Radical: Returning to My Roots


Eve was a radical. And how I love the word radical because it means going to the roots. –Eve Ensler, from her 2014 talk for the Bioneers Conference


I’ve been nurturing a radical notion for some time now, one that isn’t quite clear yet. But I’m starting to see it take a kind of diaphonous form.


I mean “radical” in the sense Ensler was using the word in her talk about reimagining the story of Adam and Eve; the way Botany uses the word radical, as a term for something that springs from the root. (The word comes to English from the Latin radicalis, itself from radic– or “root.”) 


The photo above illustrates radical plants: Cobra lilies, Darlingtonia californica in the language of science. They look like something out of science fiction, and they are carnivorous, supplimenting the meager amounts of nitrogen in the coastal swamps where they live by luring insects, especially flies, into those skylit “hoods” where the insects buzz around, confused by the light, and eventually fall into the pool of liquid at the base of the modified leaves and are digested by the microbes that live there and share in the nutrients harvested. That’s a radical but very practical adaptation to thriving in a difficult environment. (The photo is from the Darlingtonia Wayside north of Florence, Oregon, a stop on my recent trip. )


My roots as a scientist are in Botany. But my affinity for plants goes deeper than that, originating at least partly in a childhood spent learning wildflowers with my mother, who loved all flowers, but especially those native to this continent, from inches-high “bellyflowers” she knelt to admire on alpine tundra to the head-topping Silphium, Compass plant, of the tallgrass prairies. 


 


Pursh’s milkvetch (Astragalus purshii), all of three inches high in bloom, and just the sort of alpine wildflower Mom took delight in. 


Plants, I like to say, are “my people.” Plants aren’t demanding, though they do reward attention, and they don’t overhelm me the way humans–especially en masse–sometimes do. I’d say that plants don’t talk back, but given what we now are beginning to understand about plant communication and behavior, that’s not exactly true. We just may not recognize their back-talk yet. 


The radical notion that is beginning to take shape in my mind is about going back to my roots in restoring nature. In addition to learning to identify wildflowers from my mother, I also learned to rescue them in clandestine raids to vacant lots slated for development. Mom and Dad would load our bike baskets with plastic bread bags, trowels and gloves, and off we’d pedal to a location slated for bulldozing, where we would dig up wildflowers to carefully transplant into Mom’s garden. 



A young Lupine plant (I don’t know the species) sprouting from volcanic gravel at Crater Lake National Park. 


The notion is rooted (sorry, I can’t resist the pun!) in the field research I’ve done informally over three decades of restoring nature, whether burning patches of prairie or planting a bluff at a coal-fired power plant in a gritty industrial neighborhood to provide habitat for hummingbirds and bluebirds–and inspiration for the human employees; whether restoring a narrow ribbon of riparian shrubs and trees along a channelized creek to clean the water of urban pollutants, or re-wilding the abandoned and degraded parcel where I now live. 


This radical idea also draws on what I’ve learned over the years about nature as a healing force, both from my own experience of living with a chronic autoimmune disease and in the research I’ve read on the positive effects of “nature exposure” on all manner of conditions, from kids with ADHD to adults with high-blood pressure or mental illness.


Time in nature, we are begining to understand, has a powerful healing effect on all manner of ills, physical and mental to emotional. Restoring our bond with soil and water, animal and plant also restores our balance in the world, and heals the wound that being estranged from the community of life has dug in our souls.


 


A flower fly sipping nectar from the Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) in my restored mountain prairie yard.


Plants are the pioneers in restoring nature, the living architecture on which life builds. Native plants, in particular form relationships as soon as their roots touch the soil, “calling in” the other species, from microscopic microbes to winged, finned, furred and scaled being, who together heal soil, water, and land, creating the natural society that brings such joy and surcease to we humans. 


I speak “plant,” I have personal experience with the healing power of nature, I practice habitat gardening, I do urban nature restoration, I write and give talks and teach. The idea forming in my mind is both rooted in and integrates those sometimes separate areas into a mission given urgency by Barry Lopez’ comment over our lunch a week and a half ago that he feels we are in a time of perilous unraveling–unraveling of human culture, of our connection with each other and with the planet that is our home. 



Wholeleaf indian paintbrush (Castilleja integrifolia) recolonizing my formerly degraded industrial yard.


I believe that plants are key to restoring not only the glorious web of life that animates this blue planet, but also our own health and spirits. And I am beginning to envision a way I can be help a re-ravelling of sorts to revive we humans, our neighborhoods and cities and culture, and our relationship with each other and with the rest of the species on this planet. 


That way involves becoming an evangelist for estoring nature where we live and work, and recruiting and training others to help spread that renewal, plant by plant, plot by plot, across the country and the globe, a corps of people who know how to weed and seed, water and nurture the very roots that will help re-grow a vibrant planet and healthy humanity. A “Restore Corps” as it were. 


I don’t know how this radical idea, this vision of sprouting a world-renewing movement from my own roots in nature, Botany, and writing will take shape. But I do know it is calling me to act from my deep love and respect for the community of humans and nature and for this glorious living earth, the only home our species has ever known.


Road Trip: Fear and Traveling Alone


In the past twelve days since I pulled Red out of the garage on October 1st to head south to Silver City and the Southwest Festival of the Written Word, I’ve driven nearly 2,500 miles, presented at two writing conferences, seen some gorgeous country, met inspiring writers, and gotten to hang out with dear friends. (The photo above is Crater Lake at dawn seen from the historic lodge at the South Rim, where I was two nights ago. Now I’m on the Oregon Coast at Yachats.)


Along the way and over the miles, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about my work. This morning, I finally could see MEADOW, the next book, clearly enough to begin drafting a book proposal, which was a great relief.


(Having a book rattle around in your head but not being able to conceive it clearly is kind of like being tapada, which can be translated as ‘blocked.’ In a particularly well, personal way that’s not at all pleasant.)


I’ve also realized and accepted some important things about myself and this unlooked-for solo life. The biggest came on the second day of the westward leg of this road-trip, when I stopped at Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in southern Idaho. I had driven six hours already that day, coming nearly 400 miles from Price, Utah, and was headed on to Boise for the night, a destination I had calculated would leave me with a reasonable drive to Redmond, Oregon, the next day, the site of this year’s Women Writing the West Conference


I stopped at Three Island out of sentiment. On The Big Trip, the belated honeymoon Richard and I took ten weeks before he died in 2011, when we (actually I, since the glioblastoma in his right brain no longer allowed Richard to drive) drove a 4,000-mile route to follow the Pacific Coast from Washington to Southern California, we stopped at Three Island Crossing for a picnic one hot September day. 


Although Richard’s right brain was crippled by the tumor and his body swollen from high doses of steroids, he was happy to be with me, happy to be on the road, happy to be alive. “I’m a lucky guy,” he said right after I shot the photo below. 



Richard at Three Island Crossing, arms upraised in his habitual expression of joy, September 10, 2011


It’s not that he was fooling himself–he knew his life wouldn’t last long. He was just determined to enjoy it while he could. So he did. 


When I exited I-84 last Tuesday late afternoon and wound my way through the tiny town of Glenns Ferry and out to the state park, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. I paid the entrance fee, drove past the campground and the new Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (closed by the time I got to the park that day), and parked at the exact same table in the now-deserted picnic ground at the edge of the Snake River. 


For a moment, I sat without moving. My heart whimpered, but then the view of the river, the shade of the big trees and the peace of the place soothed me. I got out, walked to the picnic table, laid my hand on it and repeated something I say every night to Richard’s spirit, “Thanks for being you and loving me.”



Then I wandered to the river’s edge and idly watched a Clark’s Grebe riding the current until it arced forward, long neck curving gracefully, to dive under the surface for a fish. 


When I turned back to Red, I spotted the cluster of tiny cabins in the shade by the edge of the picnic ground. Richard and I had considered staying at one of the cabins. The porches with swings facing the river looked awfully inviting. But by then, as he said, “my bladder doesn’t always communicate with my brain,” so a night in a cabin with no plumbing was just not possible. 


Last Tuesday night, I had an impulse to stay the night in that peaceful spot as a sort of tribute to Richard and me and all we shared. That would add a long hour to the next day’s drive, but what the heck, I thought. If they were still available for the season, I’d do it. 


Idaho State Parks photo


They were, so I did. I travel ready to camp, so it was easy to transfer my sleeping bag, water bottles, picnic basket and camp stove to the little cabin. 


I spent the evening listening to ducks gabble from the river, fish jump, grebes chuckle, blackbirds chatter, flickers call, and sandhill cranes “Khrrrr! Khrrrr!” from the distance as they migrated south high overhead.



Snake River at dusk, Three Island Crossing State Park


As the sunset faded and the great-horned owls took over from the daytime birds, a fishing skiff puttered by in the river. Voices drifted downhill from the campground, but I had the picnic ground, cabins and the riverside all to myself. I rocked on the creaking porch swing, the travel-stress melting away. 


A multitude of stars began to appear in the kind of darkness only found a long ways from cities. I identifed constellations, planets and more. 


And then my fears crowded in. I went inside the cabin and turned on the light, which I realized shone like a beacon, proclaiming for all to know that it was occupied. By me, alone. 


What if someone came down the deserted park road to cause trouble? I worried. The park staff had gone home for the night, the campground was too far away. I was a target there alone, and the cell phone service was questionable. What would I do? Where would I go? What if someone vandalized Red in the night? How would I find help? 


(I have a very vivid imagination.)


Once I had Richard’s solid form to comfort me. Now I don’t. I locked the cabin door, found my flashlight and set it by the bed, turned off the light and crawled into my sleeping bag. 


And then I did something I’ve never done before. I embraced the stream of fears, gave each thorough consideration and thought about what I’d do. I realized that I’ll always have a vivid imagination; I’ll always have fears. It’s just part of who I am, a skinny, freckled gabacha nearing sixty. 



Me on a solo ramble up the Pacific Crest Trail yesterday morning


I’ll also (I hope) always be the kind of person who doesn’t hestitate to take off on a solo road trip, to camp alone. The fears don’t have to keep me from reveling in the time out on the road, away from other human beings; the time in the tonic of the wild on my own. 


The owls continued their soft duet. A big fish splashed from the river. The night air flowed in cool and moist through the window screens. 


I got up and checked to make sure Red was locked. I looked at the night sky and breathed in awe at the river of the Milky Way pouring from black horizon to horizon. 


And I went back inside and slept soundly. At home on my own, fears and all.


The Snake River at Three Island Crossings State Park.


 

Restoring Nature: The View From My Deck

I was sitting out on my front deck late this afternoon, talking to my dad on the phone when I heard a characteristic chiming call.

I looked across the creek in the direction of the sound, and there was a slender little bird, shiny black above and canary yellow below, clambering on the slender stalk of a cutleaf blanketflower across the creek and energetically picking out the seeds, just a few feet from the pavement of my town’s most heavily-traveled walking/biking trail. (The photo above is the seedheads; I wasn’t quick enough to catch the bird.)


Cutleaf blanketflower (Gaillardia pinnatifida) with the finely dissected foliage that gives it its common name.

“It’s a Lesser Goldfinch, Dad,” I said, and described the bird to my father, half a continent away in Western Washington. 

“It’s probably a newly fledged male,” responded Dad, who may be 86 years old and legally blind, but retains a clear image in his mind of each of the hundreds of species of birds he’s seen over six decades of studying all things wild and feathered. “Have you been hearing nesting activity?”

“I think they nested in the big elm trees along John’s fence-line,” I said, mentioning the neighbor’s place, two houses away. 

“That’s likely,” said Dad. “Is the Gray Catbird still around?”

“I didn’t hear it singing this morning,” I said. “But it hung around for the better part of a week, and that’s the first time I’ve seen one right in town.”

“That shrubby thicket along the creek is good habitat,” said Dad. “The bird was probably a young male; it takes catbirds about a year to learn their breeding songs.”


Part of the narrow but dense riprian thicket along tiny Ditch Creek as seen from my deck. (The creek, hidden by the plants, runs diagonally across the middle of the photo from lower left to upper right; Monarch Spur Trail, the town walking and bike commuter path, parallels the creek on the upper left.)

Dad talked on about Gray Catbirds, dark-gray birds more slender than robins, with a longish tail and a black cap. They’re mimics like their mockingbird cousins (yes, Harper Lee’s first novel is named for a real bird). In addition to borrowing phrases from other birds’ songs and human and mechanical sounds like car alarms, catbird’s drawn-out songs incorporate cat-like mewing sounds, hence their common name. 

I listened and watched the view from my deck, including the thread of dredged, straightened and once-polluted urban creek I’ve spent the last 18 years restoring to health, and the bits of mountain prairie I’m nurturing between the creek and the popular pedstrian and bike trail. 

Two monarch butterflies patrolled the airspace above the showy milkweed plants, probably newly emerged males looking for females to mate with. In the distance, I heard the thumping bass of a car cruising our town’s main street, likely on a similar quest to the butterflies’ patrol. 


Monarch butterfly feeding on the showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) I’ve nurtured along Ditch Creek just below my front deck.

A family biked down the trail, Dad in the lead, Mom in the rear pulling a trailer with the youngest kid riding, and in between two boys on junior-sized mountain bikes and a little girl on a strider–a bike with no petals propelled by her chubby legs pushing on the ground. 

A Tree Swallow swooped just over my head, trolling the air for small insects. (It’s one of a pair nesting in a gap in the eaves of my neighbor’s house, just above her front porch.)


Tree Swallow perched on the electric wire supplying the streetlight across the creek. 

Three young women strolled by, each pushing a baby stroller, and chattering energetically in Spanglish. One of the twin fawns born a couple of weeks ago in the vacant lot across the way stood up from the nest in the tall grass where the two hide while their mother is off feeding and bleated suddenly, perhaps startled by the trio of women, or more likely–since these are town deer and used to people, hungry and calling Mom. 


The twins, trotting by my front-yard meadow before dawn last week. (They’ve doubled in size since this photo.)

The three women jumped, pointed, laughed, and snapped photos with their cell phones. “¡Que cute!” one said. 

A bumblebee buzzed by so close that it nearly banged into my head.

Later, after Dad and I finished talking, I spotted the bumblebee energetically drinking nectar at a Lambert’s milkvetch (Oxytropis lambertii) growing next to the cut-leaf blanketflower across the creek. 

I walked over, crouched down, and shot a photo with my iPhone. The bumblebee’s not quite in focus–the camera phone isn’t the best at macro photos–but you can see what it’s doing.

While I was trying to focus another shot, two teenagers rolled by on skateboards, going slow and holding hands.

“What are you doing?” asked the blue-haired girl. 

I showed them the bumblebee and talked about the close relationship between wildflowers and native bees. “See how the flowers are shaped just right so the bee’s tongue forces the flower open when the bee presses on it? That’s how it gets a drink of the nectar inside, and in the doing, pollinates the flower so it can make seeds.”

“Awesome!” said the boy, sounding like he really meant it. “Did you plant these flowers?”

“I did,” I said. “I’ve been working on removing the invasive weeds and restoring the native mountain prairie to provide habitat for birds and insects, and to shade the creek and clean its water.”

“Is it part of some project?” he asked. 

“No,” I said. “It’s just what I do to leave my patch of this earth in better shape than I found it.”

“That’s cool,” said the girl. “Thanks.”

They rolled on, still holding hands.

I walked back across the creek and climbed the steps to my deck, thinking how lucky I am to live in a place I love as deeply as I loved Richard, the man who introduced me to this town and its landscape.


Photo by Scott Calhoun

The love of my life is gone now–he died of brain cancer four years ago come November. But I continue the work we did together, healing the creek and this plot of formerly junky industrial property.

Work that brings me the joy of sharing birds with my dad, watching butterflies and native bees, and teaching passers-by about the relationships that weave the community of the land–our home here on earth. Work that helps heal me, too. 

Road-trip: Time to Think and Teach and Learn

In early June, when my doctor grounded me pending significant improvement in my health, the one trip I worried about missing was my planned drive to Tucson to teach at Canyon Ranch Institute last week. It wasn’t that I was so excited about driving to Tucson in late June when I knew daytime temperatures would be in the hundreds, it was the chance to work with a group of community garden organizers from around North America, plus CRI staff, on how gardens and parks can contribute to community revitalization and wellness. 

So I applied myself to reaching the improvement goals my doc outlined. By last Monday, I was on-track, free of pain and feeling well. That afternoon, I loaded my gear into Red and hit the road, singing along with Nora Jones as I headed southwest. 

My destination that night was a campground in Mesa Verde National Park, that “green table” rising above the desert. The drive there is five hours without road construction and without stops. Because I ran into lots of the first and did the latter, it took me six and a half. At six-thirty that evening, I was very glad to back Red into the shade of a Gambel oak grove at the campground, open the back and perch on the tailgate with my feet up, reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lyrical and thought-provoking Braiding Sweetgrass over my simple dinner. 


Feet up, book in hand, Jetboil stove heating water for tea, hermit thrushes fluting voices echoing…

As the sun set, cool air flowed downhill through the campground and hermit thrushes fluted their sweet solos from the tops of the tallest oaks around the campground. I slept well and woke to those same thrushes fluting before sunrise, a lovely way to begin the day. 

As I drove farther south and west that day, past Sleeping Ute Mountain, through Four Corners, where the desert was the most wildflower-spangled I have ever seen it, and then across the Navajo Nation from north to south, I had a lot of time to admire that spare landscape, and think about my writing and what I wanted to teach in my “Planting Wellness” workshop at Canyon Ranch


Red sandstone buttes and unusually green desert grassland (that’s Indian ricegrass with the billows of straw-colored seedheads) on the northern Navajo Nation.

Mostly, I thought about what I bring to this work of writing and teaching. I have always struggled to define my message in just a few words. (In writing, that’s called your “elevator speech,” the pitch you can make to an agent or editor in the few seconds it takes for an elevator to go from floor to floor. An elevator speech might be about a single book or your whole body of work.)

Over the course of the long day it took me to drive from Mesa Verde National Park to Show Low on the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona, with stops in Cortez (for WiFi and hot chocolate), Ganado (to visit Hubbell Trading Post National Monument, a stop I highly recommend to see a working reservation trading post, watch a Navajo weaver at work, and tour the historic trader’s house and farm) and Petrified Forest National Park (even if you can only drive the single park road and stop at a few viewpoints to see the vivid striped layers in the painted desert and the huge petrified logs are scattered over the ground, another highly recommended stop), I had a lot of time to think. (The day’s drive took me ten hours, including stops.)


Painted Desert from an overlook at Petrified Forest National Park (mid-afternoon, which is not the best time to shoot a photo, the temperature already a sizzling 98 degrees F).

Ideas bubbled through my brain over the course of the day and those scenic but not peopled miles (the Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles, about the size of the state of West Virginia, with a population of a little over 180,000 people scattered over that huge area, so while the landscape is spectacular, traffic and towns are rare).

I realized as Red and I crossed the high mesas clothed with silver-green sagebrush somewhere between Chinle and Ganado that my mission as a writer, plant biologist and person is really pretty simple: To heal earth and we humans by restoring the community of the land–nature–and our connection to that community, and to each other, and our own hearts and spirits. I do that work through my words, the plants I plant and the relationships I nurture at home and in my everyday life. In sum,

I plant wellness by restoring nature, and help other humans grow their own wellness. 

By the time I reached Show Low and my comfy motel room, I was exhausted by the drive, the heat and thinking. 

The next day, Wednesday, Red and I headed downhill, dropping nearly a vertical mile from Show Low (6,300 feet elevation) toward Tucson and the hot desert, traversing the layers of rock and plant communities from the cool and airy pine forests on the rim to the saguaro-studded desert far below.


The Salt River Canyon

On the way, we dropped into the Salt River Canyon, one of my favorite drives in Arizona, and stopped at Boyce Thompson Arboretum west of Superior and the man-made mesas surrounding the open-pit copper mines to walk among the saguaros and other cactus and shady mesquite trees before the day got too hot to enjoy it.

“It’s only 99.8 right now,” said the state park staffer encouragingly as I set out, “still under a hundred degrees.” Only by two-tenths of a degree, I thought, but I didn’t quibble. I wanted to get in my walk before I shriveled in the heat.

That night, I stayed with my friend Patricia and her dog Joy, who live two blocks from the house where my parents lived for 20 of their 26 years in Tucson. I drove by my parent’s house–the saguaro in the front yard is starting to look like a big cactus, and the mesquite trees we planted in the back yard to restore the bosque habitat are clearly thriving–and felt a tug at my heart. 

The rest of the week flashed past in teaching at Canyon Ranch, and working with the CRI scholarship winners and the staff–an intense and inspiring time, full of insight and take-way nuggets. My second night there, a thunderstorm rumbled in and poured rain for perhaps half an hour. The desert came alive with fragrance and movement and sound, quail whinnying as they foraged, lizards scurrying about, doves cooing and hummingbirds zinging past. 

That rain marked the beginning the summer rainy season and delivered the gorgeous double-rainbow at the top of the post. I felt blessed to be part of it all. 


Sunrise after the rain

On Sunday, I hit the road again, driving through landscapes familiar to me from my parents’ time in Tucson and our years in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I am taking the trip home by slow stages, honoring my promise to my doc to practice a new pace for my life, one that allows me time and energy to savor all I see and do.

It feels good to slow down, and especially good to know that once I make it home, I can settle in for the summer with time to read and think, meet some writing deadlines, rest and continue my work on healing me and my home ground–as well the earth itself and all who inhabit this glorious living planet.

Home in the place I love to work at what moves me, challenging body and mind, restoring heart and spirit. I am indeed blessed.


Cleveland sage, one of the West’s medicine plants, blooming at Canyon Ranch. 

Spring and Change

Spring is springing in my garden thanks to the huge dose of moisture from that pre-Earth Day snow, and there’s change ahead for me as well.

Uintah penstemon blooming today in my rock garden. Uinta penstemon blooming today in my rock garden, offering its nectar and pollen to native bees.

What’s up?

First, if all goes well, this will be the last post you’ll read on my current website. A new website–which will include all the blog posts currently on this one–will go live sometime in the next week or so (same URL, just a new platform).

The project has been months in the making, and wouldn’t have taken nearly as long if I had kept up. My friends who make up the programming/design/editing team have done their part, but I’ve lagged at writing new content, partly because I was on the road a lot in March and April, partly because of the infection in tooth #23, which has really zapped my energy.

The new home screen--I accidentally snapped the screen shot as the slide show was changing images.... A peek at the new site–I accidentally snapped the screen shot as the slide show was changing images….

The other big project absorbing my time now that I’ve wrapped up a season of successful habitat-gardening talks is what writer/editor/fiber expert Deb Robson calls a “French polish” of Bless the Birds. Here’s how Deb describes it (through finishing wood):

You rub the surface with 0000 steel wool and then brush off the tiny bits of wood, shellac, and steel and then coat with another dilute layer of shellac: repeat until the wood gleams gently as if lit from within.

It’s a great metaphor for the kind of fine work I hope to accomplish with this pass through my memoir.

I really thought I was done after the last major revision. Only in the weeks since I emailed the manuscript to my agent (who in one of those twists of a complex universe, never received the email), I’ve had snatches of memories float into my consciousness, small details of the sort that speak to the life Richard and I lived and the people we were. Evocative details, necessary, I think, to the success of the whole story.

Like this passage from Richard’s first-ever night in the hospital, long before we knew the bird hallucinations presaged a brain tumor that would eventually kill him:

I remember vividly that first night in the hospital when the cheerful aide delivered a dinner tray filled with food I couldn’t imagine Richard ever choosing: chicken-fried chicken buried under gravy, mashed instant potatoes and anemic canned peas; a plastic container of waxy fruit cocktail floating in sugar syrup, and another container of chocolate pudding whose ingredients, I would have bet anything, contained no actual nutritional value at all.

“I could go to the deli over on Colorado Avenue,” I said, “and bring you a real dinner.”

Richard thought for a moment. “No. I’m going to submit wholeheartedly to the treatment my doctors recommend, and that includes eating hospital meals.” He poked the slice of squishy white bread sealed in plastic next to the plate and added, “Except perhaps the bread.”

I’m five chapters in (out of 34) and feeling good about the work.

Then there’s tooth #23, lower jaw, front. It’s abscessed and can’t be fixed by a root canal. Choice number two is orthodontia and some kind of cap. Last week I drove to Colorado Springs to talk to the orthodontist; next comes another consult with my dentist to determine the final plan. The cost and time commitment are both staggering. But it’s got to be taken care of.

And it’s spring: I’ve a new website sprouting, I’m working on Bless the Birds, and my restored mountain grassland yard is beginning to bloom.

As are the annuals I just planted for pollinators in the galvanized steel window boxes I designed for the faux window that decorates the street-side wall of my house.

Real windowboxes with real flowers on my faux window... Real windowboxes with real flowers on my faux window…

It’s spring, when as ee cummings wrote, “the world is puddle-wonderful”–or here in the puddle-deficient high-desert, the air is at least intermittantly showery and smells delicious, full of life waking up.

It’s hard to be gloomy in this season of possibilities!

 

Earth Day: Snow

Last Thursday morning, I woke before dawn to the orange glow of light I associate with snowflakes diffusing the street lamp glare. When I opened the blind, I saw sticky wet flakes piling up.

Snow falling before dawn on Thursday. My view before dawn on Thursday.

I was thrilled. During March and early April, normally one of our wettest times of the year, we received zero, zip, nada precipitation and the weather was unusually warm and dry. Spring was looking brown.

Of course, it would snow after I had planted my tomato seedlings outside. I reminded myself that they were protected by water-filled tomato tepees, which function something like mini-greenhouses. Good thing I had thrown a layer of insulating row-cover fabric over the tepees the night before.

Daylight and more snow.... Daylight and more snow….

As the snow continued to fall, I reassured myself the tomato plants would be just fine. When it finally stopped snowing at mid-morning and the sun came out, I peeked and, sure enough, each plant was unharmed.

The snow melted that afternoon, and the creek rose and chuckled. I checked the official precipitation total: 0.6 inches, about a third of what we needed to bring us up to normal.

That evening, clouds rolled in and more feathery flakes began to fall. Great, I thought, more moisture. (I covered the tomato tepees again.)

View down the front steps as feathery clumps of flakes begin to fall Thursday evening. Flakes begin to fall on Thursday evening.

I woke Friday morning at five o’clock to the “pow!” of an electrical transformer exploding somewhere nearby. I got up sleepily and checked the clock in the kitchen–the power was still on, so I went back to bed.

The next transformer blew at twenty to six, and when I pulled up the blind and looked outside, it was snowing hard and downtown was dark–no street lamp glow.

A blanket of snow so clumpy it shoveled up in slabs like wet cement. A blanket of snow so clumpy it shoveled up in slabs like wet cement.

I pulled on a jacket on over my night-tee and tights, added a cap and mittens,  grabbed the snow shovel from the front door and shoveled a path across the front deck and down the front steps so I could shake the heavy, wet accumulation off my crabapple saplings, which were bent entirely double, their canopies on the ground.

I was afraid the trunks had snapped, but when I released the upper branches from the weight of the snow the trees slowly straightened up. By quarter past six, I had shoveled my front sidewalk and my neighbor’s too, and my back was feeling the effort. I went inside to write and then do yoga, carefully stretching my back.

At seven-thirty, it was still snowing, so I donned layers again and went back out to shovel another six wet inches that had accumulated atop the eight or so inches from earlier.

A pause in the snowfall.... A pause in the snowfall….

I heard tree branches break nearby, cracking like rifle shots. Plows groaned, moving the heavy accumulation. The power came on downtown, went out again, and flickered back on again. The snow kept falling.

I was relieved when the snow finally quit a few hours later. (My back was relieved too.) I measured the accumulation: 20 inches, for a total of 26 inches including Thursday morning’s snow.

Sunshine, sloppy snow, and soon, birds perched on every clear spot, even the streets. Sunshine, sloppy snow, and soon, birds perched on every clear spot, even the streets.

By the time the sun returned to melt the wet blanket Friday afternoon, birds were perched on my front walk, on the streets, in every clear spot. Cerulean blue mountain bluebirds, robins, juncos, and horned larks with their patterned faces–all exhausted by the storm and in search of dry spots to rest. If the snow hadn’t stopped when it did, I wonder how many of them would have survived.

Our total precipitation from 48 hours of spring storm? One-point-six inches of water, almost a quarter of what we receive in an average year. I guess that storm was our early Earth Day present.

And my tomatoes? They survived just fine.

A stupice heirloom tomato plant, cozy inside it's wall-o-water "greenhouse." (Thanks, Renee's Seeds!) A Stupice tomato plant, cozy inside its water-insulated tepee. (Thanks, Renee’s Garden, for the hardy and delicious varieties!)

Earthwork: Habitat Gardening at Home and Away

It’s spring, and I’ve been on the road giving talks and workshops about gardening as a way to restore the earth and our connection to this glorious blue planet.

Spreading phlox, not native, but an excellent food source for early-flying pollinators, blooming in my rock garden. Spreading phlox, not native, but an excellent food source for early-flying pollinators, blooming in my rock garden.

Last week’s talk was in Fort Collins, Colorado, with passionate plantswoman and naturalistic garden designer Lauren Springer Ogden. We spoke to an audience of over 200 people as part of a City of Fort Collins Utilities series, me on designing for habitat and a healthy home landscape, and Lauren on her favorite plants for pollinators and wildlife.

It was the third talk I’ve given this spring on restoration gardening, and each time, the crowd has been larger than I expected and eager for knowledge about how to garden in ways that can heal this battered earth, and restore our relationship with nature.

I think we hunger for reconnection, for something positive we can do that gives back to the planet that gives us so much–air, water, food, the basic materials of our lives, plus beauty, awe and wonder. Habitat gardening is one powerful way to give back, providing homes and food for the “little guys” who help preserve healthy ecosystems–pollinators and songbirds–and also providing us with the delight of seeing those lives on a daily basis.

Sphinx moth, a key summer pollinator here and a fascinating diurnal insect, aiming for a Rocky Mountain penstemon for a meal of nectar, its hollow straw of a tongue already hanging out and ready. One of those “little guys”: a white-lined sphinx moth aiming for a Rocky Mountain penstemon, its hollow straw of a tongue ready to sip nectar!

Which is why I spend the time and energy to travel and teach, even when I’d rather stay home and work on my own landscape.

I made it home Thursday evening, and then spent Friday getting started on the next presentation–my keynote at the Chaffee County Home & Garden Show next Saturday. This weekend I finally had time for my own earth work, nurturing my reclaimed former industrial yard and the adjacent block of urban creek.

Ditch Creek this afternoon, flowing just enough to murmur--and to revive the mayfly larvae. Ditch Creek this afternoon, flowing just enough to revive the mayfly larvae.

Which, by the way, is running again. I hear its murmuring voice from my front deck, a lovely sound after four weeks of unusually hot and dry weather.

Yesterday I wore myself out laying the first part of my future outdoor dining patio in a flat spot on the slope between my two buildings where the two-story garage/studio casts shade on spring and summer evenings.

I had already spent time loosening the construction-compacted ground with a mattock, hauling out rocks and sifting the gravel-sized fragments from the sand, and leveling the area. My friends Tony and Maggie had helped me carry and roughly set the first flagstone.

The dining patio in progress, about a third completed.... The dining patio in progress, about a third completed….

As I worked yesterday, I heard Richard’s voice in my mind. He taught me how to design and build a flagstone patio; a project that was his final sculpture, his last chance to get his hands on the rocks he so loved.

Today I was too sore to pick up either mattock or flagstone, so I planted the heirloom tomato seedlings I grew indoors (thanks to Renee’s Seeds), nestling them carefully in the soil of the big stock tank on my side deck. I’m sure it’s a bit of a shock to be outside in the bright sun and moving air after a comfy childhood indoors, but they’ll adapt, and their walls-o-water will keep them cozy as they do.

Each red "teepee" insulates a different kind of heirloom tomato plant. Each red “teepee” insulates a different kind of heirloom tomato plant.

I also spent time hand-watering my rock garden to compensate for the spring snows that didn’t come, and admiring the spots of color from the spreading phlox, species tulips, daffodils, and native golden-smoke, all of which little sweat bees and other native pollinators are eagerly attending to.

*****

I purely love this life, drought or no, and I am honored to be part of the movement to restore nature in our yards and gardens. It’s a powerful way for us to express our gratitude to this amazing planet–our nurturing orb and the only home our species has ever known.

Tiny species tulips attract tiny native bees to the rock garden. Tiny species tulips attract tiny native bees to the rock garden.

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!

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!