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. 



 


 

59: A Certain Age

Since sometime last fall, I’ve been struggling to not succumb to a kind of low-level, background malaise that is uncharacteristic for me. I’m usually sunny, or at least resilient and optimistic.

But lately, I find myself close to tears at odd moments, or wrestling with a formless anxiety that seems to come from nowhere. I worry more. I feel insecure about my future. Where I have always been firmly decisive, now I second-guess decisions even after I've made them. Should I really have done that? Would it have been better to… 

Yet when people ask how I’m doing, I say “Fine.” I’m not. I just don’t know how to explain what’s wrong. 

Life’s not always sunny. It’s natural to worry, to feel anxious and out-of-balance at times. But I’m sick of this. I want the old me back. And I can’t seem to will that to happen. 

****

Yesterday, as I was walking along Cherry Creek, headed back to my hotel after helping host a workshop at Denver Botanic Gardens, I suddenly realized what’s wrong.

It’s not me. It’s my age: I’m 59, the same age Richard was when he saw those legions of birds on a hot August morning in 2009. The bird hallucinations that were the only major symptom of something drastically wrong in his brain, the tumor that would eventually kill him.

Richard shoots an "us" selfie, 2009

His 59th year was the beginning of the end of us, though we didn’t understand (or allow ourselves to admit) that reality for a long while. 

So it’s no wonder that beneath the surface of my conscious mind, my subconscious is watchful, looping in a whirl of unease and anxiety. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for some unimaginably horrible thing to carve another hole in my heart. 

The January when Richard was 59, we had our first hint of the parting to come when he stayed in Colorado for his “radiation residency” while I led a writing workshop on Isla Espíritu Santo off Baja in subtropical Mexico. 

I had planned the workshop a year before as a decades-belated honeymoon that would allow us to explore one of our dream destinations, that wild desert island surrounded by the azure blue waters of the Gulf of California. 

And then came the bird hallucinations, the cancerous tumor, and the radiation treatment that couldn’t be delayed. I wanted to cancel the workshop; Richard was adamant that I needed to go. (When he made up his mind, nothing could move that man!)

So I left him in Aurora with Molly the day after Christmas. Going to Mexico without my love was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We had always traveled hand in hand.

 

HIking the shore near camp, Isla Espíritu Santo, Baja California. (Photo: Chris Bradley)

Until that week when he was undergoing radiation treatment in snowy Colorado and I was camped on a beach in balmy Mexico, kayaking with sea turtles, snorkeling with sea lions, seeing the place we had dreamed about—without him. It was a foretaste of a solo existence I never wished for.

The dread of what Richard’s 59th year brought to us has apparently been lurking in my subconscious ever since, awakened once I reached that same age. 

Now that I recognize the cause of my malaise, will it dissipate and lose its power? I don’t know. I do know why I am feeling so out of balance, so alert for the disaster my subconscious is sure is about to happen. 

It’s comforting to remember that magical time on Isla Espíritu Santo, being lulled to sleep by the shushing of the sea and waking to pelican bellies thwacking the water as they stunned fish to eat; a week of canyon wren trills echoing off rocky cliffs above our camp and Pedro, our guide, laughing as he showed us the secret waterfall, the sea lion colony, the petroglyphs in a cave. 

Clamming, "our" bay on Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California

To remember how Richard’s smile beamed bright as the Baja sunshine when he and Molly spotted me in the crowd at the airport, his joy in hearing my stories of that wondrous place. 

Most of all, it is deeply reassuring to remember the strong and sweet love that flowed between us even as his life headed around that bend to whatever’s next. When I feel the warmth of that love and his smile, I know it is possible to live happily and well, despite the hole his leaving carved in my heart. 

Before… (Photo by Scott Calhoun)

Remembering What Matters

We all have those weeks when one problem becomes much more serious, and then something unexpected throws us off, and then just when we’ve navigated over or around those bumps, we hit one we didn’t see at all and bam!–all four metaphorical tires go flat. And we holler some probably much-less-printable version of, “Why me, Universe?”

A spiny cholla cactus next to an equally spiny plains yucca in Bighorn Sheep Canyon on my way home Thursday. A spiny cholla cactus next to an equally spiny plains yucca in Bighorn Sheep Canyon on my way home Thursday.

That was my week. I know it’s nothing personal on the Universe’s part, just the way the bumps come, but really….

The first problem is that front tooth. A 200-mile round-trip to Colorado Springs to see the specialist and a sizeable dent in my checking account later, I know it’s abscessed, I know the nerve is dead, and I know that a root canal isn’t the solution.

So now it’s back to my dentist to talk about Door #2, which does not contain a new sports car or a cruise, rather a tooth extraction and braces; or Door #3, which contains something even less appealing and more expensive, a tooth implant screwed into my lower jaw.

Oh. Joy.

I contemplated those options on the two-hour-drive home while steering Red into a gusty wind and wondering why (1) the wind was against me both ways and (2) northern Colorado got rain and snow again and we here in the dust-dry south got… more wind.

Then I spotted the apricot tree in bloom by a farmstead so long vanished that all that remains are some rubble from the foundation and one concrete step. I stopped to shoot a photo, and felt immensely better. It’s spring, drought or no, that apricot is surviving all on its own, and my issue is only a tooth and money, for heck’s sake.

One hardy apricot tree... One hardy apricot tree…

Yesterday the sun shone, the wind calmed, and the daffodils I planted last fall in my front yard were in bud. I set out with two trash bags, a rake and a long-handled trash-grabber to do spring-cleanup along the trail and my block of creek. Two sweaty hours, some aching muscles and two full trash bags plus a huge mass of soggy tumbleweed carcasses later, I decided had done enough for the day.

As I walked slowly back downstream, something eerie happened: the creek dried up. The water trickled away and the newly exposed algae on the rocks quickly went from wet to dry in the intense high-altitude sun.

So much for the water-skaters, the Mayfly hatch, and the baby trout.

March and April are normally two or our wettest months of the year, but this spring they’ve brought less than two-tenths of an inch of precipitation. And the daytime temperatures have averaged 10 to 15 degrees F warmer than usual. That’s global climate change. And my murmuring creek, home to a lively community of aquatic wigglers and swimmers, has receded underground for who knows how long.

At least, I said to myself as I walked to the Post Office to collect my mail later, I had woken up before dawn in time to see the truly awesome (as in full of awe, not as in teenage slang) eclipse of the aptly named “blood moon” that morning. It might have been the shortest eclipse of this century, but it was spectacular.

That blood moon eclipse... That blood moon eclipse…

And then I opened my post box and found a letter from the IRS: I owe more. In fact, I owe almost exactly the amount I paid the very expensive endodontist on Thursday.

If there’s some kind of cosmic joke here, I’d like to be in on it.

As I was finishing this post, I walked outside. The sky was a glorious shade of dusk blue and Venus glimmered above the peaks to the west. The kitchen light in my sweet little house glowed in welcome.

I smiled.

The bumps are still bumps. What matters is that I get to live here, in the home–house, community and landscape–of my heart.

My sweet Creek House Creek House at dusk

The Radical Act of Hope

In the final Saturday panel at the Geography of Hope conference last weekend in Point Reyes Station, California, one speaker said something to the effect that “hope” was worthless in the face of the catastrophe of global climate change. That we couldn’t sit around and simply hope things would get better, we needed to act in bold ways, to make radical changes, and we needed to act now. I agree that we need to act in bold ways and now.

River of Hope created at the end of the conference. Graphics by Laurie Durnell & Kathy Evans of The Grove Consultants, Intl.; Sirima Sataman of Ink.Paper.Plate Studio River of Hope Declaration. Graphics by Laurie Durnell & Kathy Evans of The Grove Consultants, Intl.; Sirima Sataman of Ink.Paper.Plate Studio

Global climate change is happening faster than we figured, and it urgently asks us to re-imagine our relationship to each other and to this earth. It asks, as did the “River of Hope” declaration created from words and phrases supplied by attendees, what/who we love too much to lose (a feeling), and what we will do to defend what/who we love (an action).

I do not agree that “hope” is necessarily a worthless concept, one that gives us permission to be complacent in the midst of the need for action. I couldn’t articulate why at that point though.

I thought about hope and why I believe it is relevant to our response to global climate change on my long trek home from western Marin County, first back to San Francisco to spend time with Molly and Mark, who are part of the family I love too much to lose, even as I am vividly aware from personal experience that their lives could end at any moment.

Louella, chalking ephemeral words….

I continued thinking about that rejection of hope as a useful response to global climate change as I drove south to meet my friend Louella at a park on the shores of an estuary near Redwood City.

Louella brought a box of sidewalk chalk with her so we could write haiku. We picked a prominent stretch of walking/biking path, composed our haiku, and proceeded to “write large.”

We ran the words of one haiku down a hill the way a stream of water would run.

winter that was not
rain comes late–dissolving
ephemeral words

Dissolving.... Haiku writ large….

Our scribing a haiku on the path in a public park was an expression of desire, an incantation for rain in the face of California’s catastrophic drought. On the surface, it’s hopeful in the sense the speakers at the Geography of Hope conference vocally disdained.

But if that haiku becomes a way to interpret the urgency of the drought and climate change, the urgency of our making changes in our individual and collective lives, then the haiku is a beginning, a catalyst. It becomes “hope” in the active sense.

I believe in hope as an active practice. A practice that allows us to create positive change in our lives through our actions, small and large. I believe in the enduring power of the kind of hope Emily Dickinson wrote about in “Hope is the Thing With Feathers (314)“:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Mojave Desert annual wildflower, another 'ki I love to much to lose. Mojave Desert annual wildflower, another ‘ki I love to much to lose.

I believe in that never stopping, that persistence. That through the active practice of continuing to love this world and ‘ki community of lives, human and so many more, we can make the kinds of difficult shifts we need to respond to global climate change and other crises.

Love, as I wrote in The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes & Sandhill Cranes, my little book with photographer Glenn Oakley, is our species’ best gift:

What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life.

The new moon and Venus tonight--and I love this world too much to lose any of these kin.... The new moon and Venus tonight–and I love this world too much to lose any of these kin….

If acting in a hopeful way unleashes the fierce and radical power of that deep, never-stopping terraphilic love for this battered planet and the lives we share ‘ki with, let’s make use of it. Hope as a spur for action–bring it on!

Road-trip Report: Windshield Time and New Ideas

I left Salida 12 days ago, headed for the Central California Coast, and returned last night after driving 3,300 miles through parts of five states, six Indian nations (I may have missed some–my apologies), five national parks, and seven bio-regions.

Imagine Red and I following that squiggly pink line from southcentral Colorado south and west on the outbound journey to California, and north and east (the top line) coming back. (Map from Mapquest, line drawn in Skitch.) Red and I followed that squiggly pink line from the intersection of US 50 and 285 in south-central Colorado south and west on the outbound journey to California, and north and east coming back. (I drew the line in Skitch.)

It was too much driving for twelve days, but that was the time I had to make the trip, and I did my best to use the windshield time (and the fossil fuel Red consumed) well and thoughtfully.

Along the way I camped and stayed with friends (thanks, Doris & Bill, Terry & Steve, Sharon & Jeff, and Laura & Sarah); interviewed people who work with, write about, and think about plants for the next book; spent time with Molly and her sweetie Mark in San Francisco, and in one very long day, Molly and I drove to Monterey and south along the Big Sur Coast with friend Laura, spreading some of Richard’s ashes in two spots he loved on our favorite stretch of ocean coast.

"Watch for the onshore breeze!" says Laura, just as some of Richard playfully blows back toward me at Otter Cove, near Carmel Highlands. “Watch for the onshore breeze!” says Laura, just as some of Richard playfully blows back toward me at Otter Cove, near Carmel Highlands. Photo: Molly Cabe

As I do when I drive anywhere, I thought about the landscapes I passed through from the perspective of a plant ecologist who considers and writes about the relationships that interweave humans and the rest of the community of the land–nature.

That swath of yellow in this Mojave Desert basin is a carpet of annual wildflowers abuzz with tiny native bees, even though the flowers will only last for a few short weeks and may not appear again for years. That swath of yellow in this Mojave Desert basin is a carpet of annual wildflowers abuzz with tiny native bees.

For instance, while crossing the Mojave Desert, I wondered how the native bees know to find those annual wildflowers during the two weeks they bloom every several years. (It’s an important question, especially in light of how global climate change could break these critical natural relationships: no bees, no pollination and thus no seeds, which provide food for the desert songbirds and other lives as well as flowers the next time the winter rains come, resulting in an impoverished desert.)

An important reason for the timing of the trip was to participate in Geography of Hope, a conference put on every two years by Point Reyes Books north of San Francisco.

Driving across the Golden Gate bridge on the way to the conference, a bridge named for the "golden" slopes of the hills that once glowed with billions of California poppies in spring. Let's replant the poppies and re-gild those hills! Driving across the Golden Gate bridge on the way to the conference, a bridge named for the “golden” slopes of the hills that once glowed with billions of wild California poppies in spring. Let’s restore the poppies and re-gild those hills!

I am still cogitating about what I took away from the conference, which included talks and panels by some of my favorite writers and thinkers, including Potowatomi scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer (Gathering Moss), philosophy professor and author Kathleen Dean Moore (Holdfast), poet Robert Hass, eco-feminist writer Susan Griffin (Women and Nature), filmmaker and author Gretel Ehrlich (a fellow Wyomingite), author and cultural geographer Carolyn Finney (Black Faces, White Spaces), eco-literature scholar and professor Priscilla Solis Ybarra, among others.

Robin Wall Kimmerer responded to the conference question “What does Earth ask of us?” (especially related to the crisis of climate change) with the idea of reciprocity, working at restoring both our relationship with the earth and restoring the planet itself.

As a beginning to restoring our relationship, she talked about the troubling grammar of the English language, which refers to Earth and the other beings we share this planet with through the dehumanizing “it.” (Read more of Wall Kimmerer’s ideas around that question, and also of Kathleen Dean Moore, here.)

Indian paintbrush on the Big Sur coast, some of my plant kin. Indian paintbrush on the Big Sur coast, some of my plant kin.

Wall Kimmerer proposed a new word from a Potawatomi root, ki, which she pronounced “chee.” (With a hard ‘ch,’ so maybe closer to ‘key’ or somewhere between the two.) Instead of calling the chickadee I just watched flit by, “it,” for instance, I’d refer to the small songbird as “ki” and the plural, she suggested, as “kin.” I wanted to stand up and clap right then. I’ve always struggled with having to refer to other beings and the Earth itself as the de-personal “it.” You can trash an “it,” but it’s harder to lay waste to a planet or being you call “kin.”

It seems to me that it’s more than time for a reciprocal relationship with the earth, for a radical rethinking of our bonds with and our gifts to our mother planet and its web of lives, starting with language. I’m resolved to abolish “it” from my lexicon related to living beings and the earth, starting now, and adopting ki and the plural, kin.

This could make for interesting conversation with my editors, but that’s okay. As Richard would say, it’s a teachable moment. Any crisis is.

And speaking of kin, here's Molly and me in San Francisco. Love you, sweetie! And speaking of kin, here’s Molly and me in San Francisco. Love you, sweetie!

Gardening (and living) As If We Belong

For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Mt. Ouray, white with fresh snow and almost 14,000 feet elevation, rising in the distance beyond Salida. Mt. Ouray, white with fresh snow and almost 14,000 feet elevation, rising in the distance beyond Salida.

As the weather turns from winter storms to balmy days and frosty nights, I’ve been thinking about spring and the habitat-gardening workshops I’ll be teaching in a few weeks.

Teaching is a great opportunity to stop to reflect about why I’m passionate about my subject. Not just about plants, which I love with an absorption and sense of kinship I don’t always have for my own species, or about the communities our green and rooted kin weave across the surface of this extraordinary living earth. I also think seriously about why I engage in the sometimes-misunderstood, physically hard, and often-lengthy work of restoring nature in urban places.

The answer is always the same. Because I love the work. Because nothing else is as satisfying as seeing the meanders and the baby trout return to a formerly channelized urban creek, or scarlet indian paintbrush freckling a lively native mountain grassland seeded where before was a sterile turfgrass lawn, or the monarchs flutter in to a patch of newly established native milkweed, or the kids standing in awe, mouths open, as the first hummingbird they have ever seen hovers to drink nectar from the wildflower patch planted next to their city edible garden….

Adult monarch drinking nectar from a native common milkweed along "my" block of urban creek. Adult monarch drinking nectar from a native common milkweed along “my” block of urban creek.

Because nature restored is a glorious, confounding, exuberant community of interrelated lives who together express the unique story of each place. Because watching life weave a healthy existence is a source of continuing inspiration, education and flat-out wonder.

Because this earth is my home. Because, while my people may have arrived on this continent a mere century or two ago, I belong here in this high-desert valley in the shadow of the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains.

I eat food my hands have grown in this gritty soil; its minerals structure my cells. Airborne molecules of the volatile organic compounds our native big sagebrush wafts onto the air bubble through my blood with each breath I inhale; the sight of aspen clones painting whole mountainsides in brilliant gold and the resonant calls sandhill cranes winging high overhead infuse my soul.

L'il Bites tomato cotyledons sprouting on my living room windowsill for the summer garden. (Thank you, Renee's Garden Seeds!) L’il Bites tomato cotyledons sprouting on my living room windowsill for the summer garden. (Thank you, Renee’s Garden Seeds!)

Because, as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes, I work at living here as if our children’s future mattered–the harvester ant children, the infant whitestem evening primrose, the young greenback cutthroat trout and larval mayflies, the monarch caterpillars, the baby sagebrush, the downy sandhill cranes all gangly legs and beaks, and the children of my human community.

I garden to restore habitat and healthy nature because all our children matter, because they are all part of our future.

Because it is my way of taking care of this land. I teach habitat gardening and restoration of nature to others because our lives, material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual do depend on it.

Dryland native meadow yard Richard and I restored at my old house. Dryland native meadow yard Richard and I restored at my old house.

And because I want others to feel the joy and awe, and the deep sense of satisfaction and belonging that I do when I see the earth restored. Because it is an antidote for the paralysis and despair that come when we’re faced with seemingly overwhelming environmental problems. Because my hope for and faith in the future rests on all of us on this glorious, animate blue planet, the only home our species has ever known.

Because when we garden as if we and the generations to come belong, we live as if we do, too. And we all benefit.

(Revised version of a piece first published in Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens, a national blog-zine I contribute a column to each month.)

Edible Garden: Starting Tomato, Basil and Eggplant

Last week, a packet of seeds from Renee’s Garden, my favorite supplier of easy-to-grow, delicious and beautiful garden seeds landed in my post box, my personal signal that spring is on the way.

New seeds and new varieties for my summer garden, thanks to Renee's Garden Some of the new seeds and new varieties I’ll plant in my edible garden, thanks to Renee’s Garden.

On Saturday evening, I dug a seedling tray out of the stack in the garage, found my organic germinating mix, gathered the seed packets I needed, and carried my supplies inside to the living room.

It’s too early and too cold still at night to sow even Renee’s enticing-looking new Tuscan baby-leaf kale and cool-season mesclun mixes in my containers on the front deck, but it’s just the right time to start tomatoes, oriental eggplant, basil, and sweet alyssum indoors.

I filled each of the tiny pots to the brim with germinating mix (a special fine-grained, nutrient-rich soil mix for starting seeds). Then I worked row by row through the flat, planting one variety per row. I started with ‘Aurelia Bolognese’ Basil, Renee’s new basil introduction from the region around Bologna, Italy.

The flat of 40 pots ready to be filled with soil--seed packets lined up as well. The flat of 40 pots ready to be filled with soil–seed packets lined up as well.

I read the packet for each kind of seed, and then planted one or two seeds in each pot at the required depth, and pressed the seeds firmly into the soil (the mix compacts, which is why I filled the pots full to start).

Next came a row of ‘Little Prince’ oriental eggplant, a variety that produces small oval fruits with nutty flesh and thin, edible skin. ‘Little Prince’ is perfect for container edible gardening.

'Little Prince' eggplants with Black Krim (left) and Persimmon (right) tomatoes from my old kitchen garden. (Both tomato varieties are favorites, but too big for my containers.) ‘Little Prince’ eggplants with Black Krim (left) and Persimmon (right) tomatoes from my old kitchen garden. (Both tomato varieties are favorites, but too big for my containers.)

After the eggplant row came the tomatoes, four varieties. I used to grow seven or eight, but then I used to garden for a whole household. Now it’s just me, and while I love eating and giving away tomatoes, I have to restrain myself from growing too many!

First the yellow pear tomatoes, an old favorite and a variety ideal for fresh eating (friends often pick and munch these bite-sized, sweet tomatoes as they pass the stock tank that holds my tomato plants on the way to my front door).

Then a row of a new variety, ‘Litt’l Bites’ cherry tomato, specially bred for window boxes, hanging baskets and other small containers.

Stupice tomatoes ripening on the vine last summer. Stupice tomatoes ripening on the vine last summer.

I followed that by two rows of reliable favorites, Stupice, an heirloom variety of rounded, rich-flavored salad tomatoes; and ‘Pompeii Roma,’ a heavy producer of fruits great for sauces and stews, and good keepers that ripen until December inside, providing me with fresh tomatoes into winter.

Yellow pear and Pompeii roma tomatoes ripening inside in November. Yellow pear and Pompeii roma tomatoes ripening inside in November.

Last, I planted a row of ‘Summer Peaches’ sweet alyssum, a small, spreading annual with early blooming, sweet-smelling flowers. I’ll tuck alyssum into the edges of my containers of edibles to attract and feed pollinators and other beneficial insects.

(Addition: Thanks to my friend Louella for pointing out this blog post on planting sweet alyssum with organic lettuce: the flowers’ sweet scent and nectar attracts hover flies, whose larvae are voracious aphid predators.)

Hover fly adult on the lettuce in my garden; the larvae are natural aphid control. Hover fly adult on the lettuce in my garden; the larvae are natural aphid control.

I labeled each row so I’d remember what I had planted. I soaked the wicking mat under the pots, which will keep each little pot evenly moist, and carefully sprinkled the dry soil of each pot from above.

Then I set the tray on the heating mat on the shelf in front of my south-facing living room windows (the heating mat warms the soil, encouraging germination).

Watering the pots with their seeds.... Watering the pots with their seeds….

Now I just have to wait for the miracle as tiny green cotyledons, the seed-leaves, appear from each tiny nugget of life in the moist soil. Come on, spring!

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being

Writing and Living “Not Too Small”

At Kent Haruf‘s memorial service in Salida a few months ago, the Wyoming writer Mark Spragg told a story he had heard Kent tell that struck a chord with me. I recently found that story again in “The Making of a Writer,” a memoir-essay Kent wrote for the magazine Granta.

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being–we surely miss him here in Salida.

I want to share the story with you because it’s a powerful example of how the small things in life can teach us lessons so big that we may miss them if we’re not paying attention. And it’s so characteristic Kent, quiet, modest, deep and absolutely right.

Kent was, he writes, teaching in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (my undergraduate alma mater, though I was there a decade earlier), “living in a trailer court in a one-room trailer.”

Across the road from me in the trailer court was a family who were all mentally disabled. Darrell and Retta and their little boy, Kevin. I used to help them a little by driving them to the grocery store and to their appointments with Social Services. On one of these trips, Retta said to me: “Well, Keinnt”–she always called me Keinnt–“Well, Keinnt, what do you do for a living?”

And I said: “I try to help students learn how to write better.”

And she said: “Well, Keinnt, Darrell says I write too small.” She thought of course that I was teaching penmanship. Which, in truth, probably would be more useful than trying how to help anyone learn how to write convincing lies and literary fictions.

Kent goes on to say, “Now for the last thirteen years, Cathy and I have been back in Colorado [his home state], in Salida, and I wrote Eventide and … I wrote this new novel Benediction, working out in my writer’s shed in the mountains, heeding my hours, and I feel as if I’ve been very lucky in my life.”

Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize

And here’s the kicker that arrows right to my soul:

And I want to think, as Darrell warned Retta: over the years I have tried not to write too small, and I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either.

So that’s my new resolve. In addition to living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand (a line I adapted from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song), I want to write and live “not too small.”

It’s an aim we could all adopt. The world can surely use more not-too-small minds and hearts.

Cooking & Books: Simple Winter Salad and a Great Read

I’ve been in a cooking and reading mood lately, perhaps because the view off my front deck has been white more often than usual. (The photo below is yesterday morning, after 10 inches of snow fell overnight, a lot of snow for my high-desert valley in February.)

Shovel poised, ready to un-bury the front steps and the sidewalk. Shovel poised, ready to un-bury the front steps and the sidewalk.

On Sunday, when the snow was falling along with the temperature, I had an urge for something green and fruity for lunch. So I invented myself a simple mixed lettuce salad using winter fruits, plus cheese and nuts, a kind of homage to the season that looked toward spring. Here’s the recipe (to serve more than one person, simply multiply the quantity of each ingredient):

Simple Winter Greens Salad

1 cup mixed greens (I used mixed baby lettuces grown in geothermally heated greenhouses at nearby Mount Princeton Hot Springs, but you could use anything, including baby kale and spinach)
1/2 ripe organic pear (mine was a Bartlett)1/4 ripe organic avocado
2 T toasted pecans
1/2 oz gouda cheese (a good aged cheddar would also be delicious; I used gouda because Rocking W Cheeses in western Colorado makes one that’s local)
1 T organic olive oil (I use Stonehouse Olive Oil from California because I value food that’s as local as possible, since it doesn’t travel as far and require so much fuel to get to my plate)
2 tsp organic Balsamic vinegar
pinch salt

Tear or chop up the greens in a bowl, dress with salt, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss gently to mix. Slice the pear and avocado lengthwise and chop into bite-sized pieces and arrange over the top of the greens. Crumble the pecans and scatter them over the top of the fruit (yes, avocado is a fruit!), and then slice the cheese into short slivers and distribute those atop the whole.

My Simple Winter Greens Salad, delicious, healthy and hinting at spring.... My Simple Winter Greens Salad, delicious, healthy and hinting at spring….

Take a moment to appreciate the plants that made your food and the people who grew, harvested, and produced it, and then dive in and enjoy!

____

When the weather’s this cold and snowy, I love to curl up on the couch and lose myself in a good book. Which is what I did this weekend in between laundry and paying bills and checking in with my 86-year-old dad by phone and the other minutia of household life.

The book I read, which came from my to-review stack for Story Circle Book Reviews, sucked me right in. It was so good that I read it in one sitting, and then read it through again the next day. The story is that compelling and haunting.

Running Out of Night, by Sharon Lovejoy Running Out of Night, by Sharon Lovejoy

Running Out of Night is Sharon Lovejoy’s debut novel, and what a debut it is! (Lovejoy is known for her garden books for kids and adults, which have won all sorts of awards and become bestsellers.)

Here’s a taste of my review:

“Mama gave her last breath just as I took my first.”

That simple sentence both opens Sharon Lovejoy’s YA novel and defines the life of its main character, twelve-year-old, unnamed “Girl.”

Although Pa and my big brothers never said they blamed me for her death, I always felt it achin inside me, like the rotten tooth our blacksmith plied out of my mouth. Why else would a pa and his boys let a little girl come into the world and live for twelve years without givin her a name?

Girl lives with her brothers and her bad-tempered pa, “born tired and raised lazy,” on the small farm that was her grandfather’s in the blue-hazy ridges of eastern Virginia in 1858.

Until fate, in the form of a runaway slave girl just Girl’s age, steps in, and the two set off on a hero’s journey, a gripping tale of both great beauty and great peril. The two girls, one white, one black, are transformed by their desperate flight in ways that ring true both for their time and today’s world.

Read the whole review here. And then read Running Out of Night. You’ll be glad you did.

Road Trip Lessons: Patience and Kindness

Yesterday I drove halfway across the state of Colorado, or so it seemed, from Fort Collins on the northern Front Range south to Golden, and then up through the foothills and into the high country, across the wide and windy bowl of South Park, and then down into the Upper Arkansas Valley and home.

Heading through Boulder, toward foothills white with new snow. (The building beyond the traffic is the National Bureau of Standards, where one of world's atomic clocks is located.) Heading through Boulder, toward foothills white with new snow. (The building beyond the traffic is the National Bureau of Standards, where one of world’s atomic clocks is located.)

The trip is a smidge over 200 miles and usually takes about three and a half hours.

Unless there’s bad traffic in the urban parts, which wasn’t the case yesterday. I made good time all the way to where US 285 exits the interstate. I even made good time going up through the foothills. I was ahead of the evening rush hour traffic and the snow from Sunday and Monday had mostly melted off the road.

Until I drove over Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet elevation), and into South Park. Where the wind was howling in 40 to 50 mph gusts, the new snow was whipping through the air in white clouds, and the pavement was a slick of icy ruts for miles.

Ice and white-out conditions at Michigan Creek in South Park Ice and white-out conditions at Michigan Creek in South Park

That’s the other exception about the trip taking about three and a half hours: except when it’s winter in the mountains.

When I looked out at the sea of white snow in motion and felt the first gusts, I reminded myself that the important thing was getting home safely, not getting home quickly. That’s the first road-trip lesson: patience pays, especially in winter driving.

I sighed, and checked my rear-view mirror. The guy driving the jacked-up Dodge truck behind me with the huge tires and rumbling muffler saw the ice and blowing snow at the same time as I did, and moved back to a safe distance.

That was reassuring. On we went, slowing from 65 mph to 45, sometimes picking up to 50, sometimes slowing to 40 or 30, he keeping the same safe distance behind me, both of us okay.

Just another pleasant day in South Park.... Just another pleasant day in South Park….

Until the Lexus SUV came up behind him, pulled out to pass, skidded sideways, and just managed to stay on the road, got past him and tried to zoom past me because someone was coming in the opposite lane (some people don’t learn).

The Lexus driver goosed the accelerator and did a full 360 just off my left front. I slid right and out-of-the-way, and watched as the Lexus sailed off the road and into a drift in the ditch.

The Dodge behind me copied my evasive maneuver. We were both slowing to go back to see if the idiot in the Lexus was okay when we saw that the “someone coming” was a State Trooper, and she already had her lights flashing. So the Dodge driver and I looked at each other, shrugged, crept back on the road and headed on.

I don’t know what he was thinking, but I bet it was some version of “Poetic justice–and thank heavens I didn’t have to stop and rescue that idiot.” The Dodge driver and I stayed together, a little duo navigating the ice and the wind, until we got to Fairplay, where he tapped his horn, and when I looked back, he waved “good luck!” and turned off.

The ice and wind continued for another ten miles, and then the pavement was clear and I sped up, exhausted but relieved.

Much better, and almost home.... Much better, and almost home….

I made it home just after sunset, at five-thirty. A full hour later than I expected.

The other lesson? Be open to goodness. The guy in the jacked up pickup with the loud muffler and huge tires turned out to be good company for navigating through the white-outs, wind and icy roads. Thanks, buddy!