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. 

What’s Ahead in 2015: Earth Work

Sphinx moth pollinating native penstemon flowers in a park reclaimed from an abandoned industrial site. Sphinx moth pollinating native penstemon flowers in a park reclaimed from an abandoned industrial site.

What’s ahead for me in 2015? More earth work, more loving the world as best I can. Living my belief that we humans can make a positive contribution to this battered planet. Spreading that message through word and intellect, as well as sweat and singing muscles: writing, teaching, and landscape restoration work.

As I envision the year’s work, I hold my four resolutions close: live generously, write more, laugh often and love much. My intention, my heart’s aim is for all of my work to express each resolution.

Writing, I often say, is my way of loving the world. I think of the memoir I’m revising now, Bless the Birds, as a gift of love. It’s a story about how any of us can become the sort of people able to walk life’s most difficult passages with grace. Not perfectly, mind you, but with as much love and generosity as we humans are capable of–and we are capable of a lot of both if we make the effort.

The book I imagine writing after Bless the Birds is even more directly related to my belief that healing the earth heals we humans in the doing. Pieces of the story have lived in my head in various forms for decades. I think I finally see a way to weave the disparate threads into a coherent narrative, and I even have a title: Earth Work: Lessons From Restoring the Land No One Wanted.

The land no one wanted, restored and blooming. The land no one wanted, restored and blooming.

Writing is not the only way I live generously and express my love for this planet and all of the lives on it, human, domestic, and wild. I think of my teaching as another way of sharing the wisdom I’ve gathered from the community of the land (nature) and from doing my best to live with heart outstretched as if it were my hand.

In the year ahead, I’ll be teaching more workshops on habitat gardening, a way to heal the earth right at home, mitigate global climate change, and re-connect ourselves to the balm and joy of nature. I’m also re-starting my Write & Retreat workshops with a week in the incredible landscapes of northwest Wyoming, the home of my heart and my fieldwork as a plant scientist.

Earth work: teaching in Durango last spring Earth work: teaching in Durango last spring

And I’ve got some exciting plans for habitat restoration work ahead too.

All of which come under the heading of earth work: living generously with love for this world, and following my heart’s belief that healing earth is healing for we people too.

Earth work. It’s my way honoring the gift that is this life, our daily existence on an extraordinary blue planet, a community of species that makes up the only home we humans have ever known.


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Sacred datura, one of the flowers Georgia O'Keeffe painted, recolonizing its native land. Sacred datura, one of the wildflowers Georgia O’Keeffe painted, re-colonizing its home.

Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek.

Writing: Place, Community and Women’s Voices

Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek. Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek.

I’ve just returned from four days in Golden, Colorado, at the 20th annual conference of Women Writing the West, an organization of writers and publishing professionals who write about the “Women’s West,” telling the stories of the West through the experiences of women in the past, present and future.

It was a packed event, the largest conference WWW has ever run, spread over four venues, and hosting a sell-out crowd of 150+ writers/editors/agents and publishers from all over the US and at least three Canadian provinces.

Moderator Dawn Wink gets excited when someone recognizes a photo of her place in the "Place As Character" panel. Moderator Dawn Wink gets excited when someone recognizes a photo of her place in the “Place As Character” panel. Photo: Stephanie West Allen

I participated in three panels, organized the Thursday evening quilt reception and reading by finalists and winners from our WILLA Literary Awards and LAURA Short Fiction Awards, reported to the WWW Board Meeting and addressed the Membership meeting as well, signed books, and sponsored the screening of The Cherokee Word for Water, named one of the top five Native American films of the year, and deservedly so–the story, acting and filming are bone-deep authentic and inspiring.

The film traces the early story of Wilma Mankiller, first chief of the Cherokee Nation, as she returned to Cherokee Country with her two young daughters and began organizing poor rural communities. It was followed by a moving panel discussion including Kimberly Guerrero, the award-winning actress who played Wilma; Charlie Soap, Wilma’s husband and a director/producer of the film; and longtime friend of Wilma’s, producer Christina Kiehl.

Another fascinating story to me was that of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House series fame, and as keynote speaker Susan Wittig Albert explained, a famous writer who became more than her mother’s co-author, yet kept her role in shaping the stories secret.

Page Lambert, Kayann Short and me on the "Every Writer Needs a Community" panel. Photo: Stephanie West Allen Page Lambert, Kayann Short and me on the “Every Writer Needs a Community” panel. (WWW commemorative quilt in the background.) Photo: Stephanie West Allen

The conference background sound was the buzz of excited voices as participants gathered to greet old friends, meet new ones, and share ideas and tips on all aspects of writing.

That excitement and sharing sums up Women Writing the West for me: community, not competition. A core value of the organization is to provide a supportive community to those of us engaged in telling and publishing stories about the West from a woman’s point of view.

Excitement... (A selfie with Dawn Wink at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.) Excitement… (A selfie with Dawn Wink at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.)

To give you a taste of the conference, here are excerpts from my handout for the “Place As Character” panel featuring Dawn Wink, Julene Bair, Page Lambert, and me. The handout opens with a quote:

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

When we talk about place as character, we’re talking about writing that shows place as one of the driving and shaping factors in a story/essay/memoir/poem. Place, especially place in the West, where our spaces are so large, our skies so vast and our weather so unpredictable, sculpts the lives of those who live there and the stories we write, whether real or imagined.

How do we write place as believable, authentic character?

“Know the place so well that you “live inside of it.” Spend time there, and if you can’t do that, read voraciously, talk to people who live or have lived there. Soak yourself in the place until it “takes over mind and imagination,” as Terry Tempest Williams says.

Use rich sensory “data.” Go beyond what we see: describe how the wind sounds, what the place smells like, how the sleet feels…. If it’s hard to think of sensory details other than the visual, go outside and spend five minutes sitting with your eyes closed. Note everything you hear, smell, and feel (without opening your eyes. You’ll be able to read it when you’re done). Then prepare to be surprised at how much you notice when your dominant sense (vision) is turned off.

And finally:

Write as if it matters. Because we need your voice.

Cottonwoods along Clear Creek through the window screen. Cottonwoods along Clear Creek through the window screen of my hotel room.

Dr. William Austin Cannon, my maternal great-grandfather, out researching the Sonoran Desert near Tucscon, Arizona, in the early 1900s. Photo: Arizona Historical Society Library

Claiming Both Halves of Myself

Dr. William Austin Cannon, my maternal great-grandfather, out researching the Sonoran Desert near Tucscon, Arizona, in the early 1900s. Photo: Arizona Historical Society Library My great-grandfather, Dr. William Austin Cannon, out researching the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, in the early 1900s. Photo: Arizona Historical Society Library

My second language is science. I grew up in a family of passionate naturalist/scientists: my dad is an organic chemist who migrated (sorry!) into bird research, my mother was a librarian interested in natural history, my brother is a fisheries biologist and birder. One of my grandfathers was a design engineer, the other a philosopher/analyst.

The great-granddad I know most about was a botanist who studied deserts the world around. (His third wife, my great-grandmother, was a California impressionist painter; another great-grandmother was a poet/journalist.)

A painting of the Big Sur Coast by my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon A painting of the Big Sur Coast by my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon.

Yesterday on my 510-mile drive home from Las Cruces, New Mexico, I thought about how much my family “culture” of science influenced who I am as I struggled to keep my Subaru on the road in howling winds.

The 20th annual Border Book Festival opens next week in Las Cruces, NM. The Festival poster, featuring gorgeous papel picado by Carmen Delgado Trunk

I went to Las Cruces to present at the 20th annual Border Book Festival, the brainchild of my dear friend, novelist/playwright Denise Chávez. This year’s festival focused on Maíz, the Corn Mother—the plant, the food, the symbol of agriculture and culture rooted in the Americas. Corn is one of our native crops, bred by indigenous Meso-americans from a plump-grained wild grass called teosinte into a food which spread around the world.

The courtyard of the private hacienda outside Mesilla where the Friday night dinner was held. The courtyard of the private hacienda outside Mesilla where the Friday night dinner was held.

Festival presenters included a trio of Nahuatl-speaking artist/cultural ambassadors from the mountains north of Puebla, singer-songwriter Consuelo Luz, and Balam Lemus and Alejandro López of Somos el Maíz in the Española Valley north of Santa Fe. We talked of corn as a plant, a metaphor of life and how we cultivate it (both corn and la vida) mindfully and reverently, and a way to understand what is happening in the world today.

In my workshop, The Soul of Plants, we explored seeing the world through a plant’s perspective and what that view teaches us about creativity and a mindful existence. I spoke from my two sides, the science I grew up with and worked in, and the writer I am now.

The Chávez sisters—Denise and Margo The Chávez sisters—Denise and Margo

In the festival’s final panel, I spoke about how we really are what we eat, biologically and metaphorically, and the implications on our agriculture and our health—inside and out. Those words, along with a conversation with Denise’s sister Margo and her friend Sharon, another with longtime Las Cruces friend, photographer/journalist Pam Porter, plus the hike I had taken two days before with another f/Friend, writer Sharman Apt Russell in Silver City, twined in my mind as I drove home.

Sharman Apt Russell in her native habitat along the Big Ditch near Silver City. Sharman Apt Russell in her native habitat along the Big Ditch near Silver City.

I have struggled all my life with feeling as if I didn’t truly belong in either science or writing. As a scientist, my credentials are suspect: I never managed to finish a graduate degree or to distinguish myself in a male-dominated field. As a creative writer I am suspect too: I am self-taught, and my work is inspired by science—in particular, ecology, the relationships that weave this living earth.

Yesterday, I realized I’m not one or the other: I am both. I see the world through the lens of one for whom plants are as fascinating as people. And I communicate using the skills of one who loves storytelling, making words dance and sing. Those words gain power from science, my second language and my born-to culture.

Perhaps this seems self-evident. But I have never seen what I bring to this world so clearly as I did on that nine-hour drive home yesterday in the howling spring wind.

I am a scientist. One who views the world with “heart outstretched as if it were my hand.” One who tells stories of who we are and what we can become. My gift is precisely that combination of head and heart, plus an abiding love for this living planet, the only home our species has ever known.

Coming down the last pass at dusk. Coming down the last pass at dusk—almost home.

Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

Habitat Hero Road-Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in Fifth Grade, standing up in front of the class. Photo: Samantha Lane Bahn

Unexpected Gifts

Last Wednesday I rushed through my usually quiet morning routine in order to be organized and on-time for my visit to a fifth-grade class at Salida Middle School. I managed on-time; I’m not so sure I was organized.

Back in Fifth Grade, standing up in front of the class. Photo: Samantha Lane Bahn Back in Fifth Grade, standing up in front of the class. Photo: Samantha Lane Bahn

The class and their teacher, Samantha Lane Bahn, were welcoming. I managed to hit some of the high notes of what I do and why it matters:

  • Why I write (Because I have stories to tell that I hope will help us be more loving and generous human beings, and understand better the community of lives with whom we share this earth.)
  • What I did as a scientist (among other things, studied grizzly bear habitat, including their diet, which involved observation and collecting… well, fresh bear poop, and dissecting it)
  • Why I left fieldwork for writing (Back to that why I write question, most centrally as a way to show us all how to live more thoughtfully and inflict less harm on each other and this planet.)
  • What a writer’s day is like (When I asked the kids why quiet might be important, one girl hit that particular nail squarely on the head: “To hear yourself think!”).

The students were interested, well-prepared, and asked good questions and gave good answers. They clearly have an engaged and energetic teacher.

As I was preparing to leave, Ms. Lane said, “Deidre has something to give you.” She handed me a sheet of lined paper mounted on blue construction stock. “We wrote ‘I Admire…’ essays and Deidre wrote hers about you.”

"I Admire..." by Diedre Hansen, Fifth Grade “I Admire…” by Deidre Hansen, Fifth Grade

I was stunned. I hugged Deidre and stuttered something about not knowing whether I could read it out loud. Ms. Lane said, “Deidre can read it.”

I nodded and struggled to maintain my composure while Deidre read:

I admire Susan Tweit tremendously. Her smile lights up the room when she walks in. You can always tell a kind person by the crinkles next to their eyes and Susan has plenty of them. [Ouch. So much for vanity.] …

After going through thick and thin these past few years, Susan is still as bright as the North Star. Susan is plenty capable of doing her own work and doesn’t hesitate when someone needs a helping hand. …

Her writing is brilliant. [Deidre, please write my book blurbs!] It gives you a clear picture of what she describes, and brings the characters to life. Susan wrote a book called City Foxes that she gave to my parents when my brother and I were little. I loved that book with all my heart. I still have it propped up on my bookshelf….

City Foxes, photos by Wendy Shattil, text by Susan J. Tweit, named Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children by the Children's Book Council City Foxes, photos by Wendy Shattil, story by me, named Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children by the Children’s Book Council

I had tears in my eyes when Deidre finished. I hugged her again, and thanked the class and Ms. Lane. Then I escaped out the door, down the halls, and out into the winter sunshine, humbled.

I had woken grumpy that morning, not happy about having given away my writing time and feeling stressed about a looming deadline. (Mornings are the only time I can write–once I go out into the world, insight and inspiration both vanish like vapor in our high-desert air.)

On a deeper level, I was apprehensive, all-too-aware of the energy required to “suit up” and find my brave self for public appearances. After Richard’s death, what once was familiar is no longer. I am more vulnerable, less confident and less sure of this new solo me.

And then to be given the gift, not just of talking with an attentive and interesting class, but of seeing the impact of my writing and life…. I’m still stunned.

And grateful. Thank you, Ms. Lane and your Fifth-Grade class, especially Deidre Hansen. You showed me the power of words–and love.


Curving steel arches trim the living room doorway in Terraphilia, my old house. Curving steel arches trim the living room doorway at Terraphilia.

Note: Salida is a small town. Deidre’s dad, Harry Hansen, is the art blacksmith who forged the curving steel trim for two arched doorways in my former house. Harry and Nicole, Deidre’s mom, together form Sterling & Steel, hand-forging contemporary classic flatware and other household objects. Deidre’s brother Ethan is talented too.

The first page of the two-page current issue

Hot off the press: eNewsletter and life

The first page of the two-page current issue The first page of the two-page current issue

I send out a “News from Sus[an]” newsletter by email every so often with updates on my writing, teaching and life in general. I try to put them out quarterly, but sometimes circumstances intervene, hence the gap between the January issue and the eLetter I just finished yesterday. (If you want to be on my eNewsletter list, send me an email and I’ll subscribe you. If you are and don’t, just let me know, and I’ll remove you.)

I don’t usually put the newsletter up on my website, but it’s occurred to me that I should. So here it is. Click on that link (or the one in the previous paragraph) and you should get the PDF, either downloaded or opening in a new window.

The eNewsletter is two pages long with images, it totals half a megabite and may take a few moments to load. Just be patient.

Which is great advice for life in general, and advice I’ve certainly been taking to heart since the universe in the form of three different injuries smacked me upside the head (literally, the last injury was to my face–with my own car door) and reminded me to slow down. No matter how fast life swirls around me, I’m determined to pause, take deep breaths, and not move faster than suits me.

You can see the long, curving laminate counter with the galvanized edge and the two sinks on that wall, right? You can't? I almost can.... You can see the long, curving laminate counter with the galvanized edge and the two sinks on that wall, right? You can’t? Not to worry. It’s coming soon….

It seems to be working. As I just told my Dad, despite glitches in permitting for the front-entry deck of my new house and the fact that the master bathroom in this house is still not done, and that I’ve had to set the memoir aside this week to prepare a talk for the Plant Select program at Denver Botanic Gardens on Thursday, I’m enjoying myself.

I’m enjoying finish work, even though it’s hard, the learning curve is steep, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. It’s going well, and I’m proud of my work. That makes it satisfying.

I’m enjoying building the new house, even though the glitches in permitting my front deck have meant a lot of scrambling around to get forms filed and then a lot of back-and-forth about possible solutions.

Downtown Salida and the Arkansas Hills seen from the future deck off my bedroom. Downtown Salida and the Arkansas Hills seen from the future deck off my bedroom.

It’s still not clear what’s going to happen, but I have faith that my builder and designer and I will work with the city to figure out a solution that is aesthetically pleasing, environmentally friendly and allows an accessible house. It’s hard not to enjoy a house that’s as sweet as my new one is, even though it’s still at the gangly studs and wiring stage. Look at that view out my bedroom door….

(Yes, you have to imagine the deck at door-sill height. It’ll appear in time.)

I’m even enjoying working on the talk and accompanying digital presentation because, hey, it’s about gardening in a way that restores habitat for wildlife and leaves a patch of ground in better shape than you found it–inspiring stuff.

The truth is, I feel pretty fortunate. Yes, I have a house to finish. But it’s a beautiful house. I’m doing work my late love would appreciate, and that makes me feel closer to him.

Yes, I have two construction projects going at once, something I tried to avoid. But the new house makes me smile every time I set foot in it.

Needle-and-thread grass (in foreground) and sidebells penstemon (lavender spikes) blooming in my front yard grassland Needle-and-thread grass (in foreground) and sidebells penstemon (lavender spikes behind the pot) blooming in my front-yard native mountain prairie.

And yes, the landscape I love is still in a drought and the larger world is full of war and pain and global climate change. But it’s also full of love and light and hope.

The sidebells penstemon and needle-and-thread grass are blooming in my yard. A black-headed grosbeak was warbling down by the creek this morning. It’s the end of spring, summer is coming in a rush, and I’m alive.

That last alone makes me very fortunate. Walking with Richard through death from brain cancer taught us both to love life. All of it. That’s a lesson I hope to never forget.



Installing the top row of the blue styrofoam footer forms on a windy afternoon.

Wind, Hope and New Workshops

Installing the top row of the blue styrofoam footer forms on a windy afternoon. Installing the blue styrofoam footer forms on a windy afternoon. (We’re still “below ground.” The tops mark the floor level of the new house.)

The wind is howling outside, roaring by in gusts that feel like they must be going 80 mph, although my wind gauge hasn’t recorded any higher than 30. There’s another spring storm blowing in, our third in a little more than a week. As one of my concrete crew said late this afternoon as they were struggling to anchor the footer forms for my new tiny house, “Springtime in the Rockies.”

Yup. And I can’t complain (much), since the last two storms brought us a little more than an inch of moisture, more than we’ve had so far the whole dust-dry winter. If whatever’s blowing in brings us more snow, especially the wet kind, even the wind will be a gift. Of a sort.

Sea kayaking at La Partida, where the sea turtles feed, Isla Espiritu Santo Sea kayaking at La Partida, where the sea turtles feed, Isla Espiritu Santo

This kind of weather has me thinking about running away to warmer climes. Which is what I’ll be doing when I gather a group of writers and companions next February for the second Write & Retreat workshop on Isla Espiritu Santo in the Sea of Cortez off Baja California del Sur. We’ll leave La Paz on Feburary 9th, headed for Espiritu Santo, an island so incredibly rich in biological and cultural features that it is a protected area. Our outfitter, Baja Expeditions, the founding ecotourism outfitter on Baja, spearheaded the movement to preserve this extraordinary place and operates the only permanent camp on the island.

Baja Expeditions' comfortable "eco-camp" on Espiritu Santo. Baja Expeditions’ comfortable “eco-camp” on Espiritu Santo.

We’ll stay on Espiritu Santo for six days, ensconced in safari-style canvas tents on the beach of a quiet cove, waking to the sound of brown pelicans “thwacking” the water to stun their breakfast of sardines. We’ll paddle sea kayaks in turquoise bays, snorkel with sea lions, watch flying fish leap out of the water like falling stars, hear canyon wrens trill and great horned owls hoot. We’ll fish and hike and lie in the sun on the beach–and we’ll write, read our work, talk craft and art, and recharge our creative wells. We’ll also eat great food prepared by our camp staff.

If this sounds good, download the flyer on from my workshops page. Spaces are limited, so sign up soon.

Sunset on the Sangre de Cristo Range from the pools at Joyful Journey. Sunset on the Sangre de Cristo Range from the pools at Joyful Journey.

The original Write & Retreat workshop, held last month at Joyful Journey Lodge & Spa in Colorado’s San Luis Valley was so successful that I’ve decided to make it an annual event. (“Do not change a thing,” wrote one participant. “Reserve me a space for next year.”) I’ve already reserved the lodge at Joyful Journey for March 20-23rd, 2014. Mark your calendars….


I have to confess that my malaise and restlessness are not just from the weather. Yesterday’s bombings at the finish of the Boston Marathon weigh on my heart and spirit. I cannot understand such cruelty. I believe we will recover from the shock and pain and fear given time, just as I believe offering each other compassion and love is the only way to live, whatever happens. Words have great power to heal, and to restore our hope, our faith in the basic goodness of our fellow travelers on this numinous planet.

I am reminded of the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers:

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

Bless you all.

Joyful Journey in the quiet before dawn.

Writing & Retreating Time

Joyful Journey in the quiet before dawn. Joyful Journey in the quiet before dawn.

I’ve just returned from Joyful Journey Lodge & Spa in the the San Luis Valley, after four intense and inspiring days leading this year’s first Write & Retreat workshop.

I created this new series of workshops to offer writers a “time out” to focus on and grow their work in a place that would combine the healing magic of the wild with nurturing surroundings.

My plan was to spend mornings in workshop, writing, reading and commenting on each others’ work, and talking about the process of writing and the writing life. Afternoons I would offer one-on-one talks with individual writers while the rest of the group fulfilled the retreat part of the title: soaking, hiking, sitting, getting massages, and otherwise nourishing their creative spirit.

Over delicious and bountiful meals prepared by Ploughboy Local Market, I imagined reading to the group from authors whose work inspires me, and talking about what makes each piece sing.

The San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo Range at dawn from Joyful Journey The San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo Range at dawn from Joyful Journey

We’d leave inspired and renewed, with an expanded sense of our writing, and new tools to find space for our heart’s work in the crazy rush of daily life.

This first workshop succeeded in ways even I hadn’t imagined. The group meshed quickly, weaving a supportive, thoughtful and creative workshop. The quality of the writing shone, its depth and  power often surprising the participants themselves.

The food was stellar, the soaking and spa treatments worked magic, and the retreatful time nourished body, mind and spirit.

Of course, everything did not go perfectly. The weather was as wild as only springtime in the Rockies can be: roaring waves of wind and dust, followed by a blizzard that blew through leaving not much snow but bone-chilling cold…. There were glitches with kitchen storage and equipment.

The conference center wing at Joyful Journey. The conference center wing at Joyful Journey.

Still, as we parted today, I heard comments like “inspiring,” “extraordinary,” “outstanding,” and my favorite, a simple, “I am so glad I came.” I’ve already booked Joyful Journey for next year.

For those of you who couldn’t attend Write & Retreat, here’s a thought on how to make time for your heart’s work in the crazy rush of life from an earlier blog post:

Make a date with your writing. Perhaps just once a week at first. That’s enough to set an intention, to affirm to yourself that your writing is important.

Keep that date. Don’t make excuses. When the appointed time comes, get your butt into your writing chair and write. Whatever. If you can’t think of anything to write, write that: “I can’t think of anything to write.” “I can’t find the words.” “I don’t know what to say.” Keep writing until something happens.

After you write, set your work aside to “season,” to give yourself time to forget its particulars. Go back to it only when you can look at it fresh.

Read it carefully, feeling what contributes, pruning out what doesn’t. Be ruthless: cut out every sentence, every word, every scene or chapter that doesn’t add something important.

The Sangre de Cristos over the outdoor soaking pools at Joyful Journey. The Sangre de Cristos over the outdoor soaking pools at Joyful Journey.

Read it aloud. Listen to how it sounds, to the cadence and rhythm of it, to the flow of narrative and word, to the swelling of its themes, the growing pains of its characters.

Set it aside again, and pick it up again. Repeat until the work is as tight and compelling as you can make it. Repeat until what you have written honors the impulse that set you to this crazy, solitary business of writing in the first place. The need to say something in a way that moves readers, that touches hearts and souls, that makes them laugh, cry, wail, think.

Then make a new writing date.

Join me at the next Write & Retreat for inspiration and renewal!

Rain! (and an update)

A sheen of moisture on the paving stoves of my bedroom patio before dusk fell.

It’s raining tonight, a fall of small droplets visible in the lights of the parking lot across the way. The rain is so gentle we’ve probably not received enough to measure. Still, the air is heavy, warm and wet, redolent of the earthy fragrances of life awakening.

If you live somewhere rain is a regular occurrence or where the air is normally moist enough to cause hair to frizz, my excitement at this very small amount of moisture may not make sense. But here in the bone-dry high desert, where we ended last year with under 7 inches of total precipitation, any moisture is a big deal.

It’s been so dry here that when the wind blows, the air fills with an eerie tan haze of blowing soil. So dry that trees are dying, the creek that runs past my place hasn’t run since last July, and the prospect of another summer of huge and destructive forest fires seems all too real.

Clouds lower over town as the rain began. You can see fresh snow on the slopes above.

Tonight’s rain isn’t enough to make a real difference–except to our parched spirits. When I walked over to my neighbor’s house at dusk, I could hear voices from porches of the houses I passed, as people came outside to revel in the feeling of wet, so rare in this years-long  drought.

It will make a difference to our popular local ski area, Monarch, which relies on the fluffy stuff that falls from the sky, not grainy man-made “snow” blown out of giant cannons. It’s snowing up there now at 10,000 feet elevation and the forecast predicts the ski area could get as much as a foot of new snow over the next few days.

That snow is our moisture savings account, the water-bank that supplies streams and rivers, which need substantial deposits indeed if they are to revive this spring and hold through summer and fall. Whether we’ll get enough to build up the scanty snow pack isn’t clear. But each hour of moisture feels good, moistening the dust-dry landscape and we who live here.

Rain puddling on the row cover protecting the strawberry plants from nighttime temperatures that normally dip into the single digits this time of year.

Rain is not normal here in late January, when the temperature is usually far below freezing at night, and creeps up into the 40s during the day. But nothing is usual about our weather anymore, and we’ll take whatever moisture we get.

When I went outside a few minutes ago to fetch one last armful of wood for the stove in the living room, I turned my head upward to feel the mist of moisture on my skin. Then I said softly out loud, “Rain and snow on, heavy-bellied clouds! Thank you for your gift.”


The update: I’ve been absorbed in writing my new memoir, Bless the Birds. Working on this book is about as fun as pressing on a deep bruise, but the story is so beautiful, I press on anyway. (Yes, that pun was intentional.)

Cranes on the ground, dancing and preening, and in the air over the San Luis Valley with the snow-covered Sangre de Cristo Range in the background.

I’m also busy organizing my first Write & Retreat workshop, scheduled for the first weekend of spring, March 21-24, at Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa in Colorado’s wild San Luis Valley. I have always wanted to teach a writing workshop at the time thousands of sandhill cranes arrive to dance and call, renewing their pair bonds before migrating farther north to nest. My plan is for an inspiring and restorative “time-out” to write, soak, read and sit quietly, to share in the miracle of cranes and spring. (There are two spaces left in the workshop.)

I’ve finished the trim around eight windows and one side of five door openings, which may sound like a lot, but it’s not even half of the trim project. After which comes approximately 700 miles of baseboard and then finishing the master bath. Gulp. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but I am lucky to have painting and staining help from my neighbor, Bev, and the patient tutelage of my ace-building & renovating friends, Maggie and Tony.

So onward, I go, reveling in the gifts of rain, writing, power tools and life….