Where’s Susan?

Signing advance orders for Bless the Birds at Collected Works Bookstore.

I meant to write a post last month, but between the launch of my new memoir, Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, and driving a few thousand miles for a couple of new projects, the weeks whizzed by with me barely keeping up. (You can imagine me running as fast as possible just to stay in place, like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel, Through the Looking Glass.)

Where have I been? Mid-April found me on the road to the Guy’s farm, where I spent ten days designing and installing a pollinator garden on the south side of the farmhouse. No small garden, this: it’s approximately 400 square feet in size, bigger than most tiny houses!

The new pollinator garden in progress.

I’ve been preparing the ground for the better part of a year, doing my best to kill the bindweed and other invasive weeds, and to rejuvenate some existing perennials, including two bunches of peonies, that had been buried under overgrown plants from a previous and long-neglected garden.

The old garden featured plants not adapted to the hot, south-facing site, and not providing much in the way of habitat and food for pollinators and songbirds. The idea of the new garden is rely heavily on native plants to attract native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and provide drought-resistant beauty from spring through fall while requiring much less water.

Before planting, I worked on the “hardscape,” the elements of the garden that don’t require watering or pruning or other tending: rocks. The Guy drove the tractor down the lane to his lower gate, and we worked together to load the bucket with uber-local rocks (sandstone and basalt cleared from his hayfields). Two bucket-loads later, I went to work creating a wide rock border between the garden and the lawn area, and then placing rocks within the garden to delineate planting areas and provide topographic relief.

And then came the plants, some of which had been waiting in pots all winter, plus about 60 baby plants I had brought with me from horticulturist David Salman’s Waterwise Garden nursery in Santa Fe, and another two dozen ordered from High Country Gardens online.

Some of the plants for the new garden, on their way to the farm.

All of that work plus farm-chores took the better part of a week, and when I had planted everything I had, we took a day off to go to a nursery in Grand Junction to look for a few native shrubs to add height to the garden. We came back with several, including two Ribes odoratum, clove-scented currant, which are wonderfully fragrant and very attractive to native pollinators.

So attractive, in fact, that within an hour of planting the first one, a Hunt’s bumblebee queen buzzed over to feed on and pollinate its flowers. Her near-instant arrival illustrated nicely what we in the native-plant landscaping world like to say: plant them and they will come!

Hunt’s bumblebee queen sipping nectar from newly-planted clove-scented currant.

When the garden project was as finished as it’s going to get this spring, I headed back to Santa Fe for two weeks of book promotion, including my launch event, a frank and wide-ranging conversation with memoirist Kati Standefer, whose debut, Lightning Flowers, has been lauded by Oprah, Terry Gross of Fresh Air, and the New York Times book review. (And yes, it’s that good!)

Our conversation via Zoom was hosted by our wonderful local bookstore, Collected Works in Santa Fe, and co-sponsored by Women’s International Study Center, where I was a fellow in 2016. If you missed what was an amazing heart-to-heart exchange on living on the edge of death, you can watch the event here.

The beautiful event poster designed by Cecile Lipworth, Collected Works’ event manager.

If you’ve not read Bless the Birds yet, or Kati’s Lighting Flowers, you can buy signed copies of both by calling or emailing Collected Works. I’m happy to personalize your book if you let the folks at Collected Works know.

The next event in my year-long series of conversations with authors whose work I admire is June 9th, 6 pm (RMT) with Sharman Apt Russell, on her new book, Within Our Grasp, a look the global problem of childhood malnutrition and how empowering women can make a huge difference. That conversation will be hosted by Women’s International Study Center. Registration information on the Events page soon.

Immediately after the book launch conversation, I hopped into Rojita, my trusty bright red Toyota Tacoma pickup, and headed north to Wyoming to lay the groundwork for my summer work in Yellowstone National Park and at Ring Lake Ranch. Four days later, I drove back home again to Santa Fe via a night with the Guy at his farm, which means I put 1,900 miles on Rojita’s odometer and my body in–gulp!–six days. Crazy, but necessary.

Now I’m home at Casa Alegria, packing and organizing. My trailer, Cabanita, is being serviced, and when she’s ready in a week or ten days, I’ll hitch her up to Rojita, and off we’ll go (slowly) for weeding in Yellowstone, and working at Ring Lake Ranch. But first, I’m taking a few days to just be right here, in place!

Bless the Birds Coming Soon!

Bless the Birds cover layout, with great blurbs from Lyanda Haupt, Craig Childs, and Kathleen Dean Moore. Thanks to all who read and wrote blurbs (there are more inside the book).

I confess that I have spent a lot of March playing hooky. My lack of discipline either comes from the sheer terror of having Bless the Birds, the newest and most gutsy of my book ouevre, close to hitting the streets, or from my resolve to take advantage of the company of the Guy, Badger, and the horses for the nearly four weeks they were here.

Honestly, I think it’s a combination of both. I haven’t entirely neglected book promotion, but I’ve logged more miles in the saddle than I have hours at my desk. Which is probably healthy, and part of why I am in pretty great physical shape right now.

Me, riding the arroyo on Sal, followed by my faithful shadow.

When the Guy arrived at the end of February, we were determined to ride every day if we could, and we managed at least a mile or two most days, and some days we went out for much longer, including one weekend when we rode a twelve-mile loop one day and then did a seven-mile cross-country (off trail) ride to a ruined 14th century pueblo the next. I admit that I needed a day to rest after that!

Three blondes and a paint head cross-country…. (That’s the horses; we riders are all going silver.)

The herd, Badger, and the Guy headed north on Thursday morning in a huge swirl of spring-is-coming-and-the-hayfields-need-preparation energy. So it’s suddenly pretty quiet around here, and I have no excuse for neglecting magazine and journal interviews, upcoming radio appearances, a potential blog book tour, and my planned year-long author conversation/podcast series, Living with Love — Cultivating Earth Sense. (Thanks to the amazing Dan Blank of We Grow Media for helping me clarify what I have to offer, which lead to the idea of this series.)

What’s ahead?

  • April 27 is the official publication date for Bless the Birds. If you’ve already ordered the book, you should get it then. If you haven’t, and you want a signed copy, Collected Works Bookstore here in Santa Fe has kindly agreed to be my official source for shipping signed books, so please contact the good folks there.
  • April 26 my blog book tour begins with a wide-ranging interview with author and translator C.M. Mayo on her Madam Mayo blog. C.M asks great questions, so we covered a lot of topics within Bless the Birds and beyond.
  • April 30, at 8:30 pm (ET), I’m reading as part of the NYC-based “The Greatest Indoor Reading Series.” It’s virtual, and I don’t know what other readers I’m paired with, but it’s bound to be an interesting evening! Join us via Zoom through the website.
  • May 4, Interview on the Richard Eeds Show. (Time TBA, sometime between 1:00 and 4:00 pm RMT, available as a podcast after the show.)
  • May 6, at 6:oo pm (RMT) is the big day: BOOK LAUNCH! Collected Works is hosting my Zoom-based conversation with fellow memoirist Kati Standefer, author of Lightning Flowersa personal and environmental accounting of the cost of advanced medical technology. Lightning Flowers is an Oprah and NYT book review editor’s pick, among other honors. Our talk is also the first conversation in my upcoming Living with Love — Cultivating Earth Sense series. Our topic: Living on the edge of death. Join us for what I know will be a fascinating and insightful exchange.
  • June 5 & 6 I’ll be in Lander, Wyoming, as faculty at Wyoming Writers 46th annual conference. If you can’t make it to Lander, at the foot of the spectacular Wind River Mountains and in the heart of Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho Indian country, you can also attend virtually.

There’s more, including an author conversation with philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Earth’s Wild Music, in June, followed by a conversation with Lyanda Haupt, author of Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spiritin July. But this is enough for now. (If you haven’t subscribed to my email newsletter, now’s a good time. I’ll send out periodic updates on my schedule.)

Bless the Birds and an interview with me was featured in the March-April issue of Neighbors Magazine. Illustration courtesy of editor Cheryl Fallstead.

Love Language: Communicating Without Words

The amaryllis I gave the Guy for Christmas, on its second bloom stalk.

It’s been a year and a half since the Guy and I met, and we’re still learning each other. We have so much in common–from the books we’re reading, the ideas we share, and a mutual need for time in the big wild, to a wide circle of friends we met separately long before we met each other. We share a passion for science and spiritual seeking, a love of horses and dogs, and cooking and food.

We’re also very different in some ways that are critical to nurturing a relationship.

Take communication. I am, in the Guy’s parlance, “a word person.” When I am trying to figure something out, I talk about it. When I am upset, I am vocal. When I am happy, I am voluble. Words are my way of communicating.

The Guy is much more internal. He tends to work through things in his head before he’s ready to speak. (Not that his body language doesn’t “speak” for him.) He likes silence. He needs space. And sometimes he forgets entirely to communicate in words what he has already processed in his mind.

Those differing communication styles have tripped us up more than once. I’m learning to leave space for his silence; he’s learning to use words to acknowledge his moods and let me know they’re not aimed at me.

A frozen puddle with a heart-shaped open spot we found on our morning walk.

One thing he communicates often is that he loves me. He doesn’t always say it; he acts it.

It’s the little things: The gentle pat of his hand as he passes me in in the bathroom as we’re dressing in the morning. The way he remembers to put my milk out on the breakfast table along with the half ‘n half he prefers.

When he heads outside to feed the horses, he often backtracks before he going out the door to kiss me.

When he borrowed my truck to visit a dying friend in the hospital a few hours away, he washed the truck on the way home. When I make dinner, he clears the table and washes the dishes without comment. (When he makes dinner, I do the same.)

For Christmas, he gave me a pair of riding chaps, the kind he has and I wanted but was too cheap to buy for myself. Then he gave me a pair of long johns too, just to make sure I’d be warm on winter rides.

He found me a saddle that fits my slender frame perfectly, and he oils and cleans it when he cleans his saddles.

He listens when I talk, even when he doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. He doesn’t pretend: he listens with his whole body, with a kind of attentiveness that is rare and precious.

When we’re apart (which is more often than not for our long-distance relationship), he remembers to call to catch up, even though neither of us really likes phone conversations. But they’re a way of tending our bond. He also sends me photos of the horses, links to news articles he knows will interest me, and funny cartoons.

He’s not demonstrative in the sense of hugging or holding hands often in public. But when I’m upset, he always remembers to hold me.

And at night in bed, he pulls me close. When I turn over, he rearranges himself to snuggle against me. Every time. And every time, it makes me smile.

He doesn’t have to say, “I love you.” His actions say it. Words matter, but as I’m learning, actions can speak the language of love too.

A heart-shaped and face-sized chunk of native sandstone.

Sabbatical Report: Taking the Non-traditional Path

Along US 50, the loneliest road, across Nevada

When I wrote about taking a sabbatical from forcing my writing to earn a living back in November, many of you left supportive comments on the blog or on social media, all of which I very much appreciated. Now that I’m two months in, I thought I’d let you know how it’s going.

Which is probably not the way you may have imagined. I’m not spending my days in leisurely reading and contemplation of the universe in its wondrous and chaotic ways. Nor am I writing up a storm.

What am I doing? A lot of planning for the April release of Bless the Birds, my upcoming memoir. I’ve been sending advance review copies to magazines and newspapers that have book review sections, which involves a lot of tedious looking up of addresses and editors’ names, and finding their requirements for review copies in these COVID times when many people are still working remotely.

The advance review copies of Bless the Birds

I’m also dreaming up virtual book events involving bookstores and libraries. The idea I am percolating is a series of internet-based conversations with fellow authors whose work intersects with mine, exchanges on topics that relate to our work.

One idea, for example, is a conversation with my over-the-ridge neighbor, Kati Standefer, whose absolutely stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowers, tracks in gorgeous and raw prose the human and environmental cost of the defibrillator implanted in her chest that both saved and irretrievably altered her life. We could talk about living on the edge of death, a subject we both know more about than we’d like. My dream is to have that event sponsored by Collected Works, my favorite Santa Fe bookstore, as my book launch event.

I’d like to have a conversation with Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire, among other fine books, about stumbling into the understanding that the world outside our skin boundaries, the wild world nearby, can save us. I’d like to talk with Kathy Moore, author of Earth’s Wild Music, about what humans lose when we lose other species, when the tapestry of this living planet frays beyond what seems repairable.

Lichen, an entity made of two kinds of lives that are entirely different but manage to cooperate for their mutual benefit, a fungus and a photosynthesizing algae or bacteria.

I imagine these virtual events as a series of thoughtful interactions between people you’d like to listen to, conversations that explore ideas you’d like to know more about. Conversations that are inspiring and thought-provoking, and yes, might relate to our books, but are mostly offerings from us to you.

Because what I’ve realized during this sabbatical is that, while I do have a book to promote, what’s most important to both the writer me and the scientist me is that I have experiences and ideas that I want to share, and I know writers whose ideas and experiences I want to delve into. So if I can combine those things, book promotion will be something useful to all of us, instead of merely an exercise in selling something.

In dreaming up this series of conversations, I’m taking a non-traditional path, focusing more on what I have to share than on sales. Because that’s in alignment with why I wrote, which is to offer something I know to others in a way that I hope will be useful, inspiring, life-changing, or simply worth the read.

I owe this realization in part to work I did last year with Beata Lewis, goddess of transformational work (you could call her an executive coach, but that’s too limiting), and work I am doing now with human-centered marketer Dan Blank of We Grow Media. Both of them pushed me to look beyond the conventional view of what success in writing means, to integrate the left-brained scientist and the right-brained writer, and to listen to what my heart and spirit ask of me.

Which occurs to me is very much in the spirit of this sabbatical: reflecting on who I am and what I am doing with my life.

Hence this new mission statement:

I aim to restore our love and care for this numinous Earth, and help us be our best and kindest selves–wholly at home on a healthy planet.

Reflections on a lake in the Cascades above Bend, Oregon

2020: Remembering the good parts

Desert four-o-clock (Mirabilis multiflora) in full bloom.

As we come to the end of 2020, a year that has been tumultuous and difficult in ways we all know, my impulse is to kick the old year in the rear and unceremoniously slam the door behind it.  Instead, I want to remember the blessings that came my way, so that I can welcome 2021 with my heart open and my gratitude foremost.

Those blessings? What comes to mind first are the Guy and his dog and horses. I who was perfectly happy to live the rest of my life solo now have a loving partnership again with a man who shares my bond with these Rocky Mountain landscapes, with the literature that rises from them, and who also shares my need for time in the wild.

Me on Cookie, leading Silky into the wilderness on our pack trip.

For my birthday, he gifted me with four days in the remote Washakie Wilderness of northwest Wyoming, just southeast of Yellowstone, where I worked as a young field ecologist. It was pure heaven. Our long-distance relationship isn’t simple, but the rewards are beyond words. My heart is full, and my understanding of the world is enriched by his company, knowledge, and insights.

A lake in the Washakie wilderness where we stopped for lunch on our pack trip.

Another blessing has been time with friends and family, much of that virtual. But in these socially distanced COVID-19 times, the connection with the people I love and whose company nurtures me is so critical.

I treasure the in-person time so much more now that it’s rare. Visits like the walk I took yesterday (masked and socially distanced) with the memoirist Kati Standefer are what sustain me in these challenging days, mind, body, and spirit. (If you haven’t read her stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowersdo. You’ll understand why Oprah picked it as one of the top 100  books for the year, and it was an Editor’s Choice book at the New York Times Book Review, plus landed Kati on NPR’s Fresh Air.)

A heart-shaped and face-sized chunk of native sandstone, sculpted by time and weathering, and transported by Galisteo Creek.

We trekked up a dry stream-bed near her house at the base of a red sandstone ridge, talking about life and writing and memoir, why we need solitude and the wild and what love is worth, anyway. We hung out with her chickens, and discovered a shared love for Stranahan’s whisky. I found the large heart rock in the stream-bed and lugged it back, knowing somehow it should come home with me.

I needed that high a few hours later when I learned that my friend and writing inspiration, Barry Lopez, had died the day before. It’s been that kind of high-slammed-by-lows year, and I am so fortunate to have a community who cheers me on. Thank you all.

Crossing the farm hayfields in early summer at sunset, after moving the irrigation water one last time.

Another blessing has been time on the land. I live in the rural West, outside Santa Fe in the winter, and in northwest Wyoming in the summer. In between, I spend time on the Guy’s farm, getting to know a whole new landscape in the broad swath of the sagebrush county I call home. Living where there are few people and lots of open space makes it easier to stay safe in COVID-times, and means I get abundant vitamin N, time in nature, to keep me healthy and reasonably sane amidst the tumult of the larger world.

Then there’s the gift of seeing my new memoir, Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, come to life with a beautiful cover and an inviting page design. And the generosity of fellow authors writing advance praise for BtB. Best-selling novelist Jane Kirkpatrick wrote,

Bless the Birds is the book for our times. It’s a splendid blend of landscapes, relationships, creative work, and spirituality–finding meaning in life framed by an awareness of death. I have a dozen people I want to share this authentic, honest, hopeful memoir with. You will too. It’s a treasure. 

Bless the Birds, with a beautiful cover designed by Julie Metz of She Writes Press.

I am honored that this memoir, my thirteenth book, resonates with writers whose work I admire. (The book is due out in April, and if you are so moved you can pre-order it through Amazon, Bookshop–which supports independent bookstores–or your local bookstore.)

And in this year of so many endings, but also new beginnings, I am grateful for this beautiful new website, courtesy of my multi-talented and generous friends Tony and Maggie Niemann of Tracks Software. I’m not sure what I did to deserve Tony and Maggie, but I truly appreciate them!

One more gift of this difficult year: a new appreciation of simply being here. Alive, relatively healthy, and comfortable. I can take a walk in the near-wild every day. I can write, laugh, read, ride, cook, and love. I have faith that 2021 will bring positive changes. For all of these things, I am truly grateful.

May the new year bring us all chances to be kind, compassionate, and live with our hearts outstretched. Be well!

Sunset glow on Sierra Blanca in the Sacramento Mountains, on our Solstice camping trip.

Settling In

Before Badger, the Guy’s Vizsla, lies down on his heated mat on the couch to snooze away the time between walks and other outings, he always turns around two or three times, ruffles up his blanket, and then settles in with a big sigh. He’s customizing his spot to suit him.

(And that canine remodeling is why my beautiful blue leather couch wears a sturdy gray dog cover when Badger is in residence. As for the heated mat, Badger is almost thirteen–he’s earned his perks.)

The couch without the cover and Badger. Lovely, but pretty empty.

I’m not so different than Badger. With every move in the past nine years since Richard died, I’ve engaged in my equivalent of circling several times and rearranging the blankets in each living space: remodeling.

The first move was to Creek House, the little house I helped design and build for myself in Salida, so that was a bigger deal than remodeling. I made that space my own in spades–I guess you could say I circled quite a few times!

Creek House on the right, Treehouse (the garage/workshop and guest apartment) on the left

Then came Cody, and the seriously dilapidated mid-Century modern house that I rescued, renovating from basement to roof, bringing house and yard back to beautiful life. That circling and rearranging the blanket took nearly two years, but it was oh-so-satisfying. (The neighbors were thrilled that the neighborhood eyesore turned beautiful too.)

Who could resist restoring this vintage kitchen? Not me….

Followed by my move to Santa Fe, and into a small condo that really didn’t need work, but was pretty tired. I replaced worn carpet with vinyl plank floors, renovated the galley kitchen, replaced the aging metal windows with new and more efficient wood ones, and updated the furnace and water heater. And added color to the walls.

Compact, but elegant and welcoming.

When I bought Casa Alegría, my current house, my intention was only to fix what was actually wrong, including a faulty pellet stove with a pipe not up to code, leaky windows, and a mouse-infested attic over the garage and laundry room. And of course paint a few of the boring white walls more interesting colors.

I guess it should be no surprise that I haven’t limited myself to just those projects.

Casa Alegría now boasts a new, efficient and safe woodstove, new windows and screen doors, plus an exterior door replacing a small window, an attic that is properly sealed and insulated (and bio-cleaned so it doesn’t stink), photovoltaic panels on the roof that generate clean power for the house and excess for the power grid, new mini-splits delivering incredibly efficient heating and cooling, a new garage door that actually seals out cold and rodents, and of course, colorful walls.

The great room on a fall afternoon. The pink panels in the sunroom ceiling are a thermal efficiency experiment; they’ll be covered up by beadboard soon.

My latest project as I settle in? Replacing the small flagstone patio in the backyard that was so buried under dirt and debris that I didn’t discover it until I used a shovel to dig out some weeds and hit rock.

The old flagstone patio partly unburied (also before new windows and doors replaced the old, leaky ones).
Patio renovation in progress: The guys dug up and saved the old flagstones at my request, and then leveled the bed.
The renewed patio, with old, paler pink flagstones artistically mixed with the new. Now I need some patio furniture!

As I circle and settle, I am contemplating what else I need to do to make this place fit me, the way Badger makes his couch space comfy. But first, I think I’ll just drag a chair out onto the patio and admire my new outdoor room. Before fall changes to winter with tonight’s snowstorm….

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.

A Love Story in Troubled Times

With the world seeming to be heading into chaos once again, I find myself searching for anything positive or cheering. Any good news, any happy ending, any ray of light in what feels like gathering darkness. I’m offering this love story in that vein, as a sign that goodness still exists, and miracles still happen. I’m not going to identify the lovers out of respect for one’s desire for privacy. You’ll probably guess the identity of the other; that’s okay.

Once upon a time, a writer quite reluctantly left her cozy home in the Southwest to travel north to Wyoming and teach at a retreat center. She grumbled as she drove, not because going to Wyoming wasn’t a joy, but because she was close to finishing a book project, and she didn’t want to leave the writing just then. But she had promised to lead a seminar for another friend who had to bow out, so our writer honored that commitment, if grumpily.

At sunset on her first day on the road, as she crossed the state line into Wyoming, the writer’s mood lifted. Looking at the wild valley around her, she realized that she needed to throw open the walls she had carefully built since her husband had died nearly eight years before. In particular, she needed to find a place to live with more open landscapes around her, and fewer people nearby, unlike the condo where she had lived for the past year.

When she curled up in her sleeping bag in her car that night, our writer surfed a real estate site on the internet, checking what was for sale in the area she was thinking of. Within minutes, she saw a house that looked just perfect for her–clearly in need of some love, but she wasn’t bothered by that. The asking price was over her budget, but she noticed the house had been on the market for months, so she figured she might be able to get it for less. Before she drifted off to sleep, she sent an email to her friend, a real estate agent, asking her opinion of the house and suggesting an appointment to view it when writer returned home the next month.

The next morning, our writer was feeling buoyant. As she drove through southern Wyoming’s sagebrush country with its long views and immense blue skies, she said out loud to the universe, “If I’m buying a house, it’s time to bring a dog back into my life. I’ll take the next one that comes along.”

She hadn’t had a dog since her Great Dane had died in 2007. Just over a year after the big grief of losing that beloved Big Dog came the brain cancer and caregiving years that had eventually set the writer on a solo path in life. For years after midwifing both her mother and her husband through their deaths she was simply too drained to be able to commit to any relationship, even the easy companionship of a dog.

“It’s finally time,” she said to herself as she drove toward distant mountain ranges, counting grazing pronghorn antelope and soaring golden eagles. And she felt good.

Pronghorn in sagebrush country.

Late that afternoon she parked at the ranch where she was teaching. When she got out of her car and stretched her stiff back, a distinguished older dog, his red muzzle gone white, ambled across the dusty lot, sniffed her ankles, and presented himself for attention. She scratched his back at the base of his wagging stub tail, and then moved on to rub his ears. He groaned, sat on her feet, and looked up at her with big brown eyes.

“You’re a sweetie!” our writer said to the dog. “But you belong to someone already. You’re not mine.” He lifted his lips in a doggy grin, wagged his stub-tail harder, and ambled off.

A few hours later in the dining hall, the writer was chatting with some of the participants in her seminar when the dog’s person walked up and introduced himself: “I’m [we’ll call him “the guy”] and we almost met 30 years ago.” She turned to answer, and her heart stopped. The man wore his wildly curling dark-turned-silver hair in a stubby pony tail, his nicely muscled body in a plaid shirt and jeans. He tilted his head to look at her through the close-up lenses in his bifocals when she spoke, his brown eyes magnified and his body attentive, as if he was listening with his very cells. Plop! Her heart fell right at the toes of his dusty cowboy boots. She doesn’t remember now what she said, but she remembers the distinctive mixture of terror, annoyance–this is not my life plan!–and excitement she felt.

She went to sleep in her cozy cabin that night arguing with herself. She was quite happy with her solo existence, had no interest in a relationship, and had her life arranged comfortably, thank you very much. As she said the last out loud, our writer was quite sure she could hear the universe laughing.

The week went by, the writer spent her days writing, hiking, paddle-boarding, and riding the ranch’s horses. (The guy was involved with the horse program, which she told herself firmly had nothing to do with her choosing to ride–she simply missed the long-ago days when she had ridden often, both for her botany fieldwork and for pleasure on her own horses.) In the evenings, she taught her seminars, with the guy and his gentlemanly dog perched on a couch front and center in the room.

Trail ride in the mountains.

By the end of the week, our writer and the guy had managed to sit together at a few meals, but since they were both working, time for conversation was almost non-existent. Still, she had learned their lives had nearly intersected many times over the decades, they shared many mutual friends in the writing world, and many interests. He had a varied and intriguing background, including science fieldwork, publishing, horse-tending, and a new interest in the spiritual side of palliative care and hospice. Their conversations showed her that the guy was a wide reader and a deep thinker, with an interest in reconnecting humans with the wild, which they both thought was the source of sacredness and spirituality. He was just four months older than she was, with deep roots in the landscapes she called home too.

When they parted at the end of the week, she learned that he hugged as thoroughly as he listened. She drove off to spend several weeks working in a nearby national park, torn between excitement and terror. He spent the next month hunting in the high country of Colorado. They talked on the phone when they could, their long conversations ranging from what “home” meant to methods of dealing with invasive weeds, and from favorite musicians to what they had learned from other loves in their lives, to the age-old question of whether red chile is better than green chile. (That last is the only thing they disagreed on.)

That fall, the guy came to visit for a weekend so they could hear a writer they both knew read from her new book. They hiked, cooked, took walks, and talked. A lot.

Two nights stretched to four, and when the guy left, our writer surprised herself and him by saying, “I love you.” The words were a gift, she explained; he wasn’t required to respond at all. She just wanted him to know he was loved, whether or not he felt the same. He nodded. After he called her that night to say he had made it home safely, he called back. “I forgot to say something,” he said. “What?” “I love you.” Tears formed in her eyes. “It’s been hard for me to say my whole life,” he added. “But I’ll try to remember to say it every day.” She swiped at drops running down her cheeks. “Thank you,” she said. “I love you too.”

The writer and the guy are figuring out how to interweave their respective lives and to use this gift of unexpected love for good in the world. If we only listen to the news, these difficult times seem so short of goodness and love. But those qualities are all around us, and we all spread them every day. The truth is: love–not necessarily romantic love, but the genuine attachment we feel for each other, for other species, and for this living world as a whole–is what sustains us in and through hard times. Hence this story, which I offer as a ray of light and a reminder that love lives, thrives, and even surprises us even in or perhaps specially in, hard times.

Sometimes when she is falling asleep at night, snuggled close to the guy and the dog, our writer thinks she hears the universe laughing softly. And she reminds herself to be grateful for the miracle of love returning to her life. Also to be very specific in future when she asks the universe for anything. She only asked for a dog. She got the dog all right–plus his guy, and the guy’s horses. She wants to you know that while she is still surprised, even a bit stunned by the suddenness of the change in her carefully ordered life, she is not complaining. At all.

New moon, new beginnings…

Life: Practice in Revision and Adaptation

Noche, my Toyota Highlander hybrid, parked in the driveway of my brother’s house in Washington state.

For some years now, I’ve had this dream of a little camper with solar panels on top and a cozy bed, kitchen, and space to write–a super-tiny house on wheels–that I could live in while I do my weeding work in Yellowstone and other wild places. Over the winter, I got as far as putting down a deposit on the compact RV I had chosen. And then, the very same day the sale of my Cody house closed, the RV manufacturer went bankrupt.

So I revised that dream, and settled instead on a sweet trailer made by Colorado Teardrops in Boulder, a  custom shop producing amazingly efficient, beautifully designed trailers, and working on becoming a zero-waste manufacturer. Their designs and values are very appealing.

Only I found that plugging trailer brakes into the hybrid regenerative braking system in Noche, my beloved Toyota Highlander Hybrid, isn’t allowed. (Meaning Toyota can’t guarantee that the system would work with trailer brakes; further, adding the seven-pin hitch and brake socket would void my warranty.)

So I revised the dream again and fitted my basic camping set-up right into Noche, giving me a “micro-camper” with a cozy bed, storage for my clothes, weeding tools, camp-stove, a lap-desk for writing, and even a camp toilet. It’s an amazingly comfortable set-up, if quite basic and compact. (And Noche averages 29-30 miles per gallon of gas, not bad for a vehicle I can sleep in–or transport seven friends or family members at a pinch.)

My micro-camper set-up in Noche. 

It’s also a lot cheaper than the custom camper I started out dreaming. Too, this set-up is better than my old camping space in Red, my pickup, because I’m inside Noche, not in a pickup bed. In bad weather or if something goes wrong, I just climb into Noche’s front seat and head on my way without having to get outside.

I still imagine that the perfect small camper van is out there for me, something energy-efficient, simple, comfy, and well-built–without costing an arm and six legs. Since I haven’t found it yet, I’m quite comfortable with the simpler and smaller, revised version of that dream. Just being able to hit the road is a blessing. I get a lot of thinking done during windshield time, and I get to experience the landscapes I love in all sorts of moods and seasons.

Heart Mountain, north of Cody, from Dead Indian Hill, where the grasslands were unbelievably green this spring.

Revision and adaptation seems to be a major theme in my life right now.

For instance, I spent this spring revising Bless the Birds for what I hope is the final time. It’s since been accepted for publication by SheWrites Press for their Spring, 2021 list. Which brings up an ending: Bless the Birds will go off my desk (finally!) and that opens up space for working on the next book, Weeding Yellowstone.

Another revision and adaptation: I intended to spend a good part of my summer in Yellowstone digging weeds. Then I flunked my annual blood tests, so those plans got revised. Instead, I spent a long weekend in Cody helping my friends Jay and Connie Moody at TAC, a spiritual retreat center, and also got to hang out with Judy, another dear friend, who is recovering from a massive stroke.

The labyrinth at TAC at sunset, with Carter Mountain and the Absaroka Range in the background. 

In other words, I’ve been nurturing friendships instead of ecosystems. That’s fine: tending both brings rewards. I’ll resume my work in Yellowstone when I’m healthier again.

Revising my Yellowstone plans also gave me time to drive to Washington state for a gathering of my family. Our branch of the Tweit clan isn’t big, but we do love getting together. We’ve been having such a good time hanging out, playing Yellowstone National Park Monopoly, taking walks with the dogs, and eating great meals, that I haven’t taken any any pictures at all.

Instead of thinking and planning photo opportunities, I’m enjoying the moments as they arise, reveling in being here and taking part in life, laughter, and love.

That’s a healthy adaptation, I know.

Happy Summer to all!

Calochortus macrocarpus, sagebrush mariposa lily, in the coulee country of eastern Washington

Writing: Immersed in Revision

Talking about the ecology of “snow forests,” high elevation forests above Taos, New Mexico.

Friday afternoon I broke off from my current writing obsession–revising Bless the Birds yet one more time–to drive to Taos to meet with Professor Sara Beth Childers’ “Writing the New Mexico Landscape” workshop at Oklahoma State University’s Doel Reed Center for the Arts. After I read from some of my work, including Barren, Wild, and Worthless, which they studied in the workshop, we talked about writing over dinner at Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, across from the famous church painted by Georgia O’Keeffe and many others.

After the conversation with Sara Beth and her amazing students–all candidates for MFAs or PhDs in literature–I was so jazzed that I woke at around two-thirty thinking about the revisions I’m making to Bless the Birds. Normally when I wake in the night, my strategy is to let my thoughts spin out until I go back to sleep again. I do not get up, because then I’m awake and I often don’t go back to sleep.

But Friday night–actually early Saturday morning, the writing was speaking so loudly I just couldn’t ignore it. So I turned on the light, got my laptop, and wrote down the two haiku in my head. (Yes, there are haiku in this memoir.) And then I wrote about seeds as a metaphor, and what it means to embrace the end of life when you are the one who will live on. Finally, at about four-thirty, I went back to sleep.

Saturday morning, I re-read what I wrote and added a few more notes, and then headed off to Taos Ski Valley to meet Sara Beth and the group for a hike. (I got lost in the maze of non-named dirt roads and was late, but that’s another story.) We hiked uphill on snow for two miles to Williams Lake, a lovely little lake still buried under deep snow in a glacial cirque. It was a slithery trip going steeply uphill, but the group was determined to make it to the lake. (We gained 800 feet elevation, going from 10,200 feet at the trailhead to 11,020 feet at the lake; my pedometer recorded the hike as equivalent to going up 36 flights of stairs!)

Along the way, I talked about snow and forests and avalanches (we had to detour around debris fields of not one but two big avalanches), the “wood wide web” of fungal threads that connects trees, how to read the landscape, and other nature things. Oh, and we talked more about writing. (The photo at the top of the post is me talking with part of the group. Notice that the ground is white–we hiked on about two feet of old snow, the remnants of the first generous winter snowpack after many years of drought.)

The Taos Valley all spring green this weekend. We hiked up near the snowy bit at the top of the peaks in the distance. 

By the time we slithered our way back down to the trailhead and I said good bye to Sara Beth and the workshop participants, my head was full of more ideas about my revisions, and my eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. I drove home to Santa Fe and told myself to give revising and my brain a rest. Of course, I didn’t listen: I just had to slip those two new haiku into the chapters where I heard them, and that of course led to more revising.

Then yesterday, Sunday, a day I usually give myself a break from writing, I had another idea about the story, so I worked my way through more revisions. And while today might have been a National Holiday, you wouldn’t have known that from my schedule, which included four more hours of revising this morning and early afternoon. (I don’t think the veterans in my life–Richard and my dad–would mind. They know I think of them every day.)

I finished Chapter 23, which leaves me four more chapters and the Epilogue to revise. The closer I get to the end–of the story and of that chapter of my life–the more urgency and intensity I feel to keep going, the drumbeat of narrative pushing me onward.

That’s what happens when a piece of writing takes on its own life, gaining strength and power: it sucks you in, and it’s hard to step away from working with it. This story has been a tough one for me, going through many revisions as I struggled to find the heart of it. It’s one thing to write about your life in a way that friends and family who know you or the story are moved.

It’s a whole other thing to write the story in a way that anyone will be gripped and compelled to read on. As I revise and go deeper, I mine my personal experience for those universal themes and threads that will draw all readers in. I want Bless the Birds to grip them by the throat and not let them go, so that when they reach the end, the way they see life and its ending is forever changed.

My aim with this revision is to walk a story about death right back into life and how we live it, with prose that shimmers as bright as the blooming yucca I photographed this morning on my ridge walk above my neighborhood, and dazzles like the claret cup cactus blossoms nearby.

I’m not obsessed, am I? Maybe, but there are worse things to be obsessed about than writing…

Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) in full bloom
Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus trigolochidatus) nearby