Finding Our Rhythm

Perhaps the most difficult part of this journey with Richard’s brain cancer is figuring out how to turn what began in a crisis into an ordinary, sustainable life. Like many other kinds of chronic illness, we learned of his brain cancer through an acute and scary situation: the bird hallucinations his brain conjured up, which sent us from what was to have been a peaceful two-week artistwriter residency at a mountain cabin to the VA Medical Center in Denver, where we found that half of his brain was so swollen that doctors were impressed that he could function. Now that he’s survived that crisis, followed by the surgery to remove the tumor, the radiation to kill the “loose” cancer cells in that afflicted right temporal lobe, and the first five months of the intensive chemotherapy treatment that will continue for perhaps 13 more months, it’s time to find the “normal” in our lives again.

Like any chronic illnesses, this brain cancer is something we’re going to have to learn to live with. So we’re settling in for the long haul, working on finding our rhythm and
fashioning ordinary lives out of the sometimes-consuming routines of
brain cancer treatment.


To that end, we headed up to northwestern Colorado on Sunday afternoon, aimed for The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch, a historic working cattle and hay ranch that protects several miles of frontage on the Yampa River, the state’s last undammed river, and offers nesting habitat for a wide range of birds and other wildlife, from striped chorus frogs and bobolinks to sandhill cranes. (That’s a view of the ranch in the photo above, with the hay meadows in the foreground, the big white hay barn and other ranch buildings in the middle in front of the dark band of trees that form the riverside forest along the Yampa River, and the Elkhead Mountains in the distance.)

Thanks to Colorado Art Ranch, The Nature Conservancy of Colorado, and a grant from Terra Foundation, we’ve been awarded a working residency at Carpenter Ranch. For the next two summer and fall seasons, we’ll spent about a week a month at the ranch, designing a large public garden/outdoor interpretive space that uses plants and sculptural garden structures to honor and interpret the ranch and its history, the Yampa River and its unique braided riverside forest, and the surrounding landscape. We envision this a garden in the broad sense, meaning an outdoor space defined by plants and sculptural paths and structures that offers a way for visitors to get to know the place and its history and root themselves in nature right where people work and live. We’ll use native plants–recreating their communities and relationships, as well as “heritage” plants–those characteristic of earlier human life in the area (historic and pre-historic), including edible and medicinal plants.

The project is a fascinating and challenging one, first because the ranch itself is listed on the Colorado historical register, so whatever we do must be respectful of–and support–the place and its human story. (That’s the ranch house in the photo above, a rambling structure built in about 1906 from a collection of homestead cabins cobbled together.) Second, the garden area is a big space, about half the size of a football field, and it’s currently in a lawn with two small garden “islands.” The lawn and its invasive weeds, including Canada thistle and bindweed, two seriously challenging species, will have to be removed–a net environmental benefit itself, since the lawn currently must be watered (a subsidy from the river) and mowed (using petroleum and adding CO2 to the atmosphere).

Third, as of now, there’s no budget for the garden project, so we’ll be working with Betsy and Geoff Blakeslee, managers of Carpenter Ranch and the adjacent Yampa River Preserve, and talking to landscape architecture programs, nurseries, master gardeners, botanic gardens, and other conservation organizations, hoping to form relationships to support the project. (Audubon Colorado has already agreed to pitch in, and Plant Select, the plant-breeding program at Colorado State University involved in bringing native and regionally adapted plants into the nursery trade, has expressed interest.)

It’s a challenge. But still… this is an opportunity to transform a piece of underused and resource-consumptive ranch yard into a vibrant community of plants that enriches our understanding of the land and its stories, provides habitat for wildlife, and gives visitors an opportunity to see how to root their own yards and gardens in place by incorporating native and heritage plants. Who could resist?


That’s the future garden space above, stretching from the deck of the interpretive center behind the historic ranch house to the nature trail leading to the Yampa River in the background. Richard and I envision a very different view when the project is finished, a landscape that will lead visitors on a journey into gardens full of stories: alive with birds and butterflies, vibrant with wildflowers, native grasses and shrubs, and bursting with edible and medicinal plants too, including rhubarb, in honor of the prized rhubarb clump in the biography of the ranch founder, eaten by a pair of captive bighorn sheep. We imagine a garden that draws on the shape of the mesas that rise above the valley, and paths that trace the meanders and oxbows created by the free-flowing Yampa River.

We envision carefully placed, mounds, swales, paths, and structures that invite visitors to linger and draw the eye to distant views and the stories they reveal–including the coal-fired power plant that rises across the highway from the ranch (it’s in the background over the current vegetable garden in the photo above), and turning to look in the other direction, the canyon upstream on the Yampa River (photo below). 


But before we put pencil to paper in a design, the first step for us is research: getting to know the place and delving into its history and the lives of the native plant and animal communities, the rocks and landscape, and the historic gardens of the area. 

Hence this quick trip to the ranch to see the site, meet Betsy and Geoff and some of the ranch staff and researchers, and begin learning the stories the garden-to-be can tell. As we drove in the entrance road to Carpenter Ranch yesterday morning, perhaps it was a good omen that Richard spotted one of the signature birds of the place, a male bobolink, a sparrow-like songbird that winters in the grasslands of South America and migrates to northern North America in summer to nest in moist prairires, including the flood-irrigated hayfields at Carpenter Ranch, where haying is delayed until the baby birds have fledged. The male in his eye-catching black, white and yellow plumage greeted us by launching into the air and singing its melodic song, and then perching on a fencepost long enough for me to shoot the photo below. Surely an auspicious beginning!

We spent last night in the Bunkhouse, the cabin that will be our home on our visits over the coming seasons. The mosquitoes are voracious at this time of year, but the glorious sunset below more than made up for it, along with the burbling of violet-green swallows, the songs of bobolinks, the peeping calls of chorus frogs, and the wonderfully peaceful darkness of night far from skyglow and city life. 

Perhaps it’s crazy to take on a project like this now, with all that we’re juggling in Richard’s brain cancer treatment. But it’s time to reclaim our lives and use the flexibililty we’re been learning to engage in work that nurtures our hearts and spirits–while contributing to the landscapes and communities we so value.