Tomato plants spilling out of their cozy insulated wall-o-waters.

Community: Why I Live Here

Tomato plants spilling out of their cozy insulated wall-o-waters. Tomato plants spilling out of their cozy insulated wall-o-waters.

I was standing by the stock-tank garden on my side deck, wet to the elbows, trying to corral tomato branches with one hand while I hauled a half-full wall-o-water (one of the red tomato cozies in the photo above) off the plant with the other, when I heard my neighbor Bev’s voice from behind me.

“Need some help?”

I started to say I was okay, but I clearly wasn’t, and she was already tying her Corgi, Evan, and Otis, a neighbor’s big yellow lab to the deck railings.

“That would be great.”

Bev took the top of the water-filled teepee and carefully pulled up while I gathered the branches, already heavy with green fruits, so they could slip through.

Green fruits on the branches of the Stupice plant Green fruits on the branches of the Stupice plant

As the teepee slid up and out of the way, I took it and Bev grabbed the plant, which wobbled without support.

I dumped the water on the crabapple tree and hefted one of the tomato towers. Bev tipped the plant and I stuck the legs of the tower into the soil. We worked together to untangle the branches and weave them into their new support.

One tomato plant done. We moved to the next, practiced now and chatting easily as we gathered the branches, pulled the wall-o-water off, pushed the tower in the soil, and wove the branches in. And then the next.

Tomato plants standing tall on their towers. Tomato plants standing tall on their towers.

Tomato plants liberated, Bev finished telling me about her upcoming trip. I ruffled Evan’s damp ears and petted wet Otis (they had been playing in the river). She untied their leashes, we hugged, and she walked home.

When people ask me why I stayed in Salida after Richard’s death, I say it’s home. By which I mean not just that I have lived on this block for 17 years, or that I’m used to the place, or that I know a lot of people. All of which are true.

I mean it’s home in the sense of a community where when a neighbor walks by on the way home from taking the dogs to the river and sees that I need some help, she stops. Because that’s what we do here.

Ceiling membrane going up in Richard's studio. Ceiling membrane going up in Richard’s studio.

Like when a group of friends pitched in to install the ceiling membrane in Richard’s studio to get it ready for Terraphilia residents (that would be you, Grant, Ed, John, Bob, Bill, Sue, Roberta and Bev!). Or when another friend helped me install interior doors in the big house (thanks, Bob) and still other friends spent weeks–no months–teaching me how to make and put up all the trim and other finish work (that’s you, Tony and Maggie) so I could sell the place when I needed to.

Of course I know what I'm doing.... Of course I know what I’m doing….

Or the many other friends who helped out before and after Richard’s death, in ways too numerous to mention here, but which are, like those tomato branches, woven into the fabric that supports my life.

That’s home: a place where the community weaves you in. Where you give what you can and others give what they can, and together, we make it work—well, with love, respect and creativity.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful place too, even drought-burned and dusty here. The peaks on the horizon rise to 14,000 feet, so there are still spots of snow in my view; the Arkansas River rushes by three blocks away, and just out my window Ditch Creek babbles.

The Sangre de Cristo Range over the roofs of town. The Sangre de Cristo Range over the roofs of town.

Or that everything I need is within walking distance, whether that’s coffee or wine, the bank or a hike, art or music or theater, and of course, Ploughboy, the best local-food grocery store/deli around.

Salida's fireworks--loud, but dazzling Salida’s fireworks–loud, but dazzling

The view of the Fourth of July fireworks off my deck is pretty grand too.

It’s the community that supports me, like those towers now support my tomato plants. That’s why I stayed. And that’s what makes it home.

Dreaming Home

New moon framed by utility wires.

Last night I looked up from my reading and spotted the new moon sliding toward the horizon. I leaped up, snagged my camera, slipped on my flip-flops and headed out the front door, along the deck, across the courtyard and up the stairs to the second-floor deck of the studio.

I snapped some shots of that slim crescent glimmering as it dropped past the utility wires in the alley. As the earth continued to turn, I watched the moon disappear behind the distant peaks.

I turned too, and headed to the stairs.

Creek House at dusk, with S Mountain and the Arkansas Hills in the distance. Creek House at dusk, with S Mountain and the Arkansas Hills in the distance.

As I rounded the corner, I looked down and my heart filled. There was my sweet house, the little place I envisioned as a nest for me after Richard’s death, glowing in the dusk. Home.

I did it! I thought. I made it happen.

Not by myself, of course, and not easily.

One evening in late winter, 2012, I walked the length of this long, skinny parcel, the last still-junky part of our formerly industrial property. I paced through dried skeletons of kochia and tumbleweed, past the pile of rounded boulders Richard stashed here for sculptures that would new never be created, imagining a house and studio.

My house site before construction. (The boulders are Richard's spare sculpture materials.) My house site before construction. (The boulders are Richard’s spare sculpture materials.)

They would be small and sustainable, generate solar power and require very little energy, structures that reflected the industrial past of the parcel and also would enhance the neighborhood and be a joy to live in. With, of course, landscaping that would not only incorporate the native plant community, but would provide habitat for pollinators and songbirds, along with a host of other critters large and small.

I could see it. As the stars winked on overhead, I made my wish: that I could somehow manage to make that vision real.

I have. Earlier this month, I passed the final inspections, the last regulatory hurdle on both buildings.

The tiny house-to-be with its small garage with studio above. Like the big house, it's also passive solar and will be powered by a (much smaller) photovoltaic array. The “tail,” with house and garage/studio drawn in.

Back in March of 2012, standing on what was a weed-choked former industrial dump site, I had a lot to learn about everything related to building. First, I had to subdivide this odd-shaped “tail” from the rest of the property.

I had to finish Terraphilia, the house and historic studio combination where Richard and I had lived. Which meant learning how to hang interior doors, trim windows and door openings, and to invent and put in baseboard, as well as finishing some cabinetry and figuring out how to finish the master bath.

The tub is usable, but the walls around it need finishing; the shower plumbing is in the wall to the left. The unfinished tub-shower area in the master bathroom at Terraphilia.

I had to finagle the financing to make my tiny house and studio a reality before I sold Terraphilia (where all my money lived). I had to choose the right people to design and build my new place.

And I had to figure out how to earn enough money to pay my everyday bills during the process, and to overcome my fears about not knowing anything about what I was attempting to do or not being able to make the whole complicated dream into reality.

Last night, looking down at Creek House in the dusk, I knew I had made the right decisions. That I am finally home in this new life after Richard. Home in a place that speaks my mission to live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. To fashion a sustainable life that honors the community of my fellow humans and the community of the land.

A happy life, too.

My evening spot on the street-side of the front deck My spot on the street-side of the front deck, next to my tiny kitchen garden.

Tonight, sitting in my evening spot on the deck and watching the last light tint the mountainsides gold, my heart is still full. I am home. Not in the forever home Richard built for the two of us. Home in the place I dreamed up to shelter me as I learned how to live on my own.

Thank you to all who helped me make that dream real. I am blessed.

'Poncha Pass Red' sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum 'Poncha Pass Red')

First Wildflowers!

'Poncha Pass Red' sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum 'Poncha Pass Red') ‘Poncha Pass Red’ sulfur-flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum ‘Poncha Pass Red’)

The first wildflowers are beginning to bloom on my formerly junked-out industrial property, a miracle to my eyes. First place goes to neon-bright sulfur-flower buckwheat, a mat-forming evergreen in dry grasslands where big sagebrush grows. Its tiny blossoms opened Friday afternoon.

This particular plant comes from High Country Gardens, but its origins are very local. The lovely red color of its seeds caught the eye of HCG founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman, who spotted the parent plants on Poncha Pass, half an hour southwest of where I live.

Salman collected them, grew the plants in his own garden, and then built up enough stock to release them to the trade. These native buckwheats are perfectly happy with my coarse, rocky soil; their brilliant sulphur-yellow flowers draw bees and butterflies as if out of the very air.

Big sagebrush (Artemisia [Seriphidium] tridentata)--the plant is still small, but it's quite aromatic. Big sagebrush (Artemisia [Seriphidium] tridentata)–the plant is still small, but it’s quite aromatic.

I planted them three weeks ago near the patch of big sagebrush I’m growing just off the northeast corner of the house. This afternoon, a small native bee zipped around the buckwheat flowers like a northern harrier deliberately quartering a grassland, flying low in a rectangular pattern around the plant, its turns quick and tight as a fighter jet. (It flew way too fast for me to shoot a photo.)

The bee was being territorial, letting me know that those eye-catching yellow flowers and their treasure of nectar and pollen belong to it, not me. I got a kick out of the little insect’s pugnaciousness–it was about the size of a ladybug, but very determined to guard its flowers.

It wasn’t an accident that the sulphur-flower buckwheats ended up next to the big sagebrush. They look great together, their colors and shapes complimentary, and just as important to me, they’re part of the same natural community in the wild. In restoring habitat on my difficult formerly industrial lot, I’m deliberately recreating garden “vignettes” that mimic native habitat.

The incipient dryland meadow with grass and wildflower seedlings popping up. The incipient dryland meadow with grass and wildflower seedlings popping up.

The big sagebrush grow at one edge of the native dryland meadow I seeded in last fall, near wire-thin sprigs of Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum [Oryzopsis] hymenoides), seedling Lewis flax (Linum lewisii), and tiny sprouts of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), plus other wildflowers and native grasses in their community.

The meadow plants are still tiny, but in another year or so, I look forward to being able to sit out and smell the turpentine-and-orange-blossom fragrance of the big sagebrush, and watch a hovering, fluttering and buzzing community of pollinators dart from wildflower to wildflower on what previously was an informal industrial dump site.

Species number two to bloom in my personal ecological restoration project opened this afternoon. Along with big sagebrush, this wildflower says “home” to me. Its pale purple blossoms with the faint scent of licorice rise from wet meadows and streamside grasslands like violet mist in late spring and early summer.

Rocky Mountain iris or blue flag, blooms along Ditch Creek by my new house. My second wildflower to bloom: Rocky Mountain iris or blue flag, along Ditch Creek by my new house.

Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis) was a favorite of Richard’s too. A clump we planted just up the creek by Terraphilia, the big house, became a symbol of our efforts to restore this formerly degraded property. Now, thanks to Gary Ludwig, who specializes in propagating local native and heritage plants at Pleasant Avenue Nursery in Buena Vista, I have a new clump blooming along the creek where I can see it from the front deck of Creek House.

That single iris blossom floating on its slender stalk above the green thread of sedges and grasses along the creek reminds me of Richard. I wish he were here to see this last chunk of what he liked to call our “decaying industrial empire” come to life. His smile would bloom along with the Rocky Mountain iris.

Richard Cabe happily examining a wildflower meadow near Crested Butte. Richard Cabe happily immersed in a wildflower meadow near Crested Butte.

My house site before construction. (The boulders are Richard's spare sculpture materials.)

Building a New Life

My house site before construction. (The boulders are Richard's spare sculpture materials.) The house site before construction. (The boulders–which I saved for landscaping–are Richard’s spare sculpture materials.)

Almost 14 months ago, on April 4, 2013, Tommy Meyers drove his backhoe up the bank onto this weedy, junk-filled former industrial site and began excavating for my new house.

I worked in my office in my old house, Terraphilia, with the windows wide open, listening to the growling of the backhoe engine. What Tommy was doing, I wrote then, was “breaking ground for my new life.”

Tommy Meyers and backhoe break ground for Tree House. Tommy Meyers and his backhoe commence work.

This afternoon, I picked up the Certificate of Occupancy for the new house, which means I can legally occupy what I call Creek House, in honor of the chuckling voice of nearby Ditch Creek.

The Certificate of Occupancy for Tree House. The Certificate of Occupancy for Creek House.

(I’m still awaiting the final inspection for Treehouse, the garage with studio above, and its CO.)

I have, of course, been living here since last October, when the sale on Terraphilia closed. The Building Department granted me a temporary CO then; none of us imagined I would be “temporary” for so long.

I was so delighted to receive my Certificate of Occupancy this afternoon that I took myself out to Salida Greenhouses and bought a big new blue-glazed pot to put at the street-side entrance of my front deck.

The new pot, blue to match the two pots by the front door, angled to fit into the corner of the deck railing by the front-stairs-to-be. The new pot, blue to match the two pots by the front door, angled to fit into the corner of the deck railing by the front-stairs-to-be.

Three large pots and a stock tank already sit on my front deck, making up my kitchen-garden-in-containers. I needed another pot for flowers to attract pollinators to keep my garden healthy (and make me smile at the blooms and their flying visitors).

As I filled the new pot with organic potting soil, mixed in compost for nutrients and water-retention, and carefully planted fuchsia and splashy coleus, calibrachoa and mini-petunias, ageratum and agastache, I thought about building both a house and a new life.

Fuchsia blooms I trimmed off to help the new plant get established. Fuchsia blooms I trimmed off to help the new plant get established.

I’ve just passed the two-and-a-half year mark since Richard died. (It was Tuesday at 11:07 am; I was at SeaTac Airport waiting for a flight home.) In the context of the nearly 29 years we were together, two and a half years is a relatively short span.

Sometimes I think I’m doing well in this metamorphosis into whoever it is I’m becoming. Other times I feel exposed and vulnerable, one giant nerve ending quivering with emotion.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve figured out what I’m doing and other times I feel like a kid trying on someone else’s clothes.

It’s a relief when I feel competent and strong, until I do something stupid or thoughtless. And then I just feel dumb, and clumsy with my new self.

Kayaking in the Columbia River near Portland Kayaking in the Columbia River near Portland

Why it is that losing a spouse has stripped me so bare? Because of the length of our partnership, I think, but also and perhaps more importantly, because of the depth of it. We really were each others’ other half.

Our lives were shaped to fit the other. Not in a deforming way; each of us flourished in the shelter and embrace of the other.

Molly, Richard and me at our apartment in Boulder, Colorado. Molly, Richard and me at our apartment in Boulder, Colorado.

Without Richard, I am not only just me, I’m a me I’ve never known as an adult. We met and paired after one date. I was 25. He was 33. It’s no exaggeration to say we raised each other while we raised Molly.

Now I am raising a new solo me. It’s freeing, exciting, exhausting, and scary. And as with this house, each step is taking a lot longer than I imagined.

Unlike the CO I just received, there won’t be any official paperwork to show when I’m done. Because this very figuring out who I am and how to be in this world IS my new life.

When it’s over, so am I. I only hope I’ll have known plenty of moments where I feel like I’m living it well and lovingly.

A sunshine-bright coleus, planted with love today. A sunshine-bright coleus, planted today.

Dr. William Austin Cannon, my maternal great-grandfather, out researching the Sonoran Desert near Tucscon, Arizona, in the early 1900s. Photo: Arizona Historical Society Library

Claiming Both Halves of Myself

Dr. William Austin Cannon, my maternal great-grandfather, out researching the Sonoran Desert near Tucscon, Arizona, in the early 1900s. Photo: Arizona Historical Society Library My great-grandfather, Dr. William Austin Cannon, out researching the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, in the early 1900s. Photo: Arizona Historical Society Library

My second language is science. I grew up in a family of passionate naturalist/scientists: my dad is an organic chemist who migrated (sorry!) into bird research, my mother was a librarian interested in natural history, my brother is a fisheries biologist and birder. One of my grandfathers was a design engineer, the other a philosopher/analyst.

The great-granddad I know most about was a botanist who studied deserts the world around. (His third wife, my great-grandmother, was a California impressionist painter; another great-grandmother was a poet/journalist.)

A painting of the Big Sur Coast by my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon A painting of the Big Sur Coast by my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon.

Yesterday on my 510-mile drive home from Las Cruces, New Mexico, I thought about how much my family “culture” of science influenced who I am as I struggled to keep my Subaru on the road in howling winds.

The 20th annual Border Book Festival opens next week in Las Cruces, NM. The Festival poster, featuring gorgeous papel picado by Carmen Delgado Trunk

I went to Las Cruces to present at the 20th annual Border Book Festival, the brainchild of my dear friend, novelist/playwright Denise Chávez. This year’s festival focused on Maíz, the Corn Mother—the plant, the food, the symbol of agriculture and culture rooted in the Americas. Corn is one of our native crops, bred by indigenous Meso-americans from a plump-grained wild grass called teosinte into a food which spread around the world.

The courtyard of the private hacienda outside Mesilla where the Friday night dinner was held. The courtyard of the private hacienda outside Mesilla where the Friday night dinner was held.

Festival presenters included a trio of Nahuatl-speaking artist/cultural ambassadors from the mountains north of Puebla, singer-songwriter Consuelo Luz, and Balam Lemus and Alejandro López of Somos el Maíz in the Española Valley north of Santa Fe. We talked of corn as a plant, a metaphor of life and how we cultivate it (both corn and la vida) mindfully and reverently, and a way to understand what is happening in the world today.

In my workshop, The Soul of Plants, we explored seeing the world through a plant’s perspective and what that view teaches us about creativity and a mindful existence. I spoke from my two sides, the science I grew up with and worked in, and the writer I am now.

The Chávez sisters—Denise and Margo The Chávez sisters—Denise and Margo

In the festival’s final panel, I spoke about how we really are what we eat, biologically and metaphorically, and the implications on our agriculture and our health—inside and out. Those words, along with a conversation with Denise’s sister Margo and her friend Sharon, another with longtime Las Cruces friend, photographer/journalist Pam Porter, plus the hike I had taken two days before with another f/Friend, writer Sharman Apt Russell in Silver City, twined in my mind as I drove home.

Sharman Apt Russell in her native habitat along the Big Ditch near Silver City. Sharman Apt Russell in her native habitat along the Big Ditch near Silver City.

I have struggled all my life with feeling as if I didn’t truly belong in either science or writing. As a scientist, my credentials are suspect: I never managed to finish a graduate degree or to distinguish myself in a male-dominated field. As a creative writer I am suspect too: I am self-taught, and my work is inspired by science—in particular, ecology, the relationships that weave this living earth.

Yesterday, I realized I’m not one or the other: I am both. I see the world through the lens of one for whom plants are as fascinating as people. And I communicate using the skills of one who loves storytelling, making words dance and sing. Those words gain power from science, my second language and my born-to culture.

Perhaps this seems self-evident. But I have never seen what I bring to this world so clearly as I did on that nine-hour drive home yesterday in the howling spring wind.

I am a scientist. One who views the world with “heart outstretched as if it were my hand.” One who tells stories of who we are and what we can become. My gift is precisely that combination of head and heart, plus an abiding love for this living planet, the only home our species has ever known.

Coming down the last pass at dusk. Coming down the last pass at dusk—almost home.

Buffalo Peaks, on the way up Trout Creek Pass, one entrance to South Park

Rejoicing in the Moment

Buffalo Peaks, on the way up Trout Creek Pass, one entrance to South Park Buffalo Peaks, on the way up Trout Creek Pass, one entrance to South Park

I left home Wednesday on one of those glorious sunny spring days with the temperature headed for a high in the 70s and almost no wind. The peaks stood out crisply white against a bluebird sky.

I watched idly for wildlife as I cruised across South Park, winding up and over three high passes. I spotted mountain bluebirds, ravens playing on the wind, red-tailed hawks soaring in lazy circles as they scoped the mountain grassland for prey, and a herd of about 50 cow elk grazing near a looping stream. All very bucolic.

Elk in South Park Elk grazing in South Park

When I drove home last night, fluffy clouds draped the highest peaks, the wind was blowing hard out of the southwest, the bluebirds had found shelter, the hawks and ravens were perched, and the herd of elk had swelled to 200, bunched tight as commuters waiting for a subway train.

The wild ones were preparing for a storm.

Dawn clouds hint at a storm coming. Dawn clouds hint at a storm coming.

This morning dawned still with fat clouds clogging blue sky. Over the course of the day, the wind shifted to the southeast and the temperature dropped steadily from 46 degreesF at dawn to 29 degrees.

Around noon, rain splattered the windows as a shower passed by. Then came the rattle of hail, loud on my metal roof and photovoltaic panels. After the hail came flakes of wet snow.

Snow clings to tiny crapapple leaves and other surfaces. Snow clings to tiny crabapple leaves.

Showers of snow blew past, none sticking—the ground was still warm from the balmy weather earlier. Until the temperature fell far enough that a thin white veneer accumulated on roofs, fences, lawns and cars.

After finishing my outside chores, I spent most of the day cozily inside, catching up on bills and taxes and other details of household life, happy at the drizzle of moisture.

As dusk fell and flakes continued to spill out of gray-bellied clouds and the pavement shone with water, I curled up on the couch, feeling rich. Not in the financial sense.

decksnow Wet snow begins to coat the grating of the deck and the chair.

Rich in abundance. This wet snow probably hasn’t totaled more than a quarter-inch of precipitation, which may not sound like much.

It’s enough though. Enough to fill the air with moisture and the smells of life waking up—the microbes in the soil exhaling at the touch of life-giving water, the plants breathing a sigh of relief because for the moment, they aren’t losing more water vapor to the air than their roots take in; the earth itself welcoming moisture and life.

That rare-for-here feeling of water-saturated air plus the heady fragrance of respiration make me feel rich, like opening the pantry door in winter and seeing jar after jar of food. Rich in life, rich in spring, rich in the joy of water where water is always scarce.

That feeling of abundance reminds me that I am rich in other ways: Rich in nurturing family, friendships and love; rich in having this cozy home to return to after exciting and exhausting work-trips.

Daffodils, quite sure it's spring... Daffodils, quite sure it’s spring…

Rich in the seedlings sprouting on the windowsill (tomatoes and basil for the kitchen garden) and outside under sheltering layers of mulch (wildflowers and native grasses that will weave their living tapestry over my formerly unloved industrial yard). Rich in daffodil leaves sprouting through the snow.

I don’t always feel rich. Sometimes I feel impoverished, worn down and sorry for myself from the continuing effort to figure out this unlooked-for life as Woman Alone.

Snow at the front door Snow at the front door

Just now though, writing about my quiet joy with the snow still falling in a thin rain of flakes outside, I think perhaps what makes my existence worthwhile is precisely that ability to feel joy, to see the beauty and promise in an April snowfall.

That I can rejoice in the abundance of life in this moment is itself a gift worth celebrating. And practicing for those times when it does not come easily.

Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in earlier years.

Love: Baggage Worth Carrying

Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in earlier years. Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in 2003.

I never want to be a person who can’t let go, who carries the tragedies and disappointments of her life as so much baggage. I also don’t want to ignore the past and how it has shaped my life.

I try to walk a path between those two poles, staying mindful of the passage of time and the “anniversary dates” that mark significant personal events. I do my best to honor each, and my feelings.

Still, sometimes those dates blindside me.

Friday, March 27th, was one such. Richard died on the 27th of November; each 27th, I am reminded that another month has passed in this life alone. March marks 2- 1/4 years since his death.

Buffalo Peaks through the car windshield, on the approach to Trout Creek Pass, the first mountain pass on my commute to Denver. Buffalo Peaks through the car windshield, on the approach to Trout Creek Pass, the first on my commute to Denver.

I remembered earlier in the week and thought, Oh yeah. I’ll be driving to Denver that afternoon to prepare for the next Wildscape 101 workshop. The route is familiar, one we took many times between home and the VA Medical Center.

I’d shed a few tears, I suspected, and think about how much we loved that drive, no matter the weather and the inconvenience of being three hours from the city, and how lucky we both felt to live in this spacious landscape.

A herd of about 200 elk gathered in South Park in winter, one of the benefits of the drive over the high country. A herd of about 200 elk in South Park in fall, one of the benefits of the sometimes difficult drive over the high country.

I’d remind myself of how our journey with his brain cancer was eased by the relative quiet and slow pace of our small town, its dark night skies and the river two blocks away, the peaks spearing up on the western horizon, and the community that surrounded us with such love.

I couldn’t know that Friday would end up bringing nasty mountain weather and that I would need to leave early in order to make it safely over the three mountain passes, all above 10,000 feet elevation.

Driving straight into a snowstorm whipping in on howling winds on Friday while crossing South Park. Driving straight into a snowstorm whipping in on howling winds on Friday.

Or that the organization sponsoring the workshop would schedule a last-minute conference call during which logistical issues would arise, requiring me to be on the phone while navigating howling wind, icy roads and blowing snow.

Or that the stress would distract me from honoring the date as I had planned.

It wasn’t until I was driving across Denver that evening and passed near the VA Medical Center that I realized why my shoulders and neck had set like concrete.

Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center after he first saw the birds that presaged his tumor. Richard and Molly outside the Medical Center after he saw the birds that presaged his tumor.

Right. It’s the 27th and I’m in the neighborhood where Richard learned he had a cancerous brain tumor, where he survived four brain surgeries, radiation and a course of chemo infusions, and I don’t remember how many brain MRIs and other procedures.

So before I went to bed that night, after I prepared for the next day’s workshop, I had a little conversation with the man I will always love, just catching up.

And then I slept soundly.

Saturday morning’s workshop was a success, with some 200 people in the audience, and knots of attendees surrounding Lauren Springer Ogden and me afterward to tell us how inspired they were by our talks and to ask eager questions.

By the time I drove back over the mountains that afternoon, the weather had turned balmy, but I was so exhausted I navigated on auto-pilot.

I was aimed for home. Not home to the house Richard and I shared. Home to the little house at the other end of the block I built for my solo self after his death.

Home to this harsh and glorious high desert landscape and the community where Richard’s spirit lives on in his art and in everyone he touched in his brilliant, incisive and generous way.

Home where I walk on alone, grateful to be here and to have had his company for almost 29 years. Yeah, I still miss him; yeah, I grieve. I smile and laugh too. It’s all part of carrying on the love we shared, baggage I never want to forget.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together….

Stock tank garden-to-be

Planting Seeds

Stock tank garden-to-be Stock tank garden-to-be, waiting…

I’m not planting outdoors yet. For one thing, my steel front and side deck, where my kitchen garden will live in two galvanized stock tanks, isn’t finished.

For another, it’s still sub-freezing at night here at 7,036 feet elevation in the southern Rockies. But it is time to start my garden indoors.

I grow my own tomato, oriental eggplant and basil seedlings, rather than buying them at a local nursery or the farmer’s market. It’s a bit more work to start my own plants, but I’m addicted to the beauty and flavor of the heirloom varieties and the joy of tending my plants from seed.

Tomato seed packets from Renee's Garden Seeds Tomato seed packets from Renee’s Garden Seeds

I blame Renee Shepherd, plantswoman and chef extraordinaire, and the founder of Renee’s Garden Seeds, which specializes in heirloom and new edibles and flowers selected for their beauty, taste and ease of growing.

(They’re also sustainably or organically grown, and do not include GMOs.)

I was perfectly content to buy ordinary tomato seedlings until I discovered Renee’s offerings. Who could resist varieties like Black Cherry tomatoes (tiny, purple and smoky), Marvel Stripe (rose with yellow marbling and sweet), huge orange Persimmon (citrusy), or Stupice (dense and rich)?

You can see how easy it is to get hooked.

Seed packets and seedling pots, filled with organic potting soil. Seed packets and seedling pots, filled with organic potting soil.

I grow seven varieties of tomatoes, plus Italian Pesto basil (a large-leafed kind perfect for what its name indicates), along with three varieties of Oriental eggplant (small with thin, edible skin and a lovely nutty flavor).

I usually plant the seeds indoors in mid-March, but I’m behind this year. Yesterday I got out my tray of seedling pots and set it on the bench in the little sunspace/workshop off my garage.

I sorted my seed packets, found the bag of organic potting soil, and started filling pots.

My garden bench, in the south-facing windows of my workshop. The tray of seedling pots on my garden bench, in the south-facing windows of my workshop.

Once all the pots were brim-full of soil (it compacts as soon as it’s watered), I began sowing seeds, beginning with the Oriental eggplant varieties, then the seven varieties of tomatoes, and finally, the basil.

I put two seeds in each pot (just in case, although I usually get 100 percent germination with Renee’s seeds). I allocated one row of five pots for the eggplants and two rows for the basil, which left me five rows (25 pots) for the seven varieties of tomatoes.

Did I mention that my stock-tank container gardens can accommodate just seven tomato plants, one of each variety? And that I just planted 25 pots with two seeds each, a potential of 50 tomato plants?

I go just a little overboard planting tomato seeds every year.

One afternoon's tomato harvest from last year, plus a few Oriental eggplants. One afternoon’s tomato harvest from last year, plus a few Oriental eggplants.

It’s partly that I really love seeing those feathery little cotyledons sprout as if by magic. It’s also partly because having extra tomato plants feels like riches to me: I can share them with friends, who then get the benefit of those sun-warmed and delicious fruits.

And then there’s the practical aspect: My smallest seedling flat holds two trays of twenty pots each. So I have 40 pots—might as well fill them!

As I finished seeding each row of pots, I labeled the row with a post-it note so I’d remember what variety was planted where. Then I set the flats atop the wicking mat in the tray (the mat holds water, encouraging the roots to grow downward).

Newly watered pots on their sunny window seat Newly watered pots on their sunny window seat

I carried the whole thing into the house, along with the heat mat that goes under the tray, set it on my south-facing window seat in the living room where it’ll get lots of sun, and watered mat and pots.

This is the first year for my stock-tank kitchen garden, the first year I won’t be transplanting tomato plants into the beautiful raised beds of the extensive kitchen garden Richard and I designed and built at Terraphilia.

Like everything else in my new solo life, that’s a bittersweet first. I don’t particularly miss the house or the garden—I loved them while we lived there, but both are much too big for the one of me.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together….

I do miss the man though. I expect I always will.

Perhaps especially when the living room smells of moist soil and the promise of spring.

Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

Habitat Hero Road-Trip

Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow. Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

In the past four days, I’ve logged 900 road-miles (about half driving myself, half carpooling) in conditions including high wind and blowing snow, drizzle, pouring rain, wet snow so heavy it impaired visibility, and balmy springlike temperatures.

That’s spring–or almost spring–in the Rockies.

March snow makes for interesting driving.... March snow makes for interesting driving….

This particular road-trip took me to Casper, Wyoming, an 8.5 hour drive each way for me, and a 4-plus-hour drive for my traveling companions, renowned plantswoman and garden author Lauren Springer Ogden and passionate wildscaper Connie Holsinger, whose Terra Foundation funds the Be a Habitat Hero project.

At Habitat Hero, we say we’re a small staff with a big dream: restoring a network of habitat in yards and neighborhoods throughout the Rocky Mountain region to sustain songbirds and pollinators.

Our mission this trip: teach a two-hour Wildscape 101 workshop to an audience brought together by the Natrona County Office of the University of Wyoming Extension, and Audubon Rockies.

Lauren speaking at the Wildscape 101 workshop in Casper Lauren speaking at the Wildscape 101 workshop in Casper

The workshop attracted some 85 attendees, including a whole class of trainees for the Master Gardener program. The group was attentive and interested, had great questions, and lined up to buy books and chat afterwards.

We shared lunch with Natrona County Extension Horticulturist (and Habitat Hero Awardee) Donna Cuin and the Master Gardener trainees before hitting the long road home.

And was it a long road–both ways. I had imagined a two-day trip: Leave Salida on Friday morning, drive 3.5 hours to Connie’s house east of Boulder and ride with Connie to pick up Lauren in Fort Collins. From there, the three of us would carpool north to Casper. We’d teach the workshop Saturday morning and then do the drive in reverse, with me arriving home that night.

Only my solo leg of the drive goes over three mountain passes, all higher than 10,000 feet elevation, and across the windswept expanses of South Park. On Wednesday night, the Weather Service predicted high winds and blizzard conditions for South Park on Friday.

Wind plus snow makes for black ice in South Park. Wind plus snow makes for black ice in South Park.

So I left Thursday afternoon, figuring I’d reach Denver ahead of the storm. I didn’t quite make it across South Park before the wind and snow, but I did make it to Denver that night.

Friday morning dawned drizzly, turned to showers and then to heavy, wet snow. When Connie and I reached Fort Collins, we switched to Lauren’s 4-wd Honda.

On the long drive north through eastern Wyoming’s wide-open shortgrass prairie and breaks with their fringes of juniper and ponderosa forest, the snow gradually lessened and the temperature rose (go figure!). By the time we reached Casper Friday evening, the clouds were receding.

Saturday dawned sunny and calm. When we left the Natrona County Fairgrounds that afternoon, it felt like spring–in Wyoming (the snow was melting into puddles).

Crocus blooming in Lauren's south-facing succulent and cactus garden Crocus blooming in Lauren’s south-facing succulent and cactus garden.

By the time we reached Fort Collins and Lauren’s house late in the afternoon, it was so balmy that she gave us a quick tour of her gardens.

My plan to head on home that night lasted until I checked the road report: high wind and blowing snow in South Park. It would be dark by the time I got to that stretch or road. Not good.

South Park this morning, a white expanse of new snow. South Park this morning, a white expanse of new snow.

So I stayed the night. By the time I topped Kenosha Pass and dropped into South Park this morning, the wind had quit and the sun had mostly dried the pavement. A foot of new snow blanketed the high country; my car thermometer read 8 degrees F.

At home though (3,000 feet elevation lower), it was 55 degrees and sunny. After I unpacked the car, I put in a few hours on own habitat restoration project: spreading more wildflower and native grass seed in my dirt yard, newly watered by yesterday’s wet snow.

Roadbase yard between the house and the studio/garage. Dirt yard between the house and the studio/garage.

I’m eager to return this last piece of the abandoned industrial property Richard and I bought almost 17 years ago to health. It’s a symbol of my life in a way. The process takes time, patience and faith, but eventually, we’ll both bloom again.

Local ingredients--everything in the photo came from within a hundred miles, some from just a few blocks away.

What’s Cooking

After last week’s post, The Dangerous Power of Thin, I wanted to share two simple recipes. I may have a tangled relationship with eating, but that does not extend to food and cooking.

I love to cook. I revel in playing with the flavors, colors, and textures of fresh ingredients, in preparing food that’s healthy and delicious, and visually appealing.

Local ingredients--everything in the photo came from within a hundred miles, some from just a few blocks away. Everything in the photo came from within a hundred miles, some from just a few blocks away.

I prefer to create from local ingredients because not only are they more likely to be fresh, I know them. They come from my community, broadly speaking, from earth that’s familiar to me—healthy food from a healthy land.

First is my favorite simple dinner, something I started making when Molly was still in high school. Tuesday is her 35th birthday—Happy Birthday, Sweetie!—which tells you how long ago that was. (The quantities in these two recipes make a single serving, but both scale up well.)

Baby Swiss from Rocking W Cheese on Colorado's West Slope, thanks to Ploughboy Local Market Baby Swiss from Rocking W Cheese on Colorado’s West Slope, thanks to Ploughboy Local Market

Cheesy Eggs Poached on Greens and Salsa

1 tsp butter or olive oil
2 T salsa (any kind: hot or mild, tomato and chile, fruit and chile…)
1 1/2 cups fresh greens (again, any kind, even mixed salad greens), torn into bite-sized pieces
1 – 2 eggs
1 T cheese, chopped into small cubes
fresh-ground pepper

Put the butter or olive oil in a microwavable bowl with a lid. (If you prefer to cook on the stove, you’ll need a very small flat-bottomed pan with a lid.) Spread salsa in the bottom in a layer, and top with greens. (Don’t worry if the greens fill the container–they shrink with cooking.) Microwave the salsa and greens for a minute or so on high, until they are hot and wilted. (Or sauté covered for a very short time without stirring.)

A green-shelled egg that's so local I bring the chickens food scraps, thanks to Maggie and Tony A green-shelled egg laid by my friend Maggie’s flock just a few blocks away.

While the greens are cooking, beat the eggs in a small bowl, add the cheese and grind in pepper to taste. Pour the egg mix atop the hot, wilted greens (again, don’t stir), cover, and microwave or cook on high for a minute, or until the eggs are set and the cheese melted.

Cheesy Eggs Poached on Greens and Salsa Cheesy Eggs Poached on Greens and Salsa

Uncover and enjoy. Excellent with warm sourdough bread and a fruit salad. I ate this for dinner tonight—yum!

The second recipe is the hot breakfast cereal I invented for Richard’s anti-cancer diet, which helped keep him healthy through four brain surgeries, radiation, and two courses of chemo. The idea is to eat food high in fiber and anti-oxidants, and low in simple sugars and starches, a good strategy for all of us. (All ingredients are organic, many are local.)

Measuring dry ingredients into the bowl. Measuring dry ingredients.

Creamy Hot Cereal

1 1/2 heaping T whole rolled oats (the old-fashioned kind)
1/2 T blue cornmeal (adds a nutty flavor)
1/2 T oat bran
1/2 T flax meal (great for Omega 3s)
1 T walnuts, chopped
1/2 T dried sour cherries
1 T raisins
1/2 T dried cranberries (not the kind sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup!)
pinch salt
1/2 T ground cinnamon (sweetens the cereal and lowers blood pressure as well as controlling blood sugar)
1 tsp ground ginger
1 1/4 cup water

Mix ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl. Add water and let soak for at least an hour (overnight is fine). Cook on high (uncovered) for four minutes and then stir. Return to microwave and cook for another three minutes. Add milk or yogurt if desired. The cinnamon and ginger jazz up the flavor.

I buy the ingredients in bulk to save packaging and money. This cereal can be mixed up in quantity and stored in glass jars, but you’ll need to stir it before measuring it out because it settles. A serving for me is 2/3 cup of the mixture; others may eat more. (It’s very filling.)

Adding fresh-ground spices (these are from Savory Spice in Denver) makes the mix fragrant and flavorful. Adding fresh-ground spices (these are from Savory Spice in Denver) makes the mix fragrant and flavorful.

*****

You may notice some changes to the design of this blog/website. My friend Mark Wiard has been helping me update it, including adding a handy Events Calendar. Feel free to explore and let me know what you think, but be aware some sections are still under construction….