Wanderings

Eleven years and a few months ago, Richard Cabe, the man I had loved for almost three decades, died of brain cancer. We met in graduate school in Laramie, Wyoming, when I was in my 20s, went on one date, and a few months later, I married he and his four-year-old daughter, Molly.

And then promptly packed Molly and as many of our belongings as we could fit into a Subaru hatchback and left for West Virgina, where Richard had a faculty position at West Virginia University.

Two semesters later, we packed ourselves back into that same Subaru and headed west again, landing in Olympia, Washington, where we both worked in state government, and Molly discovered the joys of digging for geoducks, a treehouse in the back yard, and licking slugs (yes, they do numb your tongue!).

Until three years later, when we moved back to the Rockies, to Boulder, Colorado, so that Richard could finish his PhD. In our year there, I wrote my first book, Pieces of LightA Year on Colorado’s Front Range, a year’s journal of nature and humans in Boulder.

Molly, Richard, and me in front of our apartment in Boulder. (I was still a redhead then, with waist-length hair.)

From Boulder, we headed east to Ames, Iowa, for Richard’s post-doc at Iowa State University, in a rental truck with Molly riding between us in the front seat, and our old Volvo station wagon in tow. After two years, Richard scored a professorship at New Mexico State University, so off we headed to Las Cruces in our new (old) Volkswagen camper bus.

Seven years later, after I wrote five books about the North American deserts and Molly graduated from high school, we packed our household and our Sharpei, Perdida, into another rental truck, and set off to return to the Rockies and the small town of Salida, Colorado, where Richard had lived in his childhood. Molly drove our Isuzu SUV, towing a trailer loaded with overflow from the rental truck.

After fifteen years in Salida, I had written six more books and Richard had fulfilled two life dreams–building us a house mostly with his own hands and pursuing abstract sculpture. And then brain cancer altered our paths. (I chronicled that journey in Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, my 13th book.)

The house Richard built for us, with his historic studio behind.

In the aftermath of Richard’s death, I realized two things: I was deeply in debt and I needed to figure out how to earn a living in a hurry after taking two years off to care for he and my mom, who died in the same year. At least as important, after spending nearly three decades adapting to the people I loved and their needs, I didn’t know who I was as a solo adult.

Because of the debt, I had to sell the house Richard built for us, but never finished, and the adjacent historic studio, also not finished. (As a sculptor, mundane stuff like trimming windows, installing baseboard and interior doors, or building cabinet doors and drawers, and finishing bathrooms was not interesting.)

The front door at Terraphilia after the house was finished.

Friends patiently taught me how to use tools and materials to finish both the studio and the house over two years (you know who you are, and you have my sincerest thanks forever!). In the doing, I discovered that I loved learning how buildings worked, and envisioning what they needed.

So once I sold Terraphilia, the big house and the studio, I helped design and build a small house and detached garage with guest studio above. I had never designed a space just for me, and in the process, I learned as much about myself as I did about construction.

The front deck and door of Creek House, with Treehouse beyond.

Once Creek House and its companion, Treehouse, were finished though, I realized that Salida no longer felt like home. In fact, I was no longer was sure where home was–other than somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region where sagebrush grows.

My mid-century house in Cody, after re-storying both the house and yard.

So I headed back to northwest Wyoming, the last place I had felt at home before going to grad school and meeting Richard and Molly. I bought a once-beautiful mid-century modern house in Cody that, after three decades of neglect, needed a lot of love. My contractor and I spent the next two years bringing it back to life, and then, during the hard winter after my dad died, I sold it and headed south to Santa Fe, where the winters are milder and I have a circle of close writing friends.

The front entry of my Santa Fe condo (the one I lived in, not the rental), after re-storying. Sculptural basin by Richard Cabe, glass prayer flag sculpture by Greg Reiche. 

In Santa Fe, I bought and re-storyed two condos, one to live in and one to rent, and then sold both and moved out of town to a house with good bones but in need of a lot of love. (The Guy, who I had met in Wyoming that August, drove to Santa Fe to help me move.)

Casa Alegría, my house in Eldorado, outside Santa Fe.

A year later, after finishing Casa Alegría, my real estate sense said it was time to cash out, and my heart wanted to make one more try at Wyoming, so I sold the Casa and headed back to Cody. (Are you dizzy yet?)

Where I bought an ordinary ranch house in desperate need of updating, overlooking the Shoshone River in Cody. I was partly through re-storying that house when, on Thanksgiving weekend, a couple knocked on my door and asked if I would consider selling.

The front porch of my River View Drive house in Cody.

Which I took as a sign from the universe, so I put the house on the market, and ten days later, it sold.

Which is why a year ago, I moved again, this time to the little cottage I had bought as a winter writing escape in Montrose, Colorado, about an hour from the Guy’s farm. The cottage had a partially collapsed foundation and other serious needs, so I spent the rest of the winter and spring giving it a new lease on life, and then left to work at Ring Lake Ranch for the summer.

When I returned to the cottage after Labor Day, I had to admit it was too small for me at 672 square feet. So I finished re-storying it, and sold it to a single-mom teacher looking for a cozy and affordable place to raise her daughter.

The new front door at the cottage, plus one of the new windows.

And I bought a hundred-year-old bungalow in Paonia, a smaller and quieter town than Montrose. Almost twice the size of the Montrose cottage, with a two-car garage and a shady yard, it seemed like a place I could settle. Of course, it needed a little work.

I happily thinned trees and shrubs in the overgrown yard, oversaw the installation of photovoltaic panels on the roof, dug out under the floors so my contractor could crawl under and shore up sagging floor beams, and generally gave the place the love it needed. (Including the beautiful new front door in the photo at the top of the post.)

Only, and we’re getting to the end of the long story here, I realized that while I enjoy this house and yard, and the charming town of Paonia in this green valley of orchards and small farms, it is not home.

I’m a desert rat: I need sun and sagebrush and wildness nearby to walk. And at 66 years old, I no longer need (or want) the responsibility for a house and a yard. I need more time to write.

So I’m going to put my newly re-storyed Paonia bungalow up for sale and settle into a sunny condo at the north edge of Santa Fe, with coyotes singing from the nearby ridges, and a view of the Sangre de Cristo Range from my back deck. And someone else doing the maintenance!

My Santa Fe condo, a light-filled eyrie with views of the nearby wild all around. The Guy gave it an “A-plus” rating. 

I’ll visit the farm and Paonia in summers, and the Guy and the horses will come south in winter to a barn outside Santa Fe, a seasonal migration of sorts within our mutual home range, where sagebrush grows wild and mountains line at least one horizon. For me, now, that all feels just right.

 

Settling Into Home

Driving home the other evening, I stopped in the middle of the road to shoot this photo, because it captures what I love about this place I’ve landed after a decade of wandering. The valley, greened by water harvested from the surrounding peaks and mesas, is a patchwork of orchards, organic farms, and vineyards. The small town of Paonia nestled along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. And above, the still-mostly-wild landscapes of Grand Mesa and the West Elk Mountains.

It is that mix of healthy cultivated land and wild land that draws me, the lively small town, and the Guy nearby. And the sweet 1920s bungalow I bought, with its forest-glade backyard and cozy interior.

The yard and house need some work, but not a major re-storying project. Just polishing what is here, and shoring up some of the sagging bits. Nothing huge or scary.

Today, for instance, the Guy brought a chainsaw over, and we cut down and removed some of the sickly and spindly trees in the backyard forest that has become too crowded, and took out a few limbs that needed pruning, including the large crabapple branch weighing down the electric line.

The backyard after some thinning to give the existing trees more room to breathe and harvest sunlight.

I started the backyard tree removal project yesterday with my trusty hand-saw by removing the ash tree that had been allowed to grow horizontally right across the alley entrance to the garage. I think that snake-like tree was seeking light, but honestly, it wasn’t a healthy growth habit. (Also, I want to use that driveway!)

The light-seeking, horizontal-trunked ash tree before…

Removing it left me with a big pile of ash limbs to turn into chippings, ie, mulch for the yard.

And after removal, opening up the driveway and the alley entrance to my two-car, offset-door garage. 

In the front yard, I hand-sawed a whole thicket of root sprouts–some as tall as 12 feet–from base of the big cottonwood trees. Now you can actually see the front of the house from the street.

Big trees, tiny front yard, and a lot of gravel, which I’ll slowly replace with drought-tolerant natives for more of a cottage garden look.

I also planted several clusters of peony tubers and daffodil bulbs, which meant digging through six inches of gravel mulch and three layers of landscape cloth to make planting spots. And I planted two pots of native pollinator flowers to brighten up and add instant habitat to the gravel yard.

Front-yard seating area with a pot of native appleblossom grass, which the little native bees love.

Last week, the wonderful crew at Empowered Energy Systems installed solar panels on my south-facing roof.  They’re now hooked up to the power grid, so I’m generating my own clean electricity.

It makes me happy to have a solar power plant on my roof!

Inside, I’ve already gotten started on my part of the most difficult renovation project: digging out a passage under the floor to access the aptly named crawl space under the floor beams. Last weekend I spent a sweaty morning digging construction debris and loose dirt out of a small hatch in the dining-area floor, and carefully wheeling four loads of debris and dirt out of the house.

Yup, that’s the crawl space access, with the wheelbarrow positioned for me today out and lift up the debris and dirt. Fun stuff.

Sometime next month, my intrepid contractor, Jerry Fritts, will slide in, crawl over, and jack up the floor beams sagging under the weight of a quartzite-topped breakfast bar installed by the previous owner. In 1920, when the house was built, floor beams were not engineered to support the weight of rock-slab counters. Carefully jacking up the beams and putting support columns under them will give that old wood floor another 80 years of life!

In the midst of all of this, I’ve settled in, making the house my home. Here’s a quick tour, with before and after photos:

The former owner used the front porch as a dining room.

Very formal, and so not me!

I chose a different use.

For me, it’s the ideal library and writing room, and it has a south-facing window for Arabella, my venerable Christmas cactus.

The living room/kitchen area used to be HGTV metro modern.

Nice, but not my style, especially the light fixtures over the breakfast bar and the kitchen sink.

I’m more a southwest-style cottage person myself. I placed my dining area between the living room and the kitchen.

Oh yeah, that’s more me–colorful, comfy and eclectic.

What’s next?

Running a writing conference, and then turning to my own writing.

Next week, I drive to Oklahoma City for Women Writing the West’s 28th Annual Conference: Red Earth Voices–We All Have a Story to Tell. I’m teaching a landscape and language pre-conference workshop with my writing comadre, Dr. Dawn Wink, and helping to run the show. It’s going to be an inspiring and amazing three days, with keynote speakers Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, novelist Laura Pritchett, and memoirist Amy Irvine, plus tours of the new First Americans Museum and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, craft workshops, agent and editor pitches, roundtable critiques, the annual WILLA and LAURA awards, and much more.

It’s not too late to sign up for the conference, if you or someone you know wants to join a vibrant and welcoming community of women writers!

After the conference, I am home for the winter, and will finally be able to truly settle in and write. I can’t wait. Blessings to you all!

 

Lessons from the Ranch

I spent my summer working at Ring Lake Ranch, a spiritual retreat center high in the Torrey Creek Valley of the Wind River Range in western Wyoming. The ranch is a gorgeous place, true to its tagline, “renewal in sacred wilderness.” (The photo above is Trail Lake, one of the two lakes the ranch borders, at dawn a couple of weeks ago.)

Some fun facts from my summer:

  • Number of miles I walked each day (on average): 6.5
  • Number of flights of stairs my pedometer tallied daily as I climbed hills and mountains: 24
  • Number of times I got my saddle out of the tack shed to go for a ride: 6 (that’s just sad, in 16 weeks at the ranch)
  • Age range of guests I led on hikes: 2 years old to 82!
  • Largest hiking group: 27 guests and staff
  • Most beds the staff and I changed in one morning: 41
  • Average pounds of cabin laundry hauled to the Dubois laundromat each week: 180
  • Average hours I worked each day: 10

You may gather by those data that I didn’t get much renewal this summer, and you’d be right. I didn’t get any writing time either. We were short-staffed, and I filled in wherever needed, including working the kitchen and helping the wranglers with the ranch’s herd of 32 horses.

It was, honestly, grueling in terms of physical and emotional effort. The exhaustion was lightened by some really beautiful moments on hikes, in conversations over meals in the dining hall, with staff on our rare off-times, and during evening seminars. Still, the summer’s work left me bone-weary and seven pounds lighter than when I arrived at the ranch in May.

One of those beautiful moments, and a rare time for me in the saddle, on the annual wrangler ride at the end of the season. This is Dundee Meadows, in the Absaroka Range.

I took the job of housekeeping coordinator/hike leader (which equals a more than full-time position, and requires very different skill sets) as an act of service, to use my skills and talents to help the ranch evolve in changing times.

I also figured I’d have some fruitful time to reflect on a question that has troubled me for the past few years: Where is home?

As it turned out, I was much too busy working to have time to reflect. Still, the question surfaced in the moments between waking and sleep each night. I saw the same images and heard the same words over and over, but it took me a long time to realize they gave me the answers I had been seeking.

Where is home? I kept seeing the view of Mount Lamborn over the hayfields of The Guy’s farm. I thought, I miss that soothing green. But I don’t want to live on the farm. Where is my home?

Mount Lamborn in the background over the farm.

I heard “private,” “quiet,” “secluded,” “shady refuge.” But where, I asked my thoughts in frustration. Where is this place?

Then it dawned on me. The place that fit those words and that brought the image to mind was a place I had not considered because it was too close to The Guy: Paonia, the small town surrounded by orchards and farms, home to around 1,500 people, that has been his community for nearly 30 years.

Paonia was his place, not mine. We had been so careful to give each other lots of space, to not encroach on each other. Could I find a place of my own there, both a physical space and a community?

I called him that weekend: “What if I moved to Paonia?”

“Why?” I offered the words and the images that had appeared over and over again in my mind. “I’ll think about it.” he said.

A few days later, he texted, “Okay.” Just one word. Enough.

“Are you sure?” A thumbs’ up emoji appeared by return text. More than enough.

I began obsessively looking at houses for sale in the former mining town colonized by hippies back in the day, and once home to the environmental newspaper High Country News; a town where pot shops coexist with hardware stores, an old-fashioned lumber yard, art galleries, bakeries, wineries, and a community theater.

Peonies blooming in Paonia.

A town named for peonies, one of my favorite heritage garden flowers. Where the streets are narrow, potholed, and shaded by huge old trees. Where the town park hosts “Picking’ in the Park” every weekend through the summer.

After weeks of hounding the real estate websites, and two quick trips south, I found my place. The image in my head of a shady backyard with a deep porch, and even, wonder of wonders! A writing hut tucked away under an ash tree next to the garage. A room of my own….

My 1920s bungalow, where the shaded front porch will be my library.
And the open living room/dining/kitchen will look homey with my sky-blue leather couch, Sam Bair rustic furniture, and my saddle on its stand!
The deep porch and shady backyard
And tucked away under a crooked ash tree, my writing hut.

By a stroke of very good luck, I was the first buyer to see it, and my offer was accepted. So I’m finally moving home. Where I will stay. And yes, it needs a little work (there’s a small matter of 1920s floor beams that need support after a kitchen renovation a few years back installed a very heavy quartzite counter, plus an aging garage roof). But mostly, it’s just where I need to be.

As soon as my sweet Montrose cottage sells, I’m packing up for one last move. And then I’m going to settle in and see what words come next…. And plant peonies to bloom in the garden next spring. At home.

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.

Home Range: Finding Home in Unsettling Times

One of the first long phone conversations The Guy and I had last fall when we were getting to know each other centered around the question of what “home” meant for each of us. The exchange was sparked by something I said in the seminar I taught at Ring Lake Ranch, where we met: home for me is the Rocky Mountain region wherever big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata in the language of science) grows. The “seas” of this aromatic shrub that fill valleys and basins throughout the region, I explained, define the area I call home.

The idea that the geographic range of a particular plant could delineate “home” intrigued The Guy. He thought about that concept over the next few weeks while he hunted bighorn sheep on foot above treeline in the mountains of central Colorado. In his long and physically active days of climbing thousands of feet from the valley bottom where he was camped to the high ridges where he sat and glassed for sheep, he had plenty of time to ponder what home meant for him.

“No sheep died,” he said when he called to report on his wilderness hunt, “but I had an interesting realization.”

“What was that?” I asked from my Santa Fe condo, where I was packing for a move to the house I had just bought in the spaciousness of the high desert outside town.

He described hiking uphill through open ponderosa pine forest, the dappled light of aspen groves, into the high-elevation Douglas-fir and spruce forest, and then the widely spaced groves of bristlecone pine, before emerging above treeline in the windswept expanse of the alpine, with its turf of plants no more than a few inches tall.

“I realized that I’m not comfortable in the alpine,” he said. “It’s not my place. It’s too exposed.” Where he felt at home, he said, was the mountain forests and woodlands, the shrublands and meadows. “I realized that my home range could be described by the range of dusky grouse in the Rockies.”

Male dusky grouse displaying for a mate.

While he talked, I looked up dusky grouse. There was the range map: a wide swath of the Rockies from Canada to northern New Mexico, a near overlap of the region I call home. I remembered seeing a male dusky grouse displaying on a gravel road in a sagebrush-filled valley not far from his farm on Colorado’s West Slope.

We considered the way the part of the West we both call home overlapped, and discussed how we each felt drawn to the whole swath, rather than one particular place. “Maybe for people like us,” I said, “home is not a single location, but a whole area. ‘Home range,’ instead of home. A range we migrate through over the seasons, rather than a fixed spot. ”

He was quiet, thinking. “I like that idea,” he said. “The way people once moved in search of food and shelter, occupying a whole region instead of settling in one place.”

“Exactly!” I said. “For you and me, home range could extend from the high desert in northern New Mexico in winter to Wyoming in summer, with the the farm in spring and fall.”

Over the months since, as we have worked at the delicate process of interweaving two separate lives–sometimes easily and sometimes crashing headlong into each other’s tender spots–the idea of home range has given us a road map. We spent much of the winter at my house outside Santa Fe exploring the high desert on foot and horseback.

Riding on a day with bluebird skies….

In late March with the pandemic swelling, the herd headed north to the farm under safer-at-home orders. As The Guy pointed out, farm work is inherently socially distanced. It also does not wait: when spring comes, the hayfields must be prepped and the irrigation pipes laid out, or there will be no crop.

I stayed behind in New Mexico until it was safe to leave, and then followed them north. At the farm, I plunged into learning irrigation, starting invasive weed control, pruning shrubs and trees, and other chores. Out in the hayfields, it was just me and the mule deer and the swallows and magpies, plus several hundreds of thousands of brome and bluegrass plants.

Irrigating the hayfields… 

The pandemic seemed far away. Except on our occasional trips to town for food and farm supplies, when we wore face-masks and practiced social distancing. In this rural county, with fewer than 20,000 human residents, crowding is rarely an issue.

Farm work left us little time to fret about the radical changes to the larger world–our work-days ran from dawn to dusk. It was oddly soothing to be too worn out at the end of each day to obsess over the news.

Then came summer, when I would normally migrate to the northern end of my home range to Yellowstone National Park to hand-eradicate invasive weeds, and The Guy, the dog, and the horses would migrate to Ring Lake Ranch to work. Because of the pandemic though, Yellowstone stayed closed for longer than usual, and then opened for day-use only. Which meant my work was canceled, since I camp in the park to be near my research site.

When Ring Lake Ranch opened (later than usual and with half the guests), The Guy suggested I spend part of my summer with him, the dog, and the herd at Ring Lake. So when irrigation chores slowed down, I headed north following their migration route to the ranch. I spent several weeks there surveying and controlling invasive weeds, and writing up a management plan. And then returned to the farm to work on weeds in the hayfields.

Part of the Ring Lake Ranch horse herd

The idea of home as an annual migration between places has–somewhat paradoxically–kept me grounded through these tumultuous times. Wherever I am in this range of landscapes and communities, whether northwest Wyoming, western Colorado, or northern New Mexico, I am at home. And whether I am with The Guy, the dog, and the horses, or not, we are connected by the heart and by our shared bond with these places and people. The challenges we face are as much internal as external as we navigate the new world of belonging to each other.

Home is the earth beneath my feet, this growing relationship, the weeds I work with, the human community, this changing world. It is the territory I nurture with my whole heart, the life I seed, the world I belong to.

Home, however we define it, is where we belong, where we take refuge, who we love, what we stand for. In these times, home could be what saves us.

Scraping Corn, Wandering Mind

Sometimes you just need time to do tasks where your mind can let go and wander. 

Shantel Durham, my house-painter, made that wise comment this afternoon when she was in the floor-to-ceiling closets in my guest bedroom, painting the dingy grey walls and shelves a clean white. 

We were talking about how much I appreciate her work. Over the past six months, Shantel and her roller and brush have transformed the interior of my long-neglected house from a place so unappealing that my realtor and friends shook their heads when I declared I wanted to buy it, to a place that makes people smile when they walk in the front door. (The photo above is my light-filled and colorful office, which was a dingy cave before Shantel painted it, and her dad trimmed out the gaps in the walls and built the shelves.)

Shantel's a single mom raising an active and smart pre-schooler, and she's going to college–she graduated at the top of her class in the pre-nursing program at the local community college this spring, and is starting to study for her RN this week. So she's got plenty to do in her life. 

I said something about how grateful I was that she devotes her precious weekend time to painting for me, and she responded with that nugget of wisdom.

Her words reminded me of Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield's book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, about how enlightenment lies in the mundane moments of our every day lives, not just those rare "aha!" moments when we feel a spiritual kick. 

Which may be why I spent today, the day before the total eclipse of 2017, which crosses central Wyoming tomorrow mid-morning, doing ordinary things.

Ordinary things like washing my sheets, shaking out my blankets, and rotating my mattress. (And yes, those lovely green walls that make my bedroom feel like a treehouse Shantel's work.)

Eclipses are extraordinary astronomical events–seeing the stars come out in daytime as the sun is eclipsed entirely by our moon is a wondrous and truly awesome experience, in the original meaning of that word, as in "full of awe."

Many spiritual traditions regard eclipses as times of great change, opportunities to focus inward, to harness the shift in the sacred, the energy of the cosmos, the beyond-words-power that moves us in ways we often do not understand, and sometimes are not even aware of until afterwards. 

For me, a day spent tending to the mundane in a mindful way is part of preparing for a shift I feel coming in my own life. I can't see what it is yet, but I can feel it in a kind of inner awareness, a listening within that I notice especially when I am engaged in tasks that allow my mind to wander, "where it will go…" as the Beatles wrote in "Fixing a Hole." ("I'm fixing a hole/ where the rain gets in/ and stops my mind from wandering/ where it will go.")

So after I tended to my bed, I scraped ears of fresh local sweet corn I bought at the Farmer's Market on Thursday, and bagged cups of kernels to put into the freezer for this winter, when having frozen corn that tastes as sweet as summer sun will be a treat.

Ears of fresh sweet corn headed for the yellow bowl, where I will scrape the kernels off the cob.

Quart bags in the freezer, giving me that satisfying feeling of having food put by for winter. 

I pitchforked up more turf in the front yard and planted the rest of the irises that I divided last weekend from a bed of rhizomes packed so tightly that they didn't even bloom this year. My digging-up-and-separating efforts yielded enough irises to cover three times the area of the existing iris bed! 

While I had my pitchfork out, I dug up more unwanted turf in the rock-garden part of the front yard and planted blanketflower seeds from my former yard in Salida to add to the clump of blanketflower I got from friends here, which is blooming like mad right now. 

A sunflower bee on the blanketflower, happily collecting pollen (you can see the orange clumps of pollen filling the "baskets" on her hind legs). 

I used to need to think I had my life planned out. Living through Richard's brain cancer, and then my mother's death and his death in the same year cured me of that impulse to try to control anything. 

So this mellower me is listening to the inner feeling of change coming, and letting myself relax into it.

Whatever is ahead, I am grateful to be here in the house and yard I am bringing back to life with the help of Shantel, her dad Jeff, and others. I am grateful to be at home in the landscapes that hold my heart, in a community of friends who have welcomed me back warmly.

This place is my refuge, my quiet center, the sanctuary that allows me to live even in these turbulent times with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, to continue my work of restoring this glorious blue planet and celebrating its vibrant diversity of lives. 

May we all find our place of refuge and sustenance, and may we all go forth into the world with listening ears and giving hearts. It will take each of us to heal this world, working in our individual ways, bringing our unique talents, at our own pace. Thanks to you all for adding the gifts of your hands and hearts to the changes to come!

Sunrise on my running route–home

Wildflowers for Mother’s Day

I had a lovely Mother's Day, and I hope you did too. Mine was quiet and mellow, just the way I like it: I spent time with friends, caught up with my family, and then worked in my yard, planting new plants, grubbing out invasive weeds, and seeding in the beginning of a native meadow in the backyard that last week was torn up for my new underground electric line. 

After I finished playing with plants–something that never fails to make me happy–I headed out for my usual Sunday evening run.

I can't say that running makes me happy the way working with plants does, but that particular form of self-torture, er, exercise, does get me outside and into the nearby wild, which always lifts my spirits. And once I finish the run, I feel quite virtuous. (And completely worn out.) 

I hadn't been out for a run in almost two weeks because of travel and house renovation, so I wasn't sure whether the spring wildflowers would still be dotting the sagebrush outside town. 

Indeed they were: Oh, not the same Nuttall's violets, wild parsley, and spiny phlox that were blooming a few weeks ago. The next wave of wildflowers had taken over the spring bloom. 

I spotted the creamy flower clusters of wild onion first.

I think this is Allium brandegeei, Brandegee's onion

And then this cute yellow composite (daisy-family plant) with its mats of thumbnail-sized fuzzy leaves and outsized flower heads with notched rays.

(I haven't identified this one yet.) 

And these evening primrose blossoms, opening to invite late-flying pollinators in for a meal. 

This is probably whitestem evening primrose, but I'm not entirely certain

And who could miss the brilliant scarlet bracts on this indian paintbrush! The prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) next to it on the left is a big part of what makes the landscape in the photo at the top of the post look so green. 

Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia

As I huffed and puffed my way through my 3.5-mile route, I spotted more wildflowers: chrome yellow stoneseed, ivory bastard toadflax, starry white Hooker's sandwort, and the sulfur yellow of prairie rocket or sand-dune wallflower dotting the sagebrush in the photo below. 

Erysimum capitatum among the Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp Wyomingensis) and prairie junegrass

At the end of  my run, I turned back toward town a little reluctantly because I was so enjoying the wildflowers. Most are familiar, old friends I have known since childhood or since college field botany classes. Some, like that mat-forming composite with the outsized golden flower heads are new ones I have yet to learn. 

Either way, they're a wonderful Mother's Day gift, a blessing from this landscape that holds my heart. 

My word for this year is "gratitude." It is easy to be grateful for each day now that I am home. Of course, there are challenges; in particular, house renovation, which always brings surprises, and always costs more than I expected, as well as earning a living from my writing, which I haven't really mastered since Richard died. 

But those challenges can't dent my joy in being here, among a community of friends, both human and wild. In a place where I and the ravens and bluebirds belong in a cell-deep way, along with the aromatic big sagebrush, the prairie Junegrass, and the blessing of wildflowers.

All of us part of Earth's time of spring and renewal.

I wish you all that heart-whole sense of belonging and the rich connection of being at home on this extraordinary planet. 

And because it's Mother's Day, I can't forget a shout-out to my mom, Joan Cannon Tweit (1931-2011), the California girl who passed to me her passion for all plants, domestic and wild, especially native wildflowers. Thanks, Mom!

Mom, on her honeymoon in Lassen National Park, June 1952

What Home Feels Like

Back when Molly was in middle school and high school, we lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert just 35 miles north of the US-Mexico border. (There we are in the photo above in  grove of native Mexican elder trees in our backyard. My hair was still red and long then, Richard hadn't started shaving his head, and Molly had a cat named Hypoteneuse.)

Late-spring and early summer temperatures in Las Cruces can easily soar into the triple digits. Whenever I would turn woozy and white in the heat, Richard would tease me: "You're my favorite Norteña."  

The literal meaning of Norteña is a female from the North, which I am (I was born in northern Illinois at 42 degrees N latitude). In the Spanglish spoken in the border region, Norteña could also be a mild insult, meaning a foreigner, someone who doesn't belong.  

Which was true as well, though in the seven years we spent in Las Cruces, I tried to belong: I studied the history, natural history, and culture of our desert region. I wrote four books about the desert, including my favorite, Barren, Wild and Worthless, my first excursion into what I didn't know then was memoir; plus dozens of articles, and hundreds of weekly radio commentaries. I led nature walks, worked on restoration projects, and co-founded a book festival about the border region with my friend and co-honcha Denise Chávez, novelist and visionary extraordinaire. 

Still, I never quite acculturated to life at 32.32 degrees North. My body didn't love the heat; my immune system didn't love the wind-blown clouds of pollen from the non-native species, including the mulberry trees planted throughout town for welcome shade. My diurnal rhythms were confused when summer days weren't long and winter days were. 

When we moved north to Salida, Colorado, Richard's childhood home, in what he considered "that cold state way up north" (at 38.5 degrees N), I was relieved. Salida had, I thought, the best of the Southwest and enough of the Rockies to feel like home. And it did, while he was alive. 

After he died though, I grew more and more restless. I missed… something. I traveled more, trying to figure out what I was looking for. It wasn't until I spent two weeks volunteering on an ecological restoration project in Yellowstone National Park (digging out invasive weeds), that I realized what should have been obvious. 

Grubbing houndstongue, an invasive perennial, from around the base of big sagebrush in northern Yellowstone. 

I was homesick.

This Norteña missed summer evenings so long it feels like it will never get dark, until night suddenly swallows the twilight, and short winter days. The sweetly turpentine-like smell of sagebrush after warm rains. The sound of robins cheer-ee-o-ing at dawn in early spring.

The pell-mell rush as the days lengthen, and then suddenly the grass is green and all the birds sing a nearly operatic daily chorus. Until summer and they go silent in the exhausting work of feeding voracious young, when wildflowers bloom one after the other after the other in bee-mad meadows. And elk calves honk for their mothers. 

Silvery lupine and Wyoming indian paintbrush blooming among big sagebrush

The sound of male elk bugling that wheezy nasal challenge in fall, as bighorn sheep males duking it out with a loud cracking of colliding foreheads. (Such guys!) The sour-sweet smell of fallen aspen leaves wet in the first snow. 

The silence of winter nights; the howl of blizzard winds. The bite of sub-zero air on bare skin. The stars crackling bright against skies so dark they seem to swallow the earth. 

A gnarled old big sagebrush shrub hanging on through winter

After I moved home to Cody between blizzards in January, some part of me that had been tense and alert for decades relaxed. The slant of the light at this latitude (45.5 degrees N, the same as Portland, Oregon, Chicago, Illinois, and the Gulf of Maine), felt right.

The blue winter twilights, so soothing after the dazzle of sun on snow during the day. The wind whooshing in the spruce trees in my yard; the resiny smell of spruce sap as the days began to warm. The sagebrush on the hill behind my neighborhood, their small evergreen leaves gradually turning from winter's silver-gray to silver-green again.

And now that the robins are back from their southern winter homes, their cheerfully fluting voices wake me. I lie in bed in my snug spot among the big spruces and my heart fills with joy. Home for me is more than people and memories. It is the light, the rhythm of the seasons, the smells and sounds of life going about its business. 

It is something I feel in my cells, a kind of inner contentment at being in the place that is just right for me, inside and out.

Richard and I loved each other with our whole hearts. But born in Arkansas, raised in Salida, Haiti, and South Texas, my southern guy never understood the call of my particular North. Perhaps he would if he were here with me to get to know the place, but he isn't.

And in this bittersweet journey, I feel very fortunate to have found my way back home on my own. 

My bedroom (still unfinished, but quite snug)

Gratitude: My Word for 2017

Every year around Winter Solstice, I remind myself of the word I've chosen for the year, consider what it meant and how it was expressed in the way I lived my days, and then ask myself what next year's word will be. Sometimes I hear the answer right away; other times it takes a while. 

For 2016, my word was abundance. Not in the sense of an abundance of stuff or money, or any other material thing: abundance in the sense of plenty, as I wrote in my blog post when the word came to me just after Winter Solstice in 2015:

Abundance as in "plenty": plenty of joy, plenty of time, plenty of ideas and words and readers, plenty of money, plenty of fruitful opportunities, plenty of energy and vigor, plenty of love…

Turns out abundance was a good word for my personal year, if not for the horrors of national and international events. 2016 was a year that brought all sorts of gifts, including a lot of love from family and friends.

Family love: Molly Cabe and me in February; with my brother, Bill Tweit, last month when he and my sister-in-law, Lucy Winter, and my youngest niece, Alice Tweit visited for the holidays.

So as the days grew shorter and Winter Soltice came and went last month, I listened for my word for 2017. And listened, and listened. Because I didn't like the word I heard first: gratitude

Gratitude? Really? 

After that painful election season? With the hatred and divisive politics that have overtaking my small town, the shootings in this country, the violence around the world, the refugees dying as they flee wars in the Mideast and ethnic cleansing in Africa, Burma and other places around the globe, the extinctions of other species? 

What, I thought, is there to be grateful for in these scary and turbulent times? 

Still, each time I listened, the word I heard was gratitude.

I looked up the definition: "the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness." 

Humph. 

The last part of the definition stuck with me though: to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

I think the world needs a whole lot more appreciation, and many tons of "returning kindness." So I adopted gratitude as my word for 2017, and in particular that latter meaning. 

Which, come to think of it, I do every morning (show appreciation) in my yoga and prayer routine. As I complete my asanas, I bow to the four directions, along with earth and sky, in gratitude for this place, and the living community that animates this planet, humans and the myriad of other species with whom our lives are intertwined. 

And then I speak aloud a prayer to the spirit of life, asking that I be able to live my day in love and balance, that I treat others with compassion and kindness, that I am strong but not rigid, that I walk in balance, beauty, and yes, gratitude for this existence. 

As in the view of Venus near the new moon last night…

Gratitude, I realized, the showing of appreciation and returning kindness, is not a Pollyanna sort of attitude. It doesn't preclude being engaged in the world, witnessing and working to alleviate fear, injustice, hunger, poverty of all sorts, or hatred.

It means recognizing the good, small or large, staying open and receptive to that "ocean of Light" that will overcome the ocean of fear and darkness. It means remembering to value what is positive, taking time to respect and acknowledge the blessings each day brings. 

And there are blessings, even when our days are full of pain and sorrow and anger and grief. The sun still rises and sets, snowflakes are still crystalline and beautiful, the ocean still laps or pounds the shore, this planet is still bursting with an abundance of life as dazzling as the stars in the dark night sky. 

We still have friends and family and community; we have work and art and song and dance; we have food and housing and clothes. We are alive, a gift I have learned is very precious indeed.

So yes, gratitude is my word for this new year.

I am grateful for all of you; I am grateful for the home I am leaving, my sweet little complex here in Salida (photo at the top of the post), and the home I am moving to in Wyoming (photo below). I am very grateful for life, both the capital 'L' kind and my quotidian existence.

May 2017 bring each of us much to appreciate, and may it reward our kindness abundantly. Blessings!

Sunset behind Cedar and Rattlesnake mountains just outside Cody, Wyoming

Looking Back, Finding Home

Near the end of my first book, Pieces of Light, a year's worth of journal-style essays about making a home and observing nature in Boulder, Colorado, I wrote a couple of paragraphs that at the time were simply poignant and now seem quite prophetic. The year in Boulder documented in that book came after we had moved from Laramie, Wyoming, where we met and married, to Morgantown, West Virginia, where Richard taught at West Virginia University, and then three years in Western Washington.

In Boulder, Molly finished third grade, and Richard finished his dissertation in Economics and then accepted a position at Iowa State University. I was, I think, in denial. All through that halcyon year of exploring Boulder and its environs, I had hoped that we would somehow be able to somehow stay in the region where sagebrush grows, the skies are intensely blue, and mountains line at least one horizon. The region where my heart is happy. 

It was not to be. So before we left for Iowa, I took a solo trip home to northwest Wyoming. I visited friends in Cody, did a little fieldwork with my geology mentor, the late, great David Love, in Jackson Hole, and then spent a few nights in Yellowstone National Park. Where I wrote these paragraphs:

Today I sit in the warm sun on a smooth-as-satin weathered lodgepole pine trunk washed up as winter flotsam on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. The lake stretches for miles, filling a collapsed volcanic dome like a piece of fallen sky, at this moment deep blue and ruffled like wrinkled velvet. The air, scrubbed clean by yesterday's rain, reveals a landscape etched with memories. Here I grew into an adult, pursued my field ecology career, lived the years of my first marriage. It is home to me still. Each valley, each undulating or craggy ridgeline, each meadow, each bit of pattern in the dark forest cover is familiar. …

How could I ever have been so naive as to think that this trip home would make leaving the landscape of the Rockies easier? … I ache at the thought of leaving again, knowing that the going will rip a part of me out, the me that is rooted in these huge, arid landscapes. I hug my arms around myself, anticipating the parting, trying to hold myself intact. It is futile. I must go; I want so badly to stay. …

Once I get up from this log and walk back to my rental car, I begin the leaving. The road away runs east along the lake shore across Pelican Valley, then up through the forests, past the sulphur yellow and ashy white earth of steaming hot springs… finally emerging in the Big Horn Basin at Cody. From there by plane to Denver, bus to Boulder, and thence, gathering my family and possessions around me, by rented truck to the cornfields of central Iowa. Once I leave this log, there is no looking back. 

Indeed, there was no looking back.

After two years in Iowa, where Molly finished Fourth and Fifth Grade, Richard began making his name in Economics, and I wrote my first book, we moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico. We lived there seven years, long enough for Richard to get tenure at New Mexico State University and establish a consulting practice as an expert witness in the economics of regulation. 

Richard and me at Three Rivers Petroglyphs, New Mexico

During those years, Molly graduated from high school and started college, and I wrote five books, most of them about the desert. I did my best to love where we lived, but I never quit missing the Rockies. So one spring Richard took a year off teaching and we moved north to Salida, his childhood home in south-central Colorado. 

We never returned to Las Cruces. Richard's expert-witness work kept him busy for nearly a decade, and when that waned, he tried real estate appraisal, but that didn't suit his thirst for intellectual stimulation. I urged him to explore the abstract sculpture he had considered a hobby his whole life, work with stone and steel and wood that expressed his innate love for this earth.

 

Richard at work on a boulder

Sculpture provided both the intellectual and creative challenge he needed. Richard's art was beginning to gain a following when one quiet summer Sunday morning, he saw thousands upon thousands of birds, transient hallucinations that were the only major sign of the brain cancer that would kill him two and a quarter years later.

Before he died, Richard asked me to stay in Salida where the community had held us so close through that terrible and beautiful journey toward his end. "Don't make any sudden decisions," he said. 

I didn't. I couldn't stay in the house he built for us, his largest sculpture with its soaring, light-filled great room, sinks carved from local boulders, and the flagstone shelves that issue from the walls like cliff ledges. The place was too big for me to maintain, and it was my largest asset: I needed the cash out of it to pay the bills. 

So I finished the house and built my own snug place, using the one basin from the big house he hadn't ever installed (because he never finished the master bath!) as the vanity sink in my bathroom, a way to take him with me.

 

That gorgeous basin, which reminds me of Richard and his saying that rocks are "ambassadors of the earth" every time I wash my hands.

And I settled in, loving the small space and the way it made my feel safe, cradled, in this new journey as Woman Alone.

Now, nearly five years after Richard's death, I realize that while Salida was the perfect place for us, it's not the perfect place for me

Which is why, 28 years after I sat on that satiny weathered pine log on the shores of Yellowstone Lake and grieved at leaving the home of my heart, I am finally looking back. I've just returned from a few days in northwest Wyoming, my third trip to Cody and Yellowstone in the past five months. 

It still feels like home, even after all these years. And I still have good friends there, some from decades ago, some new. Enough to form the beginnings of community. My heart is happy there, something I think Richard would understand. 

So, after talking to Molly and my family, I am planning a move. Not this month or even this year, but before my next birthday. It's time. Home calls. 

Cedar (also called Spirit) and Rattlesnake mountains, west of Cody