Restoring a Sense of Place

I’m writing this from the back deck of the interpretive center at The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch, 20-plus miles west of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on the Yampa River. Richard and I have been here for a good part of the week on one of our sojourns as part of the working residency we were awarded by Colorado Art Ranch and the Nature Conservancy, with support from the Terra Foundation. Our mission: to transform roughly a quarter-acre of under-used and water-thirsty lawn into a garden/outdoor interpretive space that celebrates the unique land- and river-scape of Carpenter Ranch and honors the stories of its inhabitants–human, domestic and wild.

I’ve written about the project in a previous post (“Finding Our Rhythm“). Now I just want to post some photos of the space we’re working with and sketch some of our very tentative ideas. That’s the historic ranch house above, dating to turn of the previous century. Notice the expansive lawn, which is lovely, but consumes a lot of water in this arid country where water is in short supply and hotly contested. (Was it Mark Twain who said that in the West, whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting? Whoever said it, they got it right.) Hence our charges to transform not this front entrance lawn, but the expansive–and boring, from a wildlife habitat standpoint–lawn in the back of the ranch house and its attached interpretive center. Coming around the end of the interpretive center, you see this:


And this:

Not so green, because the lawn has already been prepared for its metamorphosis into something more inspiring and restorative. (The view above is from the back deck of the interpretive center.)

What do we imagine? Our plans are quite tentative right now, because we’re still pulling together a team to work on the project. But we have some ideas, including a bit of flagstone patio off the deck to mimic some of the area’s sandstone mesas, moving the kitchen garden (inside the deer fence in the mid-background of the photo above) to a higher and thus warmer spot between the interpretive center and the old coal shed, very near where it was when the ranch kitchen served capacious meals to a parade of visitors, haying crews and cattle-buyers.

Back then, before grocery stores and easy transport to the nearest town, the kitchen garden had to feed and doctor those who lived on the ranch, and included heritage plants like the raspberry patch the granddaughter of Ferry Carpenter, the ranch owner, was remembering with fondness yesterday, the mint that went into a syrupy concoction called “Do-me-good” added to the vats of iced tea steeped in summer for guests and ranch crews, the rhubarb that was eaten by a brother-sister pair of wild bighorn sheep brought back to the ranch for pets, the potatoes that grow so abundantly in this cold-winter, high-elevation climate that they were a staple food all year round, the green beans and lettuce and dill… Restored to its former spot, the kitchen garden will be more water-efficient and low-care in raised beds to lengthen its season. It’ll also, we hope, include signs that will tell a bit of each plant’s story.

Other ideas: restore an example of the rich mosaic of native river floodplain meadow and shrub communities, including the plant from which the river takes its name, yampah, and Rocky Mountain iris, sagebrush, red-twig dogwood and chokecherry; design ornamental garden beds showcasing native and heritage plants that can be used in home gardens; and showcase the stories of the landscape by designing paths and structures that call attention the features of the ranch and its surroundings–including the neighboring coal-fired power plant.

But first, we are collecting ideas and stories from the people who know this landscape and the ranch in a deeper and more intimate way than we do. We’re in the research phase, and what we’re learning is fascinating, a mite overwhelming and a lot to process. We’re enjoying it though, as you can see from the photo of my partner in collaboration above.


Personal stuff: A big thanks to Cathy, fiber-person extraordinaire, and her partner Mike, for sending a treasure-trove of hand-knitted and crocheted items from yarn spun by hand (and some of it hand-dyed as well) with a note simply saying, “To keep you warm.” You can see in the photo below a pair of socks knit with hand-dyed yarn that are not just keeping my feet warm on cool mornings here at the ranch, but brightening up my life as well. Thank you!

And a shout-out to all of you who have written and done other things to let us know how much you care. We feel very blessed to have your love and support. We’ll be riding on it a week from today, Friday, August 13th, when Richard goes into surgery at Denver’s VA Medical Center.

Thanks for walking this path with us–your company is a huge blessing.