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

Why I Live in Salida


I was standing in one of my favorite stores in Salida’s lively downtown this afternoon, debating about whether the cropped jean jacket I’ve been eyeing for the past month would fit into my budget, when a nicely dressed woman nearby spoke,


“Excuse me, do you live here?” 


“I do.” 


“For how long?” she asked.


“Almost nineteen years on the same block,” I said. 


She was curious, she said, because she and her husband were looking for a retirement place, and basically, she wondered why I live in a rural town of just 5,200 people, itself the seat of a county boasting only 18,000 or so permanent residents. A town with a thriving arts community, a lively independent bookstore, excellent restaurants, a good public school system, an excellent small hospital, and a serious shortage of affordable housing


A town located two scenic-but-sometimes-treacherous hours drive through the mountains to the nearest interstate highway, shopping mall, commercial airport, or traffic jams. In a county bisected by the most popular whitewater river in the country (the photo at the top of the post is that river, the Arkansas, and our downtown whitewater park with Mount Princeton in the distance), including Colorado’s longest stretch of Gold Medal trout water; a county with more peaks over 14,000 feet elevation than any other county in Colorado, a nearby ski area known for its powder snow, and hundreds of miles of hiking/biking/horseback riding trails through nearby public land. 



That description lists some of the reasons: I love this landscape, from the high-desert valley bottom with the river flowing through it to those peaks, white with late-winter snow now. I love the art and cultural scene, the restaurants, the lack of traffic jams (a traffic jam here is when a herd of deer ambles across the road in the evening and the cars have to wait their turn), and so on… 


I mentioned those things, but then I gave her a more personal, deeper answer. 


What holds me here is the community, and the way we support each other. We disagree about all sorts of things, from gun rights to religion to presidential candidates, but when someone needs help, we pitch in.


Because we’re a small town and there aren’t that many of us. Because we know each other, or at least we’ve said hello in the line at the Post Office, the polling place, the grocery store, or at the high school games. Because we all remember what it’s like to need help. Because we care about each other as human beings, regardless of the labels that are so divisive in American life today. 


“I lost my husband to brain cancer almost five years ago,” I said, my voice choking a little. “And a lot of people asked if I would move home to Wyoming, where Richard and I met.”


“I thought seriously about it. But I didn’t. Because going through that–losing the person I loved most in the world–showed me what mattered most. The community enveloped us with so much caring and compassion. I couldn’t live anywhere else. This is home now.”


She expressed her condolences, and then her husband came to meet her with their dog. We chatted some more, she thanked me for my thoughts, and off they went. 



I tried on the jean jacket, talked it over with Stormy, who was my next-door neighbor for much of her childhood–now in her 20s, Stormy is learning the trade from her mom, who owns the store. I asked Storm to hold the jacket until tomorrow, when I’ll come back with my checkbook, saving them the charge card fee. 


“Absolutely,” she said. “We appreciate it.”


I walked up the block, stopping to talk to a friend whose husband is recovering from heart surgery, congratulating another friend on her forthcoming book of poetry, and then waving at my electrician and his wife, a forester, out ambling with their golden retriever. 


I stopped at the health food store and bought some organic romaine lettuce, and chatted with Gina, the owner, about her need for summer staff. 


Then I walked the two blocks home, baked some wild-caught salmon for dinner, chopped and dressed the lettuce, and added some Pueblo Sweet corn I put up last summer. I sat down to eat as the shadows of the peaks began to creep across the valley. 


And thought how lucky I am to live in this small town in a spectacular landscape, a community with a very big heart. 



Some of the dozens of luminarias with messages placed around one of Richard’s sculptures after the celebration of his life, December 2011