Writing: Immersed in Revision

Talking about the ecology of “snow forests,” high elevation forests above Taos, New Mexico.

Friday afternoon I broke off from my current writing obsession–revising Bless the Birds yet one more time–to drive to Taos to meet with Professor Sara Beth Childers’ “Writing the New Mexico Landscape” workshop at Oklahoma State University’s Doel Reed Center for the Arts. After I read from some of my work, including Barren, Wild, and Worthless, which they studied in the workshop, we talked about writing over dinner at Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, across from the famous church painted by Georgia O’Keeffe and many others.

After the conversation with Sara Beth and her amazing students–all candidates for MFAs or PhDs in literature–I was so jazzed that I woke at around two-thirty thinking about the revisions I’m making to Bless the Birds. Normally when I wake in the night, my strategy is to let my thoughts spin out until I go back to sleep again. I do not get up, because then I’m awake and I often don’t go back to sleep.

But Friday night–actually early Saturday morning, the writing was speaking so loudly I just couldn’t ignore it. So I turned on the light, got my laptop, and wrote down the two haiku in my head. (Yes, there are haiku in this memoir.) And then I wrote about seeds as a metaphor, and what it means to embrace the end of life when you are the one who will live on. Finally, at about four-thirty, I went back to sleep.

Saturday morning, I re-read what I wrote and added a few more notes, and then headed off to Taos Ski Valley to meet Sara Beth and the group for a hike. (I got lost in the maze of non-named dirt roads and was late, but that’s another story.) We hiked uphill on snow for two miles to Williams Lake, a lovely little lake still buried under deep snow in a glacial cirque. It was a slithery trip going steeply uphill, but the group was determined to make it to the lake. (We gained 800 feet elevation, going from 10,200 feet at the trailhead to 11,020 feet at the lake; my pedometer recorded the hike as equivalent to going up 36 flights of stairs!)

Along the way, I talked about snow and forests and avalanches (we had to detour around debris fields of not one but two big avalanches), the “wood wide web” of fungal threads that connects trees, how to read the landscape, and other nature things. Oh, and we talked more about writing. (The photo at the top of the post is me talking with part of the group. Notice that the ground is white–we hiked on about two feet of old snow, the remnants of the first generous winter snowpack after many years of drought.)

The Taos Valley all spring green this weekend. We hiked up near the snowy bit at the top of the peaks in the distance. 

By the time we slithered our way back down to the trailhead and I said good bye to Sara Beth and the workshop participants, my head was full of more ideas about my revisions, and my eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. I drove home to Santa Fe and told myself to give revising and my brain a rest. Of course, I didn’t listen: I just had to slip those two new haiku into the chapters where I heard them, and that of course led to more revising.

Then yesterday, Sunday, a day I usually give myself a break from writing, I had another idea about the story, so I worked my way through more revisions. And while today might have been a National Holiday, you wouldn’t have known that from my schedule, which included four more hours of revising this morning and early afternoon. (I don’t think the veterans in my life–Richard and my dad–would mind. They know I think of them every day.)

I finished Chapter 23, which leaves me four more chapters and the Epilogue to revise. The closer I get to the end–of the story and of that chapter of my life–the more urgency and intensity I feel to keep going, the drumbeat of narrative pushing me onward.

That’s what happens when a piece of writing takes on its own life, gaining strength and power: it sucks you in, and it’s hard to step away from working with it. This story has been a tough one for me, going through many revisions as I struggled to find the heart of it. It’s one thing to write about your life in a way that friends and family who know you or the story are moved.

It’s a whole other thing to write the story in a way that anyone will be gripped and compelled to read on. As I revise and go deeper, I mine my personal experience for those universal themes and threads that will draw all readers in. I want Bless the Birds to grip them by the throat and not let them go, so that when they reach the end, the way they see life and its ending is forever changed.

My aim with this revision is to walk a story about death right back into life and how we live it, with prose that shimmers as bright as the blooming yucca I photographed this morning on my ridge walk above my neighborhood, and dazzles like the claret cup cactus blossoms nearby.

I’m not obsessed, am I? Maybe, but there are worse things to be obsessed about than writing…

Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) in full bloom
Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus trigolochidatus) nearby

Climate Garden: When Writing Takes a Village

Last November, I was at Mesa Refuge in California, where my only responsibility was to refine and write about my new idea, climate gardening. My dad had died less than a month before, shifting the framework of my life in ways I am still adjusting to. I spent my days quietly and simply: rising early, doing yoga, and then walking the rural roads near the Refuge as scrub jays and towhees and humans alike sleepily began going about our days. After breakfast, I settled in to read and write.

Most afternoons I walked to Point Reyes Station, just to get out and see what was happening in the world. Often Alia Malek, Syrian-American writer, NYU professor, and human rights lawyer–and my suite-mate at the Refuge–joined me. As we paced the mile to town, did a few errands, and walked back, we talked about our work. (If you've not read Alia's most recent book, the powerful and compelling memoir The Home that Was Our Country, put it on your list. You won't be able to put it down, and your understanding of Syria, the Mid-East, and the United States' role in the ongoing war there will be forever changed.)

Over dinner with Fred Bahnson, writer and Wake Forest Divinity School professor–our other Refuge-mate–we exchanged stories and ideas, thoughts about writing, books we were reading, people who inspired us, musings about the creative process and the state of the world. The time at Mesa was incredibly fertile time, and my climate gardening idea grew and deepened. 

Before we parted, Alia encouraged me to write a commentary from my book idea, and submit it to the New York Times. She thought the climate victory garden idea had a good chance there if I could frame it in a way that was compelling enough. She offered to critique what I wrote, an incredibly generous gesture from someone who was wrapping up her semester at NYU and preparing for travel to the Mid-East and beyond. 

Alia Malek reading from The Home That Was Our Country at Mesa Refuge. Photo: Susan Page Tillett

So back at home in Cody, in between packing up my household, fulfilling Dad's financial and legal wishes, and preparing to move to Santa Fe, I wrote, rewrote, and rewrote my commentary again. I had a rich conversation with Roger Swain, host of PBS TV's long-running Victory Garden show, and the idea flourished with his encouragement. 

When I had what I thought was a final version of the commentary, Alia looked at it, made some great suggestions, and pinged her editor at the New York Times for a name and contact info for me. I sent the idea out to other friends in the writing and gardening worlds, and they offered insightful comments and enthusiasm.

(Special thanks to fellow authors Priscilla Stuckey, Sharman Russell, and Sharon Lovejoy; botanist and author Marielle Anzellone; hydrologist and amazing science writer Sarah Boon; lawyer and UNC professor Thomas Thornburg; and horticulturists Pat Hayward, Jennifer Bousselot, and Irene Shonle. To my literary agent, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli, who has graciously read and commented on many versions. And to the Literary Ladies group, who buoyed me with their excitement for the idea. You all are wonderful!)

With each set of comments, the idea and my ability to articulate it in a "next great thing" way grew and expanded. And so did my confidence. To the point that by the time I had gotten moved from Wyoming to New Mexico, and more or less settled in my snug condo here, I took Alia's challenge and sent the commentary off to the editor at the New York Times. When he responded to my email within the hour of my sending it, my heart practically stopped. 

I have never submitted anything to the Times, much less gotten an almost-instant response. The editor asked a couple of good questions, which I answered–though perhaps not to his satisfaction, since one answer involved saying that there wasn't data to bolster one facet of the idea. No matter, he said he'd circulate the commentary to his colleagues and get back to me the next day. 

That day passed, and another and another and another… I shared the commentary with a few more friends and colleagues. The idea continued to grow. I revised the commentary again with more data, and submitted a new version to the NYT editor. And heard nothing. So I figured it hadn't worked for him.

Once that would have been as far as my confidence extended, and I would have scaled back my expectations and submitted the commentary to the safe-but-smaller outlets that had already expressed an interest. But this idea has me by the throat. It has me dreaming big. As the current version says, 

The power [of climate gardening] lies in the numbers, in empowering each of us to make a positive difference, and in a cultural shift that begins with a simple idea.

I turned to the next outlet on my short list: I hunted up an editor at the Washington Post and submitted it to him. (I've never submitted there either.) And then heard back from the editor at the New York Times, who apologized for his delayed response and gave me a very gracious, "No thanks." I think it was one of the kindest rejection emails I've ever received!

The editor at the WaPo turned me down three days later. Frustrated, I messaged another writer friend, Susan Zakin, author of Coyotes and Town Dogs, and a frequent contributor to Medium. Susan is a powerful writer with an astute view of American politics. She read the commentary, loved the idea, and "took a whack at it," offering great suggestions on framing and wording. So the idea and the commentary have grown yet again, as has my understanding of my own belief in both. 

The support from my "village" of writers and scientists is a huge boost. I am usually a solitary writer, working over–and over–my words and ideas until I feel they are ready to share. But this idea is bigger than just me. It has given me courage to ask for help and advice, to reach farther and deeper. To dream big. And I have grown. 

Tomorrow, I'll submit the climate victory garden commentary again. I'm not sure where it's going yet. But I know this: I am determined to get it out there. I want to start a movement, one that will empower us all to dig in and combat climate change in our own yards and neighborhoods, and to heal our divided communities in the doing. As I wrote in the closing lines:

We need a new Victory Garden movement to help reverse climate change and restore our nation. Gardens build community, uniting us across political, cultural, class, and racial divisions. They add beauty and joy to our daily lives. 

Let’s grow a Climate Garden movement for our planet’s future—and our own. 

Wish me luck!

Settling In and Some Good News

Tomorrow marks a month since I arrived in Santa Fe. In that time, I've overseen the kitchen renovation (when the back splashes are installed Wednesday, that job will finally be finished) plus installation of a new furnace. Almost all of my furniture is now here–I'm still waiting for dining chairs and two bookcases. I've unpacked, set up my office, and given away four dozen moving boxes. 

My cozy living room, with couch and easy chair, and a very happy Arabella, who is in full bloom right now. 

I've met some of my neighbors who also walk at dawn every day, along with their canine companions. (The photo at the top of the post is sunrise shot from my walking route, with the Cerrillos Hills and Sandia Mountains in the far distance.) I am learning to recognize coyote tracks in the arroyo, and to discern which rabbitbrush clumps hold desert cottontail dens. I listen for spotted towhees' "meh! meh!" calls as they scratch for insect larvae in the duff under the junipers, and smile at the chickadee chatter from the branches overhead. 

Tomorrow, I'm having a belated holiday open house for my circle of writing women-friends, a group that welcomed me to their monthly gatherings long before I had any idea I would be here for good. I'm grateful to these creative women for their friendship, inspiration, and their enthusiasm for my move to their midst.

Eggnog in progress (and missing back splashes!)

Today I finished a batch of my Sinfully Delicious Holiday Eggnog, the first I've made since the move. I say "finished" because it takes two days to make the eggnog, along with a dozen eggs, separated; a quart each of heavy cream, half-n-half, and whole milk; a pound of confectioner's sugar; three cups of dark rum, and other decadent ingredients, finishing with freshly grated nutmeg. 

And I baked a Lavender-Lemon Cheesecake to celebrate a birthday in our circle. I know I'm settled and happy when I take the time to make eggnog and bake a cheesecake! Both require a serious investment in time, and an organized kitchen. 

Lavender-lemon Cheesecake just out of the oven… 

I confess to being wildly optimistic about how long it would take me to make this transition. I was sure that by New Year's, I would be back to writing fulltime, and would have checked off at least one of the big projects I need to finish in the coming weeks: an essay due at Wildflower Magazine, a presentation to write for the Landscaping With Colorado Native Plants Conference next month, and a book proposal that my literary agent is waiting for.

My corner office, as in the corner of my master bedroom suite. It works for me!

Um. No. But in between moving and renovations and settling in, I did write a commentary based on the book proposal. The title of the commentary summarizes the idea: How Gardeners Can Help Grow the Green New Deal (and Stop Climate Change). After I rewrote the commentary a few times, I sent it out to various friends in the writing and garden worlds. And then revised the commentary again several times in response to the their comments. (Special thanks to Priscilla Stuckey, Alia Malek, and Marielle Anzellone!)

Then I wrote a pitch and sent the whole thing off to an editor at the New York Times. He emailed back within an hour! He had a couple of questions and said he'd pass it around to colleagues, and get back to me. I haven't heard back yet, but really: I. got. a. personal. response. from. an. editor. at. The. New. York. Times. That made my year… 

My other bit of good news is that my Cody house is under contract, with closing scheduled for a month from now. I have my fingers crossed for a smooth sale process. The inspection is Monday, and then there's the appraisal and financing and other details. It will be a huge relief to know that someone is happily living there and loving the place.  

Wish me luck with both the commentary and the house sale!

Oh, and one more bit of good news: My "Natural Partners" feature that took the cover of the fall issue of Wildflower–thanks to the gorgeous illustrations by Samantha Peters–is now online. It's not as pretty as the hard-copy version, but it's readable. (To see the original layout, go to Samantha Peter's website. Her illustrations are outstanding!)

Illustration by Samantha N. Peters, from Wildflower Magazine, Fall 2018

In the meantime, Monday I'm going to settle in at my desk and get back to writing and working to further my life-mission:

To heal and restore this glorious living Earth, and we who share the planet–that all may thrive. 

Navigating in the Fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boysen Reservoir

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

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

High desert landscape with hoarfrost on snow

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Exiting the canyon, the snow and ice behind us… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weathering Change and Grief

Outside, California Quail call from the garden in plaintive voices, "Chi-CA-go! Chi-CA-go!" Mounds of Mexican bush sage bloom with stalks of plush purple velvet flowers, along with starry yellow bush sunflower, and scarlet pineapple sage. It's late afternoon and the tide is going out; I can smell the briny musk of the estuary below the bluff in the back yard of The Mesa Refuge, near Point Reyes Station on California's foggy north coast. 

I'm here thanks to the Alice Dorrance Spiritual Writing Fellowship and the generosity of those who support The Mesa Refuge, particularly its founder, Peter Barnes. The house I share with two other writers, Syrian journalist and CUNY professor Alia Malek, and writer and divinity school professor Fred Bahnson, is open and airy, with large windows and high ceilings, a tribute to its beginnings as a painter's studio.

Perched on a bluff that traces the path of one of North America's great fault systems, The San Andres, where one plate of Earth's crust slips slowly past the other, Mesa is literally on an edge. That continuing creep of two segments of Earth's shell creates stress and pressure, and the occasional herky-jerky displacement of earthquakes, appropriate for a place that nurtures writing that is figuratively on the edge as well, writing with the aim of changing the world. 

The gathering room at Mesa, lit by the gorgeous golden light of a coastal afternoon. 

I am here on an edge in my own life, a time of changes both positive and not-so, a time when I am called to look both back at the recent past and forward to a future that despite all, I sense great promise. This month marks seven years since Richard Cabe, the love of my life and my husband for the greater part of three decades, left this existence, killed by the same kind of brain cancer that recently took the life of Senator John McCain. 

Nearly a month ago, on October 7th, my father died, after he turned 90 years old in July, and then being diagnosed just a few weeks later with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma (cancer of the lymph cells). Dad was looking forward to voting this November, taking part in what he hoped would be a wave of civil, fair-minded politics that would turn the country to a more positive direction. May his hopes be borne out!

His death leaves my brother and I the elders in our small family. We aim to model the kind of love and generosity that Dad and Mom showed us, along with their abiding curiosity about the natural world and deep commitment to using their skills and resources for the greater good of all. Eldering is a big responsibility, but it's a joy as well, because we get to watch our kids and their kids grow and find their own ways to give back to the world. (And we get to nudge and help as we can.)

Dad (far right), and my brother, Bill Tweit, with Bill's middle daughter, Sienna Bryant and her family, hubby Matt (far left), and their kids, Fiona and Porter

At the same time that I feel optimistic about the generations to come and their dedication to making a positive difference in the battered world we are leaving them, I also feel a deep grief for the planet I love, as climate change destabilizes not just our weather systems, but the myriad of interconnections between species large and small–from bacteria to blue whales–that maintain the health of whole watersheds, continents, air masses, and the oceans. I am working on a book about restoring nature at home to help us unlock our paralysis about climate change and take seemingly small actions that can stem that tide, and also restore beauty and health to our own lives. 

Even as that work gives me hope, I find myself grieving in a selfish way, because I am weathering these changes–personal and political and planetary–on my own, without Richard, the partner who challenged and inspired and nurtured me. Whose company helped me be a better and stronger and wiser version of myself. At this time of year, I feel the loss of his steady love and companionship most acutely. I have built a happy and fulfilling life on my own, and I have no desire to change my femme solo status, except for this stubborn and illogical wish that Richard were still here, with me. 

So up and down I go, bobbing on the stream of changes that are the only constant in this existence, the journey we call life. Weathering those changes is part of being human, of being alive.

I believe we can turn in a more positive direction. As a sign of that faith, here I am, writing with determination and hope. Writing the change I want to see.

Dilla, a Oaxacan dream armadillo, keeps me company and brings a smile as I write.

Reckoning With My Limits (Again)

I'm just emerging from a nasty bout of the flu that had me so sick, I didn't even eat for several days. (I like food. It takes a lot to kill my appetite!) While I was lying on the couch shivering and miserable, I had an epiphany that I am still thinking about: 

When I am sick, I can see my limits, and I heed them. As soon as I feel better, I act as if I have no limitations at all. And then I get sick. I behave as if my physical and emotion energy are endless, and I can do anything I want–work until late, go to the gym and exercise hard, do errands, and come back and continue working as if I had all the energy in the world the draw on.  

Only I don't. I know that intellectually. I know that my daily energy budget is a slender one, and when I overdraw it, I pay in all sorts of ways: I get feverish and alternate between shivering and broiling, my hands and feet swell and my joints turn acutely painful, I like awake exhausted with my mind buzzing but can't sleep… It goes on.

This is nothing new. These are the symptoms of the autoimmune condition I've had my whole life. For long periods of time, I've kept them at a minimum by simply staying aware of and respecting my limitations. By picking and choosing what I want to accomplish in any given day. Not pushing myself to cram everything on my to-do list into 24 hours. Honoring what I know I can accomplish in a healthy way, and calling that very good indeed. 

So why am I now struggling to remember to pace myself? Why do I have such hard time integrating what my head knows is a healthy, sustainable pace into my expectations of what I will accomplish every day? 

Or, to turn the question around, what is different when I am sick?

Ah. That's the key: when I am sick, I can see my limits not just because they're obvious. But because my attention is focused inward, and I am listening to my body for clues to what the ecosystem of me–me plus those billions of microbes that are part of the community of my body–needs to get well. 

When I'm sick, my motivation is to pay attention because paying attention and heeding what I hear is the path to feeling better. 

But when I am not sick, I see no urgent need to pay attention to my body. I cruise on auto-pilot. Everything is working, so there is no need to listen within. Until I crash, and have to correct. 

Ah again. So the question becomes not why am I not paying attention, but how do I motivate myself to pay attention? Or perhaps, how do I align my expectations of what I will accomplish in a day with what I know I can do sustainably? 

And that is the heart of the epiphany I had while gripped in the misery of flu and fever: It's not that I'm not listening to myself. I'm not honoring what I hear. I want to value who I am, limitations and all. 

I want to live every day remembering that what's most important is not how much I accomplish in a day, but that what I do, I do as well as I possibly can, from my heart and spirit, from as healthy a "me" as I can bring to the world. 

Ah. Hah. The being thing and the doing thing are inseparably intertwined. If I am being a healthy me, I am doing what I do best. Not perfectly, but with all I can bring to the working, living, and doing what I can to make the world a better place. 

All of which brings me to some very practical realizations, including this one: I'm going to practice cutting myself some slack in the expectations portion of my life. I'll let you know how it goes!

News Flash: My agent loved the new version of Bless the Birds. Last week, she submitted it to half a dozen editors at big New York publishing houses. Fingers crossed…. 

 

Writing and Words: Reclaiming “Patriarchy” and “Human”

My apologies for the radio silence in this space. I've been on the road for a writing and speaking trip. The stimulus of new people and new places enlarges and enriches my thinking and dreaming, and refills my creative well. But the travel tires me out more than it used to, I think partly because "home," my place in the sagebrush country of northwest Wyoming, is so deeply right and restorative for me. Being away from that nourishing place costs more energy than I expected.

While I've been on the road, I've been pondering the next book. (Bless the Birds is on my agent's desk now, and I hear that it's coming to the top of her reading stack.) What's ahead for me is a book of narrative non-fiction that I'm calling "Weeding Yellowstone." It's my long-imagined plant book, a book I began researching a year ago November on my transformative fellowship at the Women's International Study Center in Santa Fe. 

As I ponder, I've also been thinking about words, and in particular, the words we use to define ourselves and also draw boundaries between us. The word that has really stuck in my craw lately is "patriarchy," in the sense the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, as "a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it." 

I cringe whenever I hear the word. My reaction is visceral, like fingernails scraping a chalkboard, like something filing my nerve endings raw, as if the word itself is antithetical to my cells. Which isn't surprising, I suppose, since I am female, and I am #MeToo. I have known supportive and wonderful men, and supportive and wonderful institutions, and I have known and worked for those who prefer their women subservient, sometimes horribly so. 

The other day, in the midst of an extended email conversation with a friend about living in a patriarchal culture, I thought, I wonder where this word comes from. What its backstory is. Whether we are using it as it was originally intended. 

Words are abstractions, symbols for what we want to convey when we can't just grunt and point to something real and tangible. Words conjure pictures in our minds, emotions, smells, sounds, textures, actions. Words are not, however, real. You can't eat a word, touch a word, or wrestle with a word (except metaphorically!). 

We define words by common consent, agreeing more or less on what these verbal sounds and written combinations of letters mean. Those definitions are codified in dictionaries, in print or online. We also informally add connotations, shades of meaning, or slang, street-meanings. 

Those definitions and informal usages change over time, giving us a kind of history of where a particular word or group of words came from. Which is why I was curious about patriarchy. Had it always meant a culture so oppressive to women, over half the world's population, that just hearing the word sets my jaw and tightens my stomach muscles?

As it turns out, no. Patriarchy has a long history, coming originally from the Greek word patriarkhes, itself from patria, which means "family" and arkhes, "ruling." So in Greek the word meant family rule, not explicitly male rule, or male-dominated culture or society. 

Family rule. And yes, you can make an argument that family rule meant male in ancient Greece, but not necessarily. If the word had specifically been "male rule" in the original Greek, the root would have been andrás, the Greek word for "man." Instead, it's the more inclusive and less-gendered patria, "family." 

Somewhere along the route that the word patriarchy has taken since, as it was modified in ecclesiastical Latin and then Old French and Middle English, it lost the possibility for un-gendered and perhaps more egalitarian rule implied by "family," and took on a more rigid meaning of males in power, females largely excluded. 

Okay, maybe not my eccentric (but happy) family in rule… 

As I read the etymology of the word, an idea took root in my mind: Why can't we reclaim the original meaning? Why not return the meaning of patriarchy and patriarch back to family rule? How do we go about "re-patriating" the word? 

If language is a cultural thing, stemming from both common and formal use, what if we simply began to assert that a patriarchal culture and society is one based on family, one that includes all genders, one that does not rest on any single person's shoulders? 

And while we're at it, let's stop using man as the gender-based word it is now. The roots of our English word "man" comes from Sanskrit manu, translated as "mankind," or "human," which both sound gendered. But look more deeply at the roots of human, and you find the Sanskrit root that has become hu in English is the word for "soil" or "earth." So human might more reasonably mean "people of the earth." 

If we called ourselves human in the sense of "people of the earth" and thought of our culture as one of "family rule," how much would that change our lives, our art, our thought, our institutions? Perhaps "Y-ugely." (Sorry, I couldn't resist that.)

Seriously, let's reclaim our language, beginning with at least these two words. Let's make these culture- and society-defining words inclusive and open to all. It's a start on building a society to match the potential of our species as people of the earth. Human, a family of all. 

New Year: Begin as you intend to continue

"Begin as you intend to continue," my Scots grandmother, Christine Faquharson Tweit used to say. (She was a Highland Scot by birth–that's the Faquharson part, who married a Norwegian, hence the Tweit.) 

It's an old-fashioned piece of advice that seems almost self-evident, but it's easy to forget how powerful setting the tone and intentions at the beginning of any endeavor can be, whether a New Year, a new task, or a new path in life. Start on your best foot, and you'll give yourself the best chance for success.

So this morning when I woke an hour late after being out at a New Year's Eve party last night, I thought, I'll just be lazy, skip yoga, and go right to breakfast. 

Then I heard my grandmother's voice in my head, and I decided to start this first day of 2018 by remembering my intentions, which are:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, as a way to further my mission: 

To heal and restore this Earth and the Life and lives who share our glorious blue planet. 

To nurture and celebrate diversity, that all may thrive.

And after a moment of internal grumbling, I unrolled my yoga mat and began my practice.

What does yoga have to do with those high-toned intentions? The yoga I practice is about physical and spiritual well-being, which are essential both to living with love, and having the strength and courage to work at mending and nurturing this battered world and we who share it. 

Yoga is my morning tune-up, my time to check in with my body, and stretch and strengthen muscle, ligament, bone, and being. It's also my time to stretch and strengthen my spirit through prayer, not the I-ask-the-surpreme-being-for-something kind. Prayers that invoke my connection to the earth and all that is sacred in this world, and my intentions for living with love and compassion, as I say at the end, "To everyone everywhere." By which I mean, all beings, and all forms of life. 

And wouldn't you know, when I finished, I remembered that yoga is worth the time and energy, even when, perhaps especially when I don't want to make the time and to put in the effort. It never fails: that half-hour of exercise and prayer always sets the tone of my day in a positive way. It helps me see the beauty around me, even when that's difficult.

(Beauty like the full moon, huge and butter-yellow, and peeking over Beacon Hill tonight in the photo at the top of the post. Or like the hoarfrost on the spruce needles out my bedroom window when it was minus two this morning.)

That exhortation to begin as I intend to continue is also why I dove into writing today, instead of spending this Monday holiday lazing around. All of my spare writing time for the past nine months has gone into a radical rewrite of my memoir, Bless the Birds, a story I thought finished last year, and which turned out to need a new perspective and its own new beginning. 

In starting over, I took a risk familiar to every writer beginning any project: your idea about how to proceed may seem great at the outset, but it may not pan out. Creative writing–any creative work–is at least partly a gamble that you can make your inner vision come real, and that it's a compelling vision that will speak to others. 

The gamble is that you won't necessarily know if your idea is working right away. You might spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years on a project that simply doesn't ever cohere and sing. 

That's where I've been with this re-envisioning of Bless the Birds. I felt intuitively that the new narrative framework was worth a try, but I didn't know if it would carry the story all the way through to the end in a way that was compelling, relatable, and believable. 

These past few weeks, I've been writing in kind of a fever, pushed along by the work itself, as if it was racing toward that ending. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the very last page, printed it out, and took the stack of 270 pages to my dining room. I set the manuscript on the table, fixed my lunch, and ate it with a stinking big grin on my face. I was and am proud of myself. 

I finished. And the story works. In fact, I think this new version of Bless the Birds is the best writing I have ever done. I am a bit stunned that I pulled these words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages out of me. 

I gave myself a day to bask in having completed a great draft. And then this morning, I dove back in and began revising. I read the first five chapters (45 pages) aloud as if narrating the audio version of the book. As I read, I listened to the story and I took out a bit here and there, added in other bits, adjusted words and sentences and paragraphs. Polishing the whole. 

At the end of those five chapters, at quarter to four this afternoon as the light was going gold toward sunset, I had the same grin on my face. I like this story. A lot. It sings, it howls, it flows, it laughs, it sobs, it savors. It's full of love and humor, silliness, pain, beauty, wisdom, and heartbreak. Life. 

I'm going to give myself this week to read all 77,000 words (27 chapters plus the Epilogue) out loud, revising as I go. Then, if I still feel good about the story, off it goes to my agent to see what she thinks. And I will get back to the deadlines I've been ignoring as I poured my heart and mind and all my writing skill into Bless the Birds. 

So as I sit here tonight, grinning like a lunatic at the stack of manuscript pages that will be my 13th book, I wish you all the most blessed of New Year's. May you begin this year as you intend to continue. 

May 2018 bring you joy and all sorts of unexpected gifts. And may you live with love, kindness, and courage, bringing your light to the darkness of this world, every day. 

Fieldwork: Weeding for Biodiversity

I ended last week's blog post with a draft of a mission statement for my work. I've been trying to explain to myself for years what unites the varied passions that propel me through life.

I'm a writer and plant ecologist, a person happiest outdoors, whether just in my yard or in wilder places. (Though my yard is pretty wild at times!) I'm rooted in the inland West where sagebrush perfumes the air after spring rains, sandhill cranes bugle as they migrate in to nest in summer, and winter days are edged with snow. 

I'm passionate about nature, both the study of earth's web of life and reconnecting humans to our place in the planet. Specifically, I'm drawn to plants, especially those native to this continent, for their ability to evoke place and also their myriad of relationships that weave that web of life.

I have spent decades restoring nature, often on my own and without pay, particularly nature in the places where we live, with a special interest in gritty industrial landscapes and urban creeks and rivers. 

I garden with an eye to growing habitat for pollinators and songbirds, as well as providing food, scents and colors, tranquility, and beauty for humans. 

I write as a way to understand and explore the meaning in life, both my own life, and the larger cycle of capital 'L' life, existence. To show us why we are here, and to reveal the wonder and incredible variety of the world we live in, including the myriad of other life forms with whom we share this planet. 


The thread is clear: I'm passionate about nurturing and celebrating life in all its glorious diversity, with a particular emphasis on plants and words.

Which is why I'm spending my annual  "vacation" in Yellowstone National Park, digging out invasive weeds to help restore these iconic landscapes to health. So that this island of wild biodiversity may continue to thrive and inspire us all. 

Houndstongue, AKA Cynoglossum officianale, a plant imported from Asia and one that truly does not play well on this continent.

Wait! You say. How does labeling plants as invasive weeds and then killing them square with nurturing biodiversity? 

Like everything else in life, it's complicated. The phrase "restore the integrity of nature" is key to what I'm doing in Yellowstone. Some species don't play well when they're transplanted to new places, where they lack the interrelationships with other species that give them a positive role in the community.  

They may "go rogue" and actually endanger the health of the whole community. Think salt cedar or tamarisk in the inland West, crowding out the diverse ribbons of species along the region's rivers and streams, and poisoning the soil as they shed their salty leaves. 

The plant I'm focusing on, houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale), a native of Eurasia, protects itself from grazers by manufacturing compounds that act as liver disrupters in wild ungulates like deer, elk, and moose. If for instance, an elk calf munched enough of houndstongue's large, felty leaves (which are at their most attractive just as the baby elk are learning how to graze), it might well die of liver failure in a few weeks or months.  

Houndstongue may also do something more subtle and potentially more disruptive to Yellowstone's ecosystems: it may co-opt the attention of native bumblebees by growing tall stalks of flowers that bloom for a long time and are attractive to native bumblebees.

Bumblebees and other native bees are critical to the survival of Yellowstone's native wildflowers: they pollinate their flowers and ensure the next generation, seeds. If say, a plant from somewhere else takes over whole areas and keeps bees from pollinating the native flowers, they decrease and the invader increases, which fragments the integrity of the ecosystem and ends up reducing biodiversity. 

So here I am in Yellowstone, digging up trash bags full of one invasive, non-native species to nurture biodiversity in the larger native community. (I hiked five miles yesterday, and dug up about 50 pounds of houndstongue. Hard, rewarding work!)

I'm working for the health of the lupine (the native wildflower being pollinated by the bumblebee in the photo above), the sagebrush, the elk, and the whole interwoven community that forms these iconic landscapes.

And I'm having a wonderful time, camping in Red, and listening to elk and western tanagers, admiring wildflowers and hot springs, and taking in time in a place where I began this work of celebrating and nurturing biodiversity decades ago.  

Of course, I'm still playing with that mission statement. (Writing really is 95 percent revision!) Here's another version:

I nurture and celebrate biodiversity, plant by plant, word by word. I work to restore the integrity of nature and to honor all forms of life. Because diversity is key to health–of cultures, neighborhoods, and ecosystems. That our planet may thrive, and we along with it.

The Gardner River below Mammoth, roaring with spring snowmelt.

Spring Garden Discoveries & A Brag

One of the delights of buying an older house is discovering the surprises planted by previous owners. Like the daffodils, grape hyacinth (the purple flower clusters) and columbine leaves in the photo above, in a flower border now overtaken by lawn. 

I'd guess from the yard's unkempt and overgrown character that no one has done any actual gardening, or pruning, or tending anything except the lawn in this yard for a very long time. Perhaps many decades. And even the lawn isn't in great shape. 

Which means I have the delight of coming to know what may be the original mid-century modern garden plan, much like the way I am coming to know the original mid-century modern house, also neglected for a very long time.

And just as the original details of the house charmed me when I first toured it–Who could not love the vintage kitchen in the photo above, even if it was covered with grime and bad paint?–I am finding the vintage plants appearing in the yard a delight. 

Like the daffodils, grape hyacinth and columbine in the photo at the top of the post.

Or these English irises, which have been untended for so long that their rhizomes have grown into a densely packed mound in the front yard. I spent a couple of hours yesterday cleaning up and starting to weed around them.

This fall I'll carefully dig up and divide the rhizomes, and will likely end up with enough to fill an iris bed about three times the size of this one. Which is fine with me; I'd rather have irises than boring lawn any day!

The shrub above, which I think is an old-fashioned variety of flowering quince, and has been languishing in the shade of a large and sickly honey-locust tree that my arborist removed last month. Now that the shrub is getting sun, I expect it will put on quite a flower-show next spring. 

 

The peony leaves sprouting from a grass-infested triangle by the driveway. I had been contemplating planting a peony bed this fall; now I will, since they're already part of the yard flora. (The red pigment coloring these baby leaves protects their delicate inner cells from both the intense high-elevation sunlight and the cold temperatures that come with spring in the Rocky Mountains, like today's four inches of snow.)

The rhubarb I discovered the other morning when I was surveying the narrow yard off the kitchen as my prospective edible garden. I had ordered rhubarb to plant with asparagus and raspberries, so I was thrilled to find one already in situ–the more the better. 

Yup. Those tiny, tightly crinkled leaves are rhubarb.

Many of these plants are what I call "heritage" garden plants, the kind carried from place to place and traded from gardener to gardener, their roots/tubers/bulbs wrapped in damp cloth to keep them alive. Many are long-lived; individual peony and rhubarb plants, for example, may thrive for a century or more.

The happy surprise of them emerging in my neglected yard is no doubt why my mom's been on my mind more than usual. Mom was my plant-love-companion and garden inspiration: she could grow anything from ornamentals to edibles, as well as wildflowers and other native plants. 

These particular plants are all old friends, familiar from the gardens Mom tended in the house where I grew up. Same with the lilacs and bush honeysuckle that dominate this yard's overgrown hedges. She would have loved the wild chokecherries threading through them too, gifts of visiting birds. 

Mom (Joan Tweit) in the middle between Dad (on the right) and Richard (Cabe) on the left, on a visit to Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail. I must have done a booksigning there, because Richard is holding a box of my books. 

Finding these plants is like having Mom with me, cheering me on as I work to restore both yard and house. (Mom died in 2011, the same year as Richard; April 3rd would have been her 86th birthday.)

It feels like this place was just waiting for me to come home and adopt it. I'm so grateful I could and did. 

****

The brag? This week I learned that I'm a finalist for the 2017 Colorado Authors League Awards in not one, but two categories: Essay and Blog. 

It's an honor to be a finalist for these awards juried by professional writers. In my two decades of living in Colorado, I won three CAL Awards; whether or not I win this time, being a finalist is an especially sweet coda to my time in the state. 

Keep your fingers crossed for me. The Awards Banquet is May 5th, and I'll be there for one last celebration of award-worthy writing with my CAL friends and colleagues.