As we come to the end of 2020, a year that has been tumultuous and difficult in ways we all know, my impulse is to kick the old year in the rear and unceremoniously slam the door behind it. Instead, I want to remember the blessings that came my way, so that I can welcome 2021 with my heart open and my gratitude foremost.
Those blessings? What comes to mind first are the Guy and his dog and horses. I who was perfectly happy to live the rest of my life solo now have a loving partnership again with a man who shares my bond with these Rocky Mountain landscapes, with the literature that rises from them, and who also shares my need for time in the wild.
For my birthday, he gifted me with four days in the remote Washakie Wilderness of northwest Wyoming, just southeast of Yellowstone, where I worked as a young field ecologist. It was pure heaven. Our long-distance relationship isn’t simple, but the rewards are beyond words. My heart is full, and my understanding of the world is enriched by his company, knowledge, and insights.
Another blessing has been time with friends and family, much of that virtual. But in these socially distanced COVID-19 times, the connection with the people I love and whose company nurtures me is so critical.
I treasure the in-person time so much more now that it’s rare. Visits like the walk I took yesterday (masked and socially distanced) with the memoirist Kati Standefer are what sustain me in these challenging days, mind, body, and spirit. (If you haven’t read her stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowers, do. You’ll understand why Oprah picked it as one of the top 100 books for the year, and it was an Editor’s Choice book at the New York Times Book Review, plus landed Kati on NPR’s Fresh Air.)
We trekked up a dry stream-bed near her house at the base of a red sandstone ridge, talking about life and writing and memoir, why we need solitude and the wild and what love is worth, anyway. We hung out with her chickens, and discovered a shared love for Stranahan’s whisky. I found the large heart rock in the stream-bed and lugged it back, knowing somehow it should come home with me.
I needed that high a few hours later when I learned that my friend and writing inspiration, Barry Lopez, had died the day before. It’s been that kind of high-slammed-by-lows year, and I am so fortunate to have a community who cheers me on. Thank you all.
Another blessing has been time on the land. I live in the rural West, outside Santa Fe in the winter, and in northwest Wyoming in the summer. In between, I spend time on the Guy’s farm, getting to know a whole new landscape in the broad swath of the sagebrush county I call home. Living where there are few people and lots of open space makes it easier to stay safe in COVID-times, and means I get abundant vitamin N, time in nature, to keep me healthy and reasonably sane amidst the tumult of the larger world.
Bless the Birds is the book for our times. It’s a splendid blend of landscapes, relationships, creative work, and spirituality–finding meaning in life framed by an awareness of death. I have a dozen people I want to share this authentic, honest, hopeful memoir with. You will too. It’s a treasure.
I am honored that this memoir, my thirteenth book, resonates with writers whose work I admire. (The book is due out in April, and if you are so moved you can pre-order it through Amazon, Bookshop–which supports independent bookstores–or your local bookstore.)
And in this year of so many endings, but also new beginnings, I am grateful for this beautiful new website, courtesy of my multi-talented and generous friends Tony and Maggie Niemann of Tracks Software. I’m not sure what I did to deserve Tony and Maggie, but I truly appreciate them!
One more gift of this difficult year: a new appreciation of simply being here. Alive, relatively healthy, and comfortable. I can take a walk in the near-wild every day. I can write, laugh, read, ride, cook, and love. I have faith that 2021 will bring positive changes. For all of these things, I am truly grateful.
May the new year bring us all chances to be kind, compassionate, and live with our hearts outstretched. Be well!
At the end of our summer work in Wyoming, the Guy gave me what may rank as the best birthday present ever: a pack trip into the Washakie Wilderness, part of my old fieldwork area in the Absaroka Range southeast of Yellowstone National Park. Just the two of us, his four horses (two for riding, two for packing), and a stretch of glorious days away from cell phones, internet, news, and other humans. (We did see three other people on our last night as they rode by our camp.)
I haven’t been on a backcountry pack trip in decades, since the years when I traversed these mountains in my work for the Shoshone National Forest, before graduate school and meeting Richard and Molly. Who–bless their hearts–did not have the same need for time away in wild places as I do. As I write in Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, my forthcoming memoir:
We managed just one family backpacking trip, a weekend outing to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, for my birthday that fall in West Virginia. Richard and four-year-old Molly were so miserable that I took pity on them after the first night, and we packed out. On the way home, we stopped for “real food,” in Molly’s words, and Richard’s favorite dark-roast coffee. I never tried backpacking with them again.
For me, this trip into the South Absarokas, home to more grizzly bears, wolves, and elk than people, was a dream–and another step in reclaiming the part of myself that I had set aside during my nearly three decades with Richard and Molly. I never expected to get back into the wild country I learned so well over the miles of hiking and riding for my work back then, and came to love so deeply that it has been the home of my heart ever since.
When the Guy and I first started talking about taking a backcountry trip last winter, we imagined something more ambitious, a through-ride that would trace the route of a solo backpack trip I took in my mid-twenties, cutting through the Thorofare Valley in Yellowstone. But as the time for the trip got closer, we scaled back those plans, deciding that for our first pack trip together, it would be wise to plan a shorter and less rigorous route.
So we did some day-rides into the mountains to hone our skills and to get the horses in shape. Then we picked a drainage were we could ride in, establish a base camp, and explore from there. We scouted the area first, riding the trail we would take, and found a meadow that looked perfect for our basecamp: big enough that it offered abundant native forage for the horses, a creek tumbling through, and several good sites for our tent and cooking areas (which needed to be far apart so that we were not sleeping next to anything that smelled like food).
Once we knew where we were headed, we went into trip-preparation mode: pulling together maps, food, emergency supplies, and pack gear; we checked the tent, and pulled together our sleeping bags and pads, and personal gear. The Guy inspected the pack saddles and supplies, and did a test-pack of the panniers and bags, and weighed everything to make sure we weren’t giving the horses too much to carry. The night before we were to leave, we loaded the gear into big horse trailer.
The next morning, we fed the horses early so they would have time to finish their hay before we left, and then finished preparing. We were on our way by the time the sun began to warm the late-summer air, and reached the trailhead at mid-morning. It took about an hour to get the horses saddled, the packs on and lashed down, and then we were off, riding up the valley toward the distant peaks and high plateaus, and away from people and wifi and cell phone reception.
At first, the horses were jumpy, starting at deadfall, and hopping sideways when some ducks took off from a nearby pond in a rush of feet slapping the water’s surface. But pretty soon we all settled into a good trail rhythm. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and the forest smelled of pine sap interspersed with musky threads of other animals.
We stopped for a snack near a lake with a marsh full of birds, and lupines, pussy-toes, and other wildflowers blooming in the forest. The horses grazed the lush grass hungrily, and when we rode on, they were all still munching. I led our small string on the way to the lake, and the Guy took the lead from there on.
We reached the meadow where we planned to camp by mid-afternoon, unsaddled the horses, arranged the tack on a log where it could air out, and then set up the highline for the horses, the overhead line where they would be secured at night.
Once the horses were settled, we ate a late lunch, pitched the tent, set up our camp kitchen area, and relaxed in our camp chairs in the shade of a big lodgepole pine tree. I wrote and the Guy meditated, and then studied the maps. We both absorbed the quiet.
Around dinnertime, we unhooked the horses, put hobbles on their front legs, and let them graze the meadow, keeping an eye out to make sure none hopped far enough to get to the trail. The Guy got out the stove, boiled water from the creek, and I “cooked” dinner, pouring boiling water into a pouch of freeze-dried Thai-style chicken dinner, and adding some fresh vegetables. Ten minutes later, we shared a surprisingly delicious hot meal as the pink light from sunset faded from the peaks and then the clouds, and the moon sailed across the evening sky.
Before dark, we hooked the horses on the highline, and then we each brushed our teeth, took one last foray into the woods to pee, and headed for the tent and our cozy sleeping bags.
And so our days went: Up with the sun, set the hobbled horses to grazing, make breakfast, decide on the day’s ride, catch the horses, saddle up with lunch in our pommel bags, and hit the trail. Back by late afternoon, set the horses to grazing, relax in our camp chairs, make dinner, hook up the horses, and crawl into the tent and curl up together.
One morning we woke to rain pattering on the tent, so we didn’t start our ride until ten, but we still had time to explore the big meadow at the head of the valley (the photo at the top of the post) and the smaller meadows above it, green and boggy and filled with elk sign–wallows, scat, and tree-bark scars where the bulls scrape the velvet from their antlers. We rode past the end of the trail, forded the creek multiple times, ducked under branches and worked our way around deadfall timber as far as we could go, just seeing what was there, and then headed back to camp.
Another morning we got an early start and took a steep trail that zigzagged up a side valley, climbing up and up and up and up through the forest, and then traversing a narrow ledge of trail high above the cascading creek. “That’s real mountain riding,” commented the Guy when we were safely past a particularly vertiginous stretch.
We stopped to let the horses graze in a sedge and hairgrass meadow surrounded by dead whitebark pine trees (killed by white pine blister rust, an invasive pathogen). I commented that this was prime grizzly bear habitat despite the dead forest. Just above the meadow, I spotted one of the largest piles of grizz scat I’ve ever seen smack in the middle of the trail. We stopped to look, and reassured ourselves that it wasn’t that fresh–only later did we admit to each other that it had probably been no more than an hour or two old.
We rode on, listening and looking for bears, and saw none. Just more piles of scat, berry bushes everywhere–raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, and currants; and a several-month-old kill of an elk calf, with not much left but some pelt and scattered bones with tendons attached. I’m pretty sure that big boar grizzly who left the poop knew exactly where we were. We rode with all senses alert, in the knowledge that we could be lunch if we weren’t careful.
That trail took us high into an alpine basin above tree-line, where we stopped for lunch and let the horses nibble alpine turf while we ate. A golden eagle soared above the high ridges, and a peregrine falcon whizzed by on the hunt. Far in the distance we could see the next mountain range to the south. The wind whistled among the rocks, and storm clouds began to built overhead, our signal to head downhill.
That evening it rained and then hailed, pea-sized pellets hurled on chill winds. The next morning, we woke to frost on the meadow. We ate breakfast as the horses grazed, and our tent dried in the sun. Then we packed up and headed out, the horses frisky because they knew we were on our way back to the trailhead.
By the time we reached the truck and trailer, the weather had shifted and the wind was gusting hard, and we were ready for a shower and a good dinner. The next morning, snow dusted the peaks above where we had camped, a foretaste of fall.
I call that trip my birthday present because the Guy provided everything: his horses, the packing gear, even the food. All I had to do was show up with my personal gear, ride well, and be good company.
And because it brought me something I had forgotten how much I needed: time away from the hustle of the human world, the bad news that deluges us every day, and the pressure to respond to every signal in our culture of instant communication. For those days in the wild, my system returned to solar time, and my senses tuned to the weather and the shape of the landscape, the sound of elk bugling and the smell of bears.
(On my actual birthday last week, the Guy gave me another perfect present: an increment core for sampling trees, but that’s another story.)
I came away from our wilderness time tired but happy, feeling competent and alive. The trip reminded me of what matters most: living with love and kindness, and practicing stewardship of this Earth and we who share it. I needed that time to refresh my spirit and strengthen my heart for whatever comes.
clouds flame out, fade to purple
bruised like our hearts
I posted that haiku on social media on Monday, August 5th, after the mass shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.
It’s a bruising time personally, politically, nationally, and globally. Hate and divisiveness are flourishing like no time in my memory since the Viet Nam War era, climate change is accelerating, the astonishing diversity of life that makes this planet home for us all is suffering, war and political upheaval are displacing millions of humans, from Syria to Venezuela and Guatemala, from China’s Uighar people to Yemenis starving in their home villages…
On a personal level, I am reeling from the sudden loss of my sister-in-law, Bonnie Cabe.
How do we live with hearts heavy and bruised? How do we get up and face each day, go to work, tend our kids and parents, our communities and our planet; how do we laugh and love when there is so much to grieve and fear and rage against? How do we cultivate resilience in a time that seems to defeat every effort?
There is no one answer, because we are all different. (And bless that diversity, because we need the creative energy of differing voices and viewpoints and talents and energy!).
One thing we can all do is listen within for the goodness that lives inside us all, the “small, still voice” of love and kindness, justice and compassion. Whether you call that voice God or Allah or Pachmama or Universal Consciousness or simply lovingkindness, we can honor and do our best to live by its call to be our best selves, to, as Quakers say, add to the “Ocean of Light and Love” that pours over the “Ocean of Darkness and Fear.”
It seems to me that if we live each day according to what we know is right, treating others with kindness and compassion, if we stand up with grace and courage for what we believe in, we can indeed turn this bruising time toward the best humanity is capable of, and away from the worst.
How do we find the energy and resilience to act in even small kindly ways in a time that is so bruising? Again, I think there is no one answer, but I also know the benefits of time outside in nature, or “Vitamin N” as some researchers call it. Studies show that time in nature calms us physically, lowering our heart rates and blood pressure, and slowing our production of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. Vitamin N also helps us think more clearly, focus better, and learn more easily; it reduces aggression and increases our empathy (including empathy to our own selves), all of which are critical to living in these frightening and painful times.
“Nature” doesn’t have to be a wilderness; it can be the wildness that flourishes everywhere around us, whether the arroyo running through my neighborhood or the less-manicured corners of a city park.
For me, as I wrote in a proposal for the new book I’m working on, solace and resilience and the other benefits of Vitamin N come from hanging out with native plants:
Plants have been my solace and my inspiration for as long as I can remember: As I child, I cycled with my mom to vacant lots scheduled for bulldozing, and carefully rescued native wildflowers, carrying the plants home in my bike basket to relocate to her woodland garden. As a young scientist, I studied ecosystems from the plants’ point of view. I’ve grown gardens of native and edible plants, designed landscapes and given talks on gardening for habitat and humans, and worked at ecological restoration involving plants.
I never reflected on why plants wove themselves through my days. Until my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. Over the two and a quarter years that we walked with his brain tumors, I went from being Richard’s lover, creative collaborator, best friend, and co-parent, to being his caregiver, driver and chef, medicine administrator, butt-wiper, diaper wrangler, and eventually, the midwife of his death.
Escaping outside to the company of the restored mountain prairie of our front yard, our patio pollinator garden, or my organic kitchen garden was all that kept me even partly sane. After Richard died, I recognized that working with native plants to restore Earth is my calling, an expression of my Terraphilia. In this time of climate crisis, gun violence, racism, and sickening divisiveness, we need urgently need what plants can teach us about reweaving healthy community, about restoration and the power of simply working together.
In short, we need nature, and we need each other. So get outside, hug your family and friends, live with kindness, speak up and act out with courage, and love long and well. We can live with bruised hearts, and we can help each other heal and bring positive changes to this battered world.
I’m not saying it will be easy, but we have to keep working at it. Together. With love and laughter, with outrage and steadfastness, with compassion and kindness and creativity.