Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An end--and a beginning

I started this blog as an experiment in exploring our relationship with nature, the community of the land. It's been an enlightening exercise: I've learned from both the writing and from reading your comments and conversations. But it's time for me to move on. I want to consider a broader range of questions, beginning with what this trip through life is about, and how we can embody the best of our species. Tough times like these offer us an opportunity to reevaluate our lives, to simplify and go deeper, to re-purpose what no longer works, find new solutions, and re-think old ones. We're all on the same journey, walking between birth and death, and then cycling back around to take part in some new form of life. Our legacy is how we live in all the moments along the way. My intention is to live in a way that I leave this miraculous green and blue planet and its communities of the land in better shape than I found them.

Just how to do that is what I'll investigate in my new blog, Walking Nature Home. I'll try out ideas for what I call the good life, the way of living happily and healthfully on the planet Buckminster Fuller called "Spaceship Earth" in common with all the other lives riding with us. Join me to continue the journey, and the conversation!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Blarn! (A blog post about darning)

Last night I spent most of the evening with my feet up on the couch, darning socks. Yup, darning socks, weaving the holes closed with the blunt-ended needle and darning thread in the photo.

If you've ever darned, you know that it's a pretty meditative process. You have to pay enough attention to securely anchor your threads, keep them straight and weave (or knit) the darn over the hole. But the process involves a lot of repetition, and that allows the mind to wander. (If you haven't darned, check out this video, or these instructions.)

I had let the holes in my socks get bigger than I should have before attending to them. In case you wondered about the origin of the homily "A stitch in time saves nine," I'm guessing it came from darning. The sooner you patch the hole, the less stitches and thread required. Much less, as I can now attest after spending a couple of hours darning holes in the heels of my favorite socks.

As I carefully stitched lines of anchoring threads around the holes, and then ran threads across the hole from top to bottom and wove threads through those from side to side, I thought about the act of darning.

It's been a long time since I did any darning--a couple of decades, in fact, since I was a starving biologist working for the federal government on a seasonal basis. Back then, I had to darn my wool socks: the heels wore out long before the socks did and I couldn't afford to replace them often. So when my socks got holes, I darned them.

I quit darning when I started making more money. I had good excuses: I was navigating a new marriage, raising a step-daughter, and starting a writing career, and I could afford to discard socks with holes in them. The real reason, I think though, was that darning just didn't fit my "important" lifestyle

Darning didn't cross my mind again until last week when the holes in my favorite Smartwool socks, the ones with the flowers, got so big that my heels got cold when I wore the socks. I would probably have thrown those socks away with great regret and bought a new pair, but for two things:

There is no "away." With more than 3 billion people in this country, there is no place to put trash without displacing someone, whether human or wild. Where I live, trash goes to the county dump, which I would nominate for the award of dump with the most beautiful dump if there was such an honor. It occupies a mesa lying between a wall of peaks rising to over 14,000 feet elevation on one side, and knobby granitic hills splotched with Technicolor aspen groves on the other. Sacrificing this site to house our refuse in near-perpetuity seems so wrong that Richard and I now recycle or reuse the bulk of our discards.

Then there's the personal reason: I can't just replace the socks, even if I did have a way to recycle them. They're last year's design; in a triumph of planned sock obsolescence, it's not produced anymore.

So I spent a couple of hours teaching myself how to darn again. It wasn't hard, and when I finished darning the hole in the first sock and slipped it on, my foot felt cozy and warm. (Not to mention quite stylish.) I learned an aphorism I've always thought charming but outdated is actually relevant to my life--I will save stitches and yarn by not letting the holes in my socks get so big before darning next time. I learned yet again that the amount of waste we create is not actually a necessary consequence of modern life. It is possible to give my favorite socks, and much of the other material we thoughtlessly discard longer lives.

Darning socks may seem like a small act when compared to the mountains of trash we humans generate. But it has had a big impact by changing my view of my favorite pair of socks. Despite the holes in the heels, they are not trash: after darning, they're still warming my feet. There's something very satisfying in finding a way to reuse what I am so fond of despite its obselescence.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Year, New face

Happy New Year! I spent my week-plus away from blogging working on a complicated roll-out of my new "public face," including a totally new web site (same address, new and more profound content, more graphics, including slide shows of some of my work restoring urban wildlife habitat), a new blog, and a new weekly commentary and podcast (you can listen to and subscribe to the latter on the new site).

The point of this new public face is to honor my New Year's resolution: I'm going to write and speak with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. (That's from a line in Mary Chapin Carpenter's song Goodnight America: "dreaming with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand.") I've had this intent for a while now, and this year, I'm working on stretching that heart/hand even farther.

So I spent the time between Winter Solstice and New Year's Day thinking about what I believe, how I live my life, and why I do the work I do. I'm determined to articulate my core values and my experiences more clearly and more compellingly in order to help others who seek a deeper connection benefit from what I've learned. Hence the credo on the home page of my new web site, which begins with these lines:
It seems to me that many of us feel lost, as if we've cut ourselves off from something we deeply need. I think that what we're missing is an everyday connection with nature, the home of our species. ... We may have forgotten nature, but the community of the land has not forgotten us.
What's important in our lives is not how much we earn or how big our houses are, or whether we have the latest electronic toys or reach the highest rung on whatever job ladder we're on, but how we live each moment of every day. I believe in living a green and generous life, "green" in the sense of making my life a positive contribution to a healthy Earth, and "generous" in the sense of spreading around the blessings I have, sharing them with family, friends, and the larger community, both human and wild. Just what constitutes a green and generous life is the topic I'll be exploring in the coming weeks, and I hope you'll join me in that conversation.

But first I have to work through a thicket of technical glitches that have come up as I've designed & integrated my new public face. The web site is up, but still has some formatting glitches that need fixing as soon as my site host works out their server permissions issues. The blog was all ready to go until the blog host lost its address; resurrecting the latter ruined the custom formatting I'd labored over so I'm back to the virtual drawing board there. (You'd think that Mercury, the planet which rules communications, was going into retrograde with all of these hang-ups--in fact, Mercury IS going retrograde starting the 11th of January and continuing through February 1. So I may be in for a long slog!)

Communications issues aside, I'm starting off the year with great news: My memoir, Walking Nature Home, will be published in March by University of Texas Press, and I've been invited to debut the book with a talk and signing at Denver Botanic Gardens on March 25th. So if you'll be in the area, join me and special guest, photographer Jim Steinberg, for "Bringing Wildness Home: Nature as Everyday Inspiration." If you can't get to Denver for that opening appearance, check my web site in the coming months for other events. Also, you can sample the book at the publisher's web site.

Starting next week, I'll be in writing heaven: I've been awarded a three-month fellowship that frees me from my accustomed deadlines. So until mid-April, I'll have the luxury of working on my next book without having to worry about generating an income. Wow! My profound thanks to Terra Foundation for supporting my work, and to Colorado Art Ranch for making the fellowship possible.

Here's my wish for all of you for 2009: May you find what you need to follow yourr heart. And in the doing, may you know much love and joy!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Simply Christmas

I'll admit it right up front: I love Christmas. Not for the piles of presents—I like receiving gifts as much as anyone else, but honestly, what I love about this holiday of lights is not the accumulation of more stuff.

Nor do I love the commercial-ization of what once was an especially spiritual and giving time of year but has now become the season of shopping, during which every advertisement encourages us to buy, buy, buy.

No, what I love about this winter holiday is its green and joyous roots, which come through no matter how over-commercialized, over-consumptive, and simply stressful Christmas has become.

I love the lights, the joyful music, the spicy smell of sap from evergreen trees and wreaths, the opportunity to practice generosity and the warmth of fellowship, and the quiet time to reflect on the year soon ending.

The holiday that we call Christmas began for all that. Long before Black Friday and super-special discounts that encourage mob behavior, Christmas was a celebration of light and the miracle of renewed life in the darkest, coldest days of winter.

In those days before central heating guaranteed warmth and electricity stretched daytime deep into winter's nights, and before the technology of fossil fuels transported people and goods from continent to continent, winter was a season that took concerted effort to survive.

When the solstice came and the sun rose and set far to the south, appearing to hesitate before finally, gradually turning back toward longer days and shorter nights, celebration was most definitely in order.

Hence the lights, including the tradition of the Yule log, a massive log that would burn through hours of darkness, and the Hannukkah candles, symbols of survival through the most difficult of times.

And the evergreens, brought inside as reminders that life continues even when the soil itself freezes and snow mantles the earth. The music and feasting to warm bodies and lift spirits depressed by the cold and lack of daylight.

And just as important, the stories told specially for this time of year to remind us that even when times seem bleak as the weather, we are capable of miracles as bright and promising as the shimmering stars that guide us, tales that hold out hope that our best selves will lead us into a new year and new life.

If you look past the advertising, the sales, the exhortations to buy more and bigger and fancier stuff, Christmas is still there.

It's in the unexpected and genuine smiles, the sound of voices raised in joyful song, the heartfelt giving of gifts, the acts of sudden generosity like shoveling someone else's sidewalk, the invitations to gather over festive food and drink, the moments of quiet when we remember why we are here, and the lights, both those twinkling from houses and the eternal, ever-changing show in the heavens overhead.

It's in the darkness and the blessing of dawn, but most of all, Christmas is the spirit that burns within us all, every day.

This post comes from my weekly newspaper and radio commentary, which is also available in audio version as a podcast on my web site,

I'm taking next week off for the holidays, and will return to blogging early in the new year, with some changes and some great news. May the new year bring you all a richer connection to your community, and great joy! Blessings, Susan

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lighting the Darkness

Each year on winter solstice, my husband, Richard and I celebrate the passing of winter’s longest nights with a party: we fill our bellies with homemade eggnog (recipe below) and our hearts with the companionship of friends and family.

To warm our spirits, we light the darkness, filling dozens of paper bags with a scoop of sand and a small votive candle, and lining our block with these luminarias. As dusk falls, party-goers help us light them one by one; the small flames burn through the night heralding the sun’s return at dawn.

Before our relatively recent understanding of the effect of Earth’s rotational eccentricity on day-length, it must have seemed as if the sun retreated each fall, leaving only darkness and cold. Then, as if by magic, our celestial source of light and heat had a change of heart after winter solstice and the days gradually grew longer again.

Hence the predominance of decorative and symbolic lights in our winter holiday celebrations. My Celtic and Scandinavian ancestors lit bonfires atop hills near their homes on the shortest night of the year. The ancient Norse illuminated the dark times with a 12-day feast in halls lit by burning log and taper, where bards recited epic poems in which heroes triumphed over the darkness of evil just as the returning light would eventually banish winter’s long nights.

The luminarias that Richard and I light every year are a tradition we picked up in our years in New Mexico. These "little lights" evolved from bonfires and hanging paper lanterns lit to guide the procession portraying the Holy Family in their search for shelter. (The paper-bag lights are still called farolitos, “little lanterns,” in Santa Fe, but are luminarias elsewhere.)

Holiday lights are meant to illuminate, a word that means “to light up,” and also, appropriate to our modern insight into the way Earth’s tilted axis is responsible for the annual alternation in day length, “to explain, make clear, elucidate.” Light alleviates our intellectual and spiritual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.

As I strike a match to light a wick at our solstice celebration and place a flaming votive candle on its bed of sand inside a paper bag, I think about what I learn from these lights The paper bags by themselves are flimsy and flammable, the candles small, the sand simply grit underfoot.

Yet together candle, lunch bag, and sand do their part to illuminate the darkness: each slender wick feeds liquid wax into flame; the paper walls shelter that flame from wind and snow and their translucency diffuses light; the sand grounds the bag and prevents the flame from incinerating the paper that protects it.

Inside their flammable shelters the candles burn steadily hour after hour through the darkness of a long winter night. When dawn comes many of these ethereal lamps are still glowing softly, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience and beauty in the simplest of materials.

This year marked our eleventh winter solstice at home in this rural south-central Colorado community, and our eleventh "light the darkness" party. Throngs of friends arrived to help fill and place luminaria bags, and to light the candles even as air temperatures plunged after sunset. By dark, our house was packed with friends, the inside air suffused with warmth and joy.

"We could see your house from blocks away," said one couple as they shed coats and mufflers before joining the crowd. "It glowed."

Hours later, after the last guests had left and Richard and I had finished cleaning up, we stepped outside into the year's longest night. We walked down the sidewalk lined with flickering candlelight under a black sky twinkling with silver stars.

Walking hand in hand in the quiet darkness, breathing air cold and sharp as ice, my spirit glowed, lit by the commonplace grace of love--and the beauty of small candles burning in simple paper bags.

Luscious Eggnog
(Adapted from Joy of Cooking)
One dozen eggs, separated
1 pound powdered sugar
2 1/2 cups dark rum, brandy, or bourbon
3 cups skim milk
3 cups half 'n half
2 cups whipping cream
whole nutmeg for grating
Beat the egg yolks until smooth and slightly frothy. Then add powdered sugar gradually, beating slowly (or else you'll choke on sugar dust) and constantly. (I use a stand mixer for this recipe. It's much easier, especially when beating the whites.) Add the liquor--I use rum--and beat until thoroughly mixed. Then cover and leave the mixture for an hour or so to let the flavors blend. Add the milk, half 'n half, and cream. Cover the mixture again and refrigerate for at least three hours (I do this stage the day before I want to serve the eggnog, and let it mellow overnight in the refrigerator.) Just before serving the eggnog, beat the whites in a large bowl until they form soft peaks. Fold the whites into the nog, grate nutmeg over the surface to taste, and enjoy! (Serves 25 or so if you use small cups--it's potent!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Going the speed limit

Over the last month, my husband, Richard and I have driven several thousand miles just around the state of Colorado as I've done book events for Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, my collaboration with Steamboat Springs photographer Jim Steinberg. The book is getting loads of great press, from TV news shows to features in the Denver Post and other newspapers, as well as Denver's own 5280 Magazine. (That's thanks to Jim's stamina and persistence: he's been on the road for weeks, doing a media appearance and/or book promotion event every day!)

The chance to travel the state from Craig in the far northwest corner to Durango in the desert southwest, and from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs has offered some lovely sights and experiences. But as we've driven hither, thither, and yon, I've thought about my vow to live generously, leaving plenty of space and resources for the other species with whom we share this miraculous green and blue planet.

Richard and I live pretty lightly in the passive solar house we dreamed up and he helped build. In winter, the sun supplies much of our heat, helped by a super-efficient wood stove and a small gas fireplace for cloudy days. Our lights are compact fluorescents, our toilets water-saving, our yard is largely a restored native bunchgrass and wildflower meadow that uses little water and no pesticides or fertilizers. We work at home, thus avoiding a commute, and we do most of our errands on foot; we grow a large chunk of our food in our kitchen garden and buy as much of the rest locally and in bulk as we can; we live on a reclaimed industrial lot right in town rather than cluttering up the remaining wild habitat with our house, car, fences, pets, and yard light.

But we're driving across the state every few days to do some book promotion event or other. How does that fit into living generously?

Not as well as I'd like. For one thing, there's the use of gasoline, a non-renewable resource that distilled from ancient plants, long buried and turned to oil. I'm not sure that using the remains of these distant ancestors to power our car engines is either very respectful or wise, but it's what we do. Still, I'd like to be as frugal with this fuel as possible. Because we live where winter means traveling on snow-packed highways over high-elevation mountain passes, we drive a Subaru Forester, a small, all-wheel-drive SUV that has been getting about 24 mpg. That's good for an SUV, but nothing to brag about.

Then there's the roadkill. You can't drive anywhere and without seeing the carcasses of other species, large or small, on the roadside. It seems to me the more we drive, the less generous we're being for the wildlife that share the space our roads cross.

I was thinking about both of those issues--using oil and roadkill--as we headed home from a book-promotion event a few weeks ago. As I spoke my concerns out loud to Richard, I had an idea:

"Let's resolve to never drive faster than the speed limit," I said.

Richard, who is a careful driver but not immune to the joys of zipping down the open road, considered it.

"Okay," he said. Then he bumped the cruise control down a few notches.

Somewhere along the way on the next trip, he said out of the blue,

"It's more relaxing this way."

"What's more relaxing?"

"Driving. I'm not always watching the shoulder of the road for the highway patrol."

"Good," I said.

The next time we filled the Forester's tank with gas, I calculated the mileage. And then figured it again, because I was sure I had made a mistake. Nope. By dropping our speed to the posted speed limits, we were getting nearly five more miles per gallon of gas. (Most of the roads we take are rural two-lane highways, which means going 65 miles per hour... or so, instead of 75.) That's a lovely surprise, as is the fact that over the several-hundred-mile-long trips we've been making, we really aren't losing much time--twenty minutes or half an hour at most.

Speed does make a difference with sharing the road too, as we realized when the deer jumped out in front of us the other evening and both we and the deer escaped without so much as a whisker harmed. It's a relief to slow down and not worry so much about avoiding collisions with other drivers and the other species who live here, and thus saving their lives--and ours.

The bonus in driving the speed limit is one I already knew and had forgotten in my rush to get "there" quickly: slowing down means you see more. I wouldn't have noticed the almost full moon hanging chalky and white in a winter afternoon sky if we'd been whizzing along so fast, and I certainly wouldn't have bothered to stop and shoot this photo. Half an hour later and twenty-five miles up the road, that same moon hung silver in a lavender sky over rose-blush pink peaks, and we stopped again. That shot graces the cover of my upcoming memoir. Slowing down gave me a gift of beauty I treasure.

Slowing down makes driving less exhausting all around--in terms of mental and emotional energy, use of fuels distilled from the bodies of those ancient plants, and in sharing the road and the landscape with other vehicles and other species. And it gives us the gift of increased awareness of the places we travel through. That's a wonderful return for the simple act of living more generously.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Snow – at last

It's been a near-historic drought year here in the south-central Rockies, and I've been uneasy for months. I know that I can't do anything about the weather, and that worrying doesn't change a thing, but I can't help feeling sympathy for the community of the land, the wild species whose relationships weave the fabric of this place. I am stitched to this high-desert landscape by the heart. When it hurts, so do I.

So I've worried as weeks have passed in between the scanty offerings of storms, and the weather has been warmer, windier, and dryer than normal. (Whatever "normal" means in the brave new world of global climate change, the unintentional experiment on a grand scale that we can only watch and hope won't be as bad as the models predict.)

In early October, a rare storm system graced this valley with 24 hours of much-needed rain and snow. I relaxed, thinking it was a harbinger of wetter weather. No. The storm passed, the sun returned, and the weather warmed up again beyond seasonal norms. For nearly two months, the sun shone, day after perfect day. The drought got worse. The soil dried to powder. The slopes of the ski area stayed bare.

Until yesterday at about twilight, when the storm the weather bureau had predicted would miss us didn't. It began with huge clumpy flakes of snow so wet they melted on contact, running straight into the soil and down the upraised faces of shrieking children. My husband Richard and I watched the snow swirl down and begin to stick with a cautious sort of joy.

If you've never gone for months without seeing a cloud block the sun for more than a few minutes or weeks without feeling the moist balm of a raindrop, it's hard to explain how huge is the relief when moisture finally suffuses the atmosphere. It's as if the very earth wakes up, and so does some essential part of us. The air fills with the fragrance of quadrillions of tiny creatures revived. Inhale that moisture, that fragrance, and your spirits just can't help rising.

All of life requires water--humans are something over 90 percent water by volume, and about 60 percent by weight. We may no longer live outdoors, exposed to the whims of weather and the appetites of other species, but we can still die of dehydration. Our cells remember that, from gut to brain.

So last night as the wet snow poured out of the sky and piled up, first half an inch, then an inch, then two inches, then six, forming a heavy and wet and white blanket over the landscape; as we shoveled and sweated and got soaking wet from within and without clearing our half-block of sidewalk plus the neighboring park; as we crawled into bed with aching muscles and the snow still sifting from the low clouds, Richard and I were almost giddy with relief.

And when we woke this morning to four more inches of crystalline powder that fell as the night's temperature dropped; as we shoveled our stretches of sidewalk again, tossing snow atop snow, we rejoiced. Moisture has returned to bless our high-desert landscape. Life resumes. Hallelujah!

(I shot these photos this morning at dawn. The first shows the creek we're restoring along one edge of our formerly blighted industrial property. The second is the raised beds of our kitchen garden--the two mounds that look like logs are broccoli, still green under their insulating snow-blanket . In the third, the first light is hitting the peaks above town.)