Where’s Susan?

Ring Lake guests and staff

As in, Where’s Waldo? Except that I’m easily spotted in the front row of the photo above, shot at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range outside Dubois, Wyoming, last night. That group of people includes many of the participants in my week-long seminar, “Cultivating Sacred Stewardship of Nature in a Time of Climate Change,” and some of the staff and children of Ring Lake Ranch, a dude ranch with a mission of offering “refreshment and renewal in sacred wilderness.”

(The photo is missing several people, including RLR director Andy Blackmum–he’s behind the camera; and multi-faceted ranch wrangler/horse whisperers Mo Morrow and DeWitt Daggett. DeWitt is presenting a seminar in September of 2020 on a spiritual practice of belonging, using horses as teachers.)

The view of Trail Lake and the high peaks of the Winds from my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch.

I can attest that the ranch fulfills its mission and then some. There’s the setting, which is spectacular and wonderfully “apart” enough from ordinary life to be restful just by itself. And the people, both staff and participants, who are not just warm and welcoming, but capable and playful and interesting, and intellectually and spiritually deep. And then there’s the hiking and paddling and riding and food…

I came away feeling quite refreshed and renewed–full of ideas, new connections, and excitement about the work I was teaching and the people I met. (And also a bit saddle-sore from some great trail rides, about which I am not complaining one bit!)

Stopping on a ride to take in the view… 

Before going to Ring Lake, I was, frankly, a bit intimidated to be offering a seminar at a place that hosts noted thinkers, writers, and artists in the Christian tradition, especially knowing that among the participants in my group would be faith leaders from various mainstream Christian denominations and other traditions. Honestly, I wondered what I, a scientist and writer who considers herself a Quaker Pagan, would have to offer.

Plenty, as it turned out. The group bubbled over with energy and excitement, ending the week with a new understanding of how restoring healthy nature nearby, including on our church grounds, can also restore us humans, our communities, and the Earth we share. I think I learned as much as the participants did, both from their responses and ideas, and from the work of examining and organizing my thoughts in order to teach.

Sheepeater petroglyph image (circa 800 to 1,200 years ago)

Part of the magic of Ring Lake Ranch is that it has been a sacred site for at least a millennia. The ancestors of today’s Eastern Shoshone people chipped petroglyphs of sacred beings they saw into the sandstone cliffs in and around the ranch. Those rock spirits, some with wings, some masked, some with clawed or curled feet, and many with curving “tails” like smoke leading out of a natural crack in the rock, have the feel of a sacred gallery, an assemblage of wisdom and visions we may never truly understand, but which offer wordless information and inspiration.

I am still processing what was an extraordinary week. I feel as if the time at Ring Lake Ranch was a kind of sacred pilgrimage, one taken without knowing at all what I sought, and despite that, I found just what I needed.

Looking across Yellowstone Lake this afternoon toward the wild Thorofare Valley, where I once walked alone, with only a friend’s dog, on another week-long pilgrimage. 

Tonight I am in Gardiner, Montana, writing with the rushing voice of the Yellowstone River coming in my open door, as a quarter moon sails in the still-blue sky after sunset. Tomorrow I will head to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and begin a week of digging invasive weeds. Despite a gloomy forecast of rain and cold temperatures, I look forward to the hard physical work. It is good thinking time for me, and I will use it well.

As summer edges toward fall, my wish for all of us is that we find ways to nourish our hearts, minds, and spirits, no matter these difficult times. And that we each cultivate an active relationship with the sacred community of nature around us, and find ways to nourish and restore that community, as part of the work of healing this battered planet–and us, too.

Blessings to you all!

Weeding: Tending My Neighborhood Arroyo

Cañada Rincon arroyo with Siberian elms invading.

I’m sitting at the breakfast bar in my condo, my arms scratched, body sweaty, and muscles sore, eating a grilled cheese sandwich with green chile and avocado for late dinner, feeling tired and quite satisfied. I’ve just spent an hour with my well-loved loppers and hand-saw, cutting invasive Siberian elm trees (Ulmus pumila) from the arroyo that runs through my neighborhood.

It’s a classic northern New Mexico waterway, where the water itself is hidden below ground most of the year, except after rains and snow-melt. That sub-surface “stream” helps recharge the groundwater table, and nourishes extra-lush (“lush” for this high desert, that is!) plant growth along it: scattered clusters of cottonwood trees (Populus fremontii) with New Mexico privet (Forestiera pubescens) under them, plus piñon pine (Pinus edulis) and Rocky mountain juniper (Sabina scopulorum) along the edges.

Looking down on the arroyo from the street.

The silvery-green shrubs in the photo above are rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseusa in the language of sciencechamisa in Spanish), whose flowers turn whole swaths of the landscape golden in fall, providing what my friend Lauren Springer Ogden calls “the last bar open” for pollinators of all kinds, especially butterflies, beetles, and native bees. Its chaffy seeds are critical food for bushtits and other small songbirds in the hungry months of February and March, when other food is scarce.

Painted lady butterfly nectaring on a rubber rabbitbrush shrub in late September. 

Dotted among the rabbitbrush are smooth currant (Ribes cereum) with early flowers that feed hummingbirds and red berries songbirds seek out, Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) with its bee-friendly flowers and feathery and edible seeds, and narrowleaf yucca (Yucca baileyi) with the tall, candle-like flower stalks that nourish yucca moths and aphid-slurping orioles; plus dozens of kinds of wildflowers, including my favorite, long-flowered gilia (Ipomopsis longiflora), beloved of evening-flying sphinx moths for the nectaries at the base of those long floral tubes.

Long-flowered gilia opening in the evening, ready for white-lined sphinx moths

This bounty of native plants that provides homes and food for wildlife large and small lines the arroyo–unless Siberian elms move in and take over, growing thickets of deep-rooted trees that suck up the underground water, shade out the sun-loving native flora, and drop a thick layer of leaves and small branches that smothers the soil and is as flammable as dry kindling.

And take over they do: Siberian elms are ubiquitous throughout the arid West, imported here from Asia as a hardy, fast-growing, drought- and cold-tolerant tree that would form windbreaks and provide shade in places where shade was scarce. All of that proved true, only the trees took far too readily to their new environment, growing rapidly, and producing thousands of seeds that skittered before the wind, piling up in drifts in every nook and cranny, and sprouting much too readily.

Which wouldn’t be bad if they provided anything close to the rich habitat of the native arroyo flora. One Siberian elm may make a great shade tree for a yard; a whole thicket of them is silent, home to few insect species and fewer birds, in contrast to the lively arroyo habitat outside the thickets. Siberian elms are the definition of an invasive species: one that comes from another place, has few if any relationships with the existing natural community, and proceeds to multiply and ruin the habitat, a playground bully run amok in the landscape.

I’m determined to not let Siberian elms take over Cañada Rincon arroyo and its joyous chorus of birdsong and wildflower blooms. I’m also determined to do what I can to give the native community resilience in the face of catastrophic climate change. So in my spare moments, I get out my tools, pull on my gloves, and walk over to the arroyo to remove another few elm trees.

That hand-saw is as long as my forearm and my hand with fingers extended–it’s a formidable tool!

I’m a steward for this section of the arroyo, which means I pick up trash (there’s not much), and pull and cut invasive weeds. I’m only allowed to use hand tools, and I’m not allowed to cut down trees larger in diameter than a wrist, which I interpret quite liberally. Today I sawed down two ten- or twelve-foot tall elms (that’s one of them in the middle of the photo at the top of the post), plus removed a few that were only a few feet high, the size of fat fingers at the base (for those I use the loppers).

I employ the trees whole for erosion control, dragging them over to the arroyo banks and placing them in eroded rills, trunk upstream, branches downstream. There they act as water retarders, slowing the flow and letting sediments accumulate to stem bank erosion. As long as these teenage elms don’t have any seeds, I like to put them to use, rather then just consign them to the dump.

A freshly-cut elm dragged into a side channel for erosion control. 

When I’ve spent my available time and energy, I dust myself off, clean my tools, and take a moment to look down “my” stretch of arroyo, noting the absence of a few more more Siberian elms. There are many more to remove, but I’m not daunted. I’ve reclaimed urban waterways before, and I know the power of even one passionate person (even if that one is small and getting old!) to make significant change.

The truth is, the work is good for me: Using hand tools to remove small trees is very good exercise. And by helping this stretch of arroyo become more resilient in the face of climate change, I’m boosting my resilience, and my store of hope, too.

Looking downstream, with fewer Siberian elms in view… 

What to Do Now?

Every morning, I post a haiku and photo on social media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That observation in words and imagery of a moment in time, of the natural world, of a bit of beauty is my way of reminding us all to take time to engage with the real world beyond our digital devices. To be aware and mindful, to be grateful for the miracle that is life on this numinous, breathing planet. 

Wednesday morning, after the election, I was moved to post a statement in haiku form, rather than my usual poem. (I’ve written about the rules of classical haiku before; here’s a reminder if you’re interested.)

what to do now? 

stand for kindness, compassion, respect

for all on earth

That statement felt right at the time, and still feels right. My mission in life is to reconnect us all with nature and its power to heal, inspire, and inform. Research shows what we might guess intuitively: time spent in nature–the more natural the better–is a powerful cure, restoring our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

Nature is also a teacher, showing us the value of diversity (ecosystems comprised of more kinds of species are generally healthier and more stabile than those with few), cooperation (species cooperate as much as they compete), and what I would express as hope (life finds creative ways to continue, though not always the way we would most prefer). 

As I know by my own experience with our formerly decaying industrial property and its block of urban creek, restoring nature can revitalize our neighborhoods and communities, clean the water and air we depend on, and provide homes and food for the wild species who are our partners in making earth a nurturing place. It can in fact, remind us that miracles are possible, given time, thoughtful action, and a loving and persistent commitment to the work. 

So as I’ve gone through this post-election week, writing, talking with friends and family, hugging strangers, and taking long walks around Santa Fe, I’ve kept that haiku-form statement in my mind. It helps to have something positive to focus on. 

Today I spent some time with the migrating salmon sculpture that Richard loved to visit whenever we came to Santa Fe. I thought about how salmon smell their way home to their natal streams from thousands of miles out in the open ocean, how they swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds, leaping waterfalls if necessary.

And I thought about these carved granite salmon sculptures, forever swimming upstream in the waterless high desert. “Doing the work” as my friend and fellow writer Steve Edwards said tonight on Twitter. 

I am re-committing myself to doing my work, to my mission to reconnect we humans with nature, our home and teacher. I am more determined than ever to do that work with kindness, compassion, and respect for all. With, as I like to say, my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. 

Walking home to the casita where I am staying this month thanks to the generosity of the Women’s International Study Center, I looked overhead and noticed that next year’s leaf buds are already swelling on the cottonwood trees. Those cottonwood trees are doing the work, steadily continuing in the business of life–making food, growing, healing their wounds, reproducing, and when the time comes to move on, moving on to leave room for new life. 

That’s heartening. Life continues. 


If you’re in northern New Mexico, please join me and my fellow WISC resident, playwright DS Magid, for a presentation about our work at Collected Works Bookstore this Wednesday, November 16, at 6:00 pm. DS and a local actor will read her 10-minute play about May Sarton and the boulder in her garden, and then DS will talk about her project here, a longer play on Sarton and gender issues, among other themes. (A strikingly relevant theme.) I’ll talk about the book I’m working on, The Ditch & The Meadow: The Power of Native Plants and Passionate Plantswomen to Restore Communities and Mend the World. (Also pretty darned relevant.) I hope to see you there!

Road Report: Coming “home” to Carpenter Ranch

We arrived at Carpenter Ranch, our first stop on The Big Trip, the day after Labor Day. Betsy greeted us warmly. “The Bunkhouse is occupied, but you can take any room in the main house,” she said. “You can manage the stairs, can’t you?” she asked Richard.

“Of course.” His voice was confident. The narrow flight of steps leading to the second floor of the ranch house wouldn’t have been a problem for Richard a month before. Perhaps not even a week before. But they challenged that evening’s Richard. He froze at the bottom, unable to go upward. Finally the guy who had always led the pack took the steps slowly, one at a time like an old man, gripping the handrail tightly. 

After dinner, we strolled out the ranch driveway—Richard’s stride confident again on level ground—and stood arm-in-arm listening to sandhill cranes’ bugling as sunset lit the sky. Richard smiled as he surveyed the view. “I am a lucky guy,” he said. 

I swiped at tears and gripped his warm hand. We were still together. “I love you.”

(From my new memoir, Bless the Birds)

Last Friday, five years and three days after that final visit to The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in Northwest Colorado, I drove the gravel road through hayfields to the ranch buildings, swarmed by memories of our visits in the two years before Richard, the love of my life and my husband for almost 29 years, died of brain cancer. Our final collaborative project was at Carpenter and involved re-imagining a half-acre of unused lawn behind the historic ranch house into a public teaching/interpretive garden that, as I wrote at the time, aimed to “re-story” the place’s rich human and natural history.

The ranch buildings at Carpenter across the hayfields

(Thanks to Connie Holsinger and the Terra Foundation, Grant Pound and the former Colorado Art Ranch for support of our working residency; and to Steamboat Springs landscape architect Erin Dickerson for handling the engineering and layout.)

Richard was involved in the initial construction of the garden but died before it was fully realized. (I would say “finished,” but a garden is never complete, and this one has certainly taken its own sweet time.)

I thought–ridiculously optimistically, as it turns out–I would be back the next summer to help continue work. For various reasons, including the fact that I was still sorting out my life and my finances, I didn’t get back to Carpenter that year. Or the next–by then I was working part-time and learning carpentry to do the finish work on the big house in preparation for putting it up for sale, which happened the following summer, when I didn’t return to the Ranch either. Or the next summer, when I was helping finish my little house and garage/studio, or the next. 

Eventually, I realized that it wasn’t my busyness that was keeping me from returning to the site of the last project Richard and I worked on, it was my heart. So when I saw Betsy Blakeslee, Facilities Manager for the Ranch, at the Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants conference last spring and she invited me to return this fall for the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, I decided it was time. 

Deciding and being ready are of course not the same thing (one comes from the head, the other from my still-wounded heart). So when I parked Red under the spruce tree by the bunkhouse where Richard and I always stayed on Friday afternoon, I felt tender and very vulnerable. 

The bunkhouse

As soon as I walked into the ranch house though, and Betsy greeted me with a warm hug and delight, “You’re here! I am so glad!” I knew that my head was right. Bruised heart or not, it was time for me to return to a place where Richard and I found such joy in the restoring/re-storying work. 

“Do you want to see the garden?” Betsy asked. 

Did I ever. When we walked through the interpretive center and onto the new deck, and I saw the flagstone patio just as we had envisioned that gathering spot, and the wide beds of heritage perennials lining the back of the ranch house and then the meadow with its waving grasses, the cliff gardens with their strata-like lines of local limestone that Richard helped the crew of interns lay out, the sagebrush growing thick and the woodland garden still in bloom, my heart swelled. I think one of its cracks healed a little.


The garden from the deck of the interpretive center, with the meadow in the distance

“It’s not finished,” Betsy said. “And it’s not exactly the way you drew the plan.”

“But it’s beautiful!” I said. “Our idea was for it to evolve naturally.”

We walked the paths curving through the natural gardens and I admired the rock “creek” channel with its sculptural cairns, and the round pollinator garden beds with their river-channel-like cobble designs. Betsy showed me the wild yampah, the plants honoring the Ute Indians, the first people of the valley, whose lives revolved around harvesting the starchy and nutritious root of the staple plant for whom the river and the valley are named. 

The cliff garden with native shrubs including sagebrush; in the background is the edible garden

We looked at the edible gardens and talked about what plants to add to the medicinal herb garden…. As we were walking back to the house, Geoff, Betsy’s husband and the ranch manager, saw us and came over with a huge smile on his face. “You’re here!” He gave me a hug. “We’ve missed you.”

Then my friend Connie Holsinger, also staying at the ranch for Crane Days, came out, a smile on her face. She introduced me to her friend Joyce, visiting from Boston, and later to two other friends from Boulder. That evening, Betsy and I took her grandson to the family crane activities at a nearby ranch and watched flocks of sandhill cranes fly overhead at sunset, calling in their throaty, unforgettable voices. 

The next day, while the other guests went to other Festival activities, I stayed in the garden, giving tours and digging out invasive weeds. That evening, after the barbecue and talk by prominent birder and author Ted Floyd, I sat on the stoop of the bunkhouse and listened to the distant murmur of cranes and geese, and watched thousands of stars appear in the black night sky. 

Part of the heritage garden, with medicinal and ornamental plants from historic ranch gardens

And knew I had truly come home to Carpenter Ranch and the project that Richard and I began seven years ago. There is still work to be done–including designing and installing interpretive signs telling the stories of the plants and the land, and I’m now ready to continue with that. 

It feels right to be back, and to carry on the work that gave us such joy and satisfaction during the last years of Richard’s life. I would say it’s like completing a circle, but really, it’s continuing the larger circle of life itself, one that never ends as the molecules that make up our individual lives are recycled into new beginnings, over and over. 

Thanks to Betsy and Geoff and The Nature Conservancy for welcoming me home, and to Connie for making the whole project possible. On we go, cranes and yampah and sagebrush and cows and Richard’s spirit–all of us together in this continuing wheel of existence…