The biologist out in the field before being promoted to desk work and people-management.

Do What You Love….

The biologist out in the field before being promoted to desk work and people-management. The biologist out in the field before being promoted to desk work and people-management.

When I read Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, by Marsha Sinetar, I was a frustrated mid-level manager, a plant biologist behind a desk instead of out in the field, a scientist tasked with parsing the relationships that make people tick (or not) instead of those that weave the community of nature.

I was doing useful work and earning a decent living. I was not doing what I loved. Thus the appeal of the book’s subtitle, “Discovering Your Right Livelihood.”

Sinetar suggests that if you tap into what you love and what really motivates you, if you clear away the inner barriers and look for new opportunities, you’ll find ways to earn a living that are satisfying and financially rewarding.

What I loved then–and still do–is writing.

Words well chosen.... Words well-chosen….

Specifically, summoning the power of words well-chosen and stories well-told to change our view of the world and ourselves, to cause us to open hearts and minds and spirits to new ideas and perspectives. To make us laugh, cry, nod our heads in agreement, or shake our heads in frustration or wonder. To move us. To give us hope when all seems bleak. To make the world a little better—or perhaps a lot better.

With Richard’s support, I quit the work that produced a comfortable paycheck but made body and spirit sick, and set out to find right livelihood as a writer.

Which turned out to be not so easy. It wasn’t so much the figuring out what to write about—my background as a plant biologist gave me stories galore about the characters whose relationships weave life on this planet.

My first book, Pieces of Light, a year's journal of nature right around home. My first book, Pieces of Light, a journal of nature right around home.

It was the figuring out how to earn a living that was challenging. I needed to find my writing voice, that combination of language, story, subject and perspective that makes a writer’s work pop. And find my niche, markets that appreciated my work enough to buy it.

At first, I wrote a lot and didn’t sell much. But I kept at it. Eventually I learned how to tell a good story, and figured out my unique angle.

I sold my first book. It didn’t become a best-seller. Nor was it discovered by the New York Times. (It is still in print as an eBook twenty-three years later.) It did open doors and begin teaching me what mattered to readers.

I wrote from a scientist’s expert voice at first, and gradually learned to be more personal and fallible. I found my “beat” in writing about nature nearby, and in illuminating what we can learn from our turn on the cycle of life.

Twelve books and hundreds of newspaper columns, radio scripts and magazine articles later, Richard saw the birds that presaged his brain cancer.

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved "ambassadors of the earth." Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved “ambassadors of the earth.”

For the first year of that journey, I kept up with income-producing assignments as best I could. By the second year, my creative effort was going into living well as my love’s time wound down. I wrote for my sanity, not for money.

In the two-plus years after his death, I’ve worked very hard—if I’m honest, way too hard to be sustainable—to deal with the immediate crises.

Now, I’m thinking about right livelihood again.

Writing is still the work that sustains my mind and spirit, and keeps my challenged body healthy. The issue is how to earn a living in an environment that changed enormously while I was “away” walking with Richard through the end of his life and then sorting through the afters to make a life for myself.

So as the cycle of the year turns toward spring and new growth, as I busy myself with good work that pays, but is not the work my heart craves, I have set myself a goal to figure out how to make writing my focus again.

Because in a life so wrenchingly altered, I know this to be true: Writing is not only right livelihood for me; it’s a calling I’m determined to heed.

The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, by Lyanda Haupt

Books: Urban Bestiary and A Bushel’s Worth

The nights are growing longer, the days colder, and in Salida, a three-day snowstorm dropped almost a foot of snow over the weekend. Time to curl up on the couch in front of the fire and read a book! (And to buy books as holiday presents.) Here are two favorites from the to-review stack on my desk:

The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, Lyanda Haupt (Little, Brown)

The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, by Lyanda Haupt The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, by Lyanda Haupt

“It is time for a new bestiary,” writes Lyanda Haupt in the opening chapter of this beautifully engaging and reflective book on coming to know the lives that make up everyday nature, “one that engages our desire to understand the creatures surrounding our urban homes, helps us locate ourselves in nature, and suggests a response to this knowledge that will benefit both ourselves and the more-than-human world.”

Why in this digital age where we presume every bit of information is but a click or two away on the internet would any respectable naturalist write a bestiary, a medieval-style compendium that includes all knowledge without discriminating observation and fact from speculation and myth?

Precisely because that compendium sans judgment has much to teach us, says Haupt. “…Myths have always given our meaning-seeking species a way to find the thread of pattern, significance, and timelessness underlying our chaotic and unpredictable daily lives. … In this bestiary, as in its medieval precursors, mythology is among the many lovely paths toward human knowing: science, natural history, personal observation, everyday storytelling.”

Lovely paths, indeed. Listen to this passage from the entry, “Bird”: “There is much to be said for knowing a bird, its name, something of its life, at a glance. … I like to think that such knowing is a kind of gracious hosting, one that enriches not only our own lives, but also the lives of birds. What is it that we know? The mingled spiral of our lives, human and non-human, flesh and feather.”

The mingled spiral of our lives. Right there Haupt reveals the essence of writing, whether about humans or nature: We are twined with all the other lives on this earth. We and those others have much to teach each other. Haupt’s Bestiary is a wonderful way to begin the exploration and learning.

(Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, by Kayann Short (Torry House Press)

A Bushel's Worth: A Ecobiography, by Kayann Short A Bushel’s Worth: A Ecobiography, by Kayann Short

A Bushel’s Worth roughly chronicles the seasons at Stonebridge Farm, the organic, community supported farm that college professor, activist and feminist scholar Kayann Short and her partner John own and run in rural Boulder County, Colorado. Chapters alternate between Short’s memories and roots in her grandparents’ farms, and stories of life at Stonebridge, a true community farm where members are deeply involved in farm operations and the land from planting through harvest.

Short chronicles the weather and other farm events: snowstorms so heavy they blanket the farm and delay planting, harvest days full of laughter and old-time music (and food), human kids learning that the goat emphatically does not want to play with them, the pair of Great Horned Owls who raise twin owlets in the cottonwoods along one of the irrigation ditches, the crashing fall of one of those grand old cottonwoods one windy night, crushing the flower garden under its welter of branches.

“But the Y of the trunk’s main branches fell perfectly around the metal arbor under which we had stood when we committed our lives to each other. The arbor remained intact, the birdhouse at its apex hanging as before, the nest inside undisturbed.”

The haunting sense of longing that permeates the early part of the book gradually yields to a deeper ease in the life Short has grown at Stonebridge, as revealed by this closing passage: “We work. We wait. And the earth gives again. … We have learned from the earth that when we practice gratitude, not greed, we will have plenty and plenty more to come.”

That, perhaps is the heart of the lessons Short explores in A Bushel’s Worth: life lived with generosity and graciousness gives us enough to belong–and enough to share.

(Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

A Wilder Rose, by Susan Wittig Albert

Books: Women Who Chart Their Own Course

I’ve always been drawn to stories of women who chart their own paths, walking boldly outside the lines we draw in life. On my desk are two such books, equally compelling although the stories couldn’t be more different. Here’s a peak at each:

A Wilder Rose, by Susan Wittig Albert A Wilder Rose, by Susan Wittig Albert

In A Wilder Rose, mystery author and memoirist Susan Wittig Albert gives voice to Rose Wilder Lane, the only surviving child of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the classic Little House series.

In 1928, Rose was writing fiction and articles for popular magazines and living an idyllic expat existence with her dearest friend and perhaps lover, Helen “Troub” Boylston, in a villa in sun-drenched Tirana, Albania:

The air in the house was fragrant with the aroma of Turkish tobacco and electric with international intrigue in four or five languages. We drank tea and wine and yes, sometimes French champagne, and nibbled on whimsical Albanian pastries contrived by Yvonne, our French cook, and danced….

Until the summons from Rose’s mother:

Come home, she cabled, and I went. Troub always complained that I was at my mother’s beck and call. Troub was right, of course. Still, the situation was desperate. My father was sick. My mother was sick. They had to have help. Who else could they turn to but me?

“Home” was Rocky Ridge, “some two hundred acres of hardscrabble Ozark mountainside that produced nothing but apples, milk and eggs, and not enough of any of them for a decent living” in rural southern Missouri, a long ways from Tirana, the Paris of the eastern Mediterranean.

Rose arrived in Missouri in the spring of 1929. Troub followed several weeks later. They planned to stay only long enough for Rose to build her parents a modern house, hire a handyman to help out, and fix up the old farmhouse as their sometimes rural writing retreat.

Only then came the Crash. Magazine and book work dried up, the farmhouse became home of necessity, and Troub left, never to return. During the dark years that followed, Rose began a reluctant, secret and unpaid collaboration with her mother, shaping Laura’s childhood stories into what became the eight best-selling books of the Little House series.

Without Rose’s brilliant writing skills and reputation, the books beloved by millions of children would never have existed. Yet the two women kept up the fiction of sole authorship by Laura, a sweet, elderly farm wife. Why?

In A Wilder RoseAlbert weaves a compelling story revealing the true and complicated authorship of the Little House series. The book is so much more though: a classic tale of the choices women make to pursue their art, a portrait of the complex bonds binding mothers and daughters, and an evocative look at a time that shaped a nation and culture.


Dirt Work by Christine Byl Dirt Work by Christine Byl

In Dirt Work, An Education in the Woods, Christine Byl chronicles the lessons from her career building trails with humor, introspection and an irreverent reverence (“reverence” in the sense of true appreciation).

Byl was a college graduate tired of school when she moved West, looking for Thoreau’s “authentic” life. She landed in Missoula, Montana, “a town where writers and laborers, professors and loggers not only drank at the same bars, they were sometimes the same people.” Needing to earn a living, Byl applied for a job on a National Park Service trail crew.

She had never worked with her hands or at a job outdoors. Byl was surprised to find that not only was she was good at trail work, the work itself was deeply satisfying. That summer job “in the woods” ended up becoming her life:

Over the past twenty years of my life, books have taught me some things, people have taught me many things, and tools have taught me everything else. I mean this as neither romantic nor prescriptive. It just means that touch and work are part of what I had to learn.

(Read the full review of Dirt Work on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

These two very different books do what art does best: transport us beyond our daily lives and beyond our imagining to show us new ways of being and of understanding our very own selves.

Sandra D. Lynn and granddaughter Skye

Passages: Poet Sandra Lynn

Sandra D. Lynn and granddaughter Skye Sandra D. Lynn and granddaughter Skye

Last Wednesday morning, on my long drive to Western Washington, I stopped to check email in Spanish Fork on Utah’s Wasatch Front, between spearing peaks and sprawling suburbs.

Among the raft of real-estate-contract legalities in my inbox was a message with the return address of Sandra Lynn, poet, teacher and fellow lover of native plants. I opened it without looking at the subject line, delighted to hear from her. And then realized the email was from her son, DeLesley Hutchins, with the news that his mother was gone.


Sandra wasn’t old, although she was very happily a grandmother. She had retired just a few years back after a career teaching Creative Writing and English at University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University-Carlsbad, and then serving as administrator for the New Mexico Native Plant Society.

And now she’s gone, died on the morning of July 16th–Richard’s birthday.

Just a few days before I left on the road-trip, I was sorting through our extensive collection of coffee table books, thinking about which ones I would take to the smaller space at Creek House. I picked up Where Rainbows Wait for Rain: The Big Bend Country, a gorgeous collaboration drawing on Sandra’s poems and Richard Fenker Jr.’s photographs.

Where Rainbows Wait for Rain, Tanagram Press Where Rainbows Wait for Rain, Tanagram Press

This one’s going with me, I thought.

The book fell open to one of my favorite of Sandra’s poems, “Ernst Tinaja.” (In the language of the Chihuahuan Desert, a tinaja is a waterhole in the rock, a pocket dissolved in solid limestone that holds precious runoff from the infrequent but thunderous summer rains.)

As if the earth had strained
to hold up its jug
in the hope of rain,
the layers of limestone and shale
around the tinaja tilt skyward
a V, open arms.
Snug in the V
a triangular crock
filled up with green water
grown dark with long reflection.
All around, the rock chips and flakes
into a litter of color —
buff, yellow, mauve, rose, grey —
a box of broken pastels.
Or is this shattered spectrum
the petrified, weathered shards
of rainbows, with a remnant of archaic
rain preserved in a somehow unbroken jar?
This canyon must be a midden
of rainbows,
the place they go in the end,
like the dying ground of elephants.
Comely as ivory,
this chromatic refuse,
tossed out of the sky,
salvaged in these strangely fragile
arms of stone.

Sandra and I weren’t best friends. We were writers who appreciated each other and who shared a love of words and native plants, and especially, of the sprawling expanses of the Chihuahuan Desert, North America’s largest and least-loved desert. We met when I was promoting Barren, Wild and Worthless, my love song to the desert landscapes and communities I never entirely became comfortable living in.

Windows on the Past: Historic Lodgings of New Mexico Windows on the Past: Historic Lodgings of New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press

I remember talking to her classes at University of New Mexico and admiring the warmth and passion she brought to teaching. We read together when her book on historic hotels of New Mexico was published, and stayed in touch as life took her from Albuquerque to Carlsbad and then back again, and took me and Richard from Las Cruces to Salida, and then through his brain cancer.

I hear Sandra’s voice still, softened by a childhood in East Texas,

Territory of lipstick, candlestick,
pines’ dark gossip about collapsed
shacks, and red roads that wander
off into the trees like bloodlines
into their dotage. East Texas.
Where the South stains the edge
of the Southwest.
(From “Geographies”)

Some people have a way of showing us places and lives we thought we knew, a way of conjuring wonder out of desolate, sun-burnt rock, the way water conjures life out of the dusty expanses of desert with heart-stopping suddenness that fills our spirits. Sandra Lynn was one such.

May your spirit always find rainbows and tinajas, my friend. You are missed.

Books I’m Reading & a Brag

Normally, I’m a voracious and eclectic reader. Right now, with two intense writing projects, plus consulting on the launch of a new program on landscaping for wildlife, finish carpentry at this house and beginning construction of the new one, at the end of my workday, I go to bed.

Still, I do have some great books on my to-read stack. Here are three capsule reviews of three books I enjoyed so much I wanted to share them with you.

Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World by Kate Braid

Kate Braid slinging studs for a house. Kate Braid slinging studs for a house.

It was the summer of 1975, and Kate Braid needed to earn “a chunk of money, fast” to return to college in Vancouver, Canada. How would she get it?

‘Up north.’ Actually, until the words came out of my mouth, I had no plan at all, but in 1975, whenever a guy wanted money in British Columbia, he went ‘up north’–to Kitimat, Smithers, Prince George–and came back with pocketfuls. It was boom days in northern BC…. If a man could earn big money up north, why couldn’t I?

Braid and a woman friend bought camping gear at an Army Surplus store, hitchhiked their way north, “and for the next two weeks applied at every sawmill, paper mill and fish processing plant between Williams Lake and Prince Rupert.” At each one, “the foreman took one look and said, ‘Sorry, girls’….”

The two did finally find work stacking lumber at a planer mill. That summer spent “dancing with lumber,” as Braid puts it, gives her a taste of the world of working with muscles and wood, a world she eventually joins as one of the first women in the overwhelmingly male trades. Braid’s book is a portrait of a time, and a cracking good read. (Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

Middlewood Journal: Drawing Inspiration from Nature by Helen Scott Correll

The cover gives a taste of Helen Scott Correll's eye, and her sketching talents. The book cover gives a taste of Helen Scott Correll’s eye, and her art.

You know the sort of book you can pick up, open any page, and be enchanted? Middlewood Journal is that kind of book, because Helen Correll is that kind of observer. The book is a year’s record–in journal entries and gorgeous sketches–of Correll’s daily walks from her house, the Middlewood of the title, through the surrounding countryside of South Carolina’s Piedmont. Correll’s surroundings aren’t grand or particularly wild. But through her eyes and talented hands, they are compelling.

Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for this book. It begins, “Warning: Middlewood Journal is addictive.” I stand by that claim. It is, in the best possible way: that of inciting wonder.

The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff

Jefferson's Monticello, with two of the women he loved on the lawn Jefferson’s Monticello, with two of the women he loved strolling the lawn

I picked up this book because I’ve admired Scharff since we became friends in grad school. I kept reading because her view of Jefferson through the lives of the women who in many ways defined him is fascinating. A professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Scharff is a dogged researcher, a creative thinker and an outspoken feminist. She’s also a witty and trenchant writer, as this passage about Jefferson’s mother’s reaction to his early revolutionary views shows:

What was a mother to think, as her son and his compatriots tacked toward treason? Jane Randolph Jefferson had been born in England and reared among British gentry in Virginia. She valued the fine things connected with the mother country. … In ordinary times her men might hold any number of bold ideas or unconventional philosophies, but such notions would have fewer real consequences.

The Women Jefferson Loved brings alive the five key women in Jefferson’s life: his mother, his wife, his daughters, and his mistress, who was also his slave. It’s a great read, and a window into the women–and men–of an extraordinary time.


And now that brag:

Every year Story Circle Network, a national association of writers of memoir and life-stories, picks a blogger for the previous year to honor with their “Super Star Blogger Award.” This time around, it’s me, for this very blog. I’m deeply honored. Thank you, writing sisters!

And thank you, community of readers, for walking this journey with me.

Cranes and home

Sandhill cranes flying over a marsh, Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado

Last weekend, I taught a creative writing workshop at the Monte Vista Crane Festival, an annual celebration of the return of some 20,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes to the San Luis Valley.

After we settled in around the table in the meeting room at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, I asked each of the 16 attendees why they had signed up for the workshop. Their answers ranged from “I love nature and want to learn how to articulate that without sounding cliched” to “I’m not a writer but I love to read.”

As I listened to them, I thought about how I would answer my own question. As is so often true when I teach, I learned at least as much as my students.

Sandhill cranes gathering over Blanca Peak, San Luis Valley, Colorado

Why had I driven to the San Luis Valley on the night before a snowstorm was predicted to arrive, in order to donate my time to teach a creative writing workshop?

The simple answer is to support the Crane Festival, an example of a community loving its environment and sharing it (economic development of the sort that spreads the “wealth,” that is the cranes and the wonder of their time in the valley, without consuming it).

That’s not all of it though.

It was an excuse to haul myself out of my twin ruts of writing and carpentry and witness the spectacle of thousands of sandhill cranes on “spring break” in their long migration, feeding and loafing, dancing as pairs court each other anew, and calling in those low, throaty voices.

When I hear the purring, rhythmic call of sandhill cranes, whether in the air overhead or issuing from hundreds of throats in a marsh, I know I am home. The sound is as elemental as the earth itself breathing, and as basic to my place on earth as the fragrance of sagebrush, turpentine-sweet, after a summer rain.

Slithering slowly down Poncha Pass last weekend in a  snowstorm.

Although I was born and raised in the Midwest, I belong here, where the Rocky Mountains spear up against skies so clear and intensely blue we habitually squint, where the shrub desert spreads out, dust-dry, to the far horizon. Where spring sounds like sandhill cranes, ravens call in winter dawns so cold your breath freezes in the air, where summers sparkle with wildflowers and buzz with hummingbirds, and fall smells like snow clinging to golden aspen leaves. (And late winter storms sometimes make my road-trips more exciting than I’d like.)

In the end,love is why I drove to Monte Vista to teach, and why I write: Because I love this life and the community it weaves on Earth. This watery blue and green planet and all its inhabitants–huge to microscopic; four-legged, eight-legged, rooted, finned, winged, wriggling or ciliate–have my heart.

My attachment to this place and to life in all its breathtaking diversity is an essential part of who I am, an expression of my elemental terraphilia, our species’ innate love of this planet and its communities of lives.

The San Luis Valley, text by Susan J. Tweit, photographs by Glenn Oakley

As I wrote in The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes, my love song to this place with photographer Glenn Oakley,

Perhaps what allows a newcomer to belong to the valley is the same gift that allows humanity to belong to this rare blue planet: an ability to love its miraculous as well as its mundane. This paradoxical desert of water and sand, a place that dances in the wind and echoes with the throaty calls of sandhill cranes, reminds me of what it is to love with a whole heart, to be at home, no matter who I am, where I was born, or how long I will stay.

In ten days, I’ll be back in the Valley, this time leading a group of writers in a four-day Write & Retreat workshop, with a field trip to see and hear the cranes, as well as time to soak, think, write and rediscover the calling of heart and spirit.


Filmmaker, writer and birder June Inuzuka attended my Crane Fest workshop and was kind enough to give me a shout-out on her blog. A bow in thanks to you, June.

Books: True Nature & Resilience

Two extraordinary hand-made books have landed on my desk recently, one printed conventionally but written in the author’s fluid calligraphy and illustrated from her field-journals, and the other entirely hand-made, even the paper.

Barbara Bash’s revised book, True Nature

The first, a revised edition of Barbara Bash’s beloved True Nature: An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude, chronicles a spiritual journey and an artistic one, as Bash makes clear up front:

This is the story of four solitary retreats spent in a cabin in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. During these times I practiced sitting meditation and nature journaling. Both activities are contemplative, developing awareness and attentiveness to the world. I wanted to see how they might weave together when mixed with the simplicity and starkness of solitude.

True Nature is simply beautiful, and as adventurous as the author finds herself to be. Sometimes the words become BIG, sometimes they dance around on the page, sometimes they stand out in bright colors.

Bash is candid about the difficulties of her solitary retreats, the fears that rush in uninvited, including a debilitating fear of the dark discovered years before in her only previous solitary retreat.

She is tests that fear, but the darkness defeats her each time. Finally, on her final session, she realizes she can “enter [the woods] at twilight and let the darkness gather around me.” She climbs onto a flat rock and waits,

my heart … beating fast, my breath high in my chest. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of what I can’t see. … Relax the brow. Relax the mind. Sitting, watching, listening.

The pages of the book itself trace the gathering dusk, shifting from ivory to a purplish watercolor wash, to deepest gray and then black with tiny stars and white writing. Bash stays through her fears until she “feels her way” off the rock in complete darkness:

Just as I step out of the woods, a bat banks and turns right in front of my face; its soft wings beat the air against my cheek. It feels like a salute.

(Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

Resilience, Aimee Lee’s handmade book, with its handmade wrappings and a key to the paper, along with a note from the artist.

Resilience, the other book, came like a gift out of the air, a small package in my post box wrapped in pink handmade paper, from an unfamiliar address. I carried it home and opened it carefully, making sure to not damage the wrappings. Inside was a book and this note:

Dear Susan, I have been wanting to give this to you since I made it. Please accept it as a token of thanks for sharing all you have been living through. After having my first book published this fall, I admire your work even more! with love, Aimee

I held the book tenderly and read it through, even the hand-lettered colophon. Then I went to Aimee’s website and looked through her work. (Watch this video of her building a traditional Korean papermaking studio and teaching how to make the paper. Fiber-folk, check out her knitted books!)

A two-page spread from Resilience, illustrating the careful word-placement on the rough-textured paper.

A free-form poem written in pencil on just nine two-page spreads, Resilience is brief. But wise. And beautiful.

Here is the entire text, with apologies that I cannot achieve Aimee’s gorgeous word-placement on the page:

There are the famous words about
your one wild and precious life* (footnote: *Mary Oliver)

and those about how life is like getting into a boat that’s just
about to sail out to sea and sink* (footnote: *Suzuki)

There are words,
so many words.
So many words in the world.

when you are lying in bed
deciding if it is best for the hot tears to run into your ears or
onto the pillow,

more than words course through your body.


Then you pick up the pencil


and return to words.

I read the key Aimee had included detailing what fibers each paper was made from and where it was made. And lay on the couch thinking that the world is full of such love and beauty and that sometimes we humans rise and embrace those qualities. Breaking our hearts open–intentionally or not–invites that goodness in, changing us in ways we cannot imagine.

Thank you, Barbara and Aimee, for opening my heart in new ways. And thanks to you all for journeying with me.

A book & more carpentry

A Place All Our Own, by Mary Irish

Earlier this fall, a new garden memoir landed on my desk for review. The title, A Place All Our Own: Lives Entwined in a Desert Garden, intrigued me. My project-queue was so long right then that I set the book aside until I could find time to give it attention. When I finally dipped in and read the words below from the Introduction, I thought to myself, I want to live in that garden!

A truly comfortable garden is one where all the lives with whom we share it become intertwined, a place where most lives are tolerated, indeed welcome, and where a moderate live-and-let-live approach is enough to settle our differences.

A place where most lives are “tolerated, indeed welcome,” sounds like my kind of community, whether it be garden, town or nation. (Of course, we should tolerate all lives, but let’s face it: we’re human, and some lives behave in ways that are simply not tolerable or healthy.)

Mary Irish’s story of the yard she and her husband Gary tended for two decades in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is a tale of adapting to the harsh world that taught them tolerance–and love for the place and its tough inhabitants. A Place All Our Own is a bountiful story of plants and plant obsession, weather and insects, bird song and flower displays, and garden-grown wisdom about life.

(Read the full review at Story Circle Book Reviews.)


The big, and fabulous, table saw I am loving learning to use.

In last week’s post about falling under the spell of learning to use what author and all-around Queen of Projects, Susan Tomlinson calls “empowerment tools,” I mentioned that I have come to love Richard’s “huge table saw.” In case you thought that adjective was a bit of hyperbole, let me reassure you. That machine is huge, so much so that even Tool Guys covet it.

For those who worry about my safety, note that next to the blade-guard in the photo and the length of 1X6 I have just ripped into two pieces of trim are my safety glasses, sitting on top of the push-stick I use to keep my hands away from the lethal blade. There’s also an angled “feather” stick to keep the board I’m pushing through the saw pressed against the rip fence so it won’t bind. (I know this stuff thanks to my friends Maggie and Tony, to whom I am indebted in the best way for their patient tutelage.)

Fastening the end to the cabinet box with the trim nailer that is small enough that it fits my hand.

Today I finished the ends of the cabinet featured in last week’s post, which meant not only more practice with the table saw, but also getting to use that “cute” trim nailer again. And I ripped some pieces of trim so I can play with designs.

I’m starting with the kitchen window trim, because with an entire house full of trim carpentry projects it seems awfully rewarding to finish two projects in the very same room.

The cabinet now looks good from two sides, and again, I’m ridiculously pleased with myself. Learning carpentry at age 56 in a life radically changed in the past year and some, the tools I’m using are empowering.

That kitchen “peninsula” with ash plywood covering the end and a bluish strip of raw steel angle iron covering the edge where plywood and corrugated roofing meet.

By the way, if you look closely at the angle iron trim covering the closest corner of the cabinet, you’ll see that the screws are opposite each other on the two side of that steel trim. I had the holes pre-drilled at the metal shop at my local lumberyard, and only later realized I should have had them staggered. Why? So the screws angling inward from the two sides wouldn’t hit each other. I’m learning….

And now I’m curled up on the couch with a fire in the woodstove. The temperature outside is 10 degrees (yes, that’s F) and plummeting. An inch of feathery snow whitens the ground from the same storm that dumped 15 inches on the high peaks, a huge boost to our previously nonexistent snow pack.

Blessings to you all!

The view from my soon-to-be-trimmed kitchen window at dusk.

Catching Up: Keynote & Comic

Rhymes With Orange, Copyright Hilary B. Price

The comic first: I was cleaning out another one of Richard’s file cabinets the other day. (He had eight four-drawer file cabinets full of teaching files, academic publications, expert witness work, and three decades of Fine Woodworking, Fine Homebuilding, and assorted sculpture magazines; plus office supplies–the man loved binder clips.)

At the bottom of one drawer, I found a yellowed bit of newspaper, slightly crumpled. I extracted it carefully, smoothed it out, and burst out laughing. (Click on the the comic to enlarge it.)

That particular strip could have been written specifically for my late love. Richard was a mathematician who “spoke” in complex equations, casually spinning out strings of numbers and variables to model some phenomenon, and also an artist who never, ever could successfully estimate how long it would take him to finish any creative project.

Once, after watching him struggle to get a handle on how long a project would take, I suggested he take his best estimate and triple or quadruple it. He was shocked–he couldn’t imagine it would take so long to complete anything, even when, over and over again, it actually did.

“Prosthesis,” basalt and steel, by Richard Cabe. He found this “orphaned” chunk of basalt column on the side of a rural highway and decided to reconnect it to the earth with a steel prosthesis that continues the shape of the original column.

I finally figured out why it was so hard for him: he estimated from experience, and he could only remember the amount of time his hands were actually on the tools. He forgot the thinking time that preceded and wove through the hands-on work, the time our friend Jerry Scavezze, goldsmith extraordinaire, calls R&D time (research and development). The R&D time is often much longer than the hands-on time (sometimes by years), hence the wild inaccuracy of Richard’s project-time estimates.

I learned to not have expectations about when he would finish a particular piece,  to just enjoy what emerged, like “Prosthesis,” which sits where I can admire it every day, running a hand across its polished top and remembering my love and the extraordinary creativity that wove through every aspect of his life.


Now, that keynote. I promised that I would post the video of “Writing With Heart,” my keynote at the October Women Writing the West Conference. And here it is, thanks to the video shooting and editing talents of Laureen Pepersack of REV Productions in Santa Fe.

The video is 34 minutes long, so in order make the download manageable, it comes in two parts. I called the talk “Writing With Heart” because I was speaking to an audience of writers; it’s not, however, specific to writing. It’s about how to bring our authentic selves to any creative endeavor–including everyday life itself. You could substitute “art” or “science” or “living” for writing and the point would be essentially the same.

Take a look, let me know what you think, and feel free to pass the links on to others. And, as I say in the video, thank you for being part of my community.

Kindness as a creative act

A waterlily blooms at Denver Botanic Gardens

When I was reviewing Christian McEwen’s book about re-imagining life to allow time and space for creativity to flourish, World Enough & Time, I flagged a passage where she quotes Twyla Tharp: “‘If you are generous to someone, you are in effect making him [or her] lucky. … It is like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune.'”

McEwen adds:

In other words, generosity is generative (they come in fact, from the same root, the Latin genere: ‘to engender, or be born’). Kindness is itself a creative act.

Generosity is generative; kindness is a creative act. Like the ring of ripples resulting from a pebble dropped into a still pool, with lovingkindness, the community of good fortune spreads outward.

The waning crescent moon aims at Venus, the planet of love, as they draw apart on their celestial journeys.

One of many things my late husband Richard and I talked about in his last months was how to make sure our ordinary every days reflected the great love we shared. Living with our hearts “outstretched as if they were our hands,” (a line from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song) was key to that, we agreed.

“You taught me to be generous,” he said. “I am grateful for that gift.”

“You were already generous,” I responded. “I just helped you find and exercise your natural generosity.”

Kindness as a creative act was illustrated in an email I received the other day from friends who we had reconnected with during Richard’s journey with brain cancer. Nancy and Richard had worked together decades ago in Boulder, and then lost touch.

When Nancy and Dave, a plein air painter, learned Richard had brain cancer, they were tremendously supportive. Among other things, after touring Richard’s studio and rock yard they commissioned him to sculpt a water feature for their front garden.

Richard played with ideas. But by the time he had figured out the sculpture, a jagged flagstone slab that rose out of a granite base the way the Flatirons rise out of the Front Range above Boulder, his tumor had essentially destroyed his right brain.

The “upraised arms” rock, a piece of gneiss with a distinct fold. (My sandal is for scale.)

He could explain the design, but could no longer sculpt. He did however, show me the boulders he would use, including the “upraised arms” rock, a piece of beautifully figured pink and gray gneiss with sparkly mica flecks.

“The fold reminds me of when you’re happy,” I said, “and you throw your hands upward, raising your arms high.”

He smiled, leaning on his cane. “That’s Buddha’s rock.”

I was puzzled.

“Their Buddha sculpture needs a seat to go with the water feature,” he said. “The upraised arms rock will hold him.”

I forgot about that rock in the intensity of the last months of Richard’s life, and in figuring out my new solo existence. Late this summer though, I was moving boulders in Richard’s rock yard, and uncovered it.

I emailed Nancy and Dave to ask if they wanted the rock as a “seat” for Buddha. Did they ever! As luck would have it, they were coming to Salida, so we arranged to have brunch and load up the rock.

Which proved to be a challenge, since it weighs around 100 pounds. But Dave had a tarp to use as a sled; we found a piece of lumber for a ramp, and tugged and hauled it into their Jeep.

Buddha on the “upraised arms” rock. (Photo by Dave Mayer)

One a fine day this week, Dave found time to set the rock in their courtyard garden. And emailed me this story with a photo of Buddha on his new seat:

Cleared a space, dug the hole, measured, dug some more, tweaked, and rotated the stone to drop in place. Duh! I had it in backwards, rotated one turn too many! (So much for an artist’s spatial recognition talents.)

I thought, “This is way too heavy to lift out of the hole again.” As I struggled, I said silently, “Richard, help me get this rock back out!”

Just like that, out it came. WOW! Now it’s back in … with the uplifting grain the correct way.

Generosity is generative, kindness a creative act, connecting us in a community of good fortune. You, me, Richard’s spirit, Nancy and Dave, the Buddha on his upraised arms rock. All it takes is living our days with love outermost, arms upraised, open to joy….