Fall planting of Monet's Garden mix plus mache (corn salad), overwintered under row covers and now ready to eat.

Loving-my-own-earth Days

Fall planting of Monet's Garden mix plus mache (corn salad), overwintered under row covers and now ready to eat. Fall planting of Monet’s Garden mix plus mache (corn salad), overwintered under row covers and now ready to eat.

Yesterday, I planted spring and early summer seeds in my kitchen garden: Wasabi arugula (yes, it is really spicy!), Pixie cabbage, Bright Lights chard as colorful as its name, Paris Market mix (piquant and flavorful greens and herbs including chervil with its licorice overtones), Monet’s Garden mesclun (the lovely ruffled lettuces in reds and greens in the photo), Five Variety Mix (beautiful heritage lettuces including the aptly named speckled troutback), Regiment spinach, All-Season Blend broccoli, Baby Ball and golden beets, and Trieste bulbling fennel.

All come from Renee’s Garden Seeds, a pioneer in bringing flavorful, beautiful and easy-to-grow varieties to home gardeners. Seedswoman Renee Shepherd was passionate about local food and home gardening long before the locavore movement made both trendy, and is now working to source her seeds from organic growers. Thanks to Renee, I grow a bounteous kitchen garden and share that earth-healthy harvest with friends and neighbors.

A native Mammalaria or nipple cactus hiding in the blue grama grass, its rosy flower buds growing fat. A native Mammalaria or nipple cactus hiding among the curling leaves of the blue grama grass.

Today I spent much of the day sitting in my front yard, “pronghorning” my native dryland meadow. (The second half of that blog post explains my spring grassland-cleanup methods.) I don’t mow my mountain prairie, a tufted expanse of bunchgrasses and wildflowers.

Instead, once a year I cut it back and hand-rake it to remove the fine dead grass leaves and wildflower stalks. Stalks with seeds go to whatever patch of my formerly blighted industrial property is currently in need of revegetation. The curling dead grass leaves get placed around the yard as nesting material for house finches, mountain bluebirds and other songbirds.

Bright spring green Rocky Mountain penstemon leaves with red edges. Bright spring green Rocky Mountain penstemon leaves with red edges.

The gift of the time I spend up close and personal with the native grassland Richard and I so carefully restored on this difficult site is in seeing spring appear. Here at 7,000 feet elevation, nights are still wintry, dropping into the teens and low twenties, and spring showers are likely to come rattling sleet or dropping wet flakes of snow.

Green is never abundant in this high-desert climate. Which makes it all the more cheering to cut back dead flower stalks and find new spring leaves sheltering close to the sun-warmed soil like these Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus).

The silky hairs on pasque flower leaves trap heat and slow air movement, helping this early-spring plant modify still-wintry conditions. The silky hairs on pasque flower leaves trap heat and slow air movement, helping this early-spring plant modify still-wintry conditions.

Or pasque flower, the grassland rival to crocus with its blowsy purple flowers blooming while most other mountain prairie plants think it’s still winter. Or the tiny burgundy-colored leaves of wholeleaf indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra), the ferny rosettes of scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) or the wavy-edged leaves of blanketflower (Gallairdia aristata). Or the soft new green leaves of big sagebrush (Seriphidium tridentatum), the shrub whose characteristic turpentine and orange blossom pungency marks the part of the West I call home.

Big sagebrush, Seriphidium tridentum, the indicator shrub for the landscapes I call home. Big sagebrush, Seriphidium tridentum, the indicator shrub for the landscapes I call home.

Sitting in my native grassland yard as I comb my fingers through the bunches of fine grasses and snap last year’s seed stalks from the wildflowers gives me the opportunity to observe the community of plants and their flying, crawling, burrowing and grazing partners in detail. That close attention is a kind of love, a way of honoring these resilient lives with whom I share this particular plot of ground.

It’s my love-my-own-earth Day observance, a reminder of the annual miracle of life renewing itself, no matter killing drought, horrific bombings, accidental plant explosions or other tragedies. When I uncover the new green of spring, my heart sings along with the warbling house finches. When I smell moist soil and the unmistakeable fragrance of spring sagebrush, I am reminded that life is resilient, bursting to be. And I am glad to be here, part of it.


Troweling wet concrete after one wall of the foundation is filled. Troweling wet concrete after one foundation wall is filled.

Down at the other end of the block, the concrete trucks lined up on Friday, our first good-weather day in a week, to pour my stem walls. The foundation for my little house is now in place! Next up, back-filling around those stem walls, and then excavating for the garage/studio foundation. Step by step, a house takes shape.

Garden surprise

Fringed sage (Artemisia frigida) feeling the drought in my front yard “unlawn.”

I feel like I should begin with a public confession:

My name is Susan.

I am a neglectful gardener.

The Southwest is in a several-year-long drought. Last year brought just over two-thirds of “normal” precipitation here, a dismal 6.7 inches of moisture. In the first two months of this year, we’ve dropped to less than half of normal, receiving a whopping one-third of an inch so far.

South-central Colorado, where I live, is officially in “severe” drought. (Other parts of the state are in extreme or exceptional drought. In this case, being exceptional is really, really not good.)

Normally in dry winters I give my native grassland yard and kitchen garden a good soak in one of our periodic mild spells. Not this winter. I’ve been so absorbed with finishing the house that I’ve completely neglected the yard and garden.

Mule deer tracks

Native plants are tough. They can survive droughts. But I want the wildflowers to really pop and the kitchen garden to look its delectable best this spring when I’m showing the house to potential buyers.

Now it’s so dry that the deer have cut dusty trails through the bunchgrass grassland, and the organic mulch topping the raised beds in the kitchen garden has weathered gray.

On warm weekend days, I think about watering. And instead head for the shop to rip, sand, and paint trim, and then haul it inside and fire up the air compressor and pneumatic nailer.

My handsome, talented–and flexible–honey caulking the sill of a sliding glass door a few months before he died. Not bad for a guy with terminal brain cancer.

I’m not complaining, mind you. This particular trim carpentry project is very satisfying since I’m completing the house Richard helped build. Now that I’m close to finishing the interior door and window trim, I’m pretty eager to just. get. it. done.

So feeling guilty is as far as I’ve gotten with watering. Until today, when I figured that if I ate my lunch at my desk while I wrote, I could take my half-hour of lunch break to water the kitchen garden.

It was 53 degrees F and breezy out, considerably warmer than the dawn temperature of six above. I grabbed the watering wand, and turned on the hose faucet for the first time since, oh, early November.

Bags of organic cotton boll compost headed for the kitchen garden in fall.

I poked a finger through the mulch in the bed where I normally grow broccoli, beets, and sugar-snap peas, and was surprised to find that an inch down below the powder-dry surface, the soil was barely moist. Definitely an argument for mulching the garden in winter. (I use an organic cotton boll compost; it’s acidified to counteract the alkaline tendencies of my garden soil.)

The big surprise though came when I pulled back the double-layer of row cover on the greens bed. It’s a summer squash bed in the warm months; after the first hard frost, I yank the dead plants and seed in spinach, lettuce and mesclun mixes. They sprout before winter comes, and then (I hope) stay alive through December and January’s sub-zero nights to get a jump-start on spring.

Monet’s Garden Mesclun flourishing (under a row cover) despite nights as low as -16 F.

Under the protection of the row cover, not only was the soil moist and dark, it was dotted with green: tiny spinach plants, mache (also called corn salad) with its succulent, round leaves, and the ruffled red and green leaves of Monet’s Garden Mesclun!

A big thank-you to Renee Shepherd and Renee’s Garden for finding and growing seed varieties that are not only delicious and beautiful, but tough too.

According to my garden journal, I planted these greens October 14th, watered them a time or two over the next four weeks, and then clamped the row cover securely–and neglected the planting until now. They not only survived an extra-cold, extra-dry winter, they’re ready to thin and eat. Wow.

Lunch tomorrow will feature my first home-grown salad of the year. Thanks, Renee!

Rain! (and an update)

A sheen of moisture on the paving stoves of my bedroom patio before dusk fell.

It’s raining tonight, a fall of small droplets visible in the lights of the parking lot across the way. The rain is so gentle we’ve probably not received enough to measure. Still, the air is heavy, warm and wet, redolent of the earthy fragrances of life awakening.

If you live somewhere rain is a regular occurrence or where the air is normally moist enough to cause hair to frizz, my excitement at this very small amount of moisture may not make sense. But here in the bone-dry high desert, where we ended last year with under 7 inches of total precipitation, any moisture is a big deal.

It’s been so dry here that when the wind blows, the air fills with an eerie tan haze of blowing soil. So dry that trees are dying, the creek that runs past my place hasn’t run since last July, and the prospect of another summer of huge and destructive forest fires seems all too real.

Clouds lower over town as the rain began. You can see fresh snow on the slopes above.

Tonight’s rain isn’t enough to make a real difference–except to our parched spirits. When I walked over to my neighbor’s house at dusk, I could hear voices from porches of the houses I passed, as people came outside to revel in the feeling of wet, so rare in this years-long  drought.

It will make a difference to our popular local ski area, Monarch, which relies on the fluffy stuff that falls from the sky, not grainy man-made “snow” blown out of giant cannons. It’s snowing up there now at 10,000 feet elevation and the forecast predicts the ski area could get as much as a foot of new snow over the next few days.

That snow is our moisture savings account, the water-bank that supplies streams and rivers, which need substantial deposits indeed if they are to revive this spring and hold through summer and fall. Whether we’ll get enough to build up the scanty snow pack isn’t clear. But each hour of moisture feels good, moistening the dust-dry landscape and we who live here.

Rain puddling on the row cover protecting the strawberry plants from nighttime temperatures that normally dip into the single digits this time of year.

Rain is not normal here in late January, when the temperature is usually far below freezing at night, and creeps up into the 40s during the day. But nothing is usual about our weather anymore, and we’ll take whatever moisture we get.

When I went outside a few minutes ago to fetch one last armful of wood for the stove in the living room, I turned my head upward to feel the mist of moisture on my skin. Then I said softly out loud, “Rain and snow on, heavy-bellied clouds! Thank you for your gift.”


The update: I’ve been absorbed in writing my new memoir, Bless the Birds. Working on this book is about as fun as pressing on a deep bruise, but the story is so beautiful, I press on anyway. (Yes, that pun was intentional.)

Cranes on the ground, dancing and preening, and in the air over the San Luis Valley with the snow-covered Sangre de Cristo Range in the background.

I’m also busy organizing my first Write & Retreat workshop, scheduled for the first weekend of spring, March 21-24, at Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa in Colorado’s wild San Luis Valley. I have always wanted to teach a writing workshop at the time thousands of sandhill cranes arrive to dance and call, renewing their pair bonds before migrating farther north to nest. My plan is for an inspiring and restorative “time-out” to write, soak, read and sit quietly, to share in the miracle of cranes and spring. (There are two spaces left in the workshop.)

I’ve finished the trim around eight windows and one side of five door openings, which may sound like a lot, but it’s not even half of the trim project. After which comes approximately 700 miles of baseboard and then finishing the master bath. Gulp. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but I am lucky to have painting and staining help from my neighbor, Bev, and the patient tutelage of my ace-building & renovating friends, Maggie and Tony.

So onward, I go, reveling in the gifts of rain, writing, power tools and life….

Books worth reading & a brag

Janisse Ray’s powerful call to preserve heritage crop seeds, our food inheritance.

Last week I read two of the books in the “to review” stack on my desk: Janisse Ray’s The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food and Cultivating a Movement: An Oral History of Organic Farming & Sustainable Agriculture on California’s Central Coast, edited by Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin.

If you care about food and how we grow it in this country, both books are “must-reads.” Ray writes an impassioned and informed manifesto, a call to learn about and save the thousands of unique varieties of food plants we have carefully bred. Reti and Rabkin’s book weaves interviews with a fascinating and diverse cast of characters into a picture of how organic farming sprouted in California.

Here are excerpts from those reviews:

The Seed Underground is a call to grasp why seeds matter, and then to act on their–and our–behalf. As Ray writes in Chapter Two, “A Brief History of Industrial Agriculture,” seeds and the genes they carry are an inheritance we need to survive. And that inheritance is being stolen:

Some things are inherent to the earth and thus belong democratically to all its inhabitants. Air and water, for example, are part of the public domain and should be forbidden in the marketplace. Seeds–always part of the great commons of human history–can no more be owned than fire. Or the ocean. And yet, the biotechnology industry has steadily made its way through courts and legislative halls like an evil maggot, claiming what does not belong to it, saying life can be owned. And it can’t, Monsanto. It can’t Syngenta.

That was Ray the thundering preacher speaking. Here comes Ray the poet, ending what might have been a dry chapter with this lyrical, heart-hooking passage.

A seed makes itself. A seed doesn’t need a geneticist or hybridist or publicist or matchmaker. But it needs help. Sometimes it needs a moth or a wasp or a gust of wind. Sometimes it needs a farm and it needs a farmer. It needs a garden and a gardener. It needs you.

(Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

Cultivating a Movement, an outstanding example of oral history, edited by Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin

“We in the United States are in the early throes of a revolution,” writes historian Linda L. Ivey in the foreword to Cultivating a Movement, “a radical change in the way we think about food.” The revolution Ivey refers to is the organic farming movement, the biggest change to American agriculture since the adoption of synthetic pesticides after World War II. “For this development… we can thank, in large part, a group of revolutionaries from the Central Coast of California.”

More than two dozen of those farmers were interviewed for this book, a project of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Some farmers, like Betty Van Dyke, who grew up on her Croatian-American family’s orchard in Cupertino in the 1930s, were born to the land; others, like Amigo Bob Cantisano, founding organizer of the Ecological Farming Conference, were hippies.

Cultivating a Movement brings the revolution of organic and sustainable farming alive through the voices of those with dirt under their fingernails as well as those who crafted the original organic-labeling legislation. It’s a satisfying and nourishing read. (Read the full review.)

The view of the patio-in-progress from the kitchen garden.

And now the brag:

This weekend I resumed laying flagstones in the patio-in-progress off my bedroom. Fourteen months ago, Richard and I laid the first stone. When he could no longer physically help, he showed me how to pry the rocks out of our cobble-laden soil, sift the soil to make a sandy bed, level that bed and lay a flagstone. He also taught me how to safely move the smaller flags myself. (I can’t move the big ones, which weigh considerably more than I do; the smallest flag I laid this weekend weighed just over 50 pounds; the largest weighed 80.)

Two of the stones I laid this weekend, in their bed of sifted soil, embedded in a matrix of the gravel and rocks from that soil, plus flagstone fragments.

I laid three flags this weekend, and before I cleaned and stacked my tools (they’re leaning against the house wall in the photo above), I used the mattock to loosen the rocks where the next two will go. And I extended the gravel path from the kitchen garden to meet the edge of the new patio.

Working with these flagstones connects me to the joy we grew in our life together, and to this beloved if rocky ground. It leaves me feeling tired, but very blessed….

Drought and Grief

Smoke from the Springer Fire turns the dawn orange over the Arkansas Hills last week.

You have to get over the color green.

Wallace Stegner’s advice about how to live sustainably in the inland West is not a suggestion. You won’t survive, he says, in these largely arid expanses between the 100th Meridian and the relatively well-watered West Coast, if your soul requires green.

Especially this year; especially in the Southwest and the Southern Rockies, where last winter’s snow pack–the source of our summer water–was so sparse as to be scary, and spring heated up so quickly even that paltry moisture simply vanished.

Which is why we have nine wildfires burning in Colorado right now, three in the southwestern corner, two west and one east of Colorado Springs, one near Leadville, and two in northern Colorado. Two of those fires are now contained, meaning they are burning within fire lines, but they are not controlled–on the way to being out; the other seven are not anywhere near contained, especially the largest three, the 83,000+ acre High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, which has so far burned nearly 250 homes and cabins and cost more than $29 million to fight, the 8,300-acre Weber Fire southeast of Mancos, and the 3,400-acre-and-growing Waldo Canyon Fire immediately west of Colorado Springs.

A tattered and worn tiger swallowtail, most likely a western, resting on the relatively green and well-watered hanging basket of flowers on my front porch.

The high temperature here in Salida, at 7,000 feet elevation in a mountain valley that is always dry, but not usually this parched, topped out at 99 degreesF yesterday. That’s the hottest by far in the 15 years I’ve lived in this high-desert valley in the rain-shadow of the tallest stretch of the Rockies.

I feel as tattered and worn as the tiger swallowtail butterfly in this photo, which looks like it has been through heck and back, its tails and the lower edges of its wings broken off, and the scales completely rubbed away in several places.

Wholeleaf indian paintbrush blooming in my native grassland yard because it’s gotten some supplemental water.

The landscapes I love are hurting in this drought, and that hurts me to. I can water the native grassland and wildflowers in my yard sparingly to keep them alive, but I can’t water the mountainsides around my valley. I can only watch helplessly as mountain meadows usually green at this time of year turn brown, as the evergreen foliage of the pinon pines and junipers on the nearby hillsides begins to dull, as the streams and the green band of riparian vegetation they nurture shrink.

We’ve received less than three inches of total precipitation in the first six-plus months of the year. That’s not enough to keep alive the living communities that animate these landscapes–from microscopic soil inhabitants to black bears and towering ponderosa pines, from rustling willows to lithe trout. These landscapes have survived long droughts before, including the decades of drought in the late 1100s that were a factor in causing the Ancestral Puebloan people to move from cliff dwellings like those of Mesa Verde to more reliable water sources along the region’s major rivers. But I’m guessing that survival wasn’t easy, or pretty.

Richard Cabe at 18, all James Dean restless creativity….

As I watch the landscapes I love wither in this extraordinary drought, I grieve the losses. For the company we humans are losing as each individual, and in some cases, whole populations of plants and animals, die out. For the homes burned in the wildfires. If this is global climate change, I hate it already.

And I grieve for my personal losses too, especially that of the love of my life, sculptor and economist Richard Cabe, he of the brilliant mind and boundless creativity, gone on to whatever is next in the cycle of life after he died of brain cancer last November.

How do we survive times like this? I know that I turn to nature, be it ever so beleaguered by drought and fire, and look for the grace notes–like that tattered tiger swallowtail or the brilliant indian paintbrush blossoms–signalling that life manages to thrive despite all.

Those small miracles remind me that joy lives on; I only have to pay attention and let it in.

Books: a memoir with birds; plus a brag

Mr. Troyer, the bluebird of the title essay, painted by Julie Zickafoose

I am not a birdwatcher. After a childhood of being dragged out of bed at dawn to visit places as delightful as the local sewage lagoon to scope out rare bird, I gravitated to plants. They keep civilized hours and never migrate to sewage lagoons.

Still, birdwatchers carry on the traditions of amateur naturalists, recording what they see and thus adding to our knowledge about the communities of species that make this planet such a fascinating and habitable place.

Which is why when my editors at Story Circle Book Reviews asked if I wanted to review Julie Zickafoose’s new memoir-with-birds, The Bluebird Effect, I didn’t hesitate. Zickafoose is a prolific bird artist, as well as the author of three books on nature nearby. Here’s part of my review:

“Each chapter in this memoir of a life spent observing, drawing, and rehabilitating birds is named for a particular species of bird and a topic epitomized by Zickafoose’s encounter with them. One of my favorite chapters “Carolina Wren,” subtitled “Kitchen Sink Ornithology,” serves as an astute introduction for the author. As a fellow freelance writer who works from home, I laughed out loud at the beginning, which expresses all the hopeful optimism of our isolated creative lives,

Living in the middle of nowhere, working from my home studio, I have to confess that I’m fond of email. I’ve got an all-but-defunct account that I check sporadically, just to make sure there’s not something important buried in the piles of spam that drove me away from it in the first place. And there, glimmering in the dross [one day], was a week-old nugget … inviting me to show some paintings at an upcoming ornithological meeting.

“And then Zickafoose’s self-doubt sets in,

My first reaction? He must be thinking of someone else. I’m no ornithologist; I’m a naturalist, a bird painter. … Then I sat back and thought for a bit. Well, maybe I am an ornithologist. I do study birds, each and every day, in between meeting illustration and writing deadlines and fetching Popsicles for the kids. There’s a pair of binoculars in every room of the house, sometimes three, and they are as necessary to my everyday life as water and air. I just had to interrupt this sentence to train them on a female Blackburnian warbler…. To find a pen and write that arrival down in my nature notes. This, I think, is the heart of science. Seeing a Blackburnian warbler is nice, but it really doesn’t mean much unless I write it down. (May 18, 2009. Arrived: Female Blackburnian in the birches. Had seen only males until today.)

“There is the heart of the book: Zickafoose is a thoughtful and intelligent observer who writes things down. Without that–no matter what her subject, whether memoir or mystery, she would have no material to work with, no stories to tell, no conclusions about the life of birds and the lives of we humans who share the planet with them.” (Read the whole review here.)

A sphinx moth pollinating Rocky Mountain penstemon in Monarch Spur Park


And now the brag: The day before leaving for Washington state, I attended Plant Select Day at Denver Botanic Gardens, a gathering of folks who breed and grow plants adapted to our difficult climate, and those who design and maintain landscapes devoted to native and regionally adapted plants.

Every year, the Plant Select program honors a few parks and people who do an exceptional job of working with and featuring these special plants.

This year’s “Showcase Garden Award” went to—ta da!—Monarch Spur Park, the tenth-acre “pocket park” I designed and still tend at the end of our once-blighted industrial block. It was cited as “a little gem” and an excellent example of “doing a lot with a little”–that is, a little land and a little money (the park was built with a small grant and has no budget for annual operations; it is maintained by volunteers).

Thank you, Pat Hayward, executive director of Plant Select, and Panayoti Kelaidis of Denver Botanic Gardens, for recognizing Monarch Spur Park and the extraordinary community of Salida that brought it to life!

The park site “before”

Here are a few shots of the park (named for the railroad line that once ran along our block):






And “after,” quite a transformation!












The interpretive sign kiosk at Monarch Spur Park, designed and built by a talented sculptor who I miss very much










Prince’s plume, a native wildflower common in the redrock desert parts of Colorado

Wildflower survivors & news

Desert indian paintbrush just beginning to bloom

I spent much of the afternoon out in my dryland native meadow front yard, giving it’s annual spring clean-up and “pronghorning.” As I squatted close to the ground, clipping and hand-raking the detritus of winter to reveal  tender new green, I remembered why I love doing this physically challenging yard chore. Each bit of detritus I clear away reveals life springing up anew, a miracle to me in this record-breaking drought.

Prairie groundsel, a charming native daisy relative

Last year was simply dry; this year is so much worse that it’s not even comparable. Most of Colorado is now officially categorized as in “severe” drought. Our snow pack, the source of summer water for rivers and streams, is at one-third of normal for this time of year. Here in my valley, we’ve received less than an inch of precipitation in the four months since January first. And April is normally our wettest month. This year it’s been sunny, windy, and relentlessly dry.

Mountain ball cactus stores water in its fleshy body in special reservoir cells.

So I was surprised to find four species of wildflowers blooming in my restored native grassland yard: the desert or wholeleaf indian paintbrush and prairie groundsel above, this beautiful starry mountain ball cactus, and the Lewis flax in the photo below. (The mountain ball cactus was a birthday gift from a botanist friend, Ellen T. Bauder, who knows my passion for restoring and healing my yard, formerly a blighted industrial area, with native plants. Thank you, Ellen.)

An impossibly blue Lewis flax flower, closing up for the day

It seems I didn’t give the native plants enough credit: They’ve lived here for millennia, they’ve dealt with drought before. Of course, I’ve also been giving the yard a drink now and then. Not nearly enough though, to compensate for the snow and rain the plants would receive in a normal year. Nor is treated city water, all I have to use since my rain barrels are dry, comparable to natural precipitation, which washes nitrogen and other nutrients out of the air.

The wildflowers blooming in my yard are short, stunted by the drought. If we don’t get some precipitation soon, their blooming season will be short too. Still, that they’re managing to flower at all seems miraculous to me. A benediction of sorts in a very hard time, a time of drought on many levels. “Have faith,” these tough and beautiful spots of color in my just-barely-greening-up dryland meadow yard say to me. “Life carries on.”

It does. I should know that. Sometimes we just need a reminder….


And now the news. This week brought two exciting releases, both from projects  a long time in the finishing:

Pieces of Light, the new, updated eBook version

First, the release of the updated, eBook version of Pieces of Light, my very first book, an award-winning nature journal set in Boulder, Colorado. The eBook includes new author’s notes at the end of each chapter, and was published by Terraphilia Press (my own press, invented to release my WildLives audio CD). Many thanks to my virtual assistant, Lisa DeYoung, and editor/writer/ fiber-guru, Deborah Robson, for their expert help. Pieces is available for Kindle now, and will be out for Nook and on the iBookstore soon. (It’s only $4.99–a steal!)

Second, the pollinator video I was filmed for last summer while Richard and I were working on the interpretive garden project at Carpenter Ranch is just out through The Nature Conservancy’s new “Nature Works Everywhere” program. It’s short, free, and comes with a companion lesson plan. Pollinators—Putting Food On the Table is for anyone who gardens, enjoys flowers, or just loves to eat. It’s fun and informative—take the pollinator lunch challenge!

A honeybee heads for a Brodeia flower

On the personal front, I’m still sub-par from my 2,400-mile swing through Texas and New Mexico. But I’m recovering, and the glow from that standing ovation in response to my keynote talk hasn’t faded….

Blessings and joy to you all.

Road report: Reflections on coming home

When Richard and I woke in Moab on Friday morning, we fully intended to drive home that day. It’s only 300 miles, a fairly easy drive compared to our 4,000+-mile tour of the inland West and the Pacific Coast.

But first we stopped at Back of Beyond Books, a landmark for readers of western literature, and owner Andy Nettel was so warmly welcoming, I almost settled right in. Then when we turned onto Utah 128 outside town to follow that winding two-lane along the Colorado River, I spotted the new pedestrian/bicycle bridge, and stopped to get out and look at the mighty river flowing by, all colorado, “colored” olive-green by the sediment it carries. What we saw under the bridge caused us to slow down and reflect on what we each take home from this belated honeymoon trip.

The dense ribbons along either side of the river looked like a miracle. A green fur of native willows and other riverside shrubs sprouted where once nothing grew but invasive tamarisk or salt-cedar, trees native to Asia that over the past five decades have infested western waterways like kudzu vines taking over southern forests. Salt-cedar gulps water, lowering precious flows in desert streams and springs, crowds out native species, increases the chance of wildfires, and its salty rain of leaves degrades vital riparian (waterside) habitat.

The recently dominant salt-cedar were dead or dying (the gray skeletons on the upper left corner of the photo above), defoliated by a beetle imported specifically for that purpose. Growing up through their no-longer-dense canopies were native shrubs full of insects and birds, reclaiming their riverside habitat. Swallowtail butterflies flitted past; a chat, a large warbler, chattered from the willows right below the bridge, as a yellow warbler chased insets between sprouting shrubs. With a little help from the imported beetles, the natives were coming back on their own, and how!

We walked back to the car and drove the winding two-lane along the curving river between walls of orange and red sandstone, elated at the healthy green ribbon of habitat returning to the riverbanks.

It reminded us forcefully that miracles are possible, and this is one we never thought we would see.

The rest of the drive that day, up and across the shadscale desert and back to the rush of traffic on I-70, east through the sprawl of Grand Junction, Colorado, and then south again on US 50, I thought about our trip while Richard snoozed in the seat next to me. Until I stopped at a pullout with a view of Grand Mesa rising out of the desert.

“Look,” I said to Richard. “The aspens are beginning to turn gold.” He opened his eyes, looked and smiled.

“They are,” he said. “Happy fall!”

And then it hit me: “Why are we rushing home when we could take another day or two and see the aspens?” I asked. “We don’t have any deadlines. We’re on vacation.”

We debated about various digressions, and finally settled on stopping for the night in Delta, a small farming town where the North Fork meets the Gunnison River, and then turning east the next day for the slow route over Kebler Pass, home to some of the largest aspen groves in Colorado, between Paonia and Crested Butte.


Which is why we didn’t arrive home until Saturday, after winding our way over Kebler Pass on a dusty dirt road threaded through millions of white aspen trunks, the leaves overhead turning from green to flame-bright gold, the volcanic peaks of the West Elk Mountains rising high above.


We stopped in Crested Butte for a late lunch of curry at Pitas in Paradise, an oasis of reasonably priced and delicious food in that resort town, and finally made it over Monarch Pass and home to our own valley late in the afternoon. We unpacked the car and settled in just in time for a glorious sunset.


What do we bring home from our 4,000+-mile odyssey through some of the West’s most spectacular scenery? Richard is determined to use his limited energy to get back to work on his sculpture, challenges be damned. And I am determined to find more time for writing in the midst of his care. I have things to say, stories to tell.

And we are both reminded of how lucky we are to live where the sky turns bright as roses at sunset, the community gathers ’round to support us in this journey with Richard’s brain cancer, and wildflowers bloom in our once-blighted industrial front yard.

Miracles happen, so often when we least expect them. Thanks for being part of our miracle.

Garden report: The wildflower show begins…

It’s not shaping up to be a spectacular wildflower year here in our high-desert valley. Not in this year of record drought, when we’ve received just 2.5 inches of precipitation since last September. (That is seriously dry.)

Still, we’ve gotten just enough rain that the wildflowers in our restored native bunchgrass yard are beginning to bloom. (And, I confess: I soaked the yard a couple of times over the past several months, mimicking the wet spring snows that never came.)

This morning, our first calm day after five days of wind, I got out my camera to document what’s blooming so far. (I was inspired by my friend Susan Albert, author of the popular China Bayles mystery series among others–and her project to document every wildflower on her Texas Hill Country place.)

So here’s what’s blooming in our wonderfully wild dryland meadow yard right now:


Ant money lupine (Lupinus pulsillus), a diminutive annual lupine named because the harvester ants, my partners in seed dispersal, gather its fat, pea-like seeds as if they were worth their weight in gold… (In the right background is desert indian paintbrush.)



Blanketflower (Gallairdia pulchella)–this is the yellow kind native to our high desert grasslands, without the broad red stripe ringing the rays of other species.



Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus trigolochidatus), with its fat, water-holding stems in clumps, formidable spines, and cimson flowers so brilliant the petals seem to vibrate.


Golden-smoke (Corydalis aurea), a charming winter annual related to bleeding-heart.


Lewis flax (Linum lewisii), named for Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark. Its flowers only open for one day, but their color is unforgettable.



Sagebrush biscuit-root (Lomatium triternatum), a wild relative of parsnips and carrots whose starchy root was a favored food of area Indians, early settlers, and grizzly bears. (The tiny spider atop the even tinier flowers in the tight cluster is no doubt hunting for tiny flower-sucking insects to eat.)



Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis), named for the river where Lewis and Clark first spotted the graceful wild iris which bloom in wet meadows like clouds of butterflies.


Desert indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra), with its green flower parts protruding from the neon-red bracts, a blatant advertisement of the nectar within. Hummingbird bodies pick up pollen from one flower as they hover and drink, and carry it to another, thus cross-pollinating the flowers as they feed.


Sidebells penstemon (Penstemon secundiflorus), the earliest of our native beardtongue species to bloom, and also called “orchid penstemon” for that lovely pink-purple color. (Note the tiny native bee crawling into one flower to gather pollen to provision the nest-chambers she will dig in the soil, laying one egg in each and rolling a pollen ball in after the egg for food for the growing young.)



Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), a diminutive relative of the garden hollyhock. The curious hairs on its leaves cast shade that helps keep the plant from desiccating in hot, dry weather.



And Woods rose (Rosa woodsii), a native wild rose with blush-pink flowers and stems spiny enough to repel even our voraciously browsing mule deer…

This glorious panoply of wildflowers wasn’t visible when we first adopted our formerly weedy, abandoned industrial property. Restoring  the native plant community has taken more than a decade and a fair amount of work, but what a wonder it’s been to see them happily take over as we’ve discouraged the invasive weeds and made space. As the native plants have come back, they’ve invited the return of the hummingbirds and butterflies, the myriad species of native bees that also pollinate the plants in our kitchen garden, increasing our food yields, the bluebirds and swallows and chipmunks and garter snakes… What a joy to see a blighted piece of land literally bloom and return to health as we nurtured the natives’ return!


I’m slowly recovering from a serious bout with respiratory crud (the forest fire smoke smogging our valley from the fires in Arizona makes for technicolor dawns, but does not help my lungs!). Richard continues to ever-so gradually regain energy and brain function, witness his work caulking under one of our sliding glass doors in the photo above, something he wouldn’t have been able to do two months ago–or even two weeks ago.

Tuesday we’ll head back to Denver for his third Avastin infusion, which if his bloodwork looks good, he’ll get Thursday morning. We continue to live with hearts open, knowing the prognosis is grim but still hopeful that he’s recovering from brain cancer…

Brain cancer journey: The gift of not much

I’m exhausted tonight, so instead of the post I imagined writing on the nuclear power plant crises in Japan, here’s an update on what’s happening on our journey with Richard’s brain cancer.

The answer? Not much. Which is a real gift. We’ve had plenty of drama and trauma over the past year and a half, some of the most difficult coming in the last several weeks. Ordinary is a good thing right now. Richard’s working on building a daily routine that incorporates time for recovery, including meditation, yoga, juggling and other activities designed to heal and exercise his much-tortured right brain. He is also working toward a return to his shop to take up his practice of sculpture again–working with rocks as “ambassadors of the earth.”


His recovery so far is astonishing. (And he has a truly sculptural “crest” of shiny stainless steel staples closing the incision from the latest surgery, as you can see in the photo above.) Fortunately, his good-natured personality lives in his untouched frontal lobes, and his intellect and formidable ability to analyze anything that comes his way, from art theory and mathematical models, to building a new deer gate between the kitchen garden and the compost pile–his current project–live in his undisturbed left brain. 

Yesterday was such a lovely day that he worked on that gate, and on helping me get the spring seeds planted in the kitchen garden. It was a treat to work together, something we haven’t been home long enough between medical crises to do much of in a very long time.


Today began with a tiny but welcome dose of moisture in the form of about an inch of wet snow. (The photo above is a corner of the snow-etched garden this morning at dawn.) As is normal in the high desert, both snow and any sign of moisture were gone by mid-morning. Ah well.

We started on our much-neglected household accounts, and that’s when we were reminded that after three craniotomies in 18 months, even the most brilliant of brains needs recovery time. Richard was trying to balance our charge card statement. It wasn’t working. After some gentle suggestion, he let me take a look, and I figured out what had happened. He was chagrined. I reminded him that he’s less than two weeks out from a craniotomy, and before that the fluid pressure on his brain nearly killed him–twice.

“So cut yourself some slack, okay?”

“Okay,” he said.

Tonight we’re sitting side by side in our cozy and quiet living room with the day going dark. Soon we’ll get ready for bed, stopping to look overhead out the skylight in our bedroom ceiling for constellation Orion, who appears to stride westward on his nightly journey, followed by his faithful dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor.

In a world where the sudden wrenching of an earthquake can cause tsunami waves that take thousands of lives and wreak havoc that may last for generations, a life where a build-up of fluid pressure on the brain can cause an existence to nearly wink out, Richard and I are very that right now, our big excitement is tracking Orion across the dark sky, night after night.

The gift of not much happening is what he and I need most for recovery.

Our hearts go out to the people of Japan, where far too much has happened in the past few days. We hope that reovery is on its way there. May we all get whatever we need to restore our lives!