2020: Remembering the good parts

Desert four-o-clock (Mirabilis multiflora) in full bloom.

As we come to the end of 2020, a year that has been tumultuous and difficult in ways we all know, my impulse is to kick the old year in the rear and unceremoniously slam the door behind it.  Instead, I want to remember the blessings that came my way, so that I can welcome 2021 with my heart open and my gratitude foremost.

Those blessings? What comes to mind first are the Guy and his dog and horses. I who was perfectly happy to live the rest of my life solo now have a loving partnership again with a man who shares my bond with these Rocky Mountain landscapes, with the literature that rises from them, and who also shares my need for time in the wild.

Me on Cookie, leading Silky into the wilderness on our pack trip.

For my birthday, he gifted me with four days in the remote Washakie Wilderness of northwest Wyoming, just southeast of Yellowstone, where I worked as a young field ecologist. It was pure heaven. Our long-distance relationship isn’t simple, but the rewards are beyond words. My heart is full, and my understanding of the world is enriched by his company, knowledge, and insights.

A lake in the Washakie wilderness where we stopped for lunch on our pack trip.

Another blessing has been time with friends and family, much of that virtual. But in these socially distanced COVID-19 times, the connection with the people I love and whose company nurtures me is so critical.

I treasure the in-person time so much more now that it’s rare. Visits like the walk I took yesterday (masked and socially distanced) with the memoirist Kati Standefer are what sustain me in these challenging days, mind, body, and spirit. (If you haven’t read her stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowersdo. You’ll understand why Oprah picked it as one of the top 100  books for the year, and it was an Editor’s Choice book at the New York Times Book Review, plus landed Kati on NPR’s Fresh Air.)

A heart-shaped and face-sized chunk of native sandstone, sculpted by time and weathering, and transported by Galisteo Creek.

We trekked up a dry stream-bed near her house at the base of a red sandstone ridge, talking about life and writing and memoir, why we need solitude and the wild and what love is worth, anyway. We hung out with her chickens, and discovered a shared love for Stranahan’s whisky. I found the large heart rock in the stream-bed and lugged it back, knowing somehow it should come home with me.

I needed that high a few hours later when I learned that my friend and writing inspiration, Barry Lopez, had died the day before. It’s been that kind of high-slammed-by-lows year, and I am so fortunate to have a community who cheers me on. Thank you all.

Crossing the farm hayfields in early summer at sunset, after moving the irrigation water one last time.

Another blessing has been time on the land. I live in the rural West, outside Santa Fe in the winter, and in northwest Wyoming in the summer. In between, I spend time on the Guy’s farm, getting to know a whole new landscape in the broad swath of the sagebrush county I call home. Living where there are few people and lots of open space makes it easier to stay safe in COVID-times, and means I get abundant vitamin N, time in nature, to keep me healthy and reasonably sane amidst the tumult of the larger world.

Then there’s the gift of seeing my new memoir, Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, come to life with a beautiful cover and an inviting page design. And the generosity of fellow authors writing advance praise for BtB. Best-selling novelist Jane Kirkpatrick wrote,

Bless the Birds is the book for our times. It’s a splendid blend of landscapes, relationships, creative work, and spirituality–finding meaning in life framed by an awareness of death. I have a dozen people I want to share this authentic, honest, hopeful memoir with. You will too. It’s a treasure. 

Bless the Birds, with a beautiful cover designed by Julie Metz of She Writes Press.

I am honored that this memoir, my thirteenth book, resonates with writers whose work I admire. (The book is due out in April, and if you are so moved you can pre-order it through Amazon, Bookshop–which supports independent bookstores–or your local bookstore.)

And in this year of so many endings, but also new beginnings, I am grateful for this beautiful new website, courtesy of my multi-talented and generous friends Tony and Maggie Niemann of Tracks Software. I’m not sure what I did to deserve Tony and Maggie, but I truly appreciate them!

One more gift of this difficult year: a new appreciation of simply being here. Alive, relatively healthy, and comfortable. I can take a walk in the near-wild every day. I can write, laugh, read, ride, cook, and love. I have faith that 2021 will bring positive changes. For all of these things, I am truly grateful.

May the new year bring us all chances to be kind, compassionate, and live with our hearts outstretched. Be well!

Sunset glow on Sierra Blanca in the Sacramento Mountains, on our Solstice camping trip.

Settling In

Before Badger, the Guy’s Vizsla, lies down on his heated mat on the couch to snooze away the time between walks and other outings, he always turns around two or three times, ruffles up his blanket, and then settles in with a big sigh. He’s customizing his spot to suit him.

(And that canine remodeling is why my beautiful blue leather couch wears a sturdy gray dog cover when Badger is in residence. As for the heated mat, Badger is almost thirteen–he’s earned his perks.)

The couch without the cover and Badger. Lovely, but pretty empty.

I’m not so different than Badger. With every move in the past nine years since Richard died, I’ve engaged in my equivalent of circling several times and rearranging the blankets in each living space: remodeling.

The first move was to Creek House, the little house I helped design and build for myself in Salida, so that was a bigger deal than remodeling. I made that space my own in spades–I guess you could say I circled quite a few times!

Creek House on the right, Treehouse (the garage/workshop and guest apartment) on the left

Then came Cody, and the seriously dilapidated mid-Century modern house that I rescued, renovating from basement to roof, bringing house and yard back to beautiful life. That circling and rearranging the blanket took nearly two years, but it was oh-so-satisfying. (The neighbors were thrilled that the neighborhood eyesore turned beautiful too.)

Who could resist restoring this vintage kitchen? Not me….

Followed by my move to Santa Fe, and into a small condo that really didn’t need work, but was pretty tired. I replaced worn carpet with vinyl plank floors, renovated the galley kitchen, replaced the aging metal windows with new and more efficient wood ones, and updated the furnace and water heater. And added color to the walls.

Compact, but elegant and welcoming.

When I bought Casa Alegría, my current house, my intention was only to fix what was actually wrong, including a faulty pellet stove with a pipe not up to code, leaky windows, and a mouse-infested attic over the garage and laundry room. And of course paint a few of the boring white walls more interesting colors.

I guess it should be no surprise that I haven’t limited myself to just those projects.

Casa Alegría now boasts a new, efficient and safe woodstove, new windows and screen doors, plus an exterior door replacing a small window, an attic that is properly sealed and insulated (and bio-cleaned so it doesn’t stink), photovoltaic panels on the roof that generate clean power for the house and excess for the power grid, new mini-splits delivering incredibly efficient heating and cooling, a new garage door that actually seals out cold and rodents, and of course, colorful walls.

The great room on a fall afternoon. The pink panels in the sunroom ceiling are a thermal efficiency experiment; they’ll be covered up by beadboard soon.

My latest project as I settle in? Replacing the small flagstone patio in the backyard that was so buried under dirt and debris that I didn’t discover it until I used a shovel to dig out some weeds and hit rock.

The old flagstone patio partly unburied (also before new windows and doors replaced the old, leaky ones).
Patio renovation in progress: The guys dug up and saved the old flagstones at my request, and then leveled the bed.
The renewed patio, with old, paler pink flagstones artistically mixed with the new. Now I need some patio furniture!

As I circle and settle, I am contemplating what else I need to do to make this place fit me, the way Badger makes his couch space comfy. But first, I think I’ll just drag a chair out onto the patio and admire my new outdoor room. Before fall changes to winter with tonight’s snowstorm….

Living with Love in a Time of Dying

That’s the new subtitle of my forthcoming memoir, Bless the Birds*, a phrase that came to me this winter when I realized, as I write in the Preface, “The personal is the political.” Meaning my story of living with heart open through times more difficult than I had ever imagined is directly applicable to all of us now, as we do our best to live with hope rather than despair through what seems the death of civility, the death of our planet, and the death of our democracy. Not to mention the threat of a Coronavirus pandemic.

How do we avoid being paralyzed by grief and fear in these times?

It’s not easy, but it is possible:

This story is about living in a time of dying. It is both prayer and love song, an invitation to walk in the light of what we love, especially when times are hard or heartbreaking. To open our hearts and go forward with as much grace as we can through life’s changes. To honor our cell-deep connection to all of the other lives with whom we share this planet. To celebrate the miracle of simply being, our capacity for love that is both gift and salvation.

How can we rise above and be our best?

Walk in light of what we love, rather than what we fear. That means reminding ourselves—often—what it is that we love. We we care about, what we appreciate and can celebrate about ourselves and our lives, and about life on this amazing animate planet.

As is opening our hearts and living our days with as much grace as is possible. Consciously looking for the beauty inherent in each day, whether that is a flower blooming inside in winter, a coyote glimpsed trotting through a grassland, a fragment of bird song, a painting, piece of music, or dance; an unexpected smile or the touch of a warm hand…

And staying connected to our community, near and far. Not just the people who are most like us and easiest to love, but all of humanity, and all of the species who together make Earth the green and living exception to the vast silence of space.

You’ll notice the repetition of the word love, the quality which I think is the greatest gift our species has to offer Life. Not just romantic love or intense physical desire, the genuine attachment we humans feel for each other, for other species, and for this living world as a whole.

How can we thrive, despite the convulsive changes happening to the world we love?

I offer this personal story as an example of something positive we can do: live with love, and “lean in” to nature, the community that birthed our species. I see love as humans’ greatest gift to this Earth, and one we need to cultivate—especially now. I bless the birds because the sudden and profoundly unnerving appearance of Richard’s avian hallucinations afforded us time to learn how to walk his journey to its end with love. To be reminded of the kindness and generosity intrinsic in our fellow humans. To take heart and sustenance from the miracle of life on this glorious planet, challenges and all. To live fully in a time when life seems especially hard and heart-breaking.

When we find ourselves curling inward in grief and fear, we need to remember our species’ best gift: love.

Living in light of what we love can carry us through. That takes practice, conscious cultivation of being present with compassion and an open heart. Simply being here, hearts open to the flow of life.

Blessings to you all!

*Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, is due out from She Writes Press in a little over a year, April of 2021. It’s been a long journey, and I am excited to have this, my 13th book, on a path to publication at last.

A coyote from my neighborhood pack hunting the open space below my house at sunset…

Living In a Time of Bruised Hearts

Santa Fe sunset with bruised purple clouds.

post-sunset
clouds flame out, fade to purple
bruised like our hearts

I posted that haiku on social media on Monday, August 5th, after the mass shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

It’s a bruising time personally, politically, nationally, and globally. Hate and divisiveness are flourishing like no time in my memory since the Viet Nam War era, climate change is accelerating, the astonishing diversity of life that makes this planet home for us all is suffering, war and political upheaval are displacing millions of humans, from Syria to Venezuela and Guatemala, from China’s Uighar people to Yemenis starving in their home villages…

On a personal level, I am reeling from the sudden loss of my sister-in-law, Bonnie Cabe.

Ron and Bonnie Cabe at Richard’s memorial service, December 2011

How do we live with hearts heavy and bruised? How do we get up and face each day, go to work, tend our kids and parents, our communities and our planet; how do we laugh and love when there is so much to grieve and fear and rage against? How do we cultivate resilience in a time that seems to defeat every effort?

There is no one answer, because we are all different. (And bless that diversity, because we need the creative energy of differing voices and viewpoints and talents and energy!).

One thing we can all do is listen within for the goodness that lives inside us all, the “small, still voice” of love and kindness, justice and compassion. Whether you call that voice God or Allah or Pachmama or Universal Consciousness or simply lovingkindness, we can honor and do our best to live by its call to be our best selves, to, as Quakers say, add to the “Ocean of Light and Love” that pours over the “Ocean of Darkness and Fear.”

It seems to me that if we live each day according to what we know is right, treating others with kindness and compassion, if we stand up with grace and courage for what we believe in, we can indeed turn this bruising time toward the best humanity is capable of, and away from the worst.

How do we find the energy and resilience to act in even small kindly ways in a time that is so bruising? Again, I think there is no one answer, but I also know the benefits of time outside in nature, or “Vitamin N” as some researchers call it. Studies show that time in nature calms us physically, lowering our heart rates and blood pressure, and slowing our production of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. Vitamin N also helps us think more clearly, focus better, and learn more easily; it reduces aggression and increases our empathy (including empathy to our own selves), all of which are critical to living in these frightening and painful times.

The arroyo that runs through my neighborhood, a natural walking path for everyone from humans to coyotes, roadrunners, and horned toads. 

“Nature” doesn’t have to be a wilderness; it can be the wildness that flourishes everywhere around us, whether the arroyo running through my neighborhood or the less-manicured corners of a city park.

For me, as I wrote in a proposal for the new book I’m working on, solace and resilience and the other benefits of Vitamin N come from hanging out with native plants:

Plants have been my solace and my inspiration for as long as I can remember: As I child, I cycled with my mom to vacant lots scheduled for bulldozing, and carefully rescued native wildflowers, carrying the plants home in my bike basket to relocate to her woodland garden. As a young scientist, I studied ecosystems from the plants’ point of view. I’ve grown gardens of native and edible plants, designed landscapes and given talks on gardening for habitat and humans, and worked at ecological restoration involving plants. 

I never reflected on why plants wove themselves through my days. Until my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. Over the two and a quarter years that we walked with his brain tumors, I went from being Richard’s lover, creative collaborator, best friend, and co-parent, to being his caregiver, driver and chef, medicine administrator, butt-wiper, diaper wrangler, and eventually, the midwife of his death.

Escaping outside to the company of the restored mountain prairie of our front yard, our patio pollinator garden, or my organic kitchen garden was all that kept me even partly sane. After Richard died, I recognized that working with native plants to restore Earth is my calling, an expression of my Terraphilia. In this time of climate crisis, gun violence, racism, and sickening divisiveness, we need urgently need what plants can teach us about reweaving healthy community, about restoration and the power of simply working together.

A sacred datura flower (Datura wrightii), opening in my patio garden tonight, rain-washed by a grumbling thunderstorm.

In short, we need nature, and we need each other. So get outside, hug your family and friends, live with kindness, speak up and act out with courage, and love long and well. We can live with bruised hearts, and we can help each other heal and bring positive changes to this battered world.

I’m not saying it will be easy, but we have to keep working at it. Together. With love and laughter, with outrage and steadfastness, with compassion and kindness and creativity.

Life: Practice in Revision and Adaptation

Noche, my Toyota Highlander hybrid, parked in the driveway of my brother’s house in Washington state.

For some years now, I’ve had this dream of a little camper with solar panels on top and a cozy bed, kitchen, and space to write–a super-tiny house on wheels–that I could live in while I do my weeding work in Yellowstone and other wild places. Over the winter, I got as far as putting down a deposit on the compact RV I had chosen. And then, the very same day the sale of my Cody house closed, the RV manufacturer went bankrupt.

So I revised that dream, and settled instead on a sweet trailer made by Colorado Teardrops in Boulder, a  custom shop producing amazingly efficient, beautifully designed trailers, and working on becoming a zero-waste manufacturer. Their designs and values are very appealing.

Only I found that plugging trailer brakes into the hybrid regenerative braking system in Noche, my beloved Toyota Highlander Hybrid, isn’t allowed. (Meaning Toyota can’t guarantee that the system would work with trailer brakes; further, adding the seven-pin hitch and brake socket would void my warranty.)

So I revised the dream again and fitted my basic camping set-up right into Noche, giving me a “micro-camper” with a cozy bed, storage for my clothes, weeding tools, camp-stove, a lap-desk for writing, and even a camp toilet. It’s an amazingly comfortable set-up, if quite basic and compact. (And Noche averages 29-30 miles per gallon of gas, not bad for a vehicle I can sleep in–or transport seven friends or family members at a pinch.)

My micro-camper set-up in Noche. 

It’s also a lot cheaper than the custom camper I started out dreaming. Too, this set-up is better than my old camping space in Red, my pickup, because I’m inside Noche, not in a pickup bed. In bad weather or if something goes wrong, I just climb into Noche’s front seat and head on my way without having to get outside.

I still imagine that the perfect small camper van is out there for me, something energy-efficient, simple, comfy, and well-built–without costing an arm and six legs. Since I haven’t found it yet, I’m quite comfortable with the simpler and smaller, revised version of that dream. Just being able to hit the road is a blessing. I get a lot of thinking done during windshield time, and I get to experience the landscapes I love in all sorts of moods and seasons.

Heart Mountain, north of Cody, from Dead Indian Hill, where the grasslands were unbelievably green this spring.

Revision and adaptation seems to be a major theme in my life right now.

For instance, I spent this spring revising Bless the Birds for what I hope is the final time. It’s since been accepted for publication by SheWrites Press for their Spring, 2021 list. Which brings up an ending: Bless the Birds will go off my desk (finally!) and that opens up space for working on the next book, Weeding Yellowstone.

Another revision and adaptation: I intended to spend a good part of my summer in Yellowstone digging weeds. Then I flunked my annual blood tests, so those plans got revised. Instead, I spent a long weekend in Cody helping my friends Jay and Connie Moody at TAC, a spiritual retreat center, and also got to hang out with Judy, another dear friend, who is recovering from a massive stroke.

The labyrinth at TAC at sunset, with Carter Mountain and the Absaroka Range in the background. 

In other words, I’ve been nurturing friendships instead of ecosystems. That’s fine: tending both brings rewards. I’ll resume my work in Yellowstone when I’m healthier again.

Revising my Yellowstone plans also gave me time to drive to Washington state for a gathering of my family. Our branch of the Tweit clan isn’t big, but we do love getting together. We’ve been having such a good time hanging out, playing Yellowstone National Park Monopoly, taking walks with the dogs, and eating great meals, that I haven’t taken any any pictures at all.

Instead of thinking and planning photo opportunities, I’m enjoying the moments as they arise, reveling in being here and taking part in life, laughter, and love.

That’s a healthy adaptation, I know.

Happy Summer to all!

Calochortus macrocarpus, sagebrush mariposa lily, in the coulee country of eastern Washington

Navigating in the Fog

Sometimes life is like the drive I took recently on my way home from Santa Fe to Cody. It's 775 miles from place to place, and no, I don't make the whole drive in one day. I left Santa Fe on one of those glorious late fall days in the high desert of northern New Mexico, with warm sun melting the night's frost off the silvered leaves of the rabbitbrush and big sagebrush, and the piñon pine and juniper needles crisp against blue sky. 

Dawn warms up the arroyo I often walk near where I stay in Santa Fe. 

The weather gods were kind as Red carried me north through northern New Mexico, up the wide expanse of the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado (Colorado's wildest and most magical desert region, and one I wrote a book about with photographer Glenn Oakley), and then on north up the Arkansas River Valley where Richard and I lived for so long.

Even 11,000+ foot high Fremont Pass wasn't bad, considering the time of year. (Okay, it was snowing, but the pavement was partly clear.) From there on, we had smooth sailing until Rawlins, Wyoming, where the wind began to howl from the west in great walloping gusts.

Still, the roads were clear, so I got cocky, thinking I'd get all the way home without hitting really bad conditions. Red and I tacked sideways to the wind across the Great Divide Basin, where the Continental Divide splits in two, following the ridges that surround this in-draining bowl of salt-crusted desert. If the gusts were a mite strong, I thought nothing of it, even when we turned west directly into those galloping waves of air.

The sun was shining, I told myself, and the roads were clear. And we were four hours from home. What could go wrong?

When Red and I dropped over Beaver Rim into the Wind River Basin, the wind quit just as abruptly as if switched up. The air was still as glass. As we headed downhill into Riverton, the temperature dropped too, from the low 40s into the teens. Hoarfrost coated every surface, sparkling in the sunshine.

I'd like to say I had the first uh-oh thought then, but I didn't. I was tired and eager to make it home before dark, so I kept Red going, her tires humming as the miles sped past. I didn't read the weather-signs until we crossed the frozen, snow-covered expanse of Boysen Reservoir, about two and a half hours from home. I looked north toward the low ridge of the Owl Creek Mountains and the v-shaped gap of the Wind River Canyon, where we were headed. 

Boysen Reservoir

A gray layer of cloud hung along the lower edge of the Owl Creeks, muffling the canyon itself. Uh oh. 

Red and I turned north at Shoshoni, and soon drove under that cloud. Within a few minutes, the sun's warmth vanished, ice crystals formed on Red's antenna, and even with the heater blasting, cold seeped into the cab. 

High desert landscape with hoarfrost on snow

A few miles later, the cloud–which I now realized was ice fog–closed in around us and visibility dropped to half a mile (the photo at the top of the post), and then only a few car lengths. (I quit shooting photos then.)

I slowed Red and crept on, hoping no one came up suddenly behind us, or wandered into our lane from the other direction. Ten slow and icy but mercifully accident-free miles later, the fog began to lift, and we approached the winding canyon. 

The winding canyon lies ahead, but at least I can see…

The black ice lessened, and I began to think things might improve. Through two dark and icicle-hung tunnels carved in the ancient rock at the core of the range, Red and I emerged. And voilá!

 

I could see blue sky ahead. Around the next bend, the fog and ice cleared away entirely. 

By the time Red and I wound our way out of the canyon and crossed the Bighorn River, the sun had warmed the truck cab and we were whizzing along again. 

Exiting the canyon, the snow and ice behind us… 

From there on in, it really was smooth sailing, and I pulled Red into the driveway just as dusk deepened to darkness, having avoided hitting several hundred mule deer and a larger number of pronghorn on the last segment of the drive. 

My life right now feels very much like I'm still creeping along in that ice fog, hoping it lifts soon and I will see sun and blue sky ahead. (And be able to see the road I'm on!) The fog is partly the events in our country (although the mid-term elections brought a glimmer of smoother sailing ahead) and around the world, where climate change is now enough of an in-your-face catastrophe for humans and other species alike that perhaps we'll take it seriously. 

The fog is also personal. Back in late summer when I finally finished the house and put it on the market, I got cocky and felt like the road ahead was clear: the house would sell quickly, I would pack up and hit the road in my tiny, energy-efficient motorhome, and winter in a warmer climate. Then Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, and my path turned to helping care for him, sorting out his legal and financial affairs, and serving as his personal representative to implement his will after he died.

My time at The Mesa Refuge earlier this month came as a real blessing. Those days with no charge but to write reminded me that no matter what is swirling around me, I have things to say that need to be said now. (Special thanks to my Mesa suite-mate, Syrian-American writer and human rights lawyer Alia Malek, for her thoughts and questions clarifying my thoughts.)

And now, here I am back in Cody and in the fog again. It snowed today. My house hasn't sold, and I am still working on implementing Dad's will. I am also writing. 

I think I can see a blue cast to my personal ice fog, as if it will clear. Or at least lift a bit. What is clear is that I am moving south to Santa Fe in a few weeks to get out of Wyoming's winter before it impacts my health again. I'll return this glorious sagebrush country come spring, and in the meantime, I hope someone buys this beautiful house. It's ready for someone new to love it, and I'm ready to let it go.

And I by then I will have a new book well under way, one about plants and gardens and climate change. So each day I write my way onward into the fog, in the faith that I am going where I need to go, clear roads or not. 

Waiting: The Practice of Patience

Patience has never been my virtue. I may spend a long time mulling over a life-decision, researching my options, looking for possibilities I might have missed. But once I decide, I am ready for the results NOW. Or better yet, yesterday. When things don't happen on the schedule I prefer, I fret (inwardly at least), pace about, and do whatever I can to move the process along. 

Oh, I can be patient about some things: writing, renovating a house, digging invasive weeds, shaping a garden… Creative stuff, in other words. 

For example, I spent almost 20 years restoring the block of degraded creek that bounded one edge of Terraphilia, our rescued industrial property in Salida, Colorado, and never got frustrated with the very slow process. You can't rush ecological restoration–it happens on nature's timetable, not ours–especially when you are doing most of the work yourself in your spare time, and with no recompense other than the satisfaction of healing one small part of this amazing planet.

I also spent the better part of seven years writing and rewriting the memoir I call Bless the Birds, even starting over from the very beginning to get it just right. 

I thought I was being patient with restoring this gorgeous mid-Century Modern house and yard too. After all, it's taken a year and nine months to go from grimy and neglected dump to photo-worthy and ready for another 60 years. Only my contractor reminded me that others spread a project like this over decades. Oh. "What if I don't live that long?" I countered. "I want to enjoy it now!" 

He looked at me with–dare I say it?–patience, and waited until I heard the irony in my own words. Okay, maybe I wasn't being as patient as I thought. 

My back deck on a sunny September morning

Apparently I need more practice in patience, and that's what life is giving me right now. 

I am (still) waiting for a publisher to pick up Bless the Birds.

I am waiting for a buyer to snap up my wonderful house and yard. 

I am waiting to hear that my friends who are in the way of Hurricane Florence came through okay, waiting for news on Dad's condition, waiting for a check to arrive for a freelance article I wrote, waiting for paperwork for some of Dad's financials, and waiting to hear if a local shoe store can order a pair of boots I need. 

Have patience! I tell myself. And sometimes I listen…

Now Mom, who has been dead for more than seven years, is reminding me of the importance of practicing patience, albeit in her own unique way. I have been having dreams of the you-can't-get-there-from-here sort, where what you need to accomplish is impossible and you wake frustrated and sometimes exhausted from the trying. 

In my dreams, I am charged with shepherding a group of elders including Mom and Dad onto a small passenger ferry that will carry them across a body of water. Only I can't keep the group together to board the boat: they wander in different directions or go off on their own. Even Mom and Dad, who always held hands, don't stick together. It's like herding cats; I wake tense and discouraged.  

And then, about a week before Dad ended up in the hospital were he was eventually diagnosed with terminal lymphoma, I woke from a very different dream: just Mom and me in a hazy dreamscape of puffy clouds, like a Renaissance fresco. Mom is seated (only there is no chair), looking off into the distance and tapping her feet impatiently. She holds out her hand as if to grasp another's hand, turns to me, and says, "He was always slow." I know immediately who "he" is. I start to reply, but she returns to staring into the distance. 

A moment later, she turns to me again, blue eyes snapping, and says, "Tell him to hurry up. I can't wait much longer."

I look off in the direction of her gaze and there is Dad, working his way towards us with slow and wobbling steps, tapping with his blind-guy cane. He turns his head toward us and says, "Where is she? I can't find her." 

"She's right here next to me, Dad." 

He clearly can't see Mom, so I walk over and lead him to her. He reaches out his hand, fumbling for hers, and misses it, so I guide his hand to hers. 

The moment their hands touch, they are gone. Just like that. 

I woke from that dream with a great sense of relief. I'm not the shepherd after all. Mom, it seems, is waiting for Dad. She'll guide him on this transition. 

Mom, waiting for Dad to finish framing the photo, on their honeymoon at Mt Lassen National Park in June, 1952.

Okay, I thought, Mom's telling me to be patient. (There's an irony in that, since she is clearly tired of waiting for Dad to join her wherever spirits go after they leave these bodies. But she's waited eight years–she's entitled to some impatience.) She's reminding me that I don't have to try so hard to make things work; I can trust that all will be well.

I'm working on that. 

I'm also working on being patient with myself. Because I've realized that losing Dad brings up the grief of those other two losses, Mom and Richard, both gone in the same year.

Weathering grief takes time, just as love takes time–and patience. 

A Personal Response to Global Climate Change

In late July, I set out for western Washington to celebrate Dad's 90th birthday with my family. It was a gorgeous day when Red and I pulled out of Cody: sunny, blue skies, and the temperature in the mid-seventies, unusually cool. As we headed north and west across Montana, the temperature soared into the high 90s, and forest-fire smoke hazed the views.

At eight-thirty that night when we stopped in Missoula, the temperature was 94 degrees F. The full moon rose in an eerie sky tinged orange by smoke. As I stretched out atop my sleeping bag in Red's topper, I checked the temperature for Olympia, our destination: the next day's high was forecast as 96 degrees, unusually hot. 

I thought about global climate change as I drifted toward sleep, and made a resolution to make changes in my daily life to contribute less CO2 and other greenhouse gases to our planet's atmosphere. No matter that our leaders seem determined to fiddle while the world burns, I want to take what responsibility I can for providing a positive example. I'm going to be the change I'd like to see… 

Starting with my travels. I love hitting the road in Red and wandering the West. I watch the landscapes as I go, thinking about geology and botany and the myriad interconnections that animate this planet. "Windshield time" is creative time for me. 

By sleeping in Red's topper instead of staying in motels as I go, I save money and also energy (no A/C, no washing of bedding and towels each day, less water heated and treated, and so on). But Red burns gasoline and I use the interstate highway system, with its high speed limits (and drivers who routinely drive much faster than the limit). So I resolved to slow down. 

Gas mileage and speed are inversely linked above your vehicle's optimum speed, usually between 55 and 60 miles per hour. The faster you drive above that optimum, the more your gas mileage decreases.

For example, if your vehicle gets 33 miles per gallon at 55 mph, by the time you go 80, your mileage drops to around 20 mpg (here's a graph illustrating the relationship), making it 28 percent less efficient, with a corresponding increase of CO2 to the atmosphere. Run your vehicle's air conditioner, and the mileage drops even more steeply. 

The next day, all the way across the rest of Montana, Idaho's Panhandle, and the hazy heat of eastern Washington, I drove five miles under the posted speed limit. I still got to Olympia in time for dinner–delicious fresh Chinook salmon my brother had caught. And I filled Red's gas tank less often. 

The time with Dad and my family was sweet. We celebrated his birthday with another great dinner and a delicious cake, plus a family gathering to hear my sister-in-law, Lucy, play cello with the Olympia Symphony at their annual outdoor concert on the state capitol grounds.

Duane Roland, my eldest niece's husband, in the front with Heather, middle left looking down, and their two younger boys, Liam (looking at his dad) and Colin (head hidden), between them. Dad (with the sun-hat) is behind them, trying to figure out where I am so he can look toward the camera (he's legally blind), and my brother, Bill, in the ball-cap beside him is looking at the symphony program. Lucy is in the tent with the orchestra.

It was also stressful and hectic. Dad's health is failing, and he wanted me to take over managing his finances (Lucy handles his day-to-day care). So I did paperwork, made calls, and filled out forms (online when I could to save paper and energy). By the time I set out for the long drive home on Monday, I was tired. Still, I resisted the temptation to rush. 

I headed north to Bellingham to visit my youngest niece, Alice, and her boyfriend Dan and their two dogs, Riley and Jaxon. Red and I took the back route on two-lane roads instead of the congested I-5 corridor through Seattle, which yielded a lovely drive up Hood Canal, and gave Red her first ferry ride between Port Townsend and Coupeville on Whidbey Island. 

Our ferry making the crossing.

The next morning, I headed east, taking the winding and two-lane North Cascades Highway and then following Highway 2 across eastern Washington instead of the faster interstate route (I-5 to I-90 east). The alternate route took only an hour longer (9 hours instead of 8) and saved me half a tank of gas. Plus I got to admire mountain wildflowers in the North Cascades. 

Western red columbine, valerian, senecio, and other wildflowers crowd an avalanche chute in the North Cascades. 

I still made it to Missoula in time to take a long walk and stretch out the road-kinks before retiring to Red's topper for the night. 

Back at home, I worked on another part of my personal response to global climate change: Readying my restored mid-Century Modern house and yard to sell. I'm downsizing and thus shrinking my use of Earth's non-sustainable resources.

In renovating what was a very dilapidated house, my contractor, Jeff Durham, and I have saved everything we could, re-homed what we couldn't, and used new materials as efficiently as possible. The house is now much more energy-efficient than it was when we started, and the yard, my personal project, needs less water and almost no pesticides (I've used careful spot applications of herbicide to kill some persistent invasive weeds). 

While Jeff worked on renovating the final bathroom, I hauled and spread 80 wheelbarrow-loads of pit-run, local gravel to finish the paths and sitting areas in the back and side yards. This "hardscape" reduces the lawn area, reducing the resource use, and also makes the yard an inviting place to stroll and sit. Eighty wheelbarrow-loads is enough gravel to fill Jeff's dump trailer one and a half times, or about 5,600 pounds of gravel–close to three tons.

Filling the first wheelbarrow load. Seventy-nine more to go…. 

I worked from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, with a break on Saturday to meet a writing deadline. (Once I get going on a yard project, I have a hard time stopping. And Jeff needed the trailer back by Monday.) I was partway through when my friend Kate and her two small daughters stopped by for a visit.

The side path connecting front yard to back yard.

As the girls foot-propelled their Stryder bikes around by the east-side path, I heard Iris, all of four years old, say, "Let's follow the fairy path!" And then when she came around the corner into the backyard, she gasped: "Mama, Susan made us a fairyland!" 

The backyard fairyland, complete with bridge for bikes large and small… 

That may be the best yard-design compliment I've ever gotten.

Now the backyard is complete but for a bit of rock-work on the dry stream-bed, that final bathroom is light and bright and beautiful, and I'm contemplating what belongings I really need to keep and what I can give away and sell as I trade this wonderfully restored house and yard for something much smaller.

Glass blocks now break up the shower wall, adding natural light. A glass vessel sink on a simple steel counter brings the colors of the outdoors into everyday life. 

My resolve is to continue to learn how to live more lightly on this Earth, and free my time to write and weed, speaking up for the planet and the species we share it with–working to restore beauty and health for us all. Being the change I'd like to see…

The front yard, complete with climate-friendly and colorful pollinator garden replacing part of the resource-intensive lawn.

Lessons from Nature: Picking Up Roadkill Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift of Renovation: New Understanding

One of the things that fascinates me about house renovation, or any kind of restoration work (including digging invasive weeds in Yellowstone, which I'll be doing next month) is that the process of changing something outside ourselves often shifts our internal perspective as well.

In the process of working with my contractor, the amazing Jeff Durham, and the other tradesfolk who have helped me revive this long-neglected house, I've experienced "aha!" moments that I'm not sure I would have seen in any other way. Certainly not so quickly or so clearly.  

Take our current project, replacing the old, leaky, and cloudy windows in the bay in my office with new ones. (My office is the extension off the back of the house in the photo above, with the bay where my desk has sat since I moved in a year and a half ago.)

We replaced all of the other windows in the house last summer and fall. (Except for one other bay window, which I'm not going to replace, but I am going to refinish.) I didn't plan on replacing the windows in my office bay, first because I thought since they were 30 years newer than the rest of the windows in the house, I could live with them. 

I could have, except that with new windows throughout the rest of the house, it was painfully clear how cloudy the ones in my office were. Looking through them was like looking through a perpetual mist.

My office, pre-window-replacement

Then over the winter, I realized how leaky they were compared to the new windows in my bedroom, which shares the same airspace with my office (the two rooms are separated only by a wide doorway and two steps down). The hot water baseboard heat was on in my office about twice as much as in the rest of the house, and I still had to run my electric fireplace to stay warm. 

Once I decided to replace those windows, I ran into issue number three: design. My office was added to the house in 1982, when bay windows were in vogue and mid-century modern design was not. So neither the windows nor the bay follow the horizontal lines of the original house. (In the photo at the top of the post, notice how even the huge triple-window unit in the living/dining room is wider than it is tall, and the horizontal framing separating the lower panes emphasizes that.)

The office windows were taller than wide, proportionately wrong for the rest of the house. So the question was, without tearing off the bay itself (an expensive proposition), how could we give the windows a more horizontal look? 

I decided to make them shorter, so they would be proportionately similar to the large upper panes in the living/dining room windows. After measuring the windows, we settled on two-thirds of their original length. Meaning below the top of my desk would be solid wall, with glass from there up. 

We ordered the new windows and then Jeff got busy with other jobs, and soon it was winter, when neither of us wanted to tear out the old windows in below-zero (F) temperatures. 

Window replacement time finally came this week. I spent Sunday evening moving my desk, plus printer stand and file cabinets, and reassembling the whole thing under the bookshelves on the east wall of my office. 

My desk in its new location, before window replacement

As soon as I finished, I sat down at my computer to try out the new configuration. I looked over my left shoulder at the window bay and realized the now empty space would be perfect for a window-seat. So now instead of moving my desk back there once new windows are in, Jeff will build a deep, comfy window seat to fill the bay. 

I would never have "seen" that window seat without moving my desk out of the space, and reconfiguring my office. And I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of moving my desk at all if it hadn't been smack in the way of replacing those old windows. 

The open-air office: windows out, framing for the new ones in progress, with the studs for the wall behind the new window-seat in place.

Moving my desk shifted my perspective in some deeper ways too. Instead of facing the windows and my backyard-renovation-in-progress, my view is now my bookshelves with their rows of volumes by favorite writers on the West. Looking at those spines revived a long-dormant dream of spending more time exploring these expansive landscapes, and less time taking care of my beautiful but large-for-one house and yard.

New windows in, wall "dried in" with sheathing and house-wrap, and a much clearer view of my backyard… 

Since I was a child, I've imagined "someday" hitting the road fulltime to wander, write, and explore wild places throughout the West. I'll be 62 this year, older for the first time than Richard was when he died of brain cancer. That fact reminds me that I can't assume life will offer me a "someday." If I want to follow my long-time dream, I need to start planning now.

So I've decided that my next house will have four wheels and solar panels on the roof. But first, I have a house and yard to finish renovating. With a great deal of love and care, and eyes open for what other new perspectives the process may yield. 

Trimming the exterior of the new windows. Shingles and paint to come…