Settling In

My living room with that comfy couch and art on the walls.

I have my stuff! Friday morning, five weeks after Dan and Ryan and crew from Santa Fe Moving &  Storage loaded my furniture, many boxes of books, tools, art, and other household goods onto a truck to move out of my house on Altura Road, a semi-truck and trailer from Cody’s own Cook Moving & Storage pulled up in front of my house here with my load.

I meant to shoot a photo of the truck and crew, but I was so excited, I forgot. (A real bed after five weeks of sleeping on my camping mattress on the floor! My office desk and chair! My pots and china instead of paper plates and a battered camping pan! A couch to relax on in the evening instead of my little backpacking chair!)

A real bed to sleep on!

A friend said, “It’ll be like Christmas when your stuff finally comes.” Well yes, if Christmas involved a lot of sweaty work moving furniture, assembling shelves, hauling, unpacking and collapsing boxes; and many trips to the recycling center with packing materials….

By the time the Guy arrived 28 hours after the movers left, I had much of the unpacking and arranging done.

After the movers left, there were stacks of boxes everywhere…
And now, it’s starting to look like a home.

The Guy hadn’t seen the house, except online, and as I explained my renovation plans and we walked my neighborhood trails, he nodded and smiled.

“I approve,” he said in his thoughtful way when he left this afternoon. “It’s simple, it’s a good size, and it’s a great location with nearby wild in sight and in easy reach. It’s home.”

He’s already talking about a longer visit in mid-September, when Ring Lake Ranch, where we will both be working for the next two months, closes for the season. I look forward to time together exploring the Buffalo Bill Center for the West, Cody’s world-class museum complex, checking out the riding trails in the McCullough Peaks, and wandering the river.

What have I been doing while I waited for my household goods to arrive? Beginning house renovations, of course. Starting with insulating and putting up walls in the small attached garage so it won’t heat up the house in summer, and freeze it in winter.

And then choosing and ordering plank flooring to replace the ancient shag carpet in my office.

My office before floor work and painting…
And after. A much lighter and more cheerful space.

I did the painting; my contractor installed the plank floors. Painting walls in my office was the beginning of “un-browning” the house, which the previous owners had painted a shade of mocha brown throughout–including the ceilings of all of the upstairs bedrooms! The whole effect was just… dark.

Experimenting with sunny yellow to lighten the gloomy rooms. (Notice how dark the hall is.)

I picked three colors, a soft sage-green for the dominant color, plus a pale blue with hints of turquoise and a sunny yellow for really dark areas, and set to painting a wall a day. I knew I couldn’t get the whole house done in the time before I leave to work at Ring Lake Ranch on Thursday; my aim was simply to brighten select walls throughout the house.

The hall after painting one wall yellow; my office down the hall with sage green and pale blue walls–and shelves and books!

In between painting and cleaning, I’ve been tending my new landscape, both the domesticated yard and the strip of sagebrush-bunchgrass prairie outside my fence atop the river bluff.

I pruned a pickup-load of sprouts from under the neglected boxelder tree in the side yard to encourage it to grow upward and shade the west wall of the house. I cut down another truck-load of fat and half-dead Mugo pine stems, and trimmed dead branches out of the big cottonwood tree that shades the front yard.

The boxelder trimmed into a tree-shape again.

I also spent some sweaty hours crouched on the river bluff, hand-pulling cheatgrass, an invasive annual grass that not only crowds out the local wildflowers and bunch grasses, it is extremely flammable. I haven’t finished the whole strip of bluff-top, but I have made a good start by removing three yard-bags of cheatgrass and its seeds.

A yard-bag full of flammable cheatgrass and its seeds.

The renovation of the house and the tending of the yard and nearby wild are all part of my mission to restore–or as the Guy says, “re-story”–this place where I live. Bringing light back into this house gives it back its healthy and essential beauty; tending the landscape and removing invasive weeds–the bullies of the plant world–helps the community of the land withstand climate change. I am reciprocating for the gifts I receive: the shelter of the house and the joy I take from the land and river.

Botanist and member of the Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer calls reciprocity one of two responses that transform our commodification of the living world into a healthy relationship of giving. The first response, she writes, is gratitude for the gifts of the living world, and the second is reciprocity: what can I give these beings in return for the gifts they give me?

What I can give is my time, sweat, creative energy, and a deep appreciation of the stories of this house and the land.

Restore, re-story, reciprocate–all imply a new or renewed relationship. And that is something we sorely need these days: a new and respectful relationship with the community of our fellow humans and those with whom we share this living planet, and with life itself. I cannot change the world, but I can change my small part of it by building a reciprocal relationship based on respect and appreciation, and my own sweat, creative energy, and time. It’s part of living with love, even in–especially in–this hard time of dying.

When Home Calls

Spring in the sagebrush country on the west edge of Cody, Wyoming, with the Shoshone River Canyon splitting Spirit (on the left) from Rattlesnake Mountain (on the right).

Last winter, as the snowstorms that once sparingly but reliably watered the high-desert around Santa Fe failed to appear, and the soil blew skyward in hazy clouds on the winds, I realized I felt uneasy. Restless. Anxious, even.

My body, always a reliable barometer, began to send “all-is-not-well” signals: I developed a chronic sore throat, blood clots in my sinuses, nighttime fevers, and a grinding burn in my lower esophagus that no change of diet alleviated.

I ignored these signals. For weeks. My body is always way ahead of my brain’s ability to acknowledge reality.

A dry winter turned to a hot and windy spring, and the Guy and Badger and the horses departed for Colorado, leaving me with no distractions.

Badger and his Guy, hiking Galisteo Basin in a dry winter.

I woke one morning with pain flickering along the nerve channels in my legs, like lightning igniting thin internal wires. That got my attention.

I asked my body what was wrong. The word I heard was “homesick.” I saw a familiar image: a sea of big sagebrush stretching west to the uptilted ridges of Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains, west of Cody, Wyoming, with the Shoshone River canyon a dark gap splitting them. (Like the photo at the top of the post.)

“I can’t go home,” I said out loud. “It’s not practical. The winters are too cold. I haven’t finished this house. My book is launching soon: I don’t have time to move.”

The burning in my esophagus notched up, and a storm of pain raged down the nerves in my legs.

As I wrote in my first memoir, Walking Nature Home,

Homesickness may not be a diagnosable illness, but it is more than mere sentiment. The word itself, writes Carolyn Servid in Of Landscape and Longing, allows the truth that when we are away from the places that nurture heart and spirit we feel “unhealthy, ill at ease.” Americans are a restless culture, moving constantly in search of new opportunities, which we define in terms of money, possessions, and power, not the richness of connection. If we valued roots — attachment to place and the community of species who live there over material success, we might well be happier, less driven to accumulate things and more able to be nourished by what we have and who we love. The malaise that captures us when we live in a place or culture that nurtures neither heart nor spirit may be telling us that we, like ET, need to honor the call to go home.

My roots have always been in northwest Wyoming, specifically from Cody west through the Absaroka Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. I wasn’t born there, but I attached to that landscape stubbornly in childhood, and have lived there more than once over my adult life. My heart soars just thinking about those expanses of sagebrush and rugged volcanic plateaus, the resident grizzly bears and sandhill cranes.

The idea of moving home stuck. I couldn’t do it now, I thought, but maybe sometime in the next few years…. I began idly surfing real estate websites, looking at property for sale around Cody.

One day in late March, as I was plotting out a native-plant pollinator garden I had promised the Guy for his farm, I saw a house listed for sale on a bluff above the Shoshone River right in Cody. It was an ordinary ranch house, with small rooms and 1990s dark paint and trim, but the backyard ended in a fence overlooking the river, sagebrush in view and the mountains on the western horizon. A cottonwood tree shaded the front yard.

The Shoshone River

“I could live there,” I thought. And half an hour later, I noticed that the burning in my esophagus was gone, and my legs didn’t hurt. “It’s not practical,” I said, curious about how my body would respond. Within minutes, the burn and the flickering nerves were back.

I called my friend Yuliya Martsul, a real estate agent in Cody. The house was already under contract, she said. Ah well. If it’s meant to be mine, it will be, I reminded myself. And I went back to looking, my mind finally accepting the idea of moving home.

I talked to the Guy: “If it’s what you need to do, we’ll adjust our home range to make it work,” he said. That night, I slept soundly, with no fevers or two-am anxiety.

In mid-April, I was driving to the Guy’s farm, hauling flats of plants for that pollinator garden, when Yuliya texted to say the house was available again. We arranged a video walk-through. By which time it was under contract again.

Still, Yuliya video-toured me through the house. I could see it needed more light and a connection to the outdoors, but otherwise there was nothing alarming. And the location above the river was perfect for me. It felt like I could make it home.

I made a back-up offer, and by the end of the day, the house was under contract again. This time to me.

There were a few obstacles. The biggest? I can’t afford to own two houses. So I’d have to sell Casa Alegría, my house outside Santa Fe, to make the Cody house deal work. And I wasn’t finished renovating. Plus the back yard was still dirt, not the charming native pollinator meadow and borders I imagined.

Casa Alegría at moonrise.

Also, I was still in Colorado, planting the Guy’s garden. I wouldn’t get back to Santa Fe for another week. Oh, and the owners of the Cody house needed to close the deal by June 1st, then six weeks away.

Still, I was sure I could make it work. Somehow.

On Earth Day, April 21st, I was back at Casa Alegría organizing the last major renovation project with help from my friend and handyman, Carlos Ornelas. I pulled out a legal pad and made a long list of other things that needed doing, including planting that pollinator meadow, and finishing landscaping the back yard. Every day, I checked a few items off of that list.

Four days later, my friend and Santa Fe real estate agent Agnes Leyba-Cruz and her husband Gil came to look at the house. By that night, they had listed it. Within 24 hours, it had shown four times, and the first offer was in. At the end of the week, we were under contract.

Then began the craziness of racing to finish the house and yard, dealing with appraisers, septic inspectors, and the house inspection, which happened while I was away in Cody inspecting the house I was buying. There was a last-minute plumbing crisis, and I had Bless the Birds, my new memoir, to launch. And I had a household to pack up and move. (Plus a 4,000-mile road-trip for work and a family reunion to fit in there.)

I didn’t sleep much, but I did get my massive to-do list whittled down.

Somehow it all worked out, with a lot of help from two wonderful real estate agents, some amazing trades-folk (thank you, Pipeworks Plumbing and Richard’s Electrical Solutions!), and support from the Guy, who was in the midst of preparing Badger and the horses to migrate to Ring Lake Ranch for the summer.

Ten days ago, I watered the pollinator meadow in the backyard at Casa Alegría for one last time, carefully loaded Arabella, my huge Christmas cactus, into my truck; hitched the truck to Cabanita, my teardrop trailer filled with all I would need until the movers brought my furniture, books, and household goods; and hit the road for the long, slow trip north.

When I came over the last divide and saw Heart Mountain, one of the four “corners” of the land I call home, on the horizon, I am not ashamed to say I cried. My heart filled. I let go of tension I had probably been holding ever since I left Cody almost three years ago, bound for Santa Fe.

Heart Mountain (right of center) rising on the northern horizon. When I see that distinctive peak, I know I am home.

The late Barry Lopez, who I miss very much, described what I feel in Arctic Dreams:

For some people, what they are is not finished at the skin, but continues with the reach of the senses out into the land. … Such people are connected to the land as if by luminous fibers, and they live in a kind of time that is not of the moment, but in concert with memory, extensive, measured by a lifetime. To cut these fibers causes not only pain but a sense of dislocation.

Home is not some abstract place or community for me. It is part of who I am. I am less me when I am away from the sagebrush country of northwest Wyoming. Less grounded, less present, less whole. Even less well.

Arabella is now settled in the living room, and I am busy painting and designing renovations. My furniture and household goods have yet to arrive, but I’m managing. I am home, and grateful to be here. My longtime community of friends has folded me in as if I never left.

Each morning and evening, I walk trails through sagebrush and along the river. My symptoms haven’t returned, and the anxiety that woke me every night at two am is gone.

My body knew that I was homesick. My brain just took a while to catch up. All I needed was to move 900 miles to northwest Wyoming. Home.

Sunset over the Shoshone River in my new neighborhood.

4,000 miles in ten days

Sunset from my Eldorado house

I love a road trip across the open spaces of the West. The time spent in my truck watching these expansive landscapes pass by out the windows with Emmy Lou or Carrie or Ian or whomever on the stereo is curiously restful and energizing. “Windshield time,” a friend of mine calls it.

It’s time unplugged, because I’m usually solo and I don’t use my phone to surf the internet or text while driving–for reasons that should be obvious, but clearly aren’t to the hordes who text while at the wheel. I let my mind wander from the balsamroot and lupine blooming gold and purple on the hillsides to the hawks wheeling overhead to the trucks passing by–what is that huge lumpy thing under the enormous tarp on that oversized load, and where is it going? My imagination soars over the horizon; my memory conjures other times when I’ve traveled this road or worked nearby….

Red Canyon on Wyoming’s Wind River. Seriously inspiring windshield time!

Road trips are my dreaming time, my relaxing time, my solo time (unless I’m traveling with the Guy). But sometimes I overdo it, and I have to say that’s the case for this last one. Before I left Santa Fe last Wednesday afternoon, I took Rojita in for her 10,000 mile service. This morning I looked at her dusty odometer screen and realized with a start that I’ve driven almost 4,000 miles since then. In ten days.

No wonder I’m tired.

But what a trip it’s been! First, north to Salida, where Richard and I lived for the better part of two decades. That night, my dear friend Sheila Veazey opened her She-la-Vie hair and skin studio to give me the great haircut that only Sheila can. We spent two hours catching up and drinking Cava (Spanish sparkling wine), which may count as the best spa experience I have ever had. The haircut is insanely great too.

Sagebrush bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia) in bloom at Ring Lake Ranch

From there I headed north to Ring Lake Ranch, where the Guy works in summer with the horse herd. The spring wildflowers were in full show, and the peaks were still splattered with snow, which was seriously refreshing after months of brown and dry in northern New Mexico. But I had miles to go, so after a night there I pushed on. (And was in such a hurry that I left my laptop on the table in his cabin. Big oops.)

First to Cody, in far northwest Wyoming, where I had work. And then, on a hot Friday afternoon, I aimed Rojita north and way west on the long trek to my brother and sister-in-law’s land above the Columbia River Gorge in eastern Washington, a patch of meadows fingered with oak and ponderosa pine forest with views of the snowy cone of Mt. Adams.

Mt. Adams from the meadow where we buried our dead.

The Tweit clan–four generations of us–gathered there to bless their new house, and to bury our beloved dead in one of those meadows under a gnarled old pair of Oregon oak trees, with the last of the golden balsamroot blooming around them, along with pale frasera, purple lupine, and other wildflowers. As we placed the porcelain jar with Richard’s ashes in one hole, and co-mingled our parents’ ashes in another hole, black-headed grosbeaks sang their robin-like songs as swallows dipped and swooped overhead.

Mimosas are a morning tradition for we women at a Tweit-clan gathering.

The weekend was rich, with lots of time to catch up and be outside on the land, and only one major meltdown, which I figure is pretty good with all of us together. The less than pretty parts of our messy family relationships are bound to come up when we gather, and that’s healthy, I think. It’s how we respond–with as much love as we can muster–that makes me proud of my clan, even when we screw up.

From Klickitat County, Washington, Rojita and I headed back to Cody, only this time via the longer southern route across Oregon and Idaho, passing through Jackson Hole and down the Wind River to Ring Lake Ranch to retrieve my laptop.

Coming over Teton Pass from Idaho into Wyoming, the shades of green were almost intoxicating.

With the high desert desperately dry this year, I thirst for water and green, and I savored both in the mountains of western Wyoming, and walking the trail along the river with friends in Cody.

From Cody, I headed south to Lander, Wyoming, for a weekend of teaching workshops at Wyoming Writers annual conference. And then, after that immersion in words and creative energy, Rojita and I made one more long push to return to Santa Fe.

What’s next for me?

On Thursday, June 10th, at 6 pm RMT I’m talking with Sharman Russell, author of Within Our Grasp, for the second Zoom-based conversation in my monthly series. We’ll be looking at how childhood malnutrition affects our economies, cultures, and the future of the planet—and also the very reasonable solutions for this global problem, as well as what it all has to do with living with love. The event is sponsored and hosted by Women’s International Study Center.

Join Sharman and me for a Zoom-based conversation on our new books Thursday, June 10th at 6 pm RMT.

And on Friday, I hit the road again, headed back to Wyoming for my summer work. More on that in another blog post!

Where’s Susan?

Signing advance orders for Bless the Birds at Collected Works Bookstore.

I meant to write a post last month, but between the launch of my new memoir, Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, and driving a few thousand miles for a couple of new projects, the weeks whizzed by with me barely keeping up. (You can imagine me running as fast as possible just to stay in place, like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel, Through the Looking Glass.)

Where have I been? Mid-April found me on the road to the Guy’s farm, where I spent ten days designing and installing a pollinator garden on the south side of the farmhouse. No small garden, this: it’s approximately 400 square feet in size, bigger than most tiny houses!

The new pollinator garden in progress.

I’ve been preparing the ground for the better part of a year, doing my best to kill the bindweed and other invasive weeds, and to rejuvenate some existing perennials, including two bunches of peonies, that had been buried under overgrown plants from a previous and long-neglected garden.

The old garden featured plants not adapted to the hot, south-facing site, and not providing much in the way of habitat and food for pollinators and songbirds. The idea of the new garden is rely heavily on native plants to attract native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and provide drought-resistant beauty from spring through fall while requiring much less water.

Before planting, I worked on the “hardscape,” the elements of the garden that don’t require watering or pruning or other tending: rocks. The Guy drove the tractor down the lane to his lower gate, and we worked together to load the bucket with uber-local rocks (sandstone and basalt cleared from his hayfields). Two bucket-loads later, I went to work creating a wide rock border between the garden and the lawn area, and then placing rocks within the garden to delineate planting areas and provide topographic relief.

And then came the plants, some of which had been waiting in pots all winter, plus about 60 baby plants I had brought with me from horticulturist David Salman’s Waterwise Garden nursery in Santa Fe, and another two dozen ordered from High Country Gardens online.

Some of the plants for the new garden, on their way to the farm.

All of that work plus farm-chores took the better part of a week, and when I had planted everything I had, we took a day off to go to a nursery in Grand Junction to look for a few native shrubs to add height to the garden. We came back with several, including two Ribes odoratum, clove-scented currant, which are wonderfully fragrant and very attractive to native pollinators.

So attractive, in fact, that within an hour of planting the first one, a Hunt’s bumblebee queen buzzed over to feed on and pollinate its flowers. Her near-instant arrival illustrated nicely what we in the native-plant landscaping world like to say: plant them and they will come!

Hunt’s bumblebee queen sipping nectar from newly-planted clove-scented currant.

When the garden project was as finished as it’s going to get this spring, I headed back to Santa Fe for two weeks of book promotion, including my launch event, a frank and wide-ranging conversation with memoirist Kati Standefer, whose debut, Lightning Flowers, has been lauded by Oprah, Terry Gross of Fresh Air, and the New York Times book review. (And yes, it’s that good!)

Our conversation via Zoom was hosted by our wonderful local bookstore, Collected Works in Santa Fe, and co-sponsored by Women’s International Study Center, where I was a fellow in 2016. If you missed what was an amazing heart-to-heart exchange on living on the edge of death, you can watch the event here.

The beautiful event poster designed by Cecile Lipworth, Collected Works’ event manager.

If you’ve not read Bless the Birds yet, or Kati’s Lighting Flowers, you can buy signed copies of both by calling or emailing Collected Works. I’m happy to personalize your book if you let the folks at Collected Works know.

The next event in my year-long series of conversations with authors whose work I admire is June 9th, 6 pm (RMT) with Sharman Apt Russell, on her new book, Within Our Grasp, a look the global problem of childhood malnutrition and how empowering women can make a huge difference. That conversation will be hosted by Women’s International Study Center. Registration information on the Events page soon.

Immediately after the book launch conversation, I hopped into Rojita, my trusty bright red Toyota Tacoma pickup, and headed north to Wyoming to lay the groundwork for my summer work in Yellowstone National Park and at Ring Lake Ranch. Four days later, I drove back home again to Santa Fe via a night with the Guy at his farm, which means I put 1,900 miles on Rojita’s odometer and my body in–gulp!–six days. Crazy, but necessary.

Now I’m home at Casa Alegria, packing and organizing. My trailer, Cabanita, is being serviced, and when she’s ready in a week or ten days, I’ll hitch her up to Rojita, and off we’ll go (slowly) for weeding in Yellowstone, and working at Ring Lake Ranch. But first, I’m taking a few days to just be right here, in place!

Bless the Birds Coming Soon!

Bless the Birds cover layout, with great blurbs from Lyanda Haupt, Craig Childs, and Kathleen Dean Moore. Thanks to all who read and wrote blurbs (there are more inside the book).

I confess that I have spent a lot of March playing hooky. My lack of discipline either comes from the sheer terror of having Bless the Birds, the newest and most gutsy of my book ouevre, close to hitting the streets, or from my resolve to take advantage of the company of the Guy, Badger, and the horses for the nearly four weeks they were here.

Honestly, I think it’s a combination of both. I haven’t entirely neglected book promotion, but I’ve logged more miles in the saddle than I have hours at my desk. Which is probably healthy, and part of why I am in pretty great physical shape right now.

Me, riding the arroyo on Sal, followed by my faithful shadow.

When the Guy arrived at the end of February, we were determined to ride every day if we could, and we managed at least a mile or two most days, and some days we went out for much longer, including one weekend when we rode a twelve-mile loop one day and then did a seven-mile cross-country (off trail) ride to a ruined 14th century pueblo the next. I admit that I needed a day to rest after that!

Three blondes and a paint head cross-country…. (That’s the horses; we riders are all going silver.)

The herd, Badger, and the Guy headed north on Thursday morning in a huge swirl of spring-is-coming-and-the-hayfields-need-preparation energy. So it’s suddenly pretty quiet around here, and I have no excuse for neglecting magazine and journal interviews, upcoming radio appearances, a potential blog book tour, and my planned year-long author conversation/podcast series, Living with Love — Cultivating Earth Sense. (Thanks to the amazing Dan Blank of We Grow Media for helping me clarify what I have to offer, which lead to the idea of this series.)

What’s ahead?

  • April 27 is the official publication date for Bless the Birds. If you’ve already ordered the book, you should get it then. If you haven’t, and you want a signed copy, Collected Works Bookstore here in Santa Fe has kindly agreed to be my official source for shipping signed books, so please contact the good folks there.
  • April 26 my blog book tour begins with a wide-ranging interview with author and translator C.M. Mayo on her Madam Mayo blog. C.M asks great questions, so we covered a lot of topics within Bless the Birds and beyond.
  • April 30, at 8:30 pm (ET), I’m reading as part of the NYC-based “The Greatest Indoor Reading Series.” It’s virtual, and I don’t know what other readers I’m paired with, but it’s bound to be an interesting evening! Join us via Zoom through the website.
  • May 4, Interview on the Richard Eeds Show. (Time TBA, sometime between 1:00 and 4:00 pm RMT, available as a podcast after the show.)
  • May 6, at 6:oo pm (RMT) is the big day: BOOK LAUNCH! Collected Works is hosting my Zoom-based conversation with fellow memoirist Kati Standefer, author of Lightning Flowersa personal and environmental accounting of the cost of advanced medical technology. Lightning Flowers is an Oprah and NYT book review editor’s pick, among other honors. Our talk is also the first conversation in my upcoming Living with Love — Cultivating Earth Sense series. Our topic: Living on the edge of death. Join us for what I know will be a fascinating and insightful exchange.
  • June 5 & 6 I’ll be in Lander, Wyoming, as faculty at Wyoming Writers 46th annual conference. If you can’t make it to Lander, at the foot of the spectacular Wind River Mountains and in the heart of Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho Indian country, you can also attend virtually.

There’s more, including an author conversation with philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Earth’s Wild Music, in June, followed by a conversation with Lyanda Haupt, author of Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spiritin July. But this is enough for now. (If you haven’t subscribed to my email newsletter, now’s a good time. I’ll send out periodic updates on my schedule.)

Bless the Birds and an interview with me was featured in the March-April issue of Neighbors Magazine. Illustration courtesy of editor Cheryl Fallstead.

Love Language: Communicating Without Words

The amaryllis I gave the Guy for Christmas, on its second bloom stalk.

It’s been a year and a half since the Guy and I met, and we’re still learning each other. We have so much in common–from the books we’re reading, the ideas we share, and a mutual need for time in the big wild, to a wide circle of friends we met separately long before we met each other. We share a passion for science and spiritual seeking, a love of horses and dogs, and cooking and food.

We’re also very different in some ways that are critical to nurturing a relationship.

Take communication. I am, in the Guy’s parlance, “a word person.” When I am trying to figure something out, I talk about it. When I am upset, I am vocal. When I am happy, I am voluble. Words are my way of communicating.

The Guy is much more internal. He tends to work through things in his head before he’s ready to speak. (Not that his body language doesn’t “speak” for him.) He likes silence. He needs space. And sometimes he forgets entirely to communicate in words what he has already processed in his mind.

Those differing communication styles have tripped us up more than once. I’m learning to leave space for his silence; he’s learning to use words to acknowledge his moods and let me know they’re not aimed at me.

A frozen puddle with a heart-shaped open spot we found on our morning walk.

One thing he communicates often is that he loves me. He doesn’t always say it; he acts it.

It’s the little things: The gentle pat of his hand as he passes me in in the bathroom as we’re dressing in the morning. The way he remembers to put my milk out on the breakfast table along with the half ‘n half he prefers.

When he heads outside to feed the horses, he often backtracks before he going out the door to kiss me.

When he borrowed my truck to visit a dying friend in the hospital a few hours away, he washed the truck on the way home. When I make dinner, he clears the table and washes the dishes without comment. (When he makes dinner, I do the same.)

For Christmas, he gave me a pair of riding chaps, the kind he has and I wanted but was too cheap to buy for myself. Then he gave me a pair of long johns too, just to make sure I’d be warm on winter rides.

He found me a saddle that fits my slender frame perfectly, and he oils and cleans it when he cleans his saddles.

He listens when I talk, even when he doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. He doesn’t pretend: he listens with his whole body, with a kind of attentiveness that is rare and precious.

When we’re apart (which is more often than not for our long-distance relationship), he remembers to call to catch up, even though neither of us really likes phone conversations. But they’re a way of tending our bond. He also sends me photos of the horses, links to news articles he knows will interest me, and funny cartoons.

He’s not demonstrative in the sense of hugging or holding hands often in public. But when I’m upset, he always remembers to hold me.

And at night in bed, he pulls me close. When I turn over, he rearranges himself to snuggle against me. Every time. And every time, it makes me smile.

He doesn’t have to say, “I love you.” His actions say it. Words matter, but as I’m learning, actions can speak the language of love too.

A heart-shaped and face-sized chunk of native sandstone.

Sabbatical Report: Taking the Non-traditional Path

Along US 50, the loneliest road, across Nevada

When I wrote about taking a sabbatical from forcing my writing to earn a living back in November, many of you left supportive comments on the blog or on social media, all of which I very much appreciated. Now that I’m two months in, I thought I’d let you know how it’s going.

Which is probably not the way you may have imagined. I’m not spending my days in leisurely reading and contemplation of the universe in its wondrous and chaotic ways. Nor am I writing up a storm.

What am I doing? A lot of planning for the April release of Bless the Birds, my upcoming memoir. I’ve been sending advance review copies to magazines and newspapers that have book review sections, which involves a lot of tedious looking up of addresses and editors’ names, and finding their requirements for review copies in these COVID times when many people are still working remotely.

The advance review copies of Bless the Birds

I’m also dreaming up virtual book events involving bookstores and libraries. The idea I am percolating is a series of internet-based conversations with fellow authors whose work intersects with mine, exchanges on topics that relate to our work.

One idea, for example, is a conversation with my over-the-ridge neighbor, Kati Standefer, whose absolutely stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowers, tracks in gorgeous and raw prose the human and environmental cost of the defibrillator implanted in her chest that both saved and irretrievably altered her life. We could talk about living on the edge of death, a subject we both know more about than we’d like. My dream is to have that event sponsored by Collected Works, my favorite Santa Fe bookstore, as my book launch event.

I’d like to have a conversation with Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire, among other fine books, about stumbling into the understanding that the world outside our skin boundaries, the wild world nearby, can save us. I’d like to talk with Kathy Moore, author of Earth’s Wild Music, about what humans lose when we lose other species, when the tapestry of this living planet frays beyond what seems repairable.

Lichen, an entity made of two kinds of lives that are entirely different but manage to cooperate for their mutual benefit, a fungus and a photosynthesizing algae or bacteria.

I imagine these virtual events as a series of thoughtful interactions between people you’d like to listen to, conversations that explore ideas you’d like to know more about. Conversations that are inspiring and thought-provoking, and yes, might relate to our books, but are mostly offerings from us to you.

Because what I’ve realized during this sabbatical is that, while I do have a book to promote, what’s most important to both the writer me and the scientist me is that I have experiences and ideas that I want to share, and I know writers whose ideas and experiences I want to delve into. So if I can combine those things, book promotion will be something useful to all of us, instead of merely an exercise in selling something.

In dreaming up this series of conversations, I’m taking a non-traditional path, focusing more on what I have to share than on sales. Because that’s in alignment with why I wrote, which is to offer something I know to others in a way that I hope will be useful, inspiring, life-changing, or simply worth the read.

I owe this realization in part to work I did last year with Beata Lewis, goddess of transformational work (you could call her an executive coach, but that’s too limiting), and work I am doing now with human-centered marketer Dan Blank of We Grow Media. Both of them pushed me to look beyond the conventional view of what success in writing means, to integrate the left-brained scientist and the right-brained writer, and to listen to what my heart and spirit ask of me.

Which occurs to me is very much in the spirit of this sabbatical: reflecting on who I am and what I am doing with my life.

Hence this new mission statement:

I aim to restore our love and care for this numinous Earth, and help us be our best and kindest selves–wholly at home on a healthy planet.

Reflections on a lake in the Cascades above Bend, Oregon

2020: Remembering the good parts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabbatical: Time to Recharge and Reflect

A shelf of books I’ve written.

“I realized today that I’m just burned out,” I said to the Guy on the phone one evening. “I’m writing, but it’s not going anywhere. I can’t find the thread, and I don’t know what I want to work on.”

“Do you want a suggestion?” Right there is one of many reasons I love him: he’s thoughtful enough to ask before offering his opinions. I’m working on getting better at that.

“Yes.”

“Here’s a thought exercise that I do about once a year: Ask yourself what you would want to do if you learned you only had thirty days to live. Write down whatever comes to mind without judging. Then repeat the question for longer time increments–if you had six months, or a year, or five years.”

“Great idea,” I said.

The next afternoon, I settled into my comfy chair, sunlight streaming in through the sunroom windows at my back, cleared my mind, picked up pen and writing pad, and began the Guy’s “what if” exercise. It didn’t take long; from the perspective of only having so much time to live, the answers came easily.

Looking over my lists, I was struck by how congruent my “what if” wants are with the life I’m living now. If I knew my life would end sometime in the next month or in five years, I would want to prioritize time with family and friends, finish a few projects around the house here and at the Guy’s farm, hike and/or ride every day, take another wilderness pack trip or two, work in Yellowstone and at Ring Lake Ranch, and write.

As I read over what I’d written, I noticed one thing I did not mention. Nowhere on any of the lists was wanting to earn more money from my work or become famous or be published in the New York Times or The Atlantic or O Magazine. The list included what I love to do, but no career ambitions.

And there was the “aha!” moment: I included writing, but not any specific outcome for the writing.

I’ve been a freelance writer for 32 years. Writing has been my career, my purpose, and provided my income. (Never a big income, but still an income.)

For thirty-two years, the income-earning was so tied into my writing practice that I couldn’t even consider a piece of writing without thinking about where to sell it. If that sounds crass, it’s not. Writing was my job. I couldn’t sit around and wait for the muse. I had contracts, deadlines, advances, editors depending on me to produce what we had agreed on.

Anthologies that include my writing, plus books for which I’ve written a foreword or introduction.

I never wrote anything I didn’t believe in, nor did I compromise. I accepted assignments and wrote pieces–from short essays to whole books–that I thought would in their own small way make the world a better place. And perhaps they did.

But they didn’t feed my soul.

And that, I realized, is the problem. I am so used to writing for an income, as my job, that I have very little practice in writing just to say what I want to say. Writing and earning an income are intertwined like two vines that sprout next to each other at the base of a garden wall. As they grow upward, their branches weave so tightly together that each vine shapes the other. Separating them is nigh to impossible.

I’ve written hundreds of magazine articles, and I’m proud of them all. But…

I’m tired of forcing the words to make my living. I want to just write. Whatever that means and whatever comes. Without considering where to sell it.

So I’m going to take an (unpaid) sabbatical. I have two book reviews and one manuscript evaluation on my desk. When I’ve met those deadlines, I’m not taking any more writing assignments until spring. I’m going to get up each day and “see what unfolds,” in the Guy’s words. I’ll walk or hike or ride, read, keep up with publicity for the release of Bless the Birds, and yes, write–but only if I have something to say.

Imagine: Months to recharge and reflect, with no agenda. I can’t wait to see what bubbles up….

My thirteenth book, due out in April, 2021

Settling In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compact, but elegant and welcoming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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