Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Restoration

If you're like me, you probably spent a lot of time in the past several weeks surfing the internet for news of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. I have friends and relatives in Houston (all were flooded out with varying severity, but all are okay) and friends in the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, and in Florida (all okay so far).  

Part of my obsession with the news is concern about those in harm's way, and part is the kind of horrified fascination we humans are subject to when seeing a catastrophe unfold as we watch. I grieve for the people killed and injured, and for those whose homes and lives have been devastated.

I grieve equally for the longer-term catastrophe of global climate change. For those millions of species and uncountable individuals with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for so much, from the oxygen we breathe to the beauty that succors our souls. These lives have also taken a huge hit from the two hurricanes: the trees in the forests on St. Barts stripped bare; the bats and lizards that once sheltered in those trees, the birds and butterflies. The fish and rays in the shallows as whole bays are sucked dry, then catastrophically flooded by passing storms. The corals, the sharks, the alligators and manatees, the mangroves whose roots buffer storm surges and shelter so many other lives… 

We can't know if global climate change is specifically responsible for this first-ever incident of two Category 4 hurricanes hitting the US mainland within a short time. (Irma was a Cat 5 when it hit the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but had lessened to a Cat 4 when it hit Key West.) As this article in the LA Times explains, we can say that warming air temperatures and the resultant warming of oceans caused by global climate change makes stronger hurricanes more likely.

So whether or not each storm was a direct result of global climate change, two catastrophic storms coming so close together are a picture of what the future looks like: more extreme weather events, and fewer "normal" periods of stable weather. More intense rainfall and flooding in some places and longer droughts in others; more catastrophic tornadoes, winds, cyclones; more severe winter storms where I live, and warmer and drier winters elsewhere.  

And of course, more wildfires like the ones burning across the West and coloring my dawn runs (top photo) and sunsets. Whole landscapes will change as species move or die out in response to global climate change. That alone feels unbearably sad.

Forest-fire-smoke tinted sunset over Cody

Grief is paralyzing, something I know well after losing Richard to brain cancer nearly six years ago (glioblastoma, the same kind that Senator McCain is dealing with). Sometimes you just have to go with it and let the waves wash over you. But if you stay down too long, you may never surface again.

My remedy for long-term grief of that sort that could very well drown a person is to do something. Not just anything at random, something that is a direct counter to the cause of the grief. 

Writing is one of my grief therapies. Habitat restoration is the other, specifically returning healthy communities of native species to degraded land. I've restored songbird and butterfly habitat to the grounds of a coal-fired power plant, restored healthy mountain prairie on a blighted former industrial parcel, nursed a thread of urban creek that had become a waste-dump ditch back to life as a cleanser of urban runoff and feeder trout stream. 

That creek before restoration…

And after.

In the face of global climate change, restoration offers hope. It feels like something tangible I can do to heal at least my small corner of the earth. 

So I am grateful that I have this house to bring back to life, its formerly sterile lawn-and-shade-tree yard to re-wild, and that I have the opportunity to work in Yellowstone National Park as a radical weeder, helping to restore the ecosystems of the place often called America's Serengheti for its awe-inspiring wildlife, large and small. 

I'm headed back to Yellowstone later this week for one last weeding stint, and to celebrate my 61st birthday in a landscape that holds my heart. When I get home, the last set of replacement windows will be in the garage waiting their turn to make my house more energy-efficient and sustainable. (Retrofitting my house to use less energy is part of my restoration effort to combat global climate change.) A new shipment of native and heritage plants will be awaiting planting as I continue to transform lawn into habitat that welcomes songbirds and pollinators. 

Purple sage (Salvia pachyphilla), beloved of butterflies, thriving in the rock garden that replaces part of my front lawn.

And I will return to work writing the new version of Bless the Birds, my memoir celebrating love and life. 

Yesterday I took a break from writing and obsessing over hurricane news, and began laying out the borders for a sitting patio and paths in the part of my back yard that won't be disturbed by the giant forklift when the largest window unit is installed later this month.

(The bricks are a gift of my neighbor, who has a spare stack of about 200. He saw me lining paths in my front yard with bricks and offered his to me. His yard is a tidy lawn and shade trees, his politics are the opposite of mine; no matter, we trade building materials, cookies, and snow shoveling in winter.)

Next summer, I'll sit on that patio in the shade of the big spruce tree, and watch butterflies and native bees visit the wildflowers in the native meadow I'll plant when window-replacement is finished. 

Restoration heals. Lives, buildings, whole landscapes. Our bodies, spirits, our communities, our wildlands. Our planet. 

We can all find ways to help restore what is broken, to bridge divides, to heal the losses. We must. Working together, we can accomplish miracles. 

Recognizing and Honoring My Limits

Yesterday afternoon as I drove the four-and-a-half hours home from Santa Fe and the Hillerman Writing Conference, I said to myself, “It’s Sunday. You need to write a blog post.”

But by the time I crested Poncha Pass, half an hour from Salida, I was exhausted. At home, I unpacked and made myself a simple dinner. I opened my laptop, wrote in expanses from my trip, read the news, and dealt with emails and messages. That was all my brain could manage; I had no writing in me. 

(The photo above is the view from the top of the pass, with “my” mountains, the Sawatch Range, in the distance over the ridge.)

As I returned from my regular Monday run tonight, a four-and-a-half-mile route that included a lovely sunset on the return leg, I said to myself, “You didn’t write a blog post last night. You’ve got to do it tonight.”

Sunset from the Monarch Spur Trail tonight, with the Arkansas River Canyon in the distance. 

So after harvesting the last broccoli florets from the frost-nipped plants in my front-deck kitchen garden, I came inside, cooled down and changed, and made myself dinner including that uber-local broccoli steamed and tossed with butter and toasted pecans, plus half a baked yam, and a quesadilla featuring a fresh tortilla from the San Luis Valley and Rocking W Cheese’s smoked gouda from western Colorado. 

While I ate, I tried to think of what to write about. Nothing came to mind, probably because I’m still worn out from heading to Colorado Springs Wednesday afternoon to teach my Memoir 101 workshop, driving home Thursday night, and then hitting the road for Santa Fe and the Hillerman Conference Friday morning, and not getting home until yesterday evening. Plus a full day of work today, followed by my run. 

Thinking about that brought my Aha! moment. I am doing precisely what I’ve promised myself I won’t do: Ignore my limits. Just because I “should” write a blog post each week doesn’t mean I can.

In the past five weeks, I’ve driven over 5,000 miles, presented at writers conferences in three cities, taught workshops in two more, and spent time in six states. Both my long road-trip in October and this shorter one have been fruitful times to think, enjoy a lot of gorgeous western landscape, hang out with various clans of my writing tribe, to teach and be inspired by workshop participants, and to visit friends and family. 

Bighorn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River last Friday evening–seen through Red’s windshield, of course…

And the combined trips have worn me out. All of that driving–what my friend Terry Carwile calls “windshield time”–and all of that stimulation and interaction have taken their toll. I’m tired. 

It’s time to notice my limits and honor them. Not to mindlessly press onward just because I should do something. 

Of course, here I am writing a blog post. But as I do it, I’m understanding and recognizing my limits.

And honoring them by keeping it short. So I can practice not pushing myself.

Once I post this, I’m going to to smell the mini-roses in the fair-trade bouquet I bought yesterday to brighten my drive home. Then I’ll toss on a jacket and go outside to admire the spangle of stars in the moonless night sky.

Because I am grateful for the gift of this life. Because I want to remember to love my moments, and live them with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand… 


Clean Energy: Rooftop Photovoltaic Power Plant

I own a power plant: my roof sprouts an array of photovoltaic panels that convert solar energy into electricity for my house and garage/studio. What I don’t use (which turns out to be a bit under half of what I produce each month), feeds into the electric grid.

My power plant, producing electricity even in a summer hailstorm. My power plant, producing electricity even in a summer hailstorm.

Unlike conventional coal and gas-fired power plants, my small photovoltaic “plant” doesn’t produce unhealthy emissions or add CO2 or other more destructive greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. (Manufacturing the panels does create a “carbon cost,” however.)

The panels work quietly and simply: Sunlight hitting a layer of silicon crystals causes them to shed electrons. Those electrons flow into wires connected to each panel, and voilá, it’s power.

Of course, as I wrote several years ago in an article for Audubon Magazine, “This lovely green power is direct current. Therefore it can’t make your Cuisinart hum until an inverter… makes it into alternating current.” Each of my panels sports a mini-inverter right on the rooftop.

My power plant is clean and efficient and my two small buildings were designed to sip energy instead of gulping it, drawing on the sun’s heat in winter instead of a furnace and down-valley breezes in summer instead of air conditioning.

My twin power meters--the one on the left measures what I produce, the other what I consume. My twin power meters–the one on the left measures what I produce, the other what I consume.

Which is why my electric bills total in the negative numbers, and the power company pays me for the excess I generate instead of me paying them.

Solar panels only produce electricity when the sun is above the horizon (though they do generate even when it is cloudy or snow blankets the panels). So I draw on the power grid at night; but peak power consumption is in the daytime anyway.

There’s plenty of solar energy for the harvesting: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, enough solar energy reaches the earth’s surface every minute to meet the world’s energy demands for a year.

In the fifteen months that my power plant has been up and running, I’ve produced enough spare clean electricity to power an average American household for four months. (When I looked up those data, I was shocked to realize that my use is about a tenth that of the average household. More of us need to conserve, it seems.)

Creek House, my small house, on a clear evening. Those reflective dark panels on the roof are a 3.0 kw photovoltaic array. My 3.0 kw photovoltaic array, still generating a trickle of power even after sunset.

The best part about the power plant on my rooftop? Knowing I’m helping to combat global climate change by generating clean electricity. My system has offset 3 tons of carbon in 15 months, which is equivalent to planting about 75 trees.

I’m no saint, environmental or otherwise. But it truly does feel good to do good.

Deck railings dripping before dawn....

What’s Cooking: Savory Rosemary-Lavender Scones

Deck railings dripping before dawn.... Deck railings dripping before dawn….

I woke this morning in the darkness before dawn and, as I always do, I first checked the view of the constellations—Orion, my favorite, was barely visible, glittering through a veil of high cloud. Next I checked the outside temperature: 49 degrees F, very warm for dawn at this time of year.

I grabbed my laptop and returned to bed, piling pillows behind me so I could sit up and write in my journal. Half an hour later, I heard a sound I don’t usually hear as night is yielding to day: thunder. I looked out and saw showers sweeping down the mountainsides.

Soon, rain was splattering the windows. With no sun to warm the house, I decided it was the perfect time to revive a Sunday tradition from the years BBC (before Richard’s brain cancer), when I baked scones almost every Sunday morning.

Fire at the push of a button on a remote, a luxury after years of splitting and burning wood. Fire at the push of a button on a remote, a luxury after years of splitting and burning wood.

I could of course have simply turned on the charming and efficient gas fireplace tucked in the corner of my living-dining-kitchen “great” room as my supplemental heat source.

But if I’m going to pay for natural gas—and by “pay” I mean both shell out cash and also pay in terms of the effect of the CO2 added to the atmosphere when I burn it—I might as well use that gas to feed myself as well. Hence baking.

I don’t remember the last time I baked scones. I pretty much gave up baking when Richard entered hospice care three years ago. After he died, it was just me, and I was scrambling to finish the big house and build this small one.

I hunted through my recipe books and looked online for a savory scone recipe, and didn’t find one I really liked. I wanted something without much gluten, since lately I seem to be a little sensitive to it, and I had in mind using the herbs growing in pots on my deck, specifically the lavender, which is blooming again—crazy plants!—and the rosemary.

Food processor, ingredients, Mom's favorite green glass mixing bowl--I'm all set! Food processor, ingredients, Mom’s favorite green glass mixing bowl–I’m set!

I wasn’t entirely sure I’d still remember how to get just the right texture to the dough and bake them so they’re crisp outside and crumbly within. But once I got out my ingredients and began to measure and mix and chop and whisk, my hands remembered.

Chopping freshly harvested lavender buds and rosemary leaves—oh, the fragrance! Chopping freshly harvested lavender buds and rosemary leaves—oh, the fragrance!

And the results? I took some scones over to Ploughboy Local Market, and was gratified by the speed at which the scones were devoured, and the expressions of delight. But don’t take my word for it, make ’em yourself!

Susan’s Savory Rosemary-Lavender Scones

1-1/4 cups spelt flour (this recipe was developed for high-altitude; below 5,000 feet, use 1 cup spelt flour)
1/2 cup unbleached flour (could just use all spelt flour)
1/2 cup blue cornmeal
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 T finely chopped mixed rosemary leaves and lavender buds
5 T butter, cubed
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk or half-n-half soured with 1 tsp vinegar
3 T maple syrup

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix dry ingredients plus chopped lavender and rosemary. (I do this in a food processor.) Cut in butter until flour/butter mix is crumbly. (In a food processor, pulse slowly just until crumbly.) Beat egg in small bowl, add buttermilk/soured cream and maple syrup and beat until combined. Reserve about a T for a wash for scones. Pour the rest into food processor, pulse just until the mix begins to gather into a mass. Put about a T flour each onto two cookie sheets. Scoop out half of the scone dough and dredge in flour on cookie sheet until it doesn’t stick. Flatten the ball gently and if it’s still sticky, gently knead in enough flour to make it workable. Carefully pat out into a half-inch thick round. Brush with reserved egg/cream/syrup wash. Cut into 8 wedges, separating wedges so they don’t stick while baking. Bake 15 minutes or until top is lightly browned. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Enjoy!

The finished scones cooling. The finished scones cooling.

Coda: Getting back to my Sunday-morning baking feels like coming home again. I miss Richard and I always will, but I like this simple life I’m building on my own.

The aspens were turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park on Saturday, something I saw only because I tore myself away from work to take Red for a drive.

Financial Sustainability: Tools for Awareness

The aspens were turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park on Saturday, something I saw only because I tore myself away from work to take Red for a drive. Aspens turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park–definitely worth the time and gas for a drive in Red.

I turned 58 last week, so I’ve begun thinking about financial sustainability in terms of retirement. My idea of retirement isn’t quitting working, it’s having the flexibility to do what I love most–writing, and restoring nature in the places where we live and work–at a pace that feels less like work and more like play.

As I’ve written here before, I’m practicing being aware of how I use my money, in part because I’ve had to make some serious and difficult trade-offs after Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly three decades, died of brain cancer.

I’m lucky: my parents, my terminally cheap dad and my generous but goal-oriented mom, taught me how to be intentional about my money, aware of how I use my dollars and what that means for the future.

Dad and Mom at our house in Salida on a Christmas visit Dad and Mom in matching turtlenecks (bought on sale) one Christmas

Any of us, whatever our background, culture and current situation, can take steps toward financial stability by practicing thinking before we spend.

Like yoga, meditation or sobriety, working toward financial sustainability is a practice. It takes daily work. Some days go better than others. On the bad days, you pick yourself up, learn from what when wrong and start again, resolved to resume with enlightened mind and heart.

On the good days, you understand that whatever you have can indeed be enough, and in fact, more than enough. That’s a wonderful and liberating feeling.

What are some tools I use to practice financial sustainability? One is awareness.

Eating outside at Ploughboy on a nice day. Eating outside at Ploughboy on a nice day.

Before I spend any money, whether it’s putting a dollar in the tip jar for the employees at Ploughboy Local Market, my neighborhood grocery store, or buying a new pair of glasses (not a trivial expense since I wear progressive trifocals), I stop and think: Is this really how I want to use this money?

In the doing, I acknowledge that money is a finite resource: what I spend in one place isn’t available to spend somewhere else. (Which does not keep me from being generous whenever possible. I just think about it first.)

Another tool is paying by cash or check when I can, rather than using my charge card. Yes, credit cards “pay” rewards—as a way to suck you into spending more money. It works; you do. But is that what you really want?

Red in Big Horn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River Red, my truck and topper, which I own outright and paid for by check. (Writing that number made me think!)

When I have to stop and pull out cash or write a check, I think about what I’m spending. It’s harder to be impulsive that way. Which is the point.

That little plastic card (whether credit or debit) makes the transaction too automatic, too far removed from actual money. With credit cards, that can have catastrophic consequences: You are borrowing the money you spend. If you can’t pay it off at the end of the monthly cycle, you pay, and pay, and pay.

Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center after he first saw the birds that presaged his tumor. Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center at the beginning of our journey with his brain cancer.

Sometimes we have no choice; a big expense comes up unexpectedly, and we have to borrow the money, whether from the credit card company or the bank. That’s life.

But it doesn’t have to be a daily habit.

Financial sustainability isn’t something you achieve and then don’t have to think about anymore. It grows from the seemingly small decisions we make every day, like buying the fancy drink at the coffeehouse on the way to work.

cocoa heart Chocolate art by a barrista

Five days a week for fifty weeks (assuming two weeks for vacation) and that $4 per drink adds up to $1,000 a year. That’s not small change.

Maybe that thousand dollars is worth it. And maybe not. Learning to be conscious and decide is part of the everyday practice that leads to financial sustainability.

That daily practice is a key part of my retirement plan: What I don’t spend buys me more time to stop and admire the aspens, and just enjoy life.

Aspens on Trout Creek Pass Aspens on Trout Creek Pass

Dad and Mom in Tucson, Arizona. Photo from Audubon Magazine

Practicing Financial Sustainability: Money and Intention

Dad and Mom in Tucson, Arizona. Photo from Audubon Magazine Dad and Mom in Tucson, Arizona. Photo from Audubon Magazine

Like many of us, I grew up conflicted about money. My parents, both raised in the Depression, saved consciously and relentlessly, planning for what we would now call financial sustainability: to send my brother and me to college and then retire early.

In our suburban neighborhood, most moms stayed at home and most driveways contained two cars. Not ours: Our sole “car” was a well-worn, homemade camper-van. Mom and Dad biked to work to save money.

Tweit family hike in Florida, circa 1964 Tweit family hike in Florida, circa 1966

Other families took vacations to Disneyland or the beach; we spent our time off in the great outdoors where admission was free. Our gear came from the Army Surplus store, our clothes from Montgomery Ward.

It’s not that I was deprived; I simply didn’t know my parents’ plans and chafed against their constant financial vigilance. I vowed that when I grew up, I would be financially independent and not cheap.

In high school, I got a job at the local public library and reveled in having my own money to spend as I wished. I also started a savings account. In college, I paid my way by working at a pie shop and waiting tables.

At work in the Absaroka Mountains, Wyoming, about 1981. At work in the Absaroka Mountains, Wyoming, about 1981.

My determination to be financially sustainable paid off when my first marriage imploded and I had enough money put by to leave my field ecology job at the Forest Service to go to graduate school, where as it happens, I met Richard.

We fell in love almost immediately; agreeing on money matters took a lot longer. Eventually, I realized that while Richard had a PhD in Economics, he lacked financial common sense. He didn’t concern himself with bills or account balances. When he wanted to buy something, whether a book or a several-thousand-dollar table saw, he did, without considering the impact of that spending decision.

By contrast, I knew our budget to the penny. Whether I was buying an insanely great pair of shoes, paying the bills, or donating to causes we believed in, I spent with intent. I saved with intent too, buying financial sustainability by squirreling money away whenever I could.

Me, Molly and Richard at Reed College. Me, Molly and Richard at Reed College.

Which helped with those expenses we can’t always plan for, as when Molly wanted to go to a small Quaker boarding school instead of the public high school next door. And when, after she left for Reed College, Richard took a year off from New Mexico State University and we moved to Salida–and he never went back to his comfortable teaching salary.

Being intentional about money through times when we had it and times when we didn’t, allowed us to pay for our formerly industrial property, restore its historic shop building for Richard’s sculpture studio, and build our own house next to the studio on the pay as you go plan. (Construction took six years, without a mortgage.)

Terraphilia, the house Richard built us. Terraphilia, the house Richard built us.

It kept us afloat when brain cancer derailed our lives and our income.

After Richard died, I re-thought my financial sustainability practice: I dedicated myself to paying the remaining brain cancer bills, finishing and selling the house, and to building my new, right-sized and cheap-to-keep place. My intention was to lower my fixed expenses so I could afford to write.

Looking back, I realize with rueful amusement that I have adopted the very financial habits I so resented as a kid.

I live simply, eschewing excess stuff in favor of less clutter and more free time. I spend money on what matters most to me, whether that’s great shoes or an occasional meal out with friends. And I save for what I want instead of going into debt.

Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, 1952 Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, 1952

I have become my parents. Not literally, of course. My half-Norwegian, half-Scots and 100 percent cheap dad does not understand why I traded my gas-sipping Subaru for a Toyota Tacoma pickup with a topper I can camp in. My late mother, California born and bred, would wonder why I’m not out camping every weekend.

That’s the power of treating money intentionally: those are my financial decisions, not anyone else’s.

Practicing financial sustainability isn’t about how much or little money you have, it’s about intention: knowing what you want, and spending (or not) deliberately with your aims in mind. It’s learning that whatever you have can be plenty.

For something that requires thought and discipline, it’s amazingly freeing.

Creek House, my new little place, at dawn. Creek House, my new little place, at dawn.


A rainbow stretches over Salida and the Arkansas Hills at sunset after a late-summer shower.

Dirtwork: Dry Stream Engineering

A rainbow stretches over Salida and the Arkansas Hills at sunset after a late-summer shower. A rainbow stretches over Salida and the Arkansas Hills at sunset after a late-summer shower.

Here in the high-desert country of the Southern Rockies, we’ve gone from drought to deluge. Since July 10th, we’ve received 3.5 inches of rain, more than a third of or “normal” annual total, and more than we got the entire first six months of the year (2.65 inches).

Which is why I’m back to dirtwork, modifying my usually dry stream drainage to handle torrential runoff from my two small roofs so it doesn’t wash out my sloping lot and pour sediment into Ditch Creek.

Backing carefully.... Backing carefully….

And why on Thursday morning, a big blue dump truck backed down my drive to deliver three tons of mostly granite river rock, navigating carefully around Ruby’s Cottonwood, the tree Richard and I planted as a sapling 16 years ago in memory of his great-aunt Ruby. I figured three tons would last me a while.

Dumping.... Dumping…. (That’s my shadow on the lower right, shooting the photo from the Treehouse deck.)

It might have. Only I got sucked in.

At about four o’clock Thursday afternoon after I finished my day’s target of memoir-revision, I went outside to admire the pile, and said to myself, “I’ll just lay a few rocks.”

Two tons of rain-washed river rock. The remaining two tons of rain-washed river rock after Thursday’s storm.

Uh huh.

By six-thirty, when the rumbling thunder and spatters of rain drove me indoors, the pile was reduced by a third. I had moved and placed a literal ton of rock. (Did I mention that I love the puzzle of piecing river rock into a “pavement” on the ground?)

My neck and shoulders could feel that ton. But I was glad I had almost finished the first part of the splash zone in the narrow yard behind Treehouse, my garage-studio, because in a few minutes those splashing drops turned into a torrential storm that dropped half-an-inch of rain in just 15 minutes.

A torrent of rain gushing from the roof of the grocery store across the creek during the downpour. A torrent of rain gushing from the roof of the grocery store across the creek.

That may not sound like much rain, but when it comes down that fast, it doesn’t sink in unless there’s something to slow it down, like that river-rock pavement.

(Treehouse’s shed roof lacks gutters: I don’t want to concentrate the runoff from the 380-square-foot roof in one spot on my narrow, sloping lot. It’s better to disperse the runoff over a larger area; doing that successfully requires a little stream engineering—and a lot of rock.)

Cobbles "pave" the splash zone under the second-story roof of Treehouse. Cobbles “pave” the splash zone under the second-story roof of Treehouse, part of the dry stream  system.

Today I dug out the lower retention basin on my dry stream drainage, and moved and laid almost another ton of rock. Next weekend, I’ll work my way “downstream” on the drainage, using cobbles to line the stream bed and stabilize the banks.

Richard chisels the excess from a one-ton granite boulder. Richard chisels the excess from a one-ton granite boulder.

While soaking my sore muscles in the bath, I thought about Richard and how we shared a love of rocks, especially the hard, heavy kind like granite and related crystalline rocks.

Another thing we shared that I hadn’t realized before starting on my stream engineering project is a love of design and engineering. Only while he loved to invent tools and machines and things, I do my engineering with plants and dirt and water and rocks.

Looking out of the living room window at the native dryland meadow and dry stream drainage between Treehouse and Creek House. The native dryland meadow and dry stream drainage between Treehouse and Creek House.

Working with the drainage from my landscape indulges that inner fluvial engineer in a very satisfying way.

After today’s hot and sweaty but very satisfying session, I know that three tons of river rock wasn’t enough. I should have gotten two more….

Dawn from my front deck after a "male" rain (an intense but brief thundershower).

Aiming for Sustainability

Dawn from my front deck after a "male" rain (an intense but brief thundershower). Dawn from my front deck after a “male” rain (an intense but brief thundershower). Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Sustainable. adj. 1. Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. 2. Able to be upheld or defended.

No matter how overused it may be, I find the idea of sustainability meaningful, especially at the personal level: What does it mean to live a sustainable life? To find a balance that can be maintained in the long-term? A life that can be “upheld”?

Creek House, my small house, on a clear evening. Those reflective dark panels on the roof are a 3.0 kw photovoltaic array. Creek House, my small house, on a clear evening. Those reflective dark panels on the roof are a 3.0 kw photovoltaic array. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

For the past 15 months, I’ve been engaged in building and finishing my new small house and garage/studio, an activity that might not seem particularly sustainable (new house, new materials, filling yet another bit of urban habitat with a building).

I can’t argue about that aspect: I did use some new materials, in particular concrete, which requires a great deal of energy in manufacturing, and new wood, steel and the rare earths that go into photovoltaic panels. I also can’t argue about the fact that my house and studio, small as they are, displace other species.

In that sense, it’s not a sustainable project. In other ways, it is. (Sustainability, like so many things in life, is not a simple concept.)

Digging footer trenches for the house in my post-industrial slope. Digging footer trenches for the house in my post-industrial slope. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The parcel I built on was the last un-reclaimed slice of what Richard called our “decaying industrial empire.” This long, wedge-shaped chunk seems to have been an informal dump–its post-industrial “soil” yields abundant scraps of metal, railroad rails, and chunks of concrete, coal and broken glass, among other things.

A mule deer doe grazing my native grassland about four feet from my living room window. A mule deer doe grazing my native grassland about four feet from my living room window. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Before we began excavation in April of 2013, the place was a vacant lot that sprouted a healthy population of invasive weeds. In replanting the native high-desert grassland community around my buildings instead of a lawn, I’m restoring habitat and mitigating my impact. (The deer and hummingbirds certainly approve!)

Rufous Hummingbird perched on the deck railings. Rufous Hummingbird perched on the deck railings. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The native plant community also acts as a living sponge, cleaning the soil and the water that runs off into Ditch Creek. That’s definitely “conserving an ecological balance.”

In designing the house, I aimed for small and efficient (thanks to Tom Pokorny at Natural Habitats). The house is 725 square feet; the studio atop the garage for guests and Terraphilia residents is 384.

Treehouse (the garage/studio) and Creek House last fall, still under construction. Photo: Susan J. Tweit Treehouse (the garage/studio) and Creek House last fall, still under construction. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Both structures are passive solar, using our abundant winter sunshine for heat and summer’s down-valley breezes for cooling. They consume so little electricity and natural gas that the payments from the electric utility for the excess my photovoltaic panels produce cover my natural gas bills.

I was also deliberate about fitting into the neighborhood. The two buildings are designed to look like railroad sheds that grew over the years. The exterior finishes are durable, long-lasting ones appropriate to both the industrial character and this harsh high-desert climate.

Creek house kitchen, at the east end of it's tiny "great room." Creek house kitchen, at the east end of its tiny “great room.” Photo: Susan J. Tweit

I also used recycled and scrap materials wherever possible (my builder, Dan Thomas, also of Natural Habitats, made that easier). For instance, those kitchen cabinets are made from leftover ash from the cabinets Richard built for Terraphilia, my old house; the corrugated metal island facing is a scrap from his studio; the countertops are also made of laminate left from Terraphilia as well.

Steel grate ramp leading from the front deck to the side garage door. Steel grate ramp leading from the front deck to the side garage door. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The house is also designed to be accommodating to people of differing mobility, including me as I age, hence touches like the ramps built into the front deck.

I did my best to be thoughtful throughout the process and to consider sustainability in each decision—this is my last house and I want be proud of it. I think that honors the spirit of sustainability.

Whitestem evening-primrose re-claiming my industrial site. Whitestem evening-primrose re-claiming my industrial site. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

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

Community: Why I Live Here

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

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

“Need some help?”

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

“That would be great.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming Home

New moon framed by utility wires.

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

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

I turned too, and headed to the stairs.

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

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

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

Not by myself, of course, and not easily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A happy life, too.

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

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

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