Shootings, haiku, and gardens

Last night I went to sleep thinking of yesterday’s tragedy in Tucson, and this morning woke with a haiku in my head. As some of you know, I have a daily haiku practice: I post a haiku and photo every morning on Facebook and just the haiku on Twitter (search: susanjtweit).

It’s my way of fostering awareness and mindfulness about what’s happening in life–in particular, the community of the land–in the virtual world of internet social networking. The brevity of classical haiku–a whole thought contained in 17 syllables–is perfect for Facebook, and for Twitter’s 140-character limit. The discipline helps me shape my thoughts and choose my words, and say something I hope is useful in short form.

As I understand it, haiku was originally a sort of epigram introducing a longer poem; it’s traditionally a 5/7/5 form, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third, although in English that particular rhythm is a strict rule. Haiku is usually focused on nature and landscape. There’s traditionally a reference to the season or the time of year and a word that acts as a hinge between two thoughts, scenes or parts of the poem, and it often incorporates a surprise.

Here’s what formed in my head as I thought of yesterday’s shooting:

Haiku for Tucson–and the world:

To grow healing:
sprout. reach for the sun. drink rain. root.
grow community.


My heart goes out to Representative Giffords and her family, along with the other shooting victims and their families, and the shooter and his family–to the whole community, really.


Today’s post was to be just a brief garden report in honor of the persistence of our kitchen garden in this extraordinarly dry and cold winter. We’ve received less than an inch of moisture here in the valley since last September; our snow shovels sit unused on the back porch. Without the blanket of moisture, nighttime temperatures have already dropped as low as minus twelve, and winter’s a long way from being over.


Yesterday, when I pulled back the row covers on the two beds in the kitchen garden that we keep under wraps over the winter, to check the soil moisture, I was delighted to find not just hardy spinach and winter herbs like parseley and chervil thriving; the baby lettuces were looking great as well. That is an auspicious sign for the occasional winter salad, as well as a impressively good jump-start on greens for spring.

(That’s the row covers in the photo above, with a skiff of snow–all we’ve gotten this winter so far–giving them a bit of white frosting. Below is some of the lettuce. These particular plants are Monet’s Garden Mix from Renee’s Garden Seeds–aren’t they pretty? They’re small but thriving despite the sub-zero nights!)



One final note: Tomorrow I have the honor of kicking off the blog book tour for a charming and insightful new children’s book, Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D. I thought I knew a lot about brains after the past 19 months with Richard’s brain cancer and his two brain surgeries, but this book taught me some new aspects of our body’s most amazing organ. So swing by tomorrow for a review of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain and a special offer from publisher Little Pickle Press. (Note to FTC: I don’t receive any compensation for these reviews–I should be so lucky!)


Lighten Up: Throwing Out the Dishwater

It’s Blog Action Day today, and the topic is clean water. In honor of the thousands of bloggers uniting to remind the world that water, especially the clean stuff we need for our survival, is a limited and precious quantity, here’s “Throwing Out the Dishwater,” an essay I wrote on restoring an intimate connection to the water cycle.

Once I lived in a one-room log cabin where I pumped my water from a well and heated it on a wood stove. When I was finished washing my dishes, I carried the dishpan outside and tossed the water on the nearby sagebrush.

It seemed natural to me to return the water to the same ground I pumped it from. The extra “rain” from my dishpan nurtured the patch of sagebrush off my tiny porch, keeping it green and fragrant even in dry years. I was careful not to foul my supply: my disposal site was far from the well itself and the groundwater deep beneath the surface was buffered by the natural filter of soil atop layers of porous gravel.


Nowadays my house is serviced via pipes from the main under the street. Water appears at the twist of a faucet handle and vanishes in a swirl down the drain, with no effort on my part. Such easy access is a mixed blessing. My valley, along with other areas of the West, is entering its tenth year of drought, despite recent snows. After watching an extraordinary February heat wave suck the snow off the peaks and the moisture from the soil, I grew more and more uneasy.

Water is a limited commodity here, but you wouldn’t know it by turning on your tap. No matter the amount of precipitation we receive – whether briefly generous or so scant it portends drought – our municipal supply pours out unchecked. (Our rural town installed water meters less than a decade ago, and only because state law required metering. There are still those here who view the meters as part of an ongoing conspiracy designed to divert more water to wealthy urban Colorado for its acres of lawns, and a threat to rural life, liberty, and the pursuit of impoverished self-determination.)

I miss the effort I used to expend on drawing water: turn on the pump, wait for it to pull liquid from below the surface, open the faucet to fill the storage vessels, and lug them down the hill and across the porch into the cabin.

The pumping time and flow varied from season to season, and year to year with the variation in precipitation. Carrying the water from pump to cabin gave me direct feedback on my consumption: at seven pounds per gallon, I felt every cup. It was a powerful incentive for conservation.

I’m not going to rip out my plumbing. Still, when late winter turned in hot and dry, I wanted to do something to honor the reality of the water supply I depend on. After some discussion, my husband and I bought a dishpan to collect the water from our kitchen sink, which we pour onto our compost pile.

The dishpan holds 11.4 quarts, slightly less than three gallons, and we empty it three times a day. That’s a little over eight gallons of water, a small fraction of the 271 gallons each person in my community consumes per day on average. But it’s enough to remind me that the water I use does not come free: energy to run pumps and purifiers and add manufactured chemicals is required to move it from ditches and wells to my house to sewage plant to river.

Spilling the dishwater onto my compost pile, I am returning some of what I use every day to the soil, where it can percolate through the layers, cleansed by the lives under the surface, and recharge the aquifer I draw from. 

I’m also breaking the law. Colorado water law allows consumers just one use, not two, before returning the water to the nearest river. The Uniform Plumbing Code defines dishwater as “blackwater,” the equivalent of household toxic waste, and forbids its disposal except into septic or sewage systems.

The first infraction is a technicality, the second a matter of sanitation. Ours is vegetarian dishwater, free of the animal flesh and fat that cause contamination, so I am confident of the ability of the microbes in our compost pile to sanitize it at least as well as any sewage plant.

Throwing out our dishwater won’t solve my community’s water problems, but it will hone my awareness. It is a private act, an everyday ritual that links me to the consequences of my actions: the more water I use, the more dishpans I haul.


It is also a spiritual choice. By taking responsibility for my used water, instead of consigning it to someone else down the drain, I commit myself to honesty about my impact on this landscape. In that small way, I acknowledge that my fate rests with that of the community of beings dependent on the natural cycles of weather and water and time.

As I spill out the dishwater, I honor the connection between the water that sustains my life and the piece of earth I call home.

(A different version of this essay originally appeared in High Country News and the Denver Post’s “Colorado Voices” feature, and was collected in the anthology Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers, edited by Laura Pritchett. Thanks, Laura!)


Lighten Up: eating locally and organically

After a weekend spent cooking for a house full of visiting family, I have food on my mind; in particular, ways to lighten the carbon footprint of what we eat. According to Stephen Hopp in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, agriculture in the United States consumes about 17 percent of the nation’s total energy use, second only to our driving habit.

Producing our food is energy-intensive for three main reasons: the distance it travels from farm to table–an average of 1,500 miles, the huge amount of processed food many of us eat, and energy-intensive farming methods, especially nitrogen-based fertilizers.

In terms of of processing, it takes energy to turn whole food into something “conveniently” packaged, whether a box of crackers that includes additives like high-fructose corn syrup (which itself might as well be bottled petroleum, as Michael Pollan points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma) or the fast-food burgers we eat with abandon. According to one researcher’s estimate, producing, transporting, processing and delivering a cheeseburger (plus its packaging) emits about 11 pounds of greenhouse gases. Americans eat an average of between 50 and 150 burgers a year (and accounting for those who, like Richard and I, don’t eat them at all, there are folks eating more than that!), which means the greenhouse gas “cost” is equivalent to the emissions from 6.5 to 19.6 million SUVs. Ouch.

Then there’s our dependence on synthetic fertilizers. Researchers Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian calculate that as much as 40 percent of the energy used in producing our food goes to making synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Producing and transporting a pound of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer releases almost 8 pounds of greenhouse gases (plus the other deleterious environmental effects, including pollution of groundwater, including drinking-water wells, and lakes, streams and rivers).

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Hopp calculates that if each of us ate just one meal of locally, produced, organic food a week, we would save an astonishing 1.1 BILLION barrels of oil, many times the total released so far in the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.


Which is part of why I grow an organic kitchen garden that allows me to step out the kitchen door and pick whatever is ripe–this week it’s mixed lettuces in green and red, ruffled and lobed, sugar snap peas, baby beets, strawberries, and the last of the asparagus. What I grow with my own hands is the most local of food. What if you don’t grow a garden? Here in Salida, we’re fortunate to have a weekly Farmer’s Market, as well as community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms that sell shares, which yield weekly boxes of produce through the growing season (June through September).


And just in time for our weekend deluge of guests, Ploughboy, Salida’s farm fresh market, opened in sight of our house last Thursday. (That’s the Ploughboy building, seen through Richard’s sculptural arbor at the foot of our yard in the photo above.)


Thanks to Kerry and Dave Nelson’s vision and determination (there’s Kerry in the photo above), we can now walk over and buy a whole range of locally produced food, from tilapia (produced in the prison aquaculture program in Canon City) and eggs to tomatoes, greens, and potatoes. They’re open seven days a week, and they carry whatever’s in season from our foodshed, which they define as a hundred mile radius around our small town.

This weekend, cooking for nine people ranging in age from 10 to 81 years, Richard and I made sure that every meal was mostly local, from the fish tacos to the sourdough pancakes (made with organic whole-wheat flour grown and milled in the San Luis Valley just south of us), and the basil-pesto sandwiches with ripe tomatoes from the same San Luis Valley. Of course, we also ate wild salmon and cherries, brought by my brother from Washington state–a contribution of food local to his home territory and transported in the same small, fuel-efficient car that carried his family contingent to the gathering.

Here in high-desert rural Colorado, eating locally and organically might seem difficult or unreasonable. But as it turns out, it’s not. It’s rewarding–and delicious. Thanks to all those who produce food in the region, whether from our own gardens or aquaculture at the state prison. We’re linked by this web of local food and the community of the land that produces it.

Earth Day News

Earth Day is forty today, and the news is full of tips on green living and environmental reporting. I had actually forgotten it was Earth Day–brain cancer treatment and
writing had my attention–until I glanced at the wireless monitor for
our solar power system. (I check the output every day to see how much
electricity we’re generating. It’s as absorbing as any television show
to this green gear-head.)


I looked right at the bottom line, lifetime production, and saw as of today, our rooftop power plant has generated over 10 megawatt-hours of clean electricity. And it was connected only a year ago! (Thanks to Tim Klco of Peak Solar for the installation, Xcel Energy for the rebate, and SunPower for the system.)

Ten megawatts, by the way, is almost a thirtieth of the output of the average-sized coal-fired power plant. Which means that 30 rooftop photovoltaic systems the size of ours could potentially put one coal-fired power plant out of business, removing tons of CO2 and other nasty emissions from the air, and tons of fly ash from the Earth. Sounds good to me. 

Since it’s Earth Day, I offer this short list of words to help cultivate terraphilia, our species’ inborn love of this planet and its web of lives, every day:

1. Honor: Take a moment to honor the place where you find yourself. Look around you and pay homage to the landscape and the lives you share it with. I salute the four directions every morning as part of my yoga practice, beginning with East, where the sun rises, then moving to South, where the light comes from, West, where the Sun sets, and North, where the cold comes from. As I say each direction to myself, I envision the landmark that stands for that direction, an actual piece of Earth nearby. Then I salute Mother Earth, Father Sky, and myself, at home where I am.

2. Respect: Get to know the other species with whom you share your everyday landscapes. (No, I don’t mean your spouse or your teenagers–they just seem like other species. Or your pets.) Stop to greet a plant, a bird, an insect, or another animal. Really look at that life, and think about it as a neighbor, someone you’d like to know. Watch that life from day to day, week to week, season to season. Learn its name, its habits and routines, how its life changes over time. Make notes, sketch it, take photos. Get to know the community of lives that weave around your own. (That’s two other species in the photo above: the pasque flower blooming in our front courtyard grassland, and the ant collecting nectar from the base of its petals.)

3. Share: Live as if you are part of a community. Make space for other species in your daily habits. Everything you don’t consume means more for some other life–more resources left as wildlife habitat, more clean water running in rivers and streams, more land undeveloped, more air unpolluted…. You get the idea. Better still, restore some wildlife habitat where you live: plant native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs in a corner of your yard and watch them grow a community of lives. Even a pot of natives on your balcony or patio will attract native bees and butterflies, and re-connect you to the rhythms of life.

4. Enjoy: Stop to smell the metaphorical roses and do whatever nurtures your sense of wonder. It only takes a moment to feed your soul: notice a sunrise or sunset, look overhead for the sparkle of stars in the night sky, listen to a snatch of birdsong, smell the fresh living earth after a rainstorm, or feel the warm sun on your skin. If you can’t remember how to enjoy nature and the flow of life, take a kid outside and roll in the grass, look for shapes in the clouds, listen for butterfly wings, and hunt for caterpillars among the wildflowers. It’ll come back to you.

I’ve got some personal good news too. Forgive me if I’m slow to get to that; weathering the ups and downs in this journey with brain cancer means taking it at my own pace. I’m a walker–steady, observing as I go–not a sprinter, racing out of the gate.

So, the news: Yesterday when we met with Richard’s oncologist, she reported that his blood platelet levels have rebounded to normal again, his lymphocytes are up too, and Tuesday’s brain MRI looks good. Dr. Klein showed us the images, including some scar tissue from his brain surgery and the radiation, and a few small areas the radiologist wants to watch. Other than those areas, she said, his brain looks normal, and she’s pretty pleased about that. As of yesterday, he’s started back on the chemotherapy regime that we hope will extend his life for a good long time.

It seems odd to be reporting on Earth Day about our relief that he’s back to taking poison, but there it is. Life’s an interesting journey, and it continues to ask us to stretch and grow, embracing what comes with open hearts, as best we can.

So on we walk. Thanks for your company and support!

Brown snow and eager tomatoes

The other day we drove home over the mountains from Denver, knowing from the weather forecast and road report that we were headed into high-wind conditions going across South Park, the shallow bowl of mountain grassland that lies at around 9,500 feet elevation (give or take a few hundred feet) between our valley and the Great Plains. (Yes, the very South Park that inspired the television show.)

Wind is normal in this largely treeless mountain basin surrounded by higher peaks. In winter, it blows the snow into huge drifts and coats the road with ice. We could have waited out the weather, but we were eager to be home. So we bucked the gusts up through the foothills and over Kenosha Pass into the north end of South Park. The wind was fierce, but the sun had clearly been out, because the pavement was still warm enough to be wet, not icy. (The air temperature was a brry 21 degrees F.)


The driving wasn’t bad until after the little town of Fairplay (the name is a reference to claim-jumping and gambling back in the silver and gold mining days of the late 1800s), when snow showers closed in and streams of white stuff started blowing across the road as in the photo above. About then we noticed something funny in the snow drifts along the highway. The normally pristine white snow was tinted rosy brown. The color was deeper on the lee side of the drifts and paler in the wind-scoured areas. (Notice the pattern on the drift in the photo below–the lee side of the drift is the dark slope.)

Looking at the weirdly colored snow, I remembered waking before dawn to the tapping of sleet on our motel balcony and later being surprised to see our Subaru splattered with brown, as if it had rained dirt. Oh. My mind linked the two observations and I realized the rosy brown snow and the dirt rain in Denver were part of the same event: a region-wide spring dust storm. These storms have become more common as the Desert Southwest has warmed in recent years. High winds roar across the desert of the Four Corners region and around Las Vegas, Nevada, in early spring and pick up the dry reddish soil, exposed by a combination of persistent drought, overgrazing, vehicle erosion, and blading for massive new developments. The winds carry the clouds of soil long distances north and east until precipitation, either snow or rain, pelts the dust to the ground. 

These storms have scary implications for regional water supplies. The dust layer darkens the snow surface, causing it to accumulate more solar heat and thus melt more quickly. Dust-storms on Easter weekend of 2009 painted whole mountainsides reddish brown, accelerating snowpack melting by as much as two weeks, meaning rivers and streams peaked sooner and dried out more quickly, which left water-users in a region where every drop of water is allocated to some use or other scrambling for the vital liquid by the end of summer. Early snowmelt means soils dry out sooner too, which leaves landscapes droughty and more susceptible to erosion when the spring winds come up, which means dust events are more likely, coating mountain snowpacks with brown layers…. It’s a self-feeding cycle that can just get worse and worse. (Here’s a great article on the
phenomenon and its implications by Michelle Nijhuis in High
Country News. If that one isn’t accessible without a password, try this
from the Gunnison Country Times.)

As we drove past the brown drifts in South Park the other day, I shivered. Not from cold, from worry about how we’re treating this amazing planet, the watery blue and vibrant green globe that Buckminster Fuller called “Spaceship Earth” because it hurtles through space carrying its breathing cargo of lives, us included. It’s our home. In fact, as I’ve said before, it’s the only home our species has ever known. It’s time to take that seriously and do a better job of being good planetary citizens before we get voted off….

I’ve thought about the brown snow since we got home, and didn’t want to write about it. It’s a problem that raises difficult issues–too many humans living in a region that has always been too dry to support big populations of any species, for one. There’s no easy answer, no cheery way to sum it up. I have enough difficult issues in my life right now and some days I struggle to keep my own spirits up. Why borrow trouble? as a friend of mine used to ask whenever I brought up big things.

Because life’s not all wildflowers and bluebirds singing and sunny days. Better that we face what we’ve got than pretend it’s not there. I guess those rosy brown snowdrifts are my call to dig deeper in my writing and ask hard questions–ones I can’t necessarily answer, but which need to be raised. Maybe I’ll write an op-ed for Writers on the Range, a syndicate I contribute to now and then, on brown snow and what I read in that dusty tint. It’s not a pretty story, but I’m afraid it’s one we need to hear–again and again until we are moved.


I can’t end this with brown snow, because my tomato seedlings have something to say, too. There they are in the photo above shot this afternoon, all nine varieties, looking eager. (Thank you, Renee Shepherd, of Renee’s Garden Seeds!) But they’re not going out into the garden yet. It’s only the second week in April, and our last average frost date here at 7,000 feet elevation is Mother’s Day. So they have a few weeks inside. I’ll transplant the biggest of them to larger pots this weekend, and that’ll keep them happy until we plant ours out in the garden in insulating walls-o-water. (We only need ten plants; all the others will go to friends, many of whom reserve their plants weeks in advance!) After their first night outside, those tomato plants will be wondering why they ever yearned to move from their sun-warmed paradise inside to the real world. But they’ll get over their initial sulking. They’ll grow tall and strong and revel in the kiss of sun and the buzz-pollination of bumblebees and the heaviness of sweet, ripe fruit. As will we.

Waiting As Practice

We’re home, which is a good thing when you’re trying to absorb more life lessons than anyone can really assimilate over what seems like eternity but has really only been a bit over six weeks. Last Friday, Richard was in the operating room and then the ICU, today he’s in our living room. (That’s my beloved Frankenstein below–Doesn’t he look like a thoughtful and elegant version of Mary Shelley’s monster?) The journey home over three mountain passes, all over 10,000 feet in elevation was hard on his head and his energy. But being home is definitely good for his spirit, and today, he’s feeling stronger.

And we’re waiting for news on his tumor. We still haven’t heard the pathology results, which of course, we hope will be summed up in one simple and powerful word: benign. Waiting is hard, especially for something like this. There’s also a grace to it. Waiting forces a sort of suspension of time and of the oh-so-determined purposefulness we often think life requires. It’s a pause in our drive and busyness, a hush in our chatter, a time in which we can listen within to the softer, quieter voice that often speaks for our true self, the self unencumbered by shoulds and woulds and what-ifs. When we engage in the waiting mindfully and don’t push it aside, waiting allows us the opportunity to just be. To breathe, literally and metaphorically. To practice life pared to the basics. To perceive what we hear and feel and are, without filters.

I’m also practicing another kind of waiting, along with all of the other lives inhabiting this unique sentient planet: We’re collectively waiting, whether we realize it or not, for the changes global climate change is bringing. I like to think of this as active waiting, a time when after stilling ourselves and honoring our fears and our feelings of being overwhelmed by a global trend of such magnitude and gravity, we take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. And then we do what we can to change the way we live. 

So in honor of Blog Action Day, where thousands of bloggers around the world are writing about global climate change, I offer this list in no particular order of the things Richard and I are doing to reduce our carbon footprint and to more generously share this beautiful blue planet with all of our fellow travelers in all sizes, shapes, colors, and species:

  • Walking more, driving less.
  • Washing our laundry in cold water and hanging it outside on a clothesline to dry (the bonus is that beautiful fresh smell).
  • Installing a solar power plant (photovoltaic modules) on our roof to generate electricity. (Does anyone have a “solar-powered blog” tag? I’m writing this post with solar power.)
  • Eating locally and organically as much as possible, including growing much of our food in our own kitchen garden. (That’s some of our garden produce above, harvested last week.) 
  • Darning the holes in our socks instead of throwing the socks “away,” as part of our aim to reuse as much as possible and recycle the rest.
  • Composting our garden waste (which then renews the soil that grows our food).
  • Heating our house primarily with the sun, supplementing with local wood burned in our woodstove.
  • Saving water: In some parts of the perennially water-starved American West, moving water from rivers and reservoirs to faucets (and treating and cleaning it after use) consumes as much as 40 percent of the electricity used in a particular area.
  • Restoring habitat for wild life in our own yard, in an effort to re-weave the frayed bonds forming the natural communities where we live. (Richard reminds me that we’ve seen unusual numbers of crows and grackles over the past few days–the grackles have been eating grasshoppers from the garden. I like that!)

Patience has never been one of my virtues. But as I practice waiting and listening and living a sustainable life, I’m amused to see that for some things, the things that matter, I can actually be patient. For a while, at least. Right now though, I’m going to do some active waiting and make lunch from the garden.