with a fire-stick of horseweed and a plank of cedar. Then Sky sang and taught us Coast Miwok songs for the creek and its salmon beside that sacred fire, so that by the time we broke into small groups to do the planting, we were singing and laughing and celebrating the work and the water and the land. 


I told myself that if I was going to take/make the time to go to the conference, I would open myself to whatever came. I did that all along the way, and at the conference I simply listened, not taking any notes other than what wrote itself on my heart and spirit. I kept that attitude over the thousand-mile drive east to Santa Fe, and during the week I spent in the City of Holy Faith before driving the last leg home. What I heard and did opened doors I hadn’t realized even existed.


I’m still contemplating what it means for my path. For now, it’s enough that I’m home in Cody, with snow flurrying outside, and my newly planted tomato, basil, and herb starts–the beginnings of this summer’s edible garden–are cozy on their heat-mat in my greenhouse window.


Happy Easter, Passover, Oestre, Spring… It’s the season of renewal and new life, and I feel that deeply in my heart and in my spirit. As the year turns toward light and new life it’s time to listen closely to what that renewal is asking of us. I want to honor that turning by continuing to stay open to what I hear and feel. Blessings!


 


Six varieties of heritage tomatoes, most organic and one of basil, plus raab and broccoli, and two kinds of flowers for pollinators, all seeded in. Thanks to Renee Shepherd and Renee’s Garden for the great seeds and garden inspiration!

Fieldwork: Turning 61 in Yellowstone

Last week, I headed for Yellowstone National Park for my final invasive-weed-digging session of the summer. I left the day the first fall storm blasted the park, and because of snow and accidents on the mountain passes, I took the long way around, driving north to Interstate 90 at Laurel, Montana, then west to Livingston, and then south to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I'm based for my volunteer work.

Taking the long way turned what is usually a three-hour commute into five-plus hours. In howling wind and slashing rain. Still, when I got to Mammoth, I put on my rain gear, dug out my plant knife and bear spray, and headed up the Beaver Ponds Trail to check out a patch of spotted knapweed (Centuarea maculosa) I had discovered on my last trip. (There I am in the photo at the top of the post, wet, a bit cold, but happy.)

I spent a couple of hours surveying my various weeding sites, and then called it a day. 

That night, I went to sleep to rain pattering on the roof of Red's topper, a soothing sound after a long drought has filled much of the West's air with forest-fire smoke. I woke to silence, the eerie strangled whistle of a bull elk bugling his harem, and… Snow. 

Red in the snow at the Mammoth Campground before dawn.

White, wet, and cold. After boiling water on Red's tailgate and making my breakfast (organic instant oatmeal with dried cranberries and raisins), I checked the weather. The temperature was 28 degrees F; the forecast predicted positively balmy mid-forties by afternoon. I decided to let the day warm up a bit before heading out with plant knife and bear spray in hand. 

I took a short hike to survey a spot where knapweed had been reported and watched a flock of at least 200 mountain bluebirds feeding in the shortgrass grasslands (I couldn't get close enough to shoot a photo). The mass of vivid blue bluebirds fluttering as they snatched half-frozen insects out of the air looked like it was snowing chips of blue sky!

That afternoon I spent a satisfying few hours filling a 33-gallon trash bag with knapweed carcasses. The soil was so wet that the plants popped out of the ground, root and all, with leverage from my plant knife and my hands.

Spotted knapweed or Centuarea maculosa in the language of science. Don't let those pretty purple flowers fool you, this plant is a killer. 

If you don't know spotted knapweed, here's the short explanation for why someone who loves plants and biodiversity spends her precious free time volunteering to kill them: Centaurea maculosa is native to Eurasia, where it has a place in the natural communities. On this continent, the plant has no long-term beneficial relationships with pollinators, songbirds, or grazers; it takes up space without contributing substantially. Worse yet, it exudes poisons out of its roots that kill surrounding plants, allowing knapweed to push those plants out, harm the ecosystem and dominate whole areas.

I've seen places where spotted knapweed rings centuries-old, head-high big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and gradually kills these shrubs that form the sheltering overstory for valleys and basins, much like coniferous trees provide the canopy for the mountain forests. 

I'm on a mission to help restore the shrubland and grassland communities of the northern part of Yellowstone, in particular those old-growth big sagebrush stands that are increasingly rare outside the park. The tallest big sagebrush grow where soils are deepest and most fertile, so they have long been plowed for farm fields and hay pastures. The 250 or so species that depend on big sagebrush, from pronghorn antelope and pygmy rabbits to sage-grouse and flashy black-and-white sagebrush sheepmoths suffer when these stands disappear. 

So I dig knapweed, working on my hands and knees with my trusty plant knife, speaking quietly to the sagebrush as I remove the knapweed and their killing roots from the soil. "Hang in there, Grandmothers," I say, applying leverage to the handle of my plant knife to grub out a particularly huge clump of knapweed with a foot-long root. "I'm working on restoring your soil. Don't give up yet!"

A big sagebrush taller than I am and at least several centuries old slowly being poisoned by a colony of spotted knapweed.

So my weeding days go, some sunny and warm, some chill and windy. I dig until my legs and fingers cramp, and then take time to read and think and wander favorite trails. 

Monday morning I woke in before dawn as the darkness eased, hearing a bull elk give his piercing and strangled whistle very nearby. I sat up in my sleeping bag, but there wasn't enough light yet to see where he was. About half an hour later, when I was up and dressed, and had my camp stove on Red's tailgate boiling water for my oatmeal, he began to bugle again.

Soon, there was crashing on the hillside. Half a dozen cow elk appeared, trotting down the steep slope. A few of them stopped to chow down on the chokecherry shrubs at the neighboring campsite, for all the world as if they were in a buffet line. 

Chokecherry morning buffet… 

More cows trotted down the hill. The bull wheezed and whistled, the sound coming closer. More cows ambled by, some with late calves following. 

Just as I sat on the tailgate with my cup of hot oatmeal, Mr. Stud himself appeared, all hormones with rack high, pushing the last of his two-dozen-cow harem right through my campsite. I retreated into Red's topper as he stopped a few yards away and looked around as if to say, "I'm here. Where is the party?"

 

A good way to begin my 61st birthday!

After the show and breakfast, I packed up my trash bags, plant knife, and bear spray, and went back to work digging knapweed. 

At the end of the day, I relaxed in the lounge at the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room over a shot of very good Montana micro-distillery whisky and a serving of warm huckleberry cobbler with local vanilla ice cream. 

The Dining Room and Lounge in summer, with elk lounging on the old parade ground, ogled by visitors. 

Sixty-one is a difficult milestone for me. Not because I fear being old. For one who wasn't expected to live past my twenties, each year is a blessing. I've earned these wrinkles and the silver hairs shining through the red. 

It's difficult because sixty-one is the age when Richard, the love of my life and my husband for the better part of three decades, died of brain cancer. I will be older than him soon, and forever after. As I live on, the years we spent together recede. That is hard. 

It is easier to bear the grief when I have useful work. Which is why I volunteer to dig invasive weeds in the landscape I love. And why I write. Because in this time of drawing lines between "us" and "them," of hating those who are different; in this time of global climate change, of hurricanes so powedeful we have never seen their like or the scale of their destruction before, of tragic earthquakes, doing something to heal this earth and we who share it is more important than ever. 

I believe love wins in the end. And I do love this earth and the lives who work together to make it home to us all. 

Me at 61, with one of my favorite grandmother plants. 

Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Restoration

If you're like me, you probably spent a lot of time in the past several weeks surfing the internet for news of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. I have friends and relatives in Houston (all were flooded out with varying severity, but all are okay) and friends in the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, and in Florida (all okay so far).  

Part of my obsession with the news is concern about those in harm's way, and part is the kind of horrified fascination we humans are subject to when seeing a catastrophe unfold as we watch. I grieve for the people killed and injured, and for those whose homes and lives have been devastated.

I grieve equally for the longer-term catastrophe of global climate change. For those millions of species and uncountable individuals with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for so much, from the oxygen we breathe to the beauty that succors our souls. These lives have also taken a huge hit from the two hurricanes: the trees in the forests on St. Barts stripped bare; the bats and lizards that once sheltered in those trees, the birds and butterflies. The fish and rays in the shallows as whole bays are sucked dry, then catastrophically flooded by passing storms. The corals, the sharks, the alligators and manatees, the mangroves whose roots buffer storm surges and shelter so many other lives… 

We can't know if global climate change is specifically responsible for this first-ever incident of two Category 4 hurricanes hitting the US mainland within a short time. (Irma was a Cat 5 when it hit the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but had lessened to a Cat 4 when it hit Key West.) As this article in the LA Times explains, we can say that warming air temperatures and the resultant warming of oceans caused by global climate change makes stronger hurricanes more likely.

So whether or not each storm was a direct result of global climate change, two catastrophic storms coming so close together are a picture of what the future looks like: more extreme weather events, and fewer "normal" periods of stable weather. More intense rainfall and flooding in some places and longer droughts in others; more catastrophic tornadoes, winds, cyclones; more severe winter storms where I live, and warmer and drier winters elsewhere.  

And of course, more wildfires like the ones burning across the West and coloring my dawn runs (top photo) and sunsets. Whole landscapes will change as species move or die out in response to global climate change. That alone feels unbearably sad.

Forest-fire-smoke tinted sunset over Cody

Grief is paralyzing, something I know well after losing Richard to brain cancer nearly six years ago (glioblastoma, the same kind that Senator McCain is dealing with). Sometimes you just have to go with it and let the waves wash over you. But if you stay down too long, you may never surface again.

My remedy for long-term grief of that sort that could very well drown a person is to do something. Not just anything at random, something that is a direct counter to the cause of the grief. 

Writing is one of my grief therapies. Habitat restoration is the other, specifically returning healthy communities of native species to degraded land. I've restored songbird and butterfly habitat to the grounds of a coal-fired power plant, restored healthy mountain prairie on a blighted former industrial parcel, nursed a thread of urban creek that had become a waste-dump ditch back to life as a cleanser of urban runoff and feeder trout stream. 

That creek before restoration…

And after.

In the face of global climate change, restoration offers hope. It feels like something tangible I can do to heal at least my small corner of the earth. 

So I am grateful that I have this house to bring back to life, its formerly sterile lawn-and-shade-tree yard to re-wild, and that I have the opportunity to work in Yellowstone National Park as a radical weeder, helping to restore the ecosystems of the place often called America's Serengheti for its awe-inspiring wildlife, large and small. 

I'm headed back to Yellowstone later this week for one last weeding stint, and to celebrate my 61st birthday in a landscape that holds my heart. When I get home, the last set of replacement windows will be in the garage waiting their turn to make my house more energy-efficient and sustainable. (Retrofitting my house to use less energy is part of my restoration effort to combat global climate change.) A new shipment of native and heritage plants will be awaiting planting as I continue to transform lawn into habitat that welcomes songbirds and pollinators. 

Purple sage (Salvia pachyphilla), beloved of butterflies, thriving in the rock garden that replaces part of my front lawn.

And I will return to work writing the new version of Bless the Birds, my memoir celebrating love and life. 

Yesterday I took a break from writing and obsessing over hurricane news, and began laying out the borders for a sitting patio and paths in the part of my back yard that won't be disturbed by the giant forklift when the largest window unit is installed later this month.

(The bricks are a gift of my neighbor, who has a spare stack of about 200. He saw me lining paths in my front yard with bricks and offered his to me. His yard is a tidy lawn and shade trees, his politics are the opposite of mine; no matter, we trade building materials, cookies, and snow shoveling in winter.)

Next summer, I'll sit on that patio in the shade of the big spruce tree, and watch butterflies and native bees visit the wildflowers in the native meadow I'll plant when window-replacement is finished. 

Restoration heals. Lives, buildings, whole landscapes. Our bodies, spirits, our communities, our wildlands. Our planet. 

We can all find ways to help restore what is broken, to bridge divides, to heal the losses. We must. Working together, we can accomplish miracles. 

Weeding Out Hatred and Darkness


Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches


When hate and greed seem to dominate our world, as with yesterday’s ugly and tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s natural to feel despair and grief, along with anger and hopelessness. What can we do, each of us, to combat what seems like an overwhelming descent into the darkness of violence and hatred? 


How can we heal this polarized nation, stem the tide of hate splitting what used to be “us” into tribes fearful of “them”? For that matter, how can we heal this earth, its climate changing so fast that whole ecosystems are breaking down, and we are losing species, in some cases before we even know them? 


I don’t think there is any one answer to those questions, any one “right” way to proceed. It’s up to each of us, working in our own way, to stand up for what we believe in.


To speak up and speak out. To act up, reach out, to write or march or preach or protest. To dance, sing, paint; to craft legislation, investigate crimes, argue points in legislatures, hearings, or courts. To fight fires, heal the wounded, pick up the pieces, comfort those who are scared or sick. To raise great kids, tend our elders and parents and partners. To do whatever we are called to do with love and compassion.


For all. Everyone. All lives, human and also those myriad of other lives with whom we share this extraordinary blue planet. 



Like these bees feeding on a thistle flower. 


The quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the top of the post guides my response: I aim to spread love and light in my every day actions. Because I believe that what we do speaks at least as loudly as what we say. So I treat others with kindness and respect; I extend my love to those who are difficult to love; I stand up for those who are being mistreated, speak for those who have no voice; I act with the love and light that have the power to drive out darkness and hatred.


I’m no saint. I get cranky and tired and impatient and angry. But I try to notice how I am feeling and choose to not take out my moods on others. I choose love. And kindness, a smile rather than a curse or a kick. I would rather be the one who opens a door than slams it shut in someone else’s face. 



I’m not a push-over. If you think because I approach the world with a smile and kindness you can take advantage of me, think again. I stand up for myself and for others. Like the velvet-ant in the photo above (actually not an ant at all but a flightless female wasp), I have a stinger, and I will use it!


What I won’t be is intentionally mean or hateful or hurtful or divisive. As I say in my morning prayer,


Make me strong. Not to overcome my brothers and sisters; to live in the Light and spread it to all I touch.


I believe that goodness has more staying power than hatred and violence. I believe that our everyday actions set a tone that others respond to. I believe in King’s words: light can drive away the metaphorical darkness of racism and violence and greed; love can drive out hatred. 


Which is why I spent this past week in Yellowstone National Park, continuing my ecological restoration project, AKA digging out invasive weeds.


“Wait,” you say, “I thought you were extending light and love to all. Now you are calling some lives ‘weeds?’ How is that consistent with living with compassion and love?” 


To me, “living in the Light” means standing up to bullies, and if need be, removing them to restore health to the community. To an ecologist, a weed is an introduced species who hasn’t evolved healthy relationships, a species who doesn’t contribute to the community and doesn’t play well with others. A weed is a bully who, like the plants with the lovely purple flowers in the photo below, poisons other plants in order to gain a competitive advantage for itself. 



Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), a native of Eastern Europe which exudes poisons through its roots to kill the plants around it. 


I spent the week digging spotted knapweed by hand from areas around Mammoth Hot Springs. I dug up nine 30-gallon trash bags full of mature knapweed plants (some with tap roots a foot long!), about 200 plants and 15-20 pounds per bag. That’s a lot of bullies.


There’s a lot more knapweed to remove, but when I go back and look at an area that I and my fellow weed-warrior volunteers have worked on, I am heartened to see the native plants recovering, to see seedlings of bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoregneria spicata), oval-leafed buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium), and basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata) moving in to re-weave a healthy community.


As I stoop or kneel to dig and yank and bag weeds, I speak to both the weeds and the surrounding native plants, explaining what I am doing, telling them that I do this work with love and respect for their existence. That my calling is to restore this earth and celebrate its extraordinary diversity of lives. I don’t know whether my words reach them, but I know that they can sense my mood. And that matters. 


I also speak to park visitors passing by, letting them know why I am crouched near the ground, dusty and sweaty, wielding a seven-inch-long plant knife. Often they thank me for the work I’m doing, which is nice, but not my point. I want them to know that we humans can be a positive force in the world, a healing force, that we can use our power for love and light. That we can each make a difference.


I want to leave this world, or at least my small corner of it, in better shape than I found it. That is my way of pushing back the darkness and hatred. 



Hundreds-of-years-old big sagebrush shrubs, the old-growth “canopy” of the lower elevations of Yellowstone, and what I work to protect. 

Fieldwork: Weeding for Biodiversity

I ended last week's blog post with a draft of a mission statement for my work. I've been trying to explain to myself for years what unites the varied passions that propel me through life.

I'm a writer and plant ecologist, a person happiest outdoors, whether just in my yard or in wilder places. (Though my yard is pretty wild at times!) I'm rooted in the inland West where sagebrush perfumes the air after spring rains, sandhill cranes bugle as they migrate in to nest in summer, and winter days are edged with snow. 

I'm passionate about nature, both the study of earth's web of life and reconnecting humans to our place in the planet. Specifically, I'm drawn to plants, especially those native to this continent, for their ability to evoke place and also their myriad of relationships that weave that web of life.

I have spent decades restoring nature, often on my own and without pay, particularly nature in the places where we live, with a special interest in gritty industrial landscapes and urban creeks and rivers. 

I garden with an eye to growing habitat for pollinators and songbirds, as well as providing food, scents and colors, tranquility, and beauty for humans. 

I write as a way to understand and explore the meaning in life, both my own life, and the larger cycle of capital 'L' life, existence. To show us why we are here, and to reveal the wonder and incredible variety of the world we live in, including the myriad of other life forms with whom we share this planet. 


The thread is clear: I'm passionate about nurturing and celebrating life in all its glorious diversity, with a particular emphasis on plants and words.

Which is why I'm spending my annual  "vacation" in Yellowstone National Park, digging out invasive weeds to help restore these iconic landscapes to health. So that this island of wild biodiversity may continue to thrive and inspire us all. 

Houndstongue, AKA Cynoglossum officianale, a plant imported from Asia and one that truly does not play well on this continent.

Wait! You say. How does labeling plants as invasive weeds and then killing them square with nurturing biodiversity? 

Like everything else in life, it's complicated. The phrase "restore the integrity of nature" is key to what I'm doing in Yellowstone. Some species don't play well when they're transplanted to new places, where they lack the interrelationships with other species that give them a positive role in the community.  

They may "go rogue" and actually endanger the health of the whole community. Think salt cedar or tamarisk in the inland West, crowding out the diverse ribbons of species along the region's rivers and streams, and poisoning the soil as they shed their salty leaves. 

The plant I'm focusing on, houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale), a native of Eurasia, protects itself from grazers by manufacturing compounds that act as liver disrupters in wild ungulates like deer, elk, and moose. If for instance, an elk calf munched enough of houndstongue's large, felty leaves (which are at their most attractive just as the baby elk are learning how to graze), it might well die of liver failure in a few weeks or months.  

Houndstongue may also do something more subtle and potentially more disruptive to Yellowstone's ecosystems: it may co-opt the attention of native bumblebees by growing tall stalks of flowers that bloom for a long time and are attractive to native bumblebees.

Bumblebees and other native bees are critical to the survival of Yellowstone's native wildflowers: they pollinate their flowers and ensure the next generation, seeds. If say, a plant from somewhere else takes over whole areas and keeps bees from pollinating the native flowers, they decrease and the invader increases, which fragments the integrity of the ecosystem and ends up reducing biodiversity. 

So here I am in Yellowstone, digging up trash bags full of one invasive, non-native species to nurture biodiversity in the larger native community. (I hiked five miles yesterday, and dug up about 50 pounds of houndstongue. Hard, rewarding work!)

I'm working for the health of the lupine (the native wildflower being pollinated by the bumblebee in the photo above), the sagebrush, the elk, and the whole interwoven community that forms these iconic landscapes.

And I'm having a wonderful time, camping in Red, and listening to elk and western tanagers, admiring wildflowers and hot springs, and taking in time in a place where I began this work of celebrating and nurturing biodiversity decades ago.  

Of course, I'm still playing with that mission statement. (Writing really is 95 percent revision!) Here's another version:

I nurture and celebrate biodiversity, plant by plant, word by word. I work to restore the integrity of nature and to honor all forms of life. Because diversity is key to health–of cultures, neighborhoods, and ecosystems. That our planet may thrive, and we along with it.

The Gardner River below Mammoth, roaring with spring snowmelt.

Road Report: 4,680 miles later…

I'm pretty sure that Red sighed with relief when I backed her into the garage late Thursday afternoon, home again after going 4,680 miles in the previous three weeks. (And five of those days we didn't drive anywhere. That's an average of 275 miles per driving day, which doesn't sound too bad until you add it all up!) 

The last leg of the trip, US 285 southwest from Denver to the Upper Arkansas Valley, was the slowest. It's mostly two-lane road, and the leaf-peepers were out in force because the aspen colors were at their height, as in the photo above, which I shot as we cruised (slowly) over Kenosha Pass, at nearly 10,000 feet elevation.

I didn't mind the slow folks, but some drivers did, and hip-hopped their way up the long lines of cars and trucks, passing in dangerous spots. I'd rather be patient and get there alive, thank you very much. Besides, it's easier to shoot good photos of the gold and orange mountainsides when you're going slower… 

I've said that windshield time is fruitful thinking time for me. So what did I learn in all those miles and hours on the road?

That I love the inland West and its rumpled, lava-covered, faulted, eroded, folded, and up-tilted landscapes; its spare and wild and wide spaces.

Split Rock Historic Site, near Jeffrey City, Wyoming

And that I love them best in autumn, when the leaves are turning brilliant colors: the scarlet fire of bigtooth maples in Utah's Wasatch Front, the quaking aspen turning whole mountainsides gold and orange, the river-side boxelders and their lemon-yellow leaves. And the shrubs: smooth currant in blaze-orange, brighter than any hunter's vest; burgundy chokecherry, Woods' rose ranging from russet to rust; crimson red-twig dogwood, and lemon dogbane. 

Scarlet groves of bigtooth maple on the mountainsides above Spanish Fork, Utah

The landscapes, the colors, the people I worked with, the time with my family; even the houndstongue and knapweed I dug out by the roots in Yellowstone on my 60th birthday reminded me of why I write, and why I work with plants. I love these landscapes, and I not only want to show others their mysteries and magic; I want to leave the places I touch in better shape than I found them. 

My work in life is to weave we humans back into the fabric of this living world in a way that we can be useful planetary citizens, that we can feel like we belong here. My work is also to restore that living fabric of nature wherever I can. I use those metaphors of fabric deliberately, because I think of this earth as a global tapestry in the sense that we're all connected, all part of a living, breathing, pulsing web, an organic network that makes this planet the luminous place it is. 

I came home to my front meadow in glorious bloom, and the flowers crowning the rabbitbrush here in the valley echoing the lush gold of the aspen blanketing the mountainsides.

Part of my front meadow–the gears are industrial relics Richard planned to use in sculptures

To tomato, cucumber and squash plants that needed harvesting and cutting back; a flood of emails and messages to respond to, and deadlines for workshops and webinars and writing. 

And to the feel of change in the air: the change that is autumn, the time we harvest summer's fruits of all sorts and prepare for the coming winter; and also the changes I sense in my life path. I can't articulate those yet, but I know they are ahead. 

This morning I woke to frost on the deck and crisp 30-degree-F air. The peaks were dusted with snow from the previous night's storm, and the aspen were brilliant against that white lace. 

I spent the first half of the day doing fall clean-up in Monarch Spur Park, the pocket park and habitat garden I designed and helped create for the City of Salida 16 years ago, and the second half of the day working in my own yard. The time in the company of plants and people who take joy from these sun-powered beings soothed me and settled my spirit. 

I feel ready for whatever is ahead, whatever lies beyond the bend in my life-path I cannot quite see now. And I am conscious of one other gift of all of those road-miles: I am happy to be right here, right now.

Blessings to you all!

Road Report: Yellowstone at 60


The US National Park Service turned 100 this year, celebrating its centennial in various ways at different parks throughout the country. I turned 60 last Sunday, and I decided to celebrate that personal milestone in Yellowstone National Park, our nation’s first park, established in 1872, forty-four years before the park service was established. (The photo above is the Gardiner River near the north edge of Yellowstone.)


Yellowstone is my favorite park and the place I began the work that still inspires me today, researching and restoring ecosystems. Back then, plant ecology was my career and my living; now I’m a writer, teacher and speaker. Ecological restoration is still my passion, but I mostly work as a volunteer.



Working along the Old Gardiner Road in Yellowstone…


I spent two weeks on a working vacation in Yellowstone in June, doing just that: digging out invasive weeds by hand to help heal degraded areas around Mammoth Hot Springs, my “home” in the park. It was a rewarding time in terms of how much I accomplished, and how good it felt to be giving back to a place I love. 


So when Rocky Mountain Gardening Magazine invited me to speak as part of their annual “Live!” garden inspiration event at Chico Hot Springs Resort, just north of Yellowstone, on the day after my birthday (thank you, Dan and Andra!), I decided to make that an excuse to return to the park, and celebrate my birthday by continuing my weed-eradication work there. 


Why spend my birthday doing hard labor grubbing out knapweed and houndstongue, two species of persistent and seriously disruptive perennial weeds? 



For the same reasons I cited in my Why Garden? talk at the “Live!” event:


  • To preserve biodiversity by improving habitat for wild species
  • Help counteract climate change by promoting ecosystem health
  • To get a serious dose of Vitamin N–nature–and its physical, physiological, and mental-health benefits
  • And not least, to provide succor for my soul. 

Sixty is a major milestone for me for a number of reasons, most importantly because it’s the age my love, Richard Cabe, was when we learned his brain cancer had returned with a vengeance. He had just celebrated his 60th birthday by attending a sculpture conference and swimming in the Arkansas River, and was feeling great. Then came the news of the new tumors, and the realization that he might not survive.


He died five years ago come November, a few months after he turned 61, leaving me a widow at 55. 



Richard after brain surgery number three, stapled scalp and all… 


So I’m now reaching the fifth anniversary of the ending of his life, and am thinking seriously about what I will do with whatever remains of my life. 


We truly don’t know what’s ahead–a lesson I know only too well after helping my rudely healthy husband live as well as possible through chemo and radiation, four brain surgeries, chemo again, and finally having to learn to let go of life after the glioblastoma commandeered his entire right brain. 


I had assumed I would just continue on as I have been without Richard, but now I am rethinking the form and shape of my days as “Woman Alone.” I’ve decided to throw the possibilities wide open and re-evaluate all of my assumptions: where I will live, what work I want to do in my 60s and beyond, how my life will look. 


I don’t have any answers yet, but I have some ideas.



The North Fork of the Shoshone River, as Red and I headed upstream into Yellowstone on Saturday. 


Which I’m going to consider in the next few days, as I start the long drive home from Montana tomorrow with my friend and fellow passionate plantswoman and speaker, Lauren Springer Ogden. I’ll continue to let those possibilities “compost” in the back of my mind over the coming weeks as I catch up on writing and teaching work, including preparing for a memoir-writing workshop I’m teaching Colorado Springs, and then the Women Writing the West Conference in Santa Fe in mid-October. 


And I’ll continue to live with my heart outstretched as if it was my hand, because I believe that living with love and compassion is the best we gift we humans can give each other, especially now.


Bless you all for being who you are, and giving this life your best each day. 



 


 

Fieldwork: Yellowstone Time


It’s almost ten a.m. and I am squatting in the fragrant and dusty shade of a basin big sagebrush shrub (Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata) as tall as I am, and perhaps twice my age. The seven-inch blade of my Hori-hori (a Japanese knife that serves as the multi-tool for we plant-folk) is shoved as deep as it will go into the dry soil. I twist the curved blade side to side, grunting with the effort of prying out the taproot of a flowering clump of invasive houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale)


The sweat rolling down my back tells me that the temperature is nearing the day’s predicted high of 90 degrees F. It’s time for a water break. But first I want to dig out this biggest of the houndstongue plants in a patch of the noxious weeds crowding the old-growth sagebrush and wildflowers in this ravine along the Old Gardiner Road above Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park


I lever the knife a little deeper into the soil, twist again, and “Crack!” The stubborn clump suddenly pops out, and I fall backwards, plant in hand.



A clump of houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale) with my hori-hori for scale


As I push up and dust myself off, I hear a soft “Whuff!” nearby. I freeze. 


Earlier, I smelled the musky odor of elk, and carefully probed with my hiking stick to make sure there were no calves hiding in the shade of the sagebrush where I work. Getting between a mother elk and her gangly-legged calf is not something I want to do–elk cows can easily knock down and break the ribs of even a large human (and I am definitely not large). 


I turn my head in the direction of the sound, noticing the trilling songs of the sagebrush sparrows have gone silent. I reach for the canister of bear spray in the pocket of my daypack. 


Then I see the source of the noise, and laugh out loud. A dozen or so pronghorn bucks are resting up the hill, and one, presumably the lead guy, has his head up giving that breathy warning.



The pronghorn “boys” at rest


“If you’ve just noticed me,” I say out loud, “I’ve been working here for at least two hours.” My voice trails off as I realize the pronghorn are watching movement up the ravine, not me.


Something large and furry moves downhill, weaving between the shrubs. I fold myself into the shade of the sagebrush, and pop the nozzle guard off the canister of bear spray just as a cinnamon black bear, reddish fur glinting in the sunlight trots out onto the dusty road not ten yards away. And after her tumble two adorable cubs, both black. 


She stops, sniffs–the air is still–snaps at the cubs when they don’t follow her and cuffs one for good measure as if to say, “Listen to me!” And then the trio trots down the road, the mama bear striding gracefully for such a bulky body, the cubs cavorting around her. I watch, still as a statue, holding my breath, until they disappear around the far bend. 


The sagebrush sparrows begin their trilling songs again. I take a long breath and look over my shoulder for the pronghorn; they’ve vanished too. 


As I rise, leg muscles shaking, I think, “I should have taken a photo!” Only that would have meant moving and likely giving away my presence. Not a good idea.


I stow the bear spray and take a long drink from my water bottle. I stretch my sore back and legs, toss the clump of houndstongue into the half-full trash bag, probe another sagebrush thicket with my hiking stick, and bend over to dig out another clump of ecosystem-disrupting noxious weeds. 


Just another morning in Yellowstone…



Red, my camper and weed-bag hauler… 


By the time I quit that day, I was sweaty and exhausted. As I hoisted three 30-gallon bags–50 to 60 pounds of houndstongue plants out of the ecosystem–into the back of Red, my truck, my mind focused on food and rest in the patch of shade at my campsite in the Mammoth Campground. 


Later, I thought back to that heart-stopping moment when the bear and her cubs trotted out of the sagebrush close enough that I could clearly see the individual hairs on the mom’s back. In that heart-stopping moment, my pulse rate quickened along with my breathing, and my awareness of the world sharpened.


I felt intensely alive and connected to the lives around me–the ancient and aromatic sagebrush, the balsamroot with its golden flowerheads, the pronghorn on the ridge, the sagebrush sparrows silenced by the bears’ passage, the buzzing bumblebees and fluttering butterflies, and of course, the bear family. 


Those moments of intense awareness are part of why I spent two weeks working in Yellowstone. I wanted to remind myself of what it is to live without the distractions that we allow to fill our everyday lives–the bings and beeps of our digital devices, the clamoring voices, the deadlines and demands, the urgency of it all.



Two weeks largely unplugged, doing sweaty labor outside in the sun and wind with the sound of birdsong and pronghorn “whuff!” around me; two weeks doing something useful, something healing for the landscapes I lov, gave me a depth of connection that doesn’t come with visiting and hiking.


And it also gave me a gift I didn’t expect: refilling my spirit, and restoring my emotional balance and my belief in life as basically a good thing. Which helped in weathering the horror of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida, and the disturbing xenophobia of the Brexit vote in Britain. 


Two weeks of doing useful physical work in the company of elk and black bears, sagebrush and bumblebees reminded me of what really matters in life: what we do, not what we accumulate. Living our lives with kindness, generosity and compassion. Leaving this earth in better shape than we found it. 


It’s great to come home with a bear story, but that’s not the point. The point is that we all, each of us, can find the time to do useful work. To contribute goodness to the world in our own ways. And goodness knows, the world needs that everyday dose of light and love now. More than ever.