Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press

Reading List: Books on Nature, Cancer & Caregiving

Welcome to my every-so-often mid-week posts highlighting books on my reading stack. Some are books I’ve sought out, some come to me for review, and others are gifts.

The first one straddles the zone between science writing, nature journal, and memoir. That reach makes for a fascinating read.

Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press

Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World, by Sharman Apt Russell

Russell has always been a thoughtful writer, able to examine issues as diverse as ranching (Kill the Cowboy) and hunger (Hunger: An Unnatural History) with balance and clarity. Diary of a Citizen Scientist is her immersion into the world of those passionate amateurs who, by volunteering for research projects from astrophysics to molecular biology, are reshaping both science and how we know the world. In this, her most personal book, Russell’s writing ranges from thoughtful examination to luminous revelation that reads like William Wordsworth or Annie Dillard, the soul shivering with ecstasy:

“…I feel a joy here. I feel that brightness in the veins, in the chest,” Russell writes, describing her first collecting trip searching for tiger beetles, third-of-an-inch-long carnivores that feed as ferociously as lion packs. “I have a purpose here, surrounded by water, by light. I put down my pack with its bear spray and collecting boxes and sandwich, and I feel light and easy, and I swing my collector’s net just a little, like a flag.”

Diary of a Citizen Scientist is a journey narrative, a chronicle of a search that changes the author along the way. It’s not quite memoir, but it is that compelling. (Read the full review at Story Circle Book Reviews.)

The next two books relate to Bless the Birds, the memoir I’m deep in revising.

The first book simply appeared out of the blue in my mailbox; the second has been on my shelf for years.

Waking Up Dying, by Robert A. Duke (Good Enough Publishing) Waking Up Dying, by Robert A. Duke (Good Enough Publishing)

Waking Up Dying: Caregiving When There is No Tomorrow, by Robert A. Duke

Waking Up Dying is a candid exploration of what happens to two lives when a diagnosis of a frightening and terminal condition–in this case, brain cancer–comes out of the blue. Duke is a retired communications professional, his wife is a journalist; they’ve traveled the world together, they’re not helpless or stupid. Still, they have to fight for appropriate treatment for Sharleen, wrangle with insurance companies to have that treatment covered, and somehow take care of each other in the grueling unwinding of Sharleen’s life. The account of their journey is packed with useful information for anyone navigating our country’s often-byzantine health care system.

The Caregiver's Choice, by Elaine Long (iUniverse) The Caregiver’s Choice, by Elaine Long (iUniverse)

The Caregiver’s Choice: Find Strength and Serenity By Changing Your Mind, by Elaine Long

The fourteen chapters in this slim book by award-winning novelist Elaine Long offer advice, comfort and wisdom to those of us who unwittingly become caregivers for the people we love. The Caregiver’s Choice is a personal look at what Long learned in the decades she cared for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s Disease, and also Long’s husband, who had a heart attack in 1996, and died of lung cancer in 2003. During those years, Long realized that the choice in caregiving is deciding accept the role in a way that doesn’t make us crazy or break us, but allows us to learn and even find the joy our work. I dip into The Caregiver’s Choice whenever I want to remind myself of how to survive the caregiving journey with my sense of humor and my sanity intact.

Blazingstar flowers (Mentzelia sp.) open in early afternoon and attract night-flying moths and other pollinators.

Orient Mine Bat Flight: A River of Wings

Blazingstar flowers (Mentzelia sp.) open in early afternoon and attract night-flying moths and other pollinators. Blazingstar flowers (Mentzelia sp.) open in early afternoon to attract night-flying moths.

Last Thursday evening, I sat on Red’s tailgate in the San Luis Valley south of Salida, watching blazingstars open as I waited for my friends Maggie & Tony to join me in a field trip to the Orient Mine to see the evening bat flight.

Each night from June through September, a quarter-million Mexican Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis in the language of science) pour out of the collapsed roof of what once was Colorado’s largest iron mine.

Mexican Free-tailed Bats from a colony in Texas. (Copyright-free photo, not mine) Mexican Free-tailed Bats from a colony in Texas. (Copyright-free photo, not mine)

Mexican Free-tailed Bats aren’t big as bats go–their wingspan stretches a foot or so and they only weigh about half an ounce. Their colonies are huge though: caves in the southern Southwest, including Bracken Cave in Texas and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, contain millions of Mexican Free-tails.

The Orient Mine bat colony is nowhere near as numerous, but at 9,000 feet in the northern San Luis Valley, it has the distinction of being the farthest north and highest-elevation roost of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. And it’s only about an hour and a half from Salida, plus a short hike.

When Tony & Maggie pulled up, we loaded into Red and set off headed east toward then Sangre de Cristo Range, then turned north on a narrower but still good gravel road, after which we turned east on a rocky two-track and bumped our way uphill. Our track turned south again, crossed a steep-sided drainage, and began following a straight, gently sloping grade that we soon realized was an old narrow-gauge railroad bed.

Part of the route to the trailhead is visible at the upper right above the rock ridge. Part of the route is visible at the upper right above the rock ridge. (Click on the photo to enlarge it.)

I parked Red where a gate closed the road to vehicles. We grabbed our packs, and ambled on up the railroad bed for about three-quarters of a mile.

At a side canyon, a tour-group of a dozen or so people was collected in front of interpretive signs, including one with a silhouette of a person wearing no clothes and the words: “Warning: Naked People.” That was a first! (The mine and surrounding area are owned by the Orient Land Trust, part of Valley View Hot Springs, a “naturist” resort.)

A cut limestone foundation below the old railroad grade. A cut limestone foundation below the old railroad grade.

Orient, the town that served the mine, was occupied from about 1880 until 1932, and at its height, boasted more than 400 residents living and mining at almost 9,000 feet elevation.

We wove our way through the tour and the overgrown building foundations, and then followed the trail climbing steeply through the oak-brush out of the canyon and around the face of the mountain.

Looking southwest across the San Luis Valley at the San Juan Mountains in the distance. Looking southwest across the San Luis Valley at the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

The sun was slanting low, but we reached the viewing site at the mine in time to eat our picnic dinners before dusk, when the bats would begin to fly out.

Part of the cliff face above the collapsed roof of the mine (mine opening on the lower left). Part of the cliff face above the collapsed roof of the mine (mine opening on the lower left).

We watched a spectacular sunset while listening to a Poor-will call “poor-will! poor-will!” as swifts nesting on the cliff face chattered at a pair of ravens. Lovely dinner music!

The last of the sunset colors.... The last of the sunset colors….

Then, just as the light began to fade, winged bodies began to hurtle overhead, first a few dozen, then a hundred or so, and then finally tens of thousands in a stream of bat bodies fluttering, jostling and occasionally chattering at a low enough frequency we could hear it.

As the stream of bats swelled, their fluttering wings sounded like a river rushing past overhead.

It was too dark for my camera to stop the bats' motion, hence the bat streaks in this photo. It was too dark for my camera to stop the bats’ motion, hence the bat streaks against the sky.

Mexican Free-tails are long-distance flyers, using their long, narrow wings to power as fast as 40 miles per hour (they’ve been clocked going sixty with a tail wind) and to reach altitudes of 10,000 feet. They winter in caves in central and northern Mexico, migrating as far as a thousand miles each way.

The bats continued pouring downhill on the night air, headed off to eat their fill of moths, beetles, and other flying insects, which they catch in mid-air. They would fly all night and return at dawn.

Last light: the streaky shadows in the clouds are actually bats.... Last light: the streaky shadows in the clouds are actually bats….

Maggie and Tony and I headed out too, picking our way down the trail in the darkness, stopping now and then to admire the stars.

By the time we reached Red, it was full dark. The Milky Way stretched across the sky like a sparkling river, or like a river of bats off to forage all night….

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.

Catching Up: Keynote & Comic

Rhymes With Orange, Copyright Hilary B. Price

The comic first: I was cleaning out another one of Richard’s file cabinets the other day. (He had eight four-drawer file cabinets full of teaching files, academic publications, expert witness work, and three decades of Fine Woodworking, Fine Homebuilding, and assorted sculpture magazines; plus office supplies–the man loved binder clips.)

At the bottom of one drawer, I found a yellowed bit of newspaper, slightly crumpled. I extracted it carefully, smoothed it out, and burst out laughing. (Click on the the comic to enlarge it.)

That particular strip could have been written specifically for my late love. Richard was a mathematician who “spoke” in complex equations, casually spinning out strings of numbers and variables to model some phenomenon, and also an artist who never, ever could successfully estimate how long it would take him to finish any creative project.

Once, after watching him struggle to get a handle on how long a project would take, I suggested he take his best estimate and triple or quadruple it. He was shocked–he couldn’t imagine it would take so long to complete anything, even when, over and over again, it actually did.

“Prosthesis,” basalt and steel, by Richard Cabe. He found this “orphaned” chunk of basalt column on the side of a rural highway and decided to reconnect it to the earth with a steel prosthesis that continues the shape of the original column.

I finally figured out why it was so hard for him: he estimated from experience, and he could only remember the amount of time his hands were actually on the tools. He forgot the thinking time that preceded and wove through the hands-on work, the time our friend Jerry Scavezze, goldsmith extraordinaire, calls R&D time (research and development). The R&D time is often much longer than the hands-on time (sometimes by years), hence the wild inaccuracy of Richard’s project-time estimates.

I learned to not have expectations about when he would finish a particular piece,  to just enjoy what emerged, like “Prosthesis,” which sits where I can admire it every day, running a hand across its polished top and remembering my love and the extraordinary creativity that wove through every aspect of his life.


Now, that keynote. I promised that I would post the video of “Writing With Heart,” my keynote at the October Women Writing the West Conference. And here it is, thanks to the video shooting and editing talents of Laureen Pepersack of REV Productions in Santa Fe.

The video is 34 minutes long, so in order make the download manageable, it comes in two parts. I called the talk “Writing With Heart” because I was speaking to an audience of writers; it’s not, however, specific to writing. It’s about how to bring our authentic selves to any creative endeavor–including everyday life itself. You could substitute “art” or “science” or “living” for writing and the point would be essentially the same.

Take a look, let me know what you think, and feel free to pass the links on to others. And, as I say in the video, thank you for being part of my community.

Eldering Cancer Cells

“May this be the end of your fight with cancer!” wrote a friend in a recent email. Referring to health treatment in the language of warfare, no matter how well meant, makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It runs counter to the basic beliefs I’ve used to successfully manage my own health all these years, and to the course Richard and I are taking with his brain cancer. We don’t see this journey as a fight because to battle cancer is to fight ourselves at the deepest level: our own cells.

Cancer cells are indeed us. They’re simply our cells with a random “error,” a mutation that can cause the cells to begin dividing uncontrollably and thus become cancerous tumors. These mutated cells are found in every human body by the time we are in our thirties. They’re not “foreigners” invading, they’re our own tissue. Cancer is “our own creation” (albiet unintentional), as Terry Tempest Williams writes in her memoir, Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

What philosophy are we using to manage Richard’s brain cancer? We’re drawing on his body’s “natural wisdom,” as he puts it, to encourage and support his basic good health and to make his body an inhospitable place for tumors to grow. I think of it as “eldering” his cancer cells.


Eldering is a word Quakers use to refer to the practice of giving guidance, correction, or teachings on matters of Quaker life, whether spiritual or temporal. Eldering is a matter of applying wisdom, not weapons; it’s about being gentle and thoughtful, not causing unnecessary or inappropriate harm.

What does it mean to “elder” one’s cancer? As we’re applying the metaphor, it means that we’re working to support his immune system and bolster its ability to shift unhealthy activity in his body in the direction of continuing health. We’re using a variety of “tools”: medicines and supplements, foods, exercise, imagery, and meditation. 

This approach is inspired by the work of David Servan-Schreiber, physician, neuroscientist, and brain cancer survivor. He advocates a wholistic approach based on making the basic “terrain” of one’s body and life–inner and outer–healthy. Servan-Schreiber does not discount the value of western medicine in dealing with cancer. In his book AntiCancer, a New Way of Life, he synthesizes a body of scientific research on how diet, lifestyle, and emotional and spiritual health can make one’s terrain inhospitable to cancer.

For Richard, what does this all mean?

For starters, he’s taking a homeopathic remedy that in a small-scale review by researchers at the MD Anderston Cancer Center got great results with his sort of brain tumors. The most common side effect of this combination of Ruta graveolens, common rue or herb-of-grace, a perennial plant native to southern Europe, and calcium phosphate, is beneficial: it increases white blood cell counts. In other words, unlike most chemotherapy drugs, Ruta is actually good for your immune system.


Another important part of the “eldering” approach is a diet high in the kinds of plant chemicals that suppress inflammation and cancer activity, and bolster immune health, and low in sugars and refined carbohydrates. So he’s eating broccoli or another Crucifer (a plant belonging to the mustard family, such as cabbage or cauliflower) every day for the sulphorophanes, phytochemicals that act as potent anticancer, antidiabetic, and antimicrobial agents.

Along with a serving of cruciferous vegetables, his daily diet includes turmeric (the yellow coloring in most curry powders), which comes from the root of a plant in the ginger family and contains curcumin, another phytochemical with powerful antianflammitory effects useful in preventing cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s Disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Other beneficial spices in his daily diet include cinnamon and ginger.

Our diet has gone from pretty healthy to super-healthy: we eat almost all organic foods, and consume mostly whole grains, vegetables and fruits, eggs, dairy and fish, with very little meat. (Which does not mean, I would like to point out as chief cook, that our food is boring; on the contrary!)

The eldering approach also relies on daily exercise, which for Richard means our morning half-hour of yoga and a mellow afternoon session on his Nordic Trak; as well as on meditation to heal his brain and nurture his spirit.

In sum, we’re simply making sure he’s healthy inside and out. That seems like a good approach for anyone, anywhere. Perhaps we should all take it as a prescription.


Finding That Quiet Space

Last week I reviewed essayist and environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore’s new book, Wild Comfort, the Solace of Nature for Story Circle Book Reviews and excerpted the review on this blog. Kathy had graciously agreed to an email interview, so I sent her some questions about the book and her work. She responded promptly–and with such beauty and insight about the process of exploring difficult and painful stuff like grief, and the power of that writing on our lives–that I’m including a few of her replies here. (Read the full interview on Story Circle Book Reviews.)


SJT: Wild Comfort opens with these lines: “This is a book about the comfort and reassurance of wet, wild places. … I am trying to understand this, the power of water, air, earth, and time to bring gladness gradually from grief and to restore meaning to lives that seem empty or unmoored.” This sounds like writing as thinking. Did you set out to write the book as a way to work through the grief of that autumn of losses when three friends and your father-in-law died?

KDM: I had set out to write a book about happiness.  I planned a sort of research project, to keep careful notes about those moments when I was fully happy and then to study the collected moments to see what I could learn. But part way through that year, events overtook me–death after death of people I really cared about. What had begun as a study of happiness became a study in sorrow and courage. 

SJT: The book is divided into three sections, “Gladness,” “Solace,” and “Courage.” Did the essays come to you in that order, or did you write them and then sort through to see where they belonged?

KDM: I wrote the gladness essays first, but the solace and courage essays came willy-nilly as I cast about for some way–any way–to tap into the reassurance and the steadfastness of the natural world.  I thought a lot about how to arrange the essays then.  I thought I had found a progression of ideas, almost like a different view of the five stages of grief.  So the book moves from gladness to sorrow, as life often does, and climbs through what might be prayer or a kind of stillness, to restored meaning and hope, to peace, maybe even to celebration and the courage to be glad again.  But life isn’t as neat and clean as all that, as everyone knows, and I didn’t want to pretend it is.  So I decided on just those three sections, coming at last to courage, which is where we must live.

SJT: In the essay, “Suddenly There Was With the Angel,” you write, “I’m thinking it’s a paltry sense of wonder that requires something new every day.” You continue, “To be worthy of the astonishing world, a sense of wonder will be a way of life, in every place and time, no matter how familiar: to listen in the dark of every night, to praise the mystery of every returning day, to be astonished again and again, to be grateful with an intensity that cannot be distinguished from joy.” In your admittedly complicated life, how do you maintain that daily sense of wonder, that ability to praise the mystery of every returning day?

KDM: This is very, very hard.  You have raised the question that haunts me and sometimes wakes me, crying.  I know you feel this too.  Everyone must.  But do you remember the line from the Mary Oliver poem that begins, “My work is loving the world”?  Later in the poem, she describes her work as “. . . mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”  What strikes me as deeply important is how closely learning to be astonished follows on the heels of standing still.  Rivers teach us this too.  When rivers are rushing around a rock, they lose all color and become as pale as dead fish. It’s only when rivers stop in an eddy or behind a rock that they fill with their blue and green and their rainbows. I don’t want to be a dead fish; I think I know what that feels like for a writer. So I am trying to stand still: at the door when I pick up the newspaper, when I enter my office, while my computer charges up (this is pitiful), when I walk to campus.  But it’s true that whenever I stop and stand still, then the mystery and beauty of the world can find me in that quiet space.


SJT: What are your hopes for Wild Comfort?

KDM: I hope that my book helps people.  I hope it’s a book that people bring to their friends who are struggling for some reason, the way they might bring a casserole. I hope the book passes from father to friend, from sister to mother, maybe between strangers in an airport, or pauses for a week on a bedside table or a boulder by a stream, shows up on a doorstep with a pile of wildflowers, goes camping in the rain and desert, until–sooty from the campfire, brittle from the sun, underlined into a map–the pages all fall out. That’s a good life for a book.


News from the wild and not comfortable land of brain cancer: Richard’s blood platelet levels were “a beat” too low last Tuesday for his scheduled start on his fourth course of Temodar, his brain cancer chemo drug. That’s an indication that his bone marrow–and his immune system–hadn’t yet recovered from the last dose. So he’s on orders to wait a week, then give another four vials of blood for testing. If his platelet levels are back up, he’ll start his Temodar next week.

What does that mean for us? Since we plan our months around his five days of chemo and the four or so days it takes him to recover from the dose, it means we’ve put off some things we had planned to do, including a trip to Arkansas to visit his 93-year-old mom and the rest of his family. The delay is also a reminder that right now our lives revolve around his brain cancer treatment, and “planning” is a fiction we participate in to retain the illusion of control. The truth is, life is never in our control. Learning patience–and grace–in the face of whatever life brings is just one of the lessons of this journey Richard and I never imagined we’d be on.


The good news is that he’s feeling good, and has been working on sculpture again. It is a balm to my spirit to look outside and see him using his tripod to lift the huge chunk of native Lyons sandstone in the photo above, a re-purposed historic building stone that he’s incorporating into the sculpture that will someday hold our mailbox. That sculpture is my birthday present–well, okay, it’s my present from last year’s birthday. But who’s counting? Not me. How lucky I can possibly be to have landed alongside this man who sees meaning and connection–terraphilia–in the rocks he loves and works with.

It would seem I am very lucky, indeed.

Speaking for nature right at home

I recently read Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, Lyanda Haupt’s memoir of coming to terms with life in an urban place, and what she’s learned from those species that share our built environment, including crows, ubiquitous urban dwellers the world around. I was so struck with the book that I reviewed it for Story Circle Book Reviews, writing in part,

I love it when an author lays her cards on the table, showing who she is without pretensions. It’s especially appropriate in books like Crow Planet, a personal look at one of the most common birds of human habitation and what Haupt has learned from these avian neighbors about her life, the life our our species—and our future on this planet. (Read the full review here.)

I asked Haupt if she’d agree to be interviewed for Story Circle Book Reviews’ series of author interviews, and she graciously agreed. The full interview is up on Story Circle Book Reviews; I’m posting my favorite parts below. Here’s what Haupt has to say about why she writes about urban nature, how a crow quite literally got her out of bed when she was depressed, and the role of writing in her life.

SJT: You have studied seabirds in remote places—what turned you toward writing for a popular audience about “ordinary” nature in urban places?

LH: My degrees are in philosophy, focusing on ecophilosophy, philosophy of science, and environmental ethics. In graduate school I took as many seminars in ornithology and conservation biology as I could, but stuck with humanities as the environment in which I could best express my own ideas about the natural world. Between college and graduate school I worked as a naturalist at various environmental learning centers, and through luck and perseverance, managed to parlay that experience into research jobs, working with birds, a lifelong focus for me. I considered going back to graduate school for a science degree, but when I sat down to evaluate my way in the world, and my strengths, I decided that writing for a general audience would be the best way to have an impact, my form of activism. I also knew that I wanted to be a mother, to cultivate a harmonious household, and be present to my family. I felt that the flexibility of a writing career would allow me to fulfill these dreams, while keeping a foot in both philosophy and science through my subject matter.


As I began to actually create a household, eventually with a husband and little girl, I realized that although my experiences in the remote wild were incredibly meaningful to me, it was from my home that I connected most powerfully to the earth as an ecosystemic creature—growing food, sharing habitat, water, and other resources with the organisms around me, both human and nonhuman. More and more my writing began to spiral into a sense of the necessity of knowing nature from the places that we live—in the everyday continuity between our lives, our homes, and wild nature—as an antidote to the idea that nature is somehow “out there,” something we have to drive to, and return from.

SJT: Crow Planet includes some poignant–and sometimes funny–glimpses into your personal life, including the story of the crow “getting you out of bed” during the dark days when you were struggling to adjust to being a city person and a stay-at-home mom. When you began the book, were those personal stories included, or did they work their way in later?

LH: Yes, I had the covers over my head, and that crow was cawing incessantly. It was interrupting my depression!  And it did indeed get me out of bed, both literally and metaphorically. I pretty much always write with a blend of science, philosophy, story, and memoir, so I knew all of these elements would be in the book. But I didn’t know that the personal stories would, in part, grow out of a time of such struggle. After writing it all down in a draft of the first chapter, I re-wrote that chapter, eliminating the more deeply personal parts having to do with that depressive time. But I came to see how essential that was to my changing relationship with both crows, and my urban household, and so my editor and I decided that the book was much stronger and authentic with those stories included. But I tried to use a light touch with all of that, and balance truth with good humor.

SJT: Where does writing come in your day? Do you have a particular writing spot?

LH: I write in the morning, when my brain is most active. I get up an hour or two before my family, so that I have time to do yoga, read, maybe write in my diary, and have a beautiful cup of coffee before the day gets going. After Tom and Claire are off to work and school, I check in on our backyard chickens, then sit down and work for about three hours. I try to keep to this schedule, but I’m not super hardcore about it—if the vagaries of life interfere, I try to stay flexible, changing my writing time, or letting myself off the hook now and then. And if a writing project starts to feel really stressful, while writing through it is usually the best approach, sometimes if I get overwhelmed I’ll give myself a mental health break, and focus on other creative pursuits for awhile—the garden, a new bread recipe, writing poetry for fun—and return to my project refreshed. I love to work in my study, upstairs in our 1920s home. There is a big tree by the window, always visited by some manner of birdlife—chickadees, Steller’s Jays, flickers, both kinds of kinglets, bushtits. And crows, of course!  But I also bring my laptop to a local coffee shop quite regularly—sometimes it’s mind-clearing to get out of the house, or sometimes I just need to remove myself so that I don’t keep thinking about how the house is a mess and the laundry is stacked a mile high.

SJT: What is your favorite walk?

LH: My favorite “everyday” walk is out my door and down to Lincoln Park, 137 wooded acres with trails to the Puget Sound shoreline. That’s where I’m headed as soon as we’re done with this interview! 

Thanks, Lyanda Haupt, for the interview, and for the inspiring and thought-provoking read that is Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.


On the brain cancer front, Richard just finished his third cycle of intensive chemotherapy, and he’s recovering well. In fact, he’s determined to drive me to Boulder tomorrow, and then on to Cheyenne, Wyoming, on Friday, where I’ll give the opening talk for the Wyoming Master Gardener’s Annual Meeting. (Here’s the opening slide for my talk, “Reclaim Your Yard.”)

When we get home, I’ll go back to work on a book proposal I’ve been working on now and again for the past several months. Then it’ll be time to get the kitchen garden and the yard in shape. Our place is one of six gardens in Colorado featured during the annual meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society in July. Five of those gardens are in the Denver metro area; one is in Salida. Time to get some projects finished!

Here’s the material for one of the projects. Recognize these? Know what we’ll be doing with them? More to come as the project unfolds.

One more thing: Remember that indoor tomato farm I planted in March? We planted those tomato plants in the garden last Sunday, on a gloriously warm late April day. So of course the weather turned cold and windy, with two nights below freezing so far. The photo below shows the tomato plants, out in their insulating, water-filled teepees (the reddish things under the white sheet of row cover), blanketed snugly yesterday morning, when the thermometer read a chilly 24 degrees F. And yes, they stayed cozy warm, and are growing apace. What a wonder life is!


Pasque flower and Platelets

Spring has finally arrived in our part of the southern Rockies, at least as far as the wildflowers in our yard are concerned–and these natives have much more experience in discerning the change of seasons than I do, so I’m inclined to trust them. My favorite of all is pasque flower, a wild relative of anemones and buttercups that is the first spring flower to bloom in dry mountain grasslands like ours.


The photo above is the patch in our front courtyard with its blowsy blossoms open for passing pollinators, which right now means ants or early-emerging flies. Those silky hairs are part of the plants’ insulation, keeping their tissues–especially the delicate petals–from freezing on nights that can still be pretty wintery here at 7,000 feet elevation. How can you see these and not smile? (The mule deer that wander through our yard before dawn love them too, only they love to munch them, so every spring Richard makes chicken wire cages to protect the delectable blossoms.)

Four mild days in a row last week gave our last fall’s planting of spinach and mixed lettuces a real boost (by “mild” I mean that while the temperature may be 24 degrees F at dawn, by noon it’s in the low sixties and still climbing). After spending the winter hunkered close to the soil under a double layer of row covers, these greens have now decided to get serious about growing. (The row below is “Monet’s Garden Mesclun from Renee’s Garden, my favorite culinary seed supplier.)

Which means I’ve been picking fresh greens for lunch–not huge amounts, mind you, but a handful goes a long way, as the salad in the photo below demonstrates. That’s a simple mix of fresh lettuces, arugula, spinach, mache or corn salad, and spring herbs, including cilantro and chervil. (All grown from seed planted late last fall, overwintered under row covers and now sprouting handily. The seeds are from, you guessed it, Renee’s Garden Seeds.) I picked the greens and herbs about fifteen minutes before I made the salad, washed them, patted them dry, and put them in a bowl. I sprinkled on a pinch of salt, drizzled a tablespoon of Stonehouse Lisbon Lemon olive oil and a tsp of balsamic vinegar on the greens mix, tossed them, and then added golden raisins and pumpkin seeds. Heaven in a bowl! Add a toasted half of a whole wheat sourdough bagel (baked by my sculptor husband), and that’s my favorite lunch.

With all of this spring-ness, you’d think things would be going just swimmingly here. But the past few days have been rocky. Richard and I have been circling around each other some of the time since late Friday afternoon, snappish and easily
irritated. (Okay, for the sake of honesty, let me make it clear that
I’ve been snappish and easily irritated; Richard’s been less deft at
communicating than usual, and touchy.)

We finally figured it out tonight: It’s the platelets, specifically Richard’s platelet count. Late Friday afternoon, his oncologist, Dr. Klein called to report that his platelet levels are low. Platelets are colorless blood cells that do the finger-in-the-dike thing when holes appear in blood vessels: they clump and plug up the leak so you don’t bleed to death. They’re made by your bone marrow, and when levels of platelets in your blood drop, it’s an indication that your bone marrow and perhaps your immune system are not in good shape.

In Richard’s case, it’s about the Temodar, the chemo drug he’s taking to prevent his brain tumors from reoccurring. One of the main side effects of taking intense doses of this particular drug is that it nukes your bone marrow. So instead of starting on his third five-day cycle of chemo on day before yesterday, he’s on furlough until Wednesday when we see Dr. Klein. Since the chemo makes him pretty sick for about half the twenty-eight day cycle (five days of high-dose chemo drugs, 23 days off, of which recovery from the chemo takes up at least a week), a respite sounds like it would be a good thing.

So why are we both a mite on edge? It’s not the platelet levels, but what they imply: he may not be able to continue with the chemo, and that’s one of the main tools for keeping the brain cancer at bay. Oh. Well. Expletive deleted.

Funny thing: now that we figured that out, the stress levels are way down and we’re okay again. Huh. I think there’s a lesson here….

Oh, and one more thing: remember that tomato “farm” I planted last month? Here are the seedlings grown big and floppy, having been transplanted from the tiny seedling pots into bigger pots so their roots can stretch and grow a bit before they go out into the wild world of the kitchen garden next week. It’s a bit hard to tell in the photo above, but these larger pots also rest on a tray with a wicking mat underneath to keep their roots moist.

The nine varieties I’m growing this year range from sturdy super bush (bred specifically to do well in containers) to persimmon, the queen of tomato vines, which produces huge orange fruit bursting with citrusy sweet flavor and weighing in at a pound or more per tomato. All come from Renee’s Garden–my appreciation to Renee Shepherd for her ability to select and produce varieties that are delicious and easy to grow.

And they’re beautiful too, all eager to go outside, stretch toward the sun, bloom, and reproduce. But that’s for later. For now, it’s spring, the pasque flowers are blooming, and tomorrow is Richard’s next brain MRI. Wish us luck.

Brown snow and eager tomatoes

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Road Ahead

Wednesday was a long day. We left home at seven-forty in the morning, as the sun was coming over the Arkansas Hills, and returned after sunset, which meant we saw some spectacular alpenglow like that in the photo below, but we didn’t get home until after dark. In between we drove to Denver for an appointment with Richard’s radiation oncologist and his “fitting” with the radiation techs who will give him his five-day-a-week doses of radiation.

I’ve been thinking about what we learned, turning it over in my mind, letting it compost until I could make use of it. The most immediate news is that we know have a date for when Richard will be starting the six-week course of radiation therapy: the Monday after Thanksgiving.

By the way, if you want to know how radiation therapy works, the radiation oncologist on Richard’s case, Dr. Chen of the University of Colorado Hospital, explained it very simply: Gamma rays kill cells. But all cells aren’t equally susceptible. Those with mutated DNA like cancer cells (the mutated DNA is what distinguishes them from the ordinary cells of your body) go first. So the idea is to blast the affected area with high enough levels of radiation to kill the cancer cells and not kill the healthy cells around them. Of course, some healthy cells die too, but the plan is to keep the damage to a minimum.

In Richard’s case, they’ll be radiating much of the right temporal lobe of his brain. That means they have to be really careful to not injure his optic nerve (vision) or his brain stem (basic bodily functions like breathing and heartbeat). Yikes.

We also learned that in the case of brain cancers like Richard’s, the radiation has to be done in one continuous chunk of time. Why? Because the nature of mutation in cancer cells–and thus their resistance to the radiation–varies. The weakest cells die off first, and as the cumulative dose of radiation builds up over the course of treatment, the most resistant cancer cells eventually die too. But if treatment is interrupted for any reason, those more resistant cancer cells that have survived keep growing and dividing unchecked.


Here’s the problem: Thirty business days of radiation beginning November 30th run to the middle of January (allowing for a few days off for Christmas and New Years). Including the time between December 26th and January 3rd, when Richard was planning to travel with me to Isla Espirtu Santo off La Paz, Baja California, to help with the writing workshop I’m leading there. 

When Dr. Chen explained that the radiation would be much less effective if Richard took time off to go to Baja with me, and that make it much more likely the cancer would return, Richard asked if he could start the radiation and chemo after the trip.

“Maybe,” said Dr. Chen. But it’s risky to wait, he explained, because the tumor could return in that time. We looked at each other, and asked a few more questions. Pretty soon it was clear: Richard should start treatment on the 30th. We would figure out what to do about the Baja trip later. 

We held hands and talked about the implications all the way from the radiation clinic on the south edge of the Metro Area to the Anschutz Cancer Center, where we found a sunny bench to eat our picnic lunch before Richard’s fitting with the radiation techs, and then we continued our discussion–and the hand-holding–on the drive across the city on I-70, south on C-470 to the exit for US Highway 285, through the Dakota Hogback, and winding up and up with the highway through the foothills, over Kenosha Pass, and across South Park in a drawn-out pastel sunset.

Before I spotted the new moon, the thinnest crescent of ghostly silver just above the dark western horizon, we had decided: Richard will stay in Denver and I will go to Baja without him. It’s a painful choice for both of us. I want to be there to snuggle next to him, to hold his hand, to make special meals, and generally coddle him throughout this grueling treatment. He wants me to take the time to do what I love. We are rarely apart, especially not at times like this. But I see his point: Sometimes taking care of each other means our paths diverge for a while. I don’t like it, but I agree.

This is a hard road. But we’re fortunate: no matter where it takes each of us, we still share the moon. Years ago, when work regularly separated us from time to time, we began the practice of reminding each other to look up at the moon each night, no matter where we were, and think of the other, seeing the same ghostly orb sailing across the heavens. We still do it. And sometimes we can hold hands and witness the moon together, as we did on Wednesday night, driving the last miles toward home. We watched that thin crescent disappear over the black edge of the horizon, like a silver scimitar vanishing into the night.