A hailstone about the size of a mothball that broke on impact.

Dirtwork: Not-So-Dry Stream Drainage

Last Tuesday afternoon, thunder rumbled ominously, cold gusts whipped up dust-dry soil, and the light went all storm-gray. I stood on the front deck watching streamers of rain approach and debated about whether or not to set out on my usual walk to the Post Office.

A hailstone about the size of a mothball that broke on impact. A hailstone that broke on impact.

Until I felt the first cold drop. It was hard. It bounced, white and rounded.

What? Then I heard the clatter: hail.

I ducked back inside. The cloud opened up and all hail broke loose. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun!) Over the next 25 minutes, more precipitation poured from the sky than we had received in the last two months–six-tenths of an inch.

Rain on my metal roof makes an audible drumming I enjoy. Hail produces an alarming cacophony of clanging, clattering, and crashing.

Rain barrel overflows at the height of the storm. Rain barrel overflows at the height of the storm.

I dashed out at the height of the storm to open the drain on my overflowing rain barrel and to check on the studio and garage. All was well.

Except for the dry stream drainage I designed to carry runoff from just this sort of downpour down the slope between the two buildings without eroding or flooding the creek with sediment.

The side of the dry stream that drains Creek House was working just as planned. The “tributary” that drained the runoff from Treehouse’s shed roof overflowed and cut a new channel down one side of the steps.

My "dry" stream drainage in a moment of not-so-dry. My “dry” stream drainage in a moment of not-so-dry hail.

Not good.

So yesterday morning, I did a little fluvial engineering, otherwise known as dirtwork. I started by digging a small retention basin where the roof drainage from Treehouse overflowed.

Retention basin beyond the downspout, the beginning of the tributary channel in front. Retention basin beyond the downspout, the beginning of the tributary channel in front.

That was the easy part—I was digging in relatively loose construction road base, not the compacted layers of post-industrial-dump over river cobbles that make up the natural “soil.”

From that small retention basin—which I will line with river rock—I used my trusty mattock to hack a channel aiming downhill to the existing dry stream drainage, cutting deep to keep it from overflowing again.

The tributary crossing the middle of the photo, aiming for the main stem of the drainage in the background. The black grating is the ramp coming off the Creek House deck, allowing wheeled access from the house to the garage. The tributary crossing the middle of the photo toward the main stem of the drainage in the background. The black grating is the end of the ramp coming off the Creek House deck.

And I do mean hack. I chipped my way through layers of cemented fly ash, fused glass and coal-dust, and pried out cobbles as big as one twice the size of my head that weighed 50 pounds. (Good thing Richard taught me about fulcrums and levers.)

The steps, slope, and main dry creek channel; the new tributary comes in from the left of the wheelchair ramp. The steps, slope, and main creek channel; the new tributary comes in from the left of the wheelchair ramp. (Yet to come are a flagstone patio on the left side of the photo and more high-desert plants.)

It took me three sweaty hours to connect the new tributary to the main stem of the dry stream, stopping now and again to guzzle water and rest.

When I finished, I cleaned off my tools, tested the new channel by running water down it, and shot a few photos.

The drainage from the second-story deck of Treehouse The drainage from the second-story deck of Treehouse

And then I went inside to soak my aching muscles in a hot bath. As I soaked, I thought about how good it feels to be able to design a solution to my drainage problem, and build it myself. Despite working right to the edge of exhaustion doing it.

Richard was so much larger and stronger than me (6 feet tall and 180 pounds of nicely toned muscle to my 5-foot-six and 115 pounds of skinny) it was natural for him to do all of the heavy work. That never bothered me.

Now that it’s just me, solo, it’s surprisingly satisfying to discover all I can do.

I’d rather have my love back beside me. Since that’s not an option (dammit), I’m having fun exploring my inner dirt-worker. Seeing muscles appear on my middle-aged frame is pretty cool too.

Yeah, I'm solo and I'm strong! Yeah, I’m solo and I’m strong!

'Poncha Pass Red' sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum 'Poncha Pass Red')

First Wildflowers!

'Poncha Pass Red' sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum 'Poncha Pass Red') ‘Poncha Pass Red’ sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum ‘Poncha Pass Red’)

The first wildflowers are beginning to bloom on my formerly junked-out industrial property, a miracle to my eyes. First place goes to neon-bright sulfur-flower buckwheat, a mat-forming evergreen in dry grasslands where big sagebrush grows. Its tiny blossoms opened Friday afternoon.

This particular plant comes from High Country Gardens, but its origins are very local. The lovely red color of its seeds caught the eye of HCG founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman, who spotted the parent plants on Poncha Pass, half an hour southwest of where I live.

Salman collected them, grew the plants in his own garden, and then built up enough stock to release them to the trade. These native buckwheats are perfectly happy with my coarse, rocky soil; their brilliant sulphur-yellow flowers draw bees and butterflies as if out of the very air.

Big sagebrush (Artemisia [Seriphidium] tridentata)--the plant is still small, but it's quite aromatic. Big sagebrush (Artemisia [Seriphidium] tridentata)–the plant is still small, but it’s quite aromatic.

I planted them three weeks ago near the patch of big sagebrush I’m growing just off the northeast corner of the house. This afternoon, a small native bee zipped around the buckwheat flowers like a northern harrier deliberately quartering a grassland, flying low in a rectangular pattern around the plant, its turns quick and tight as a fighter jet. (It flew way too fast for me to shoot a photo.)

The bee was being territorial, letting me know that those eye-catching yellow flowers and their treasure of nectar and pollen belong to it, not me. I got a kick out of the little insect’s pugnaciousness–it was about the size of a ladybug, but very determined to guard its flowers.

It wasn’t an accident that the sulphur-flower buckwheats ended up next to the big sagebrush. They look great together, their colors and shapes complimentary, and just as important to me, they’re part of the same natural community in the wild. In restoring habitat on my difficult formerly industrial lot, I’m deliberately recreating garden “vignettes” that mimic native habitat.

The incipient dryland meadow with grass and wildflower seedlings popping up. The incipient dryland meadow with grass and wildflower seedlings popping up.

The big sagebrush grow at one edge of the native dryland meadow I seeded in last fall, near wire-thin sprigs of Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum [Oryzopsis] hymenoides), seedling Lewis flax (Linum lewisii), and tiny sprouts of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), plus other wildflowers and native grasses in their community.

The meadow plants are still tiny, but in another year or so, I look forward to being able to sit out and smell the turpentine-and-orange-blossom fragrance of the big sagebrush, and watch a hovering, fluttering and buzzing community of pollinators dart from wildflower to wildflower on what previously was an informal industrial dump site.

Species number two to bloom in my personal ecological restoration project opened this afternoon. Along with big sagebrush, this wildflower says “home” to me. Its pale purple blossoms with the faint scent of licorice rise from wet meadows and streamside grasslands like violet mist in late spring and early summer.

Rocky Mountain iris or blue flag, blooms along Ditch Creek by my new house. My second wildflower to bloom: Rocky Mountain iris or blue flag, along Ditch Creek by my new house.

Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis) was a favorite of Richard’s too. A clump we planted just up the creek by Terraphilia, the big house, became a symbol of our efforts to restore this formerly degraded property. Now, thanks to Gary Ludwig, who specializes in propagating local native and heritage plants at Pleasant Avenue Nursery in Buena Vista, I have a new clump blooming along the creek where I can see it from the front deck of Creek House.

That single iris blossom floating on its slender stalk above the green thread of sedges and grasses along the creek reminds me of Richard. I wish he were here to see this last chunk of what he liked to call our “decaying industrial empire” come to life. His smile would bloom along with the Rocky Mountain iris.

Richard Cabe happily examining a wildflower meadow near Crested Butte. Richard Cabe happily immersed in a wildflower meadow near Crested Butte.

The wide-open San Luis Valley with the Sangre de Cristo Range on the left, on the road to Durango.

Home (Briefly)

The wide-open San Luis Valley with the Sangre de Cristo Range on the left, on the road to Durango. The wide-open San Luis Valley with the Sangre de Cristo Range on the left.

I’ve been on the road teaching and speaking so much this spring that I sometimes forget what is next.

Last week’s trip was to Durango, Colorado, to give a talk and teach a workshop for the Durango Botanical Society, an all-volunteer group that not only has established a lovely garden at the Durango Public Library showcasing plants native and adapted to the Four Corners Region, the group also offers an amazing range of programs and aims to establish educational gardens throughout the area.

Going over Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains (that's an avalanche shed ahead). Going over Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains (that’s an avalanche shed ahead).

I drove to Durango Thursday morning (200 miles and four hours), did a quick interview for Inside Durango TV at the garden, spoke to a welcoming and receptive audience Thursday night, taught a “Field Notes” creative writing workshop to a smaller but no less interesting and interested group Friday morning, and then drove the 200 miles and four hours home.

Speaking about "Plant Magic," how plants are key to restoring the everyday landscapes where we live, play and work. Speaking about “Plant Magic,” how plants are key to restoring the everyday landscapes where we live, play and work.

I stayed with friends Doris and Bill (and their sweet pound-pup, Maya). They once lived nearby and joined Richard and me once a month for Buddhist/Quaker worship; in fact, they were with us when he died. Spending time with them counts as one of the unexpected blessings of my too-full travel schedule this spring.

Normally, I savor road trips for the time to watch the landscape go by, to parse the patterns that plants, animals and humans draw on the skin of the earth, and to let my thoughts run as wide as the western skies.

Historic ranch above Pagosa Springs. Not the pattern: meadows in the valley bottom on glacial soil, forest on the volcanic layers of the mountainsides. Historic ranch above Pagosa Springs. Note the pattern on the landscape: meadows in the valley bottom on glacial soil, forest on the volcanic layers of the mountainsides.

But when the road-trips come every week or nearly every week, they begin to blur. By the time I topped Poncha Pass Friday night half an hour from home, I was exhausted.

I’ve been home two days; I have two more to prepare for the next teaching trip. I’ve made the most of the time.

New plants with their nursery tags, and new plants sprouting from the native meadow seed mix. Tags identify the new plants in my front-yard habitat-restoration project.

Yesterday was my day to plant the next batch of vines, shrubs, native grasses and perennial wildflowers for my front-yard pollinator/songbird habitat restoration project. I renewed my acquaintance with the mattock while prying 39 holes in my stony soil and then carefully planted an equal number of plants. After which, I soaked my aching shoulders and back in the bathtub.

Red insulating "teepees" protect the newly planted tomatoes in my stock-tank kitchen garden. Red insulating “teepees” protect newly planted tomatoes in my stock-tank kitchen garden.

Today was take-care-of-household-chores, including mundane stuff like paying bills, plus finally planting the tomato, basil and oriental eggplant starts I’ve babied inside since March.

I cope with my crazy travel schedule by focusing on the current work trip and ignoring what comes next. But I don’t forget to revel in being home, no matter how short the stay.

Which is why when I finished the accounts, planting the kitchen garden, watering, spraying deer repellent, and a work phone call, I went out on my almost-finished front deck and just stood there enjoying the beauty of a May day: no wind, birds singing lustily, the sweet smell of chokecherry blossoms wafting through the air….

Ditch Creek, running again after two dry months. Ditch Creek, running again after two dry months.

And under the town sounds of passing cars, bikes whizzing by on the trail, a siren wailing, and dogs barking, I heard something else. And smiled: the little urban creek I have worked for the last 17 years to restore to health is chuckling again.

I am home. Alone, struggling a little to manage on my own, but grateful to be here and to hear the creek’s voice.

(Listen by clicking the “play” arrow below and I bet you’ll smile too.)

Part of the kitchen garden at Terraphilia in fall.

Building a New Kitchen Garden

Part of the kitchen garden at Terraphilia in fall. Part of the kitchen garden at Terraphilia last fall.

At Terraphilia, my old house, I grew everything from strawberries and asparagus to eggplants and tomatoes in a large raised-bed kitchen garden that Richard built for me while the house was still under construction.

I chose to locate that organic garden within the containment wall where above-ground oil tanks had once stood. In my mind, the garden provided a powerful symbol of our ability to heal that formerly blighted industrial property. Each bounteous and beautiful harvest gave me hope for larger project of restoring this battered earth.

A morning's garden harvest A morning’s harvest from my old garden

Now I live by myself at the other end of the block on the last chunk of this once-industrial property. I don’t need a huge kitchen garden, and I’m next to the creek the mule deer follow through the neighborhood every night, munching as they go.

Which is why I planned my new kitchen garden in containers on the deer-proof, custom metal-grating deck that wraps around the front and side of my new house. I sowed greens in a couple of large pots about a month ago, but the main part of the garden will sprout from a round metal stock tank I salvaged from Richard’s studio (it served as his wet-carving station for sculpting “small”–less than ton-size–boulders).

The stock tank on the street-side part of my front deck. The stock tank on the street-side part of my front deck.

I’m behind on starting that garden, in part because my deck is not finished (it lacks approaches–steps and ramp–leaving a two-foot drop at each end) and in part because I’ve been on the road teaching gardening most weekends since late winter, instead of doing my own gardening.

On this rare weekend at home, I determined to make progress. First I hauled roadbase (crushed gravel) from the pile behind the garage to the front deck as the drainage layer of my soil column.

Coir bricks soaking up warm water in a garden trug next to the wheelbarrow in my shop. Coir bricks soaking up warm water in a garden trug next to the wheelbarrow.

Then I mixed my own organic container soil blend using coir bricks, condensed blocks of shredded coconut hull, to provide fiber and keep the soil from compacting, mixed with organic compost from a local farm, plus the remainder of a bag of organic transplant mix I use in growing my own heritage tomato, eggplant and basil plants.

Mixing soil in the wheelbarrow in my sunny workshop. Mixing soil in the wheelbarrow in my sunny workshop.

I re-hydrated the coir bricks in a trug in the workshop/sun-space off my garage, and then mixed them with the rest of the soil in my big construction wheelbarrow.

The hauling route to the front deck passes sandstone benches and blooming crabapple tree. The hauling route to the front deck passes sandstone benches and blooming crabapple tree.

Then I pushed the full, heavy wheelbarrow along the creek bank past the garage and the house, up the sidewalk along the street, and then up the path that cuts across my steep front bank.

The not-quite-accessible front deck The not-quite-accessible front deck

And then shoveled the soil into a trug, lugged the trug up onto the deck (if the ramp was in place, I could simply have rolled the wheelbarrow up), and dumped it, trug by trug, into the stock tank.

Dumping the soil mix, trug by trug, into the stock tank. Dumping a trug of soil mix.

Two heaping wheelbarrow loads of soil later, my shoulders and back were feeling the strain, so I knocked off for the night. When the weather warms up again (the next two nights are forecast to be in the twenties; it’s drizzling snow right now), I’ll finish my new kitchen garden.

As I plant tomatoes and other edibles, I’ll think of my late love, builder of garden beds, houses, and sculptor who loved this earth. Like my old kitchen garden, this new one is a symbol of our ability to heal this battered earth—and my ability to heal myself.

With friend and fellow author, Page Lambert, holding my crystal "book" after the banquet. Photo: John Gritts With friend and fellow author, Page Lambert, holding my crystal “book” after the banquet. Photo: John Gritts (thanks, John!)

One more thing, a brag: Last Thursday, I won the 2014 Colorado Authors’ League Award for blogs. It’s a special honor coming from my peers. Thank you all for the support and companionship on this writing road!

Golden currant (Ribes auereum), a native shrub that blooms early, produces berries birds love, and turns orange to crimson and fall.

Easter/Earth Day Dirt Work

Golden currant (Ribes auereum), a native shrub that blooms early, produces berries birds love, and turns orange to crimson and fall. Golden currant (Ribes aureum), an early blooming native shrub that produces berries birds love, and turns orange to crimson in fall.

Happy Easter& Earth Day! I celebrated with dirt work. Specifically, making progress on transforming the once junky industrial parcel that is my new yard into a wildscape, habitat for pollinators and songbirds, as well as a beautiful and nurturing place for people.

It’s early yet to do much planting—our last average frost date is Mother’s Day—but the native sand cherry and golden currant that Richard and I planted along the creek are in bloom, much to the delight of early flying butterflies and bees.

Sand cherry flowers abuzz with native bees and one early-flying painted lady butterfly. Sand cherry flowers abuzz with bees and one painted lady butterfly.

Their flowers let me know it’s time to plant other native shrubs in the yard, along with the dwarf conifers I’m using as the backbone of a small rock garden. (Lauren Springer Ogden‘s photos of the dwarf conifers in her rock garden in the  Wildscape 101 workshops we presented together this spring inspired me.)

Picea pungens 'Mesa Verde' in front and 'Procumbens', the bluer one, in back, with a Physocarpus 'Summer Wine' not leafed out on the left. (Physocarpus is a native shrub with flower clusters like spirea, crinkly leaves and lovely peeling bark for winter interest. Picea pungens ‘Mesa Verde’ in front and ‘procumbens’, the bluer one, in back, with a Physocarpus ‘Summer Wine,’ a spirea-like native shrub, not leafed out on the left.

I started with the dwarf conifers, since they required the biggest holes and thus, the most effort. (I didn’t shoot any photos when I was digging with my heavy mattock and grubbing out those rocks around the plants. I was too busy sweating.)

Teucrinum, a succulent, astragalus and other rock garden plants wait their turn to be planted. Teucrinum, Astragalus and other rock garden plants wait their turn to be planted.

In another few weeks, I’ll fill in around the dwarf conifers with the creeping Teucrinum and other rock garden plants I bought at Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery in Pueblo. They’re currently basking on the plant shelf in the workshop off my garage.

Once I had the dwarf conifers and Physocarpus (ninebark) in the ground, I planted the other shrubs I have on hand: three shrubby cinquefoils and a currant a friend dug up and potted for me last fall (thanks, Ellen!), plus a big sagebrush I got at Bradys West where I bought the dwarf spruces and the Physocarpus.

Big sagebrush, the fragrance of home for me, newly planted in my side yard meadow-to-be. Big sagebrush, the fragrance of home for me, newly planted in my side yard meadow-to-be.

After digging eight holes (two of them large enough to plant trees—those dwarf spruces may be short, but their root balls are big!), I decided to take it a bit easier for the rest of the weekend.

The 20th annual Border Book Festival opens next week in Las Cruces, NM. The 20th annual Border Book Festival opens next week in Las Cruces, NM.

Wednesday, I head south to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the Border Book Festival, which novelist and playwright Denise Chávez and I started an astonishing twenty years ago.

I am not looking forward to the drive, although I am looking forward to seeing La Denise and other friends from our years in Las Cruces.

I dislocated my collarbone last year doing the finish work on Terraphilia, my old house. Thanks to weeks of physical therapy, it’s finally healed well enough that I can wield a mattock without pain, but I cannot drive without pain. I have to stop every hour or so and do my PT exercises, and I can’t go far in a day. It’s going to be a slow trip.

Scarlet Bugler, my favorite native red penstemon--a hummingbird magnet. Scarlet Bugler, a native red penstemon and hummingbird magnet

When I get home from Las Cruces, I will rest and write. Come the next weekend, I’ll head back into the yard for more dirt work, restoring life and the hope that springs from its blooming, singing, pulsing energy to this once-abused piece of earth. To me, that’s the spirit of Easter and Earth Day.

The High Plains west of Pueblo with Pikes Peak under storm clouds in the background (that's true shortgrass prairie, buffalograss with a cholla "overstory").

Spring Signs

The High Plains west of Pueblo with Pikes Peak under storm clouds in the background (that's true shortgrass prairie, buffalograss with a cholla "overstory"). The High Plains west of Pueblo with Pikes Peak under storm clouds in the background (that’s true shortgrass prairie, buffalograss with a sparse cholla “overstory”).

I drove home last night into a howling winter wind, tacking upwind over the edge of the high plains from Pueblo, and then winding into the wind through Bighorn Sheep Canyon, “swimming” upstream through the waves of air to my home valley.

I had spent the day at the Western Landscape Symposium, absorbing talks on all things gardening in our beautiful but challenging high-desert/plains steppe region.

Panayoti Kelaidis, Curator of Plants for the Denver Botanic Gardens and one of our region’s “plant gods,” opened the symposium with a look at the diverse forms and environments we in southern Colorado have to draw on, and stressed the importance of evoking nature and wildness as inspiration.

That's Gluttonous in the photo, a newly emerged eastern Black Swallowtail who starred in an essay I wrote for Thoreau's Legacy, an anthology responding to global warming. That’s Gluttonous, an eastern Black Swallowtail, who grew up in my former kitchen garden.

Which was a wonderful segue to my talk (thanks, Panayoti!), Learning Community in the Garden, on the ways plants experience the world and the relationships they form with microbes in the soil, pollinators and grazers around them, and how gardeners can build on that web plants weave to grow and design beautiful and restorative landscapes.

Inspiration and lessons from my own formerly blighted industrial property. Inspiration and lessons from my own place.

I mentioned the Habitat Hero project and our vision of growing a network of habitat to sustain songbirds and pollinators in yards, gardens, parks and working lands throughout the Rocky Mountain region and beyond.

The audience was enthusiastic and full of questions. People stopped me afterwards to say how inspired they were. Sweet!

I also got to hang out with two of the region’s stellar native plant growers, Bill Adams of Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery, and Jeff Otterberg of Wild Things.

A tour of Jeff’s greenhouses had me itching to take plants home—those rows of tiny penstemons, desert four o’clocks, desert zinnia, and other wildflowers, and the round and spiny cacti of all sorts were all tempting. I was so busy ogling his 30,000 baby plants, I forgot to shoot any photos.

Van Clothier, New Mexico’s guru of stream restoration and water harvesting, showed great photos of projects to restore natural wetlands and capture storm water runoff, solving erosion and sedimentation issues while recharging groundwater. (The slide show on his site is worth a look.)

We also heard from garden photographer and journalist Charles Mann, fruit tree and shrub propagator Scott Skogerboe of Fort Collins Wholesale Nursery, and edibles enthusiast and horticultural entomologist Carol O’Meara.

Heading up the canyon in the wind last night.... Heading up the canyon in the wind last night….

After the symposium, I left Pueblo eager for spring, despite the weather.

Which is why I spent time today searching for spring signs in my bare, brown and wind-blasted landscape. The gusts that scoured the remaining snow from my side yard also scoured away the protective mulch, and I’m afraid, the native grass and wildflower seeds I spread last fall.

Wildflower seedlings! Wildflower seedlings!

In the courtyard on the west side of the house though, the mulch is still intact. I poked under the tangle, and was thrilled to see tiny wildflower cotyledons poking up. I can’t identify them yet, but I know they’re not tumbleweed or kochia, the invasive annual weeds that colonized the site before.

Flower buds--a bit frost-nipped--on the Indian plum Flower buds–a bit frost-nipped–on the Indian plum

Along the creek (dry right now due to our late-winter drought), buds are swelling on the skunkbrush sumac (Rhus trilobata) and Indian plum (Prunus americana).

The reddish pigment on these new golden currant (Ribes aureum) leaves probably protects them from UV damage. The reddish pigment on these new golden currant leaves probably protects them from UV damage.

And the golden currant (Ribes aureum) is putting out tiny reddish leaves.

Those signs of spring are heartening, reminding me that the plants that have known this landscape for millennia are tough and resilient. Their buds and tiny leaves lift my spirits, a sign that life thrives through hard times as well as good ones.

And brings with it beauty and joy—ours if we take the time to look.

From my Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide Remembering why we garden….

Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

Habitat Hero Road-Trip

Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow. Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

In the past four days, I’ve logged 900 road-miles (about half driving myself, half carpooling) in conditions including high wind and blowing snow, drizzle, pouring rain, wet snow so heavy it impaired visibility, and balmy springlike temperatures.

That’s spring–or almost spring–in the Rockies.

March snow makes for interesting driving.... March snow makes for interesting driving….

This particular road-trip took me to Casper, Wyoming, an 8.5 hour drive each way for me, and a 4-plus-hour drive for my traveling companions, renowned plantswoman and garden author Lauren Springer Ogden and passionate wildscaper Connie Holsinger, whose Terra Foundation funds the Be a Habitat Hero project.

At Habitat Hero, we say we’re a small staff with a big dream: restoring a network of habitat in yards and neighborhoods throughout the Rocky Mountain region to sustain songbirds and pollinators.

Our mission this trip: teach a two-hour Wildscape 101 workshop to an audience brought together by the Natrona County Office of the University of Wyoming Extension, and Audubon Rockies.

Lauren speaking at the Wildscape 101 workshop in Casper Lauren speaking at the Wildscape 101 workshop in Casper

The workshop attracted some 85 attendees, including a whole class of trainees for the Master Gardener program. The group was attentive and interested, had great questions, and lined up to buy books and chat afterwards.

We shared lunch with Natrona County Extension Horticulturist (and Habitat Hero Awardee) Donna Cuin and the Master Gardener trainees before hitting the long road home.

And was it a long road–both ways. I had imagined a two-day trip: Leave Salida on Friday morning, drive 3.5 hours to Connie’s house east of Boulder and ride with Connie to pick up Lauren in Fort Collins. From there, the three of us would carpool north to Casper. We’d teach the workshop Saturday morning and then do the drive in reverse, with me arriving home that night.

Only my solo leg of the drive goes over three mountain passes, all higher than 10,000 feet elevation, and across the windswept expanses of South Park. On Wednesday night, the Weather Service predicted high winds and blizzard conditions for South Park on Friday.

Wind plus snow makes for black ice in South Park. Wind plus snow makes for black ice in South Park.

So I left Thursday afternoon, figuring I’d reach Denver ahead of the storm. I didn’t quite make it across South Park before the wind and snow, but I did make it to Denver that night.

Friday morning dawned drizzly, turned to showers and then to heavy, wet snow. When Connie and I reached Fort Collins, we switched to Lauren’s 4-wd Honda.

On the long drive north through eastern Wyoming’s wide-open shortgrass prairie and breaks with their fringes of juniper and ponderosa forest, the snow gradually lessened and the temperature rose (go figure!). By the time we reached Casper Friday evening, the clouds were receding.

Saturday dawned sunny and calm. When we left the Natrona County Fairgrounds that afternoon, it felt like spring–in Wyoming (the snow was melting into puddles).

Crocus blooming in Lauren's south-facing succulent and cactus garden Crocus blooming in Lauren’s south-facing succulent and cactus garden.

By the time we reached Fort Collins and Lauren’s house late in the afternoon, it was so balmy that she gave us a quick tour of her gardens.

My plan to head on home that night lasted until I checked the road report: high wind and blowing snow in South Park. It would be dark by the time I got to that stretch or road. Not good.

South Park this morning, a white expanse of new snow. South Park this morning, a white expanse of new snow.

So I stayed the night. By the time I topped Kenosha Pass and dropped into South Park this morning, the wind had quit and the sun had mostly dried the pavement. A foot of new snow blanketed the high country; my car thermometer read 8 degrees F.

At home though (3,000 feet elevation lower), it was 55 degrees and sunny. After I unpacked the car, I put in a few hours on own habitat restoration project: spreading more wildflower and native grass seed in my dirt yard, newly watered by yesterday’s wet snow.

Roadbase yard between the house and the studio/garage. Dirt yard between the house and the studio/garage.

I’m eager to return this last piece of the abandoned industrial property Richard and I bought almost 17 years ago to health. It’s a symbol of my life in a way. The process takes time, patience and faith, but eventually, we’ll both bloom again.

Working Through Grief

Richard on the Big Sur Coast, California Richard on the Big Sur Coast, California

You’re working too much.

I was headed home after spending the morning in a contentious three-hour planning meeting for a local land management agency.

I was tired and hungry, never the best time to receive advice graciously. Even from a dear friend.

(Of course I work too much: I’m a freelance writer, a career that suits my stubbornly independent nature but doesn’t offer much financial security.)

He continued, “Life’s what happens now. Not after you finish work.”

I could feel my inner redhead’s temper rise.

No sh_t, I thought. You think I don’t know that? In one single year, I managed my mother’s hospice care through her death in February, and then walked with my beloved Richard through his death from brain cancer in November. If I hadn’t known to appreciate my moments before 2011, I certainly do now. 

Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver's Brown Palace Hotel Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel

I said as mildly as I could, “We all grieve differently. I’m working through mine the best I can.”

He looked at me with surprise. “It’s been two years.”

I took a deep breath. It didn’t help.

“Actually, it’s been one year, eleven months and 14 days. We were married almost 29 years; I’d been by his side more than half my life when he died.”

I took another breath. “Excuse me.” I turned away.

The walk home wasn’t nearly long enough to work off my mad.

Which probably explains why it took me less than an hour that afternoon to wrestle two 8-foot-tall crabapple trees from their pots, dig holes for each and plant them in my new front yard. (My neighbor Bev and her friend Jack drove all the way to Cañon City to fetch those two trees–thank you!)

And why even though I was still sore from tree-planting, I threw myself with perhaps more enthusiasm than was advisable into a session of front-yard boulder-work yesterday morning with my trail-building buddy Tony Boone.

My street-side yard with two new trees planted. My street-side yard with two new trees planted.

Hefting rocks that weigh half of what I do (which admittedly, isn’t that impressive), raking cobbles out of the stony soil, wedging them into dry-laid “pavement” to hold the slope, and planting 70 or so daffodil bulbs in each tree-well was very satisfying.

Hard work is soothing and cleansing, whether wrestling trees and boulders or wrestling words. If I immerse myself in my work, it’s because that’s what I need right now.

Yes, I’m grieving.

No, there’s nothing wrong with that.

In a span of nine months, I lost two of the people I loved most in this world. I served as primary caregiver for each of them, feeding, cleaning, changing diapers and sheets, and administering medications; I was there with each one until they left this life for whatever’s next.

My front steps taking shape, aiming for the deck that isn't there yet.... My front steps taking shape, aiming for the deck that isn’t there yet….

That’s intense and grueling work on all levels. There’s also a grace to “midwifing” that difficult and inevitable passage. It’s just not something you get over quickly.

Nor should you.

Grief takes its own time. It’s life’s way of honoring loss and love. How can we predict how long that process will take?

How we each deal with grief is dependent all manner of unpredictable factors: gender and age, finances and daily life, physical and mental health, our ability to be present with emotions, the vagaries of any given moment in any given day….

So if someone you care for is grieving, respect that while it’s not comfortable for you, that’s okay. Be with the discomfort–yours and theirs.

Listen to them.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together….

Sympathize.

Don’t offer advice. No matter how well-meaning, you actually don’t know what they’re going through. The path is different for each of us.

Don’t try to cure or rush their grief.

If you think they’re hurting themselves, say so directly. “I’m worried about you because of [insert specific here]. I care about you.”

Don’t try to fix it (unless they actually ask you to).

Offer a hand, a tissue, a shoulder to cry on, a piece of really rich dark chocolate.

Don’t vanish. Stay in touch without intruding and without judgment.

And if it’s me, please don’t tell me I work too much.

Sierra San Antonio marks the Colorado-New Mexico boundary.

Playing Hooky

Sierra San Antonio marks the Colorado-New Mexico boundary. Sierra San Antonio, a prominent volcanic done, marks the Colorado-New Mexico boundary.

I spent the weekend in Santa Fe at the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference. The speakers were inspiring and funny, and I came home with new insights into both Bless the Birds and the mystery novel I’ve been noodling with on and off for over a decade.

The conference was work, and intense work at that. Still, I hung out with a small group I know from Women Writing the West, and we simply enjoyed each other. I skipped a workshop one morning to have coffee with a friend from grad school. (Thanks for the gift of time and the delicious pastries, Dale!)

I’ve been driving myself so hard for the past few years that I had forgotten how great it felt to not try to accomplish ten major things each day….

My street-side yard before--not an inviting place. My street-side yard before–not an inviting place.

Today I extended my break and played hooky. With a Bobcat. Not the feline kind with a stub-tail and big feet. A mini-excavator with rubber tracks, a blade, and a bucket with a boulder-picking claw.

My new friend Tony Boone, a professional trail-builder who constructs mountain-bike trails as far afield as China, rented the Bobcat for the dirtwork that will transform my street-side yard from a bare, ugly slope into an inviting landscape with paths, boulder retaining walls, and sitting areas.

I had spray-painted a rough plan directly on the slope, a neon green line showing the path cutting a shelf diagonally across the steep slope with a sitting area under a small porch roof. We could use the boulders from Richard’s spare rockyard as retaining walls.

Tony cuts the beginning of the shelf for the path, making a "nest" for the first boulder. Tony cuts the beginning of the shelf, making a “nest” for the first boulder.

Tony checked the slope with his clinometer, an instrument that measures slope angle, and set to work placing the first boulder to mark the entrance to the path and anchor the retaining wall.

I helped by staying out of the way–picking rocks from the excavated earth, fetching tools, and consulting as Tony needed. (I also planted a lilac bush at the corner of the side-yard fence, and hauled cobbles from the newly excavated shelf for a dry streambed project.)

A line of boulders, snugly seated, holds the slope where the path will go. A line of boulders, snugly seated, holds the slope where the path will go.

Over the course of the morning, as Tony maneuvered the Bobcat around the sloping yard with its various obstacles, a shelf with a boulder retaining wall began to emerge, sculpting planting spaces in a once featureless bank.

At one point, I had to go inside and do some actual work, as in writing work. When I came back outside, Tony and the Bobcat had cut and graded their way up the slope to where the path comes under the side porch overhang.

Watching him carefully ease the excavator and its long arm (“boom” in the trade) under the overhang carrying quarter-ton chunks of sandstone building blocks reminded me of watching dancers moving with care and continual awareness of where each movement takes them in space.

Eyeing the overhang and the boom while grading the path-to-be. Eyeing the clearance between the overhang and the boom while grading the path-to-be.

By the time the light began to fade, I had moved several wheelbarrow-loads of cobbles and mulch for the projects I was working on, and Tony and the Bobcat had moved many cubic yards of boulders and soil.

The paths and retaining walls in the streetside yard were clearly recognizable. Tony dug up the last bucket of earth from below the path, placed the last boulder from Richard’s rockyard (I just ordered five more tons of boulders for tomorrow’s work), lowered the blade and the boom to anchor the Bobcat, and turned the machine off.

I stacked the hand tools against the house. We stood admiring his work in the quiet. Then he headed home to his kids, and I came inside to make my dinner.

A diagonal path bisects the slope, with boulders retaining the steepest bits above and below. A diagonal path bisects the slope, with boulders retaining the steepest bits above and below.

I’m worn out. But I have to admit that a whole day outside working in my dirt yard felt great.

So great, in fact, that I’m going to do it again tomorrow….