Road-trip: Time to Think and Teach and Learn

In early June, when my doctor grounded me pending significant improvement in my health, the one trip I worried about missing was my planned drive to Tucson to teach at Canyon Ranch Institute last week. It wasn’t that I was so excited about driving to Tucson in late June when I knew daytime temperatures would be in the hundreds, it was the chance to work with a group of community garden organizers from around North America, plus CRI staff, on how gardens and parks can contribute to community revitalization and wellness. 

So I applied myself to reaching the improvement goals my doc outlined. By last Monday, I was on-track, free of pain and feeling well. That afternoon, I loaded my gear into Red and hit the road, singing along with Nora Jones as I headed southwest. 

My destination that night was a campground in Mesa Verde National Park, that “green table” rising above the desert. The drive there is five hours without road construction and without stops. Because I ran into lots of the first and did the latter, it took me six and a half. At six-thirty that evening, I was very glad to back Red into the shade of a Gambel oak grove at the campground, open the back and perch on the tailgate with my feet up, reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lyrical and thought-provoking Braiding Sweetgrass over my simple dinner. 

Feet up, book in hand, Jetboil stove heating water for tea, hermit thrushes fluting voices echoing…

As the sun set, cool air flowed downhill through the campground and hermit thrushes fluted their sweet solos from the tops of the tallest oaks around the campground. I slept well and woke to those same thrushes fluting before sunrise, a lovely way to begin the day. 

As I drove farther south and west that day, past Sleeping Ute Mountain, through Four Corners, where the desert was the most wildflower-spangled I have ever seen it, and then across the Navajo Nation from north to south, I had a lot of time to admire that spare landscape, and think about my writing and what I wanted to teach in my “Planting Wellness” workshop at Canyon Ranch

Red sandstone buttes and unusually green desert grassland (that’s Indian ricegrass with the billows of straw-colored seedheads) on the northern Navajo Nation.

Mostly, I thought about what I bring to this work of writing and teaching. I have always struggled to define my message in just a few words. (In writing, that’s called your “elevator speech,” the pitch you can make to an agent or editor in the few seconds it takes for an elevator to go from floor to floor. An elevator speech might be about a single book or your whole body of work.)

Over the course of the long day it took me to drive from Mesa Verde National Park to Show Low on the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona, with stops in Cortez (for WiFi and hot chocolate), Ganado (to visit Hubbell Trading Post National Monument, a stop I highly recommend to see a working reservation trading post, watch a Navajo weaver at work, and tour the historic trader’s house and farm) and Petrified Forest National Park (even if you can only drive the single park road and stop at a few viewpoints to see the vivid striped layers in the painted desert and the huge petrified logs are scattered over the ground, another highly recommended stop), I had a lot of time to think. (The day’s drive took me ten hours, including stops.)

Painted Desert from an overlook at Petrified Forest National Park (mid-afternoon, which is not the best time to shoot a photo, the temperature already a sizzling 98 degrees F).

Ideas bubbled through my brain over the course of the day and those scenic but not peopled miles (the Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles, about the size of the state of West Virginia, with a population of a little over 180,000 people scattered over that huge area, so while the landscape is spectacular, traffic and towns are rare).

I realized as Red and I crossed the high mesas clothed with silver-green sagebrush somewhere between Chinle and Ganado that my mission as a writer, plant biologist and person is really pretty simple: To heal earth and we humans by restoring the community of the land–nature–and our connection to that community, and to each other, and our own hearts and spirits. I do that work through my words, the plants I plant and the relationships I nurture at home and in my everyday life. In sum,

I plant wellness by restoring nature, and help other humans grow their own wellness. 

By the time I reached Show Low and my comfy motel room, I was exhausted by the drive, the heat and thinking. 

The next day, Wednesday, Red and I headed downhill, dropping nearly a vertical mile from Show Low (6,300 feet elevation) toward Tucson and the hot desert, traversing the layers of rock and plant communities from the cool and airy pine forests on the rim to the saguaro-studded desert far below.

The Salt River Canyon

On the way, we dropped into the Salt River Canyon, one of my favorite drives in Arizona, and stopped at Boyce Thompson Arboretum west of Superior and the man-made mesas surrounding the open-pit copper mines to walk among the saguaros and other cactus and shady mesquite trees before the day got too hot to enjoy it.

“It’s only 99.8 right now,” said the state park staffer encouragingly as I set out, “still under a hundred degrees.” Only by two-tenths of a degree, I thought, but I didn’t quibble. I wanted to get in my walk before I shriveled in the heat.

That night, I stayed with my friend Patricia and her dog Joy, who live two blocks from the house where my parents lived for 20 of their 26 years in Tucson. I drove by my parent’s house–the saguaro in the front yard is starting to look like a big cactus, and the mesquite trees we planted in the back yard to restore the bosque habitat are clearly thriving–and felt a tug at my heart. 

The rest of the week flashed past in teaching at Canyon Ranch, and working with the CRI scholarship winners and the staff–an intense and inspiring time, full of insight and take-way nuggets. My second night there, a thunderstorm rumbled in and poured rain for perhaps half an hour. The desert came alive with fragrance and movement and sound, quail whinnying as they foraged, lizards scurrying about, doves cooing and hummingbirds zinging past. 

That rain marked the beginning the summer rainy season and delivered the gorgeous double-rainbow at the top of the post. I felt blessed to be part of it all. 

Sunrise after the rain

On Sunday, I hit the road again, driving through landscapes familiar to me from my parents’ time in Tucson and our years in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I am taking the trip home by slow stages, honoring my promise to my doc to practice a new pace for my life, one that allows me time and energy to savor all I see and do.

It feels good to slow down, and especially good to know that once I make it home, I can settle in for the summer with time to read and think, meet some writing deadlines, rest and continue my work on healing me and my home ground–as well the earth itself and all who inhabit this glorious living planet.

Home in the place I love to work at what moves me, challenging body and mind, restoring heart and spirit. I am indeed blessed.

Cleveland sage, one of the West’s medicine plants, blooming at Canyon Ranch. 

Writing Progress & What’s Cooking

First, the writing progress: On April 29th, I started on one more revision of Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-progress, giving it what my writer/editor/fiber-maven friend Deb Robson calls a “French polish.” I’ve been reading it aloud, listening to the story, and doing the kind of detail work that I hope makes the story leap off the page and into a publisher’s line-up.

The revision has been… interesting. Each time I look at the story, I can see layers and levels of meaning, threads in the overall story if you were, that I didn’t notice before. And each time I read it aloud and listen to it, I relive it yet again. The emotional intensity of that part of my life makes it exhausting to be immersed in this particular story, but also exhilarating. And each time, I dive back in, I’m surprised at how much I like the story–it’s lyrical, compelling, authentic, and even has touches of humor. 

The subtitle gives an idea of why re-immersing myself in this story is intense, exacting, draining and also very, very rewarding: Embracing Life, Loss and Love.


The story’s about the last few years of this guy’s life: Richard Cabe, the love of my life and my late husband

Now, after a solid four weeks of work, five days a week—I usually give myself a breather on weekends so that I can recover from the intensity and have enough distance to approach it afresh the next week—I’m closing in on the end. As you can see from the photo of the manuscript on my desk at the top of this post. The pile on the left is the chapters I’ve worked through. The pile on the right is what I have left to revise.

Once I work my way through to the end of the story, I’ll give it a quick read from the beginning again, just to check for anything I missed, and then off it goes to my agent.

And off I will go, first hitting the road to Denver for a Habitat Hero program at Denver Botanic Gardens, and then to Tucson, where I’ve been invited to participate in Canyon Ranch Institute’s scholarship program for community wellness.

I’ll be working with community organizers involved in gardening and open-space projects from around the country. My workshop, “Planting a Neighborhood,” is about the re-birth of my formerly junky industrial block and the adjacent restored urban creek. It’s about gardens, ecological restoration, and how seemingly small projects can have a positive impact on community health and culture. The story I’ll tell is part of the larger story in the book that’s tugging at me next…. 


Since we’re on the cusp of summer (here in the Upper Arkansas River Valley, we went from a month of rain and snow to today’s 80 degreesF), I want to share the fruit salad recipe I invented when my neighbors gave me a half a cantaloupe the other night.

That melon inspired me to take a look at my garden and my fridge, and concoct a savory fruit salad–perfect for a warm day!

Savory End-of-Spring Fruit Salad

1/2 ripe cantaloupe

10 oz box strawberries

8 oz feta cheese

4-5 T lemon-infused olive oil

4 t balsamic vinegar (white if you can find it, as it’s a lighter flavor)

sprinkle of salt

16 or so large basil leaves (I’m growing Italian Genovese basil from Renee’s Garden–the leaves are large and the flavor is rich but smooth.)

Slice cantaloupe into rounds, remove seeds and rind and chop into bite-sized pieces. Hull and quarter strawberries (if they are really large, chop smaller). Mix fruit in serving bowl. Crumble feta cheese over the fruit, sprinkle with salt, and pour olive oil and vinegar over the top and mix thoroughly. With clean scissors, snip basil leaves into thin strips atop salad. Serve in small bowls. (Makes eight small servings or four large ones.)


Four Resolutions for 2015

My beeswax intentions candle, burning with lavender and sagebrush from my garden A beeswax intentions candle, burning with lavender and sagebrush from my garden. It’s sitting on the sculptural steel table Richard designed and made for a gallery display.

Last week I wrote about my gratitudes from the past year; this week I’m thinking about my resolutions for how I want to live this new year of 2015. They’re pretty simple, really.

Live generously: “Generous,” says my dictionary, comes from an Old French word originating in the Latin generosus, ‘noble’ or ‘magnanimous’ and also ‘not mean.‘ I use it in the sense of “showing kindness to others” as well as “abundance beyond what is necessary.”

Remember the bumper sticker, “Spread random acts of kindness”? I like that idea, only I want to take it farther and live in a way that is consistently kind, not just randomly. Kind and compassionate to other humans but also to “all my relations,” as my Native American friends say, those multitudes of other lives with whom we share this glorious blue planet.

One example of living generously is the haiku I write every day, capturing a moment from nature or the seasons or life. I share that haiku and a photo on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as my offering, a gift of beauty and inspiration.

Living generously, by the way, does not mean being a pushover or giving to exhaustion. Kindness and compassion begin with ones own self. Living generously means giving myself all I need–physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally–in order to practice kindness to the world outside my skin boundary.

I want to live as generously as these wildflowers bloom in my old front-yard prairie. I want to live as generously as these wildflowers in my old front-yard prairie, blooming with abundance.

Work less, write more: When I say “work less,” I mean less work for others, for pay, no matter how worthy and wonderful the paying work may be. I feel an urgency to finish Bless the Birds, my memoir that has grown into a story about how our choices in life make us the people we are, and move on to writing the next book (and the next after that one).

The voice of my inner wisdom is very clear on this: I have things to say, songs to sing from my heart. So I’m going to write my own stories more, which means (gulp!) earning a lot less, at least for now. That’s scary. I’m feeling my way right now, but so far, it seems like I’m on the right (write) path. (I’m half-Norwegian; puns are in my memes, if not my genes.)

The tea bag tag says it all: Sing from your heart. For me that is my writing, and in particular, the books I envision ahead. (That's sagebrush next to the tag, and a pebble Richard carried in his pocket--one of his special rocks. The tea bag tag says it all. (That’s sagebrush, my totem plant, next to the tag, and a pebble Richard carried in his pocket.)

Laugh often: Laughter comes in many forms. I’m thinking of the kind that expresses joy and delight, whether at a joke, or the sight of a rainbow arching across the valley as I chug home from my twice-weekly four-mile run, exhausted but feeling righteous for pushing myself to exercise in a way that’s deeply good for me.

I mean laughter that feels good in the bones, laughter of the mind, heart, the soul. Laughter that inspires me to be fully alive, to dream big, to envision all the possibilities. Laughter as a way to celebrate life itself. Which I know by much-too-intimate experience is a gift not to be taken for granted at all. Life is a gift, cause for celebration, for laughter with arms outstretched in sheer joy.

An ornament that hangs in my office above my writing desk. (Thanks, Connie!) An ornament that hangs in my office above my writing desk. (Thanks, Connie!)

Love much: What else is there to say but those two words? Love. Much. For me, life is about love, as in embracing the moments, the days, the journey of it all. My life-motto, slightly adapted from a line in a Mary-Chapin Carpenter song is this:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand.

Love life. Love those lives with whom we share this astonishingly animate planet. (Even the blasted deer, who are intent on eating all of my new plants right to the ground.) Love. Much. A lesson I learned from the guy I lived with and loved for nearly three decades. The one in the photo below who I miss every day.

Richard Cabe (1950-2011), the guy I loved, loving life and the wildflowers in a meadow above Crested Butte, Colorado. Richard Cabe (1950-2011), loving life and the wildflowers in a meadow above Crested Butte, Colorado.


Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass

Time Out: Marshall Pass Road & Aspen Gold

Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass. (I was not driving when I shot this photo!)

Late this afternoon, after I finished writing two grant applications and one report on a landscape restoration consult, I gave myself a time out–that is, time outdoors, not punishment. Red and I took a leaf-peeping drive to see the aspen on the Marshall Pass Road southwest of Salida.

Marshall Pass is the old railroad route over the Continental Divide; between 1879 and 1890 it was the only line between Denver and Salt Lake City, and thus the Pacific Coast. During that time before cars and highways, Salida was the center of rail travel in the Colorado mountains, and saw trains carrying U.S. Presidents (including Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt) and other famous folk.

The Denver Rio Grande & Western train heading up Marshall Pass in about 1890 Photo: William Henry Jackson The Denver & Rio Grande Western train heading up 10,842-foot-elevation Marshall Pass in about 1890. Photo: William Henry Jackson

The Marshall Pass line was narrow-gauge, with rails just three feet apart, which allowed for a tighter turning radius in the switchbacks climbing the over the high passes but meant smaller cars and smaller freight loads.

D & RGW work train doing maintenance below Marshall Pass. Photo: Colorado Historical Society D & RGW work train below Marshall Pass. Photo: Colorado Historical Society

After the standard gauge line was built over Tennessee Pass above Leadville, the Marshall Pass line became a local route; the upper part of the grade was abandoned in the 1950s and became a scenic auto route. (I live along the lower part of former line where it cuts through the town of Salida; it is now a popular section of Salida’s 8.5-mile town trail system.)

The Marshall Pass Road along Poncha Creek (that's 13,275-foot-high Antora Peak in the background). The Marshall Pass Road along Poncha Creek (that’s 13,275-foot-high Antora Peak in the background).

The beginning of the grade is mellow, and then it begins to climb, and climb, and climb, winding its way toward Marshall Pass and the shoulder of Mt. Ouray.

Aspen flickers in the dark forest of ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs Aspen flickers in the dark forest of ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs

At first the patches of aspen were small, and scattered. But so bright! As the road wound its way uphill the clumps of aspen took on different hues, including orange and scarlet.

Aspen leaves from green to gold to red! Green aspens with red tips are particularly beautiful against the silvery-blue of that big Colorado blue spruce behind them.

I stopped to shoot photos and inhale the cool air whenever the sun came out from between afternoon rain-clouds, or the colors were especially lovely, or a cut in the old narrow gauge roadbed invited investigation, or whatever. [Warning: Possible aspen-color overdose ahead.]

The sun came out.... The sun came out….

Making the backlit mountain mahogany shrubs particularly lovely against gray clouds... making the back-lit seedheads on the mountain mahogany shrubs particularly lovely…

Aspen-dappled mountainside with Antora Peak in the background, but from higher up Aspen-dappled mountainside with Antora Peak in the background again…

And around another bend, this view of the Sangre de Cristos with aspens on their lower slopes, across the San Luis Valley... And around another bend, this view of the Sangre de Cristos with aspens on their lower slopes, across the San Luis Valley…

... and then a blast of brilliant aspens below the road, reflected in O'Haver Lake … and then a blast of brilliant aspens below the road, reflected in O’Haver Lake

Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos... Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos…

It's time to turn back, but let's just see what's around this curve... It’s time to turn back, but let’s just see what’s around this curve…

Oh yeah! Mt. Ouray spills a flood of aspen from above... Oh! Mt. Ouray spills a flood of aspen from above…

Okay, we'll turn around after this next curve... Okay, we’ll turn around after this next curve…

Well, just one more stop... Well, just one more stop…

... after this curve … after this curve

... and these crimson aspen … and these crimson aspen

we'll turn around and head downhill (in second gear)... Now we’ll turn around and head downhill (in second gear)…

and only stop a few more times... … and only stop a few more times

when it's impossible to resist one more shot... when it’s impossible to resist one more shot…

...or those scarlet-tipped aspens against the silver-blue spruces are just too lovely. …or those scarlet-tipped aspens against the silver-blue spruces are just too lovely.

Which explains why it took me almost two hours to drive the 36-mile round-trip between Salida and just below Marshall Pass.

From evening shadows in the mountains to a flood of golden sun in the valley. From evening shadows in the mountains to a flood of golden sun in the valley.

I was feeling worn-down before I left. Now I’m not. After time out among the aspens and the peaks, my heart is full of wonder and my spirit is tap-dancing.

And I am grateful once again for the gift of life on this numinous blue planet.

Yeah! Yeah!

My front and side yard "wildscapes," mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress.

Plant Therapy, or Working with Wildflowers

My front and side yard "wildscapes," mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress. My front and side yard “wildscapes,” mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress.

I exhausted myself this weekend engaging in plant therapy. That’s a good thing.

I worked on all three of my personal urban habitat restoration projects: Monarch Spur Park, the pocket park at the other end of my block; Ditch Creek; and my own yard, formerly a dump site which I am returning to high-desert prairie dotted with wildflowers and native shrubs.

Pulling tumbleweed and kochia from the mountain prairie along Ditch Creek. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman, Hometown Habitat Pulling tumbleweed and Kochia from the mountain prairie along Ditch Creek. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman, Hometown Habitat

Whenever I’m worn down emotionally or the level in my creative well ebbs, I head outside and tend my wild “gardens.” Working with plants–especially the wildflowers, grasses and shrubs native to this very place–restores my spirits and my balance.

A growing body of research confirms that simply being out-of-doors is healthy. Physical effects of what researchers call “nature exposure” include lowered blood pressure and heart rate and increased cardiovascular health, plus improved ability to heal and less pain.

Native golden currant along Ditch Creek beginning to show its crimson color. Native golden currant along Ditch Creek beginning to show crimson. Just the color makes me smile!

Time outdoors, in the more natural the setting the better, also helps increase our ability to concentrate and focus, and thus to learn. (Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that time in nature can be as therapeutic for kids with ADHD as popular behavioral medications–without the side effects.)

And as anyone who has ever gone out for a long walk and come back having solved a problem or feeling like a weight has been lifted from their soul can testify, time in nature improves our emotional and spiritual well-being.

Do those hikers look happy and mellow, or what? (Richard and me at Bandelier Nat. Monument. Photo: Sherrie York) Do those hikers look happy and mellow, or what? (Richard and me at Bandelier Nat. Monument. Photo: Sherrie York)

I’m in the midst of an intense and draining revision of my memoir, Bless the Birds. By the end of each week, I feel like the story has taken all I have, and then some.

Hence my need to get outside on the weekends and immerse myself in plant therapy. Give me a piece of ground that needs love, and a source of native plant seeds and seedlings (thanks, Ellen, for the latest batch!), and I’m good.

Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush and Showy Fleabane in Monarch Spur Park. Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush and Showy Fleabane in Monarch Spur Park.

Yesterday, working with a small but enthusiastic crew on fall clean-up in Monarch Spur Park, I was thrilled to yank out a patch of tumbleweed and discover the first Indian Paintbrush to seed itself into the park, once the junky vacant lot and now a demonstration garden for restoring pollinator and songbird habitat, and saving water.

(Thanks to Bev, Billy, Bonnie and Louise for the help weeding, digging and separating plants, and trimming the big cottonwood tree.)

Walking home along Ditch Creek and picking up trash along the way, I smiled as I heard the distinctive “Zee-zee-zee” calls of a flock of Cedar Waxwings gorging on chokecherries in a small tree that Richard and I planted 17 years ago as a tiny sapling. That chokecherry is now about ten feet tall and loaded with fruit, hence the waxwings feeding.

The chokecherry showing its burgundy fall leaves on the top left. The chokecherry showing its burgundy fall leaves on the top left.

Today I worked in my own yard. I planted some native perennials I bought on sale at a local nursery (planting in my “soil” is good physical exercise, involving wielding a mattock to hack out the rocks) and pulled weeds from my fledgling mountain prairie.

As I worked, I noticed wildflowers I hadn’t realized were still blooming and heard hummingbirds chatter as they sipped flower-nectar to fuel up for their long flight south.

Desert Four O'clock (Mirabilis multiflora) blooming in the "hellstrip" between the sidewalk and street. Desert Four O’clock (Mirabilis multiflora) blooming in the “hellstrip” between the sidewalk and street.

Neighbors stopped to chat and admire the yard. A flock of Canada Geese flew overhead in a ragged V, honking back and forth.

By the time I finished, and cleaned up my tools and me, I was worn out. But I was smiling. Restoring my patch of earth restores me too.

Showy Goldeneye (Viguiera multiflora) blooming in my front yard prairie. Showy Goldeneye (Viguiera multiflora) blooming in my front yard prairie.

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat."

Hometown Habitat

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat." Calliope hummingbird perched in my own “hometown habitat.”

I spent the weekend working with Catherine Zimmerman and Rick Patterson, the visionary filmmakers behind the Hometown Habitat film project.

Hometown Habitat aims to tell the story of people all around the country who are using native plants to reweave the community of nature, healing the places where we live, work, and play by restoring habitat for wildlife, especially pollinators and songbirds, those little guys who run the world, to paraphrase EO Wilson.

Why care about native plants and landscaping?

Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn't a native plant, but the others are). Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn’t a native plant, but the others are).

Because as Doug Tallamy, entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home points out, native plants are the ones that sustain native insects (monarch butterflies, for instance, have vanished from huge swaths of the Midwest because industrial agriculture has eliminated their food source, native milkweeds).

Without native insects, we will have many fewer pollinators and drastically fewer songbirds, since songbirds need insects to feed their young. Fewer pollinators means less food for us to eat; fewer songbirds means a true silent spring, no morning chorus of birdsong at all.

A world without birdsong and butterflies is not a world I want to pass on.

The mission of the Habitat Hero project. The mission of the Habitat Hero project.

Restoring habitat at home is also the message of Be A Habitat Hero, the project I’ve been working with. So last week, the Hometown Habitat crew drove to Colorado to film Habitat Hero gardens and their passionate gardeners along the Front Range from Fort Collins to the Pueblo area, and even to Salida.

Me in my film studio living room. Me on film in my living room. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

Hence my weekend in film, which included having my living room turned into a studio complete with lights and cables snaking every which where to connect with the camera and sound equipment. (I was so mesmerized by the hour-long setup process that I didn’t even think to take a picture.)

The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek. The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek.

Yesterday morning, Catherine and Rick followed me along “my” block of Salida’s Ditch Creek while I spent a sweaty hour yanking out invasive weeds and talking about the native plants Richard and I nurtured along the creek, plants that have restored a vibrant natural community in the midst of busy streets and asphalt parking lots.

In the afternoon, they set up at Salida High School to film the Wildscape workshop I taught, co-sponsored by GARNA, the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association and the Habitat Hero project. Catherine and Rick even followed us back to the creek for the field trip.

I felt like a film star when it was all over, assuming film stars end their days hot, sweaty and exhausted, with no voice left!

Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

I don’t expect a big part in the final film: I know that to find the story, you shoot hours of film from which you extract maybe two minutes. I am simply honored to participate in an inspiring chronicle of a grassroots native plant movement (pun intended) that is contributing to the beauty and health of our landscapes, urban and wild, and to our own wellness.

Which brings me back to the why we should care question. As I was writing this post, I thought about Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of a young Black man who was just beginning to find his way in life.

In view of Michael Brown’s death and our collective responsibility to all young Black men and in fact to young ones everywhere, why care about native plants and nature?

Because the health of our environment is inseparable from our individual and collective health–physical, mental and spiritual. Because to create a just and generous society takes each of us working in our own way.

Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek. Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek.

My way is to heal nature in my own neighborhood, with the aim that its beauty and wellness will ripple outward to make this whole world a nurturing and welcoming place. For all.

Creek House "great room"--living, dining, kitchen all in one cozy and inviting space.

Home at last….

Creek House "great room"--living, dining, kitchen all in one cozy and inviting space. The “great room”–living, dining, kitchen all in one open space.

I’m home. At Creek House. I spent the entire week packing, moving, unpacking moving more, reorganizing, cleaning and settling in. There were glitches. Like when my high-speed internet provider disconnected the service at Terraphilia as scheduled on Wednesday morning, and then “forgot” to reconnect me at Creek House.

I was at the door of the cable company when they opened Thursday morning. Only to learn that they couldn’t hook me up until Saturday. Evening.

“Really?” I said. I had work in progress. Deadlines that required internet access to accomplish.

Really, said the lady behind the counter.

Okay. Deep breath.

Lace curtain from the outside of the back door Lace curtain from the outside of the back door

I took advantage of my unscheduled tumble to the wrong side of the digital divide to invent cool curtain rods for the lace curtains on the French doors at the front and back of Creek House using chrome steel rods and eye hooks, build some pantry shelves (nothing fancy, but they work), move more stuff, deal with more construction hiccups, to move more things….

It was an interesting week. “Interesting,” that is, in the sense of the old Chinese curse, May you live in interesting times. (The curse may or may not be apocryphal, but it fits.) I have been living interesting times since Richard began seeing birds two years, one month and a week ago.

I haven’t moved an entire household by myself since I was a broke and newly divorced grad student, and “entire household” meant one towel, one washcloth, one pillow, one set of sheets…. I have more stuff now, and more riding on finishing the move on time, like the sale of Terraphilia, which closes Wednesday morning.

I didn’t do this move by myself. My friends turned out to help in generous and unexpected ways. But I was the only one responsible for making sure everything got done. And the schedule is tight. After closing, I hit the road to drive to Kansas City, where I’ll teach a workshop I haven’t had time to prepare yet.

My neighbor Bev helped all week, schlepping and cleaning. (Bev’s glorious cottage gardens were the only point of light in this down-beyond-the-heels neighborhood when Richard and I bought our first dilapidated property here. Those gardens convinced us to take a chance. They were right.)

Creek House--habitable, but not quite finished, including the not-there front entry deck. Creek House–habitable, but not quite finished, especially the not-there-yet front entry deck.

My girlfriends turned out one evening for a couple of hours of load-boxes-onto-the-handcart, bump the handcart down the alley and around the steep curve of my not-finished-driveway, past Treehouse and across the dirt yard to Creek House to fill the cabinets and drawers and shelves in my new kitchen.

And stayed to drink wine and eat munchies while I rearranged their handiwork. (Thanks to Bev, Lisa M, Toni, Geraldine, and Kerry!)

Neighbor Judy, also the real estate agent for the buyers of Terraphilia, stopped by one afternoon–“I was biking home to put my feet up for a few minutes and saw you.”–instead resting, she helped me schlep boxes. A friend and former Salidan who now lives in Austin hallooed through the back door another afternoon, completely surprising me. She helped me move the contents of the fridge and freezer plus the entire pantry. Thank you, Kathie!

Yesterday, Tony and Maggie helped me move the last of the art, and patch nail holes and touch up paint at Terraphilia, where the empty rooms now echo. Tony even braved my rickety extension-ladder to attach a hanging sculpture twelve feet up (“You might want a new ladder,” he said calmly after he climbed down); Maggie helped with the last fall clean-up of Terraphilia’s kitchen garden.

Treehouse--that glorious scarlet shrub is native three-tip sumac. I'll be planting more of it. Treehouse–that glorious scarlet shrub is native three-tip sumac. I’ll be planting more of it.

I’m here now. At Creek House, with Treehouse next door. Neither are finished. Yet both feel like home–the first night I slept here, I saw a meteor streak across the almost-dark sky out the bedroom window.

When I return next week, construction will still swirl around me and the entire yard will still be bare dirt (more accurately, bare roadbase, which is worse).

But I’ll be home. Truly home for the first time since Richard died and Terraphilia immediately became way too big for the one of me.

Home in my own snug house with Richard’s art around me. I am blessed.

“Interesting” this journey we call life is. Full of grace, too. Thanks for being part of mine—both the journey and the grace.

Eye-popping dawn colors this morning.


Eye-popping dawn colors this morning. Eye-popping dawn colors this morning.

It’s my birthday!

I’m 57 today, an age I never imaged achieving. In my early 20s, I was so sick that docs figured I only had a few years to live. The condition that could have ended my life is still part of me, I’ve just learned how to live with it.

As I wrote in my memoir, Walking Nature Home, A Life’s Journey, that illness has been my greatest teacher. It’s taught me to be myself, listen carefully to what my body has to say, respect my limits, find joy in every day, and to open my heart to whatever life brings.

All of which turned out to be useful lessons for our journey with Richard’s brain cancer.

I woke this morning feeling the irony that I’m here and Richard, rudely healthy his whole life until brain cancer, is not. I shed a few tears, sent love to his spirit as I do every day, and padded outside to search the still-dark sky for Orion, my favorite constellation, high in the eastern sky now.

“It’s your birthday,” I said to myself firmly. “Celebrate!”

The stucco crew applies color to Treehouse. The stucco crew applies color to Treehouse.

Here are some of the gifts the day brought:

A spectacular dawn sky.

A rainbow shortly thereafter. (It faded before I thought to shoot a photo.)

The color coat of stucco on Creek House and Treehouse, which the crew applied in between showers. (The color is called Denim; the siding will be painted pale sage green. I like color.)

A gift certificate to High Country Gardens from my brother Bill and sister-in-law Lucy. An inspired choice: I have a lot of landscape restoration work ahead at my new place and High Country Gardens carries excellent native and adapted plants.

Richard's big studio, almost empty. Richard’s big studio, almost empty.

A beautiful bouquet of Alstroemeria from friends Maggie and Tony, who stayed long enough to admire the stucco and my new workshop-in-progress.

A shop building emptied of all of Richard’s big woodworking and stone-carving machines and tools. The last big stuff left this morning: the sawdust-collection system went to Charlie, a cabinetmaker in Leadville; the panel press went to Roger, a woodworker in Montrose whose wife Mary is a friend through the fiber world.

That empty studio is definitely bittersweet. The gift is knowing his tools and machines are with people who will appreciate them.

Other gifts:

Goldfinches calling as rain moved in again this afternoon (after the color coat dried).

One late-migrating broad-tailed hummingbird sucking nectar from the Agastache in the courtyard.

A donation in my name to the St. Vrain Flood Relief Fund (thanks to Kerry and Dave of Ploughboy Local Market).

Scavezze Studio earrings, gold curves so light they float, with Tahitian black pearls Scavezze Studio earrings, gold curves so light they float, with Tahitian black pearls

A copy of my dear friend Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds. (Thank you, Connie!)

A walk downtown, wherein I decided to buy myself a gift that Richard would have. I stopped at Gallery 150, which carried his sculptures and basins, and indulged myself in a pair of Jerry Scavezze earrings I’ve been ogling.

They go perfectly with the gorgeous necklace that Toni Tischer, Jerry’s partner in art, made for my birthday two years ago, during Richard’s last autumn.

I also walked around the corner to Salida Mountain Sports to be fitted for an Osprey backpack. In my work as a plant biologist, I spent weeks at a time in the backcountry. Lately, I’ve felt the pull of the wild again. Last, I stopped in at Yolo Clothing, and bought a soft, fall-colored scarf. (Thanks for the birthday discount, Loni!)

Necklace by Toni Tischer and Jerry Scavezze, opals from Susan Bethany; pin by Harold O'Connor Necklace by Toni Tischer and Jerry Scavezze, opals from Susan Bethany; pin by Harold O’Connor–Salida artists all

I walked home feeling very celebratory, very fortunate–and missing my love and his warm hand to hold, the smile that lit his face.

My day also brought a wonderful stream of sweet, funny and loving messages from friends, family and well-wishers all around.

Thank you for being part of my community. I am blessed to have your company on this journey!

The tub-shower enclosure in the master bathroom.

[Re]Learning My Limits

The tub-shower enclosure in the master bathroom. The tub-shower enclosure in the master bathroom.

I’m close! So close to completing the finish work on this house that my punch-list lives in my head, not on paper.

In the master bath I only need to etch and seal the concrete floor in the shower, and seal the steel trim on the galvanized wall-panels.

The plumbers still need to put in the shower fixtures and plumb the two sinks. My glass guy needs to install the two half-walls of reedy glass above the sill in the shower area. But my part of that tricky job is almost finished.

In the rest of the house, I need to install the thumb-pulls in the closet doors in the guest bedroom, cover a gap where two panels did not quite meet in the corrugated tin of the back porch ceiling, and nail a doorstop I invented last night in place in the master bedroom. That’s it. (I think.)

Mesquite drawer-pull I crafted for a drawer in the kitchen. Mesquite drawer-pull I crafted for a drawer in the kitchen.

I’m this close thanks to my patient and talented friends Tony and Maggie Niemann, who not only taught me finish carpentry, but who regularly nagged me to set up weekend work days so they could help.

And consulted whenever I got stuck, as I did the other night while installing the drawer-pull in the photo, crafted out of a chunk of mesquite trunk salvaged from my parents’ Tucson yard more than a decade ago. (Richard crafted pegs from that same mesquite to join the corners of the cabinet face frames, a Craftsman touch.)

I figured that once I finished my punch-list here, I’d start on the trim carpentry at Creek House. The walls are painted, the light fixtures and ceiling fans are in, and Westwood Cabinetry is at work on built-ins. Trim work can start anytime now.

Door trim in Terraphilia. Door trim in Terraphilia

I’m planning the same simple Southwest style of trim I’ve done here, using 1X6 pine boards (No. 2, paint-grade), ripped in half lengthwise and painted the same color as the wall. The header piece extends an inch and a half out on each side, like the trim around the bathroom door in the photo to the right.

(That photo dates from late winter, before baseboard, before I invented narrow galvanized steel trim to finish the raw edge of the drywall around the chiseled block walls, and before the lovely curved counter in the bathroom. A lot of work has happened in that time!)

I had thought I would do the trim myself. Until I realized that I was regularly waking in a panic at four am.

Until I realized that I have six weeks and a day to finish Terraphilia, meet a couple of writing deadlines, oversee the work on Creek House, get packed, sort through and sell or give away the contents of Richard’s shop, and move. (Closing for the sale contract on Terraphilia is September 13th, with possession at noon.)


The living room half of the front room at Creek House (the kitchen area is behind the camera). The living room half of the front room at Creek House (the kitchen area is behind the camera).

Learning to notice and respect my limits is one of those life lessons I never quite complete. I figure it out–usually the hard way, and then… Perhaps I get too complacent. Maybe it’s arrogance (No! Me do! shouts my inner toddler). Or control issues. (I am a double Virgo.)

Sooner or later, I find myself over my head again, waking at four in the morning reviewing all I have to cram into the next day, next week, next month…. The frantic tide rises. I find myself rushing through my days instead of enjoying the moments.

And then something causes me to stop and reassess. Oh yeah. I don’t have to do everything myself. It’s not all on my shoulders. I can delegate.

That’s where I am now.

Siding in progress at Treehouse (the garage/studio) and Creek House (my new house). Siding in progress at Treehouse (the garage/studio) and Creek House (my new house).

So with some regret, I’m delegating (read “paying for”) the trim carpentry on my new place. I’ve proved I can do it here. I’ve got plenty to do over the coming six weeks.

If I don’t try to do everything myself, if I [re]learn my limits, I might even enjoy that time, wild ride or no.

That sounds good to me.

A House Built With Love

The view out the kitchen window, looking over the roofs of downtown to the Sangre de Cristo Range in the distance.

As I gear up for another weekend of trim carpentry, I’ve been thinking about leaving this home Richard helped design and build for us. After moving ten times (and living in six different states) in our first 17 years together, this was to be our last house, the place where we would  live out our days.

We did that. We spent six years building the house, working on it whenever we had money and time and then moved in, never imagining that the “our” part would end so quickly. We had lived here for just three years when Richard saw the legions of birds that were the only indication of his brain tumor and the cancer that would kill him two years later.

The living/dining room on a winter day when the sun pouring in the bank of south-facing windows heats the concrete floor, keeping the house toasty.

In the year-plus since his death, I’ve realized that the house/guest cottage/shop complex that was perfect for the two of us is much too large for the one of me. Being the practical sort, and not having an abundance of money, I decided to “right-size” and build myself a much smaller place that would incorporate this house’s green features–the passive solar design that keeps the house warm in winter and cool in summer (for free), a photovoltaic system to generate clean electricity from the sun, and the feeling of an intimate connection to the out-of-doors.

Of course, to build that new, small house, I have to sell this place. (There’s always a catch.) And before selling it, I have to finish the major projects that my love, who could design and build anything with his natural sculptural aesthetic never got around to. (“Simple” projects like installing trim, baseboard or interior doors were not interesting enough to him.)

The “cliff” Richard designed for our bedroom, a cement-block wall for heat storage with a sandstone shelf like a sheltering overhang. (He built the simple bed platform too.)

Which is why I find myself ripping, milling, sanding, painting, and nailing trim in my spare time. Part-time Queen of the Pneumatic Nailer, that’s me!

As I work, I often find myself smiling, feeling connected to Richard as I learn the machines and tools that he used with such facility that they seemed extensions of his skilled hands and brilliant mind. And sometimes I find myself in tears, wondering what life will be like when I am no longer sheltered within the walls he built for us.

This house is full of his work, from the bathroom sinks he carved out of local boulders to that cliff in the bedroom, with its sandstone ledge-shelves, and the arching doorways, the cabinets with mortise-and-tenon face frames held together with mesquite pegs, the drawers in my office with pulls carved from beach cobbles we collected together….

I’ll take some of his free-standing work with me, but the house–which I realize now is his largest sculpture–will remain as he built it, “with love,” as he used to say.

Richard holding a bathroom sink carved from a pink and black gneiss boulder.

I take comfort from the idea that the beautiful and sustainable house we created together, and all the love that went into it, will be a nurturing and inspiring home for someone else.

It’s deeply satisfying to learn the skills that came so easily to him, and to complete some of the things he started.

It’s also painful, a reminder that our paths have diverged, and the “us” we imagined continuing for years to come is no longer. His death changed me in ways I am still only beginning to understand.

I’m still me, but being me without Richard is different. Sometimes I feel like this little folk art dragon I found at Books and Books last week at YoungArts, looking eagerly at life with ears and head up, stubby wings not quite big enough to fly. I hope by the time I finish this house and pass it on to others, my new wings will have grown enough to carry me onward….

My new mascot